From my parents’ teenage years in the 1930s and ’40s through my teenage years in the 1970s, American economic life became a lot more fair and democratic and secure than it had been when my grandparents were teenagers. But then all of a sudden, around 1980, that progress slowed, stopped, and in many ways reversed.
I didn’t really start understanding the nature and enormity of the change until the turn of this century, after the country had been fully transformed. One very cold morning just after Thanksgiving in 2006, I was on the way to Eppley Airfield in Omaha after my first visit to my hometown since both my parents had died, sharing a minivan jitney from a hotel with a couple of Central Casting airline pilots—tall, fit white men around my age, one wearing a leather jacket. We chatted. To my surprise, even shock, both of them spent the entire trip sputtering and whining—about being bait-and-switched when their employee-ownership shares of United Airlines had been evaporated by its recent bankruptcy, about the default of their pension plan, about their CEO’s recent 40 percent pay raise, about the company to which they’d devoted their entire careers but no longer trusted at all. In effect, about changing overnight from successful all-American middle-class professionals who’d worked hard and played by the rules into disrespected, cheated, sputtering, whining chumps.
When we got to the airport, I bought a newspaper at the little bookstore there that contains a kind of shrine to the local god Warren Buffett and his company Berkshire Hathaway. In it I read an article about that year’s record-setting bonuses on Wall Street. The annual revenues of Goldman Sachs were greater than the annual economic output of two-thirds of the countries on Earth—a treasure chest from which the firm was disbursing the equivalent of $69 million to its CEO and an average of $800,000 each to everybody else at the place.
This was before the financial crash, before the Great Recession. The amazing real-estate bubble had not yet popped, and the economy was still apparently rocking. But it was becoming clear that an egregiously revised American social contract had been put in place, without much real debate. “This is not the America in which we grew up,” I wrote in a magazine column at the time, by which I meant America of the several very prosperous decades after World War II, when the income share of the super-rich was not yet insanely high. Since the 1980s, the portion of income taken each year by the rich had become as hugely disproportionate as it had been in the 1920s, with CEOs paid several hundred times more than the average worker, whose average income had barely budged for decades. “We’ve not only let economic uncertainty and unfairness grow to grotesque extremes,” I wrote, but “also inured ourselves to the spectacle.”
I also thought: Mea culpa. For those past two decades, I’d prospered and thrived in the new political economy. And unharmed by automation or globalization or the new social contract, I’d effectively ignored the fact that the majority of my fellow Americans weren’t prospering or thriving.
In 40 years, the share of wealth owned by our richest 1 percent has doubled, the collective net worth of the bottom half has dropped to almost zero, the median weekly pay for a full-time worker has increased by just 0.1 percent a year, only the incomes of the top 10 percent have grown in sync with the economy, and so on. Americans’ boats stopped rising together; most of our boats stopped rising at all. Economic inequality has reverted to the levels of a century ago and earlier, and so has economic insecurity, while economic immobility is almost certainly worse than it’s ever been.
What’s happened since the 1970s and ’80s didn’t just happen. It looks more like arson than a purely accidental fire, more like poisoning than a completely natural illness, more like a cheating of the many by the few—and although I’ve always been predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories, this amounts to a long-standing and well-executed conspiracy, not especially secret, by the leaders of the capitalist class, at the expense of everyone else. A Raw Deal replaced the New Deal. And I and my cohort of hippie-to-yuppie liberal Baby Boomers were complicit in that.
The Yuppies Versus the Proles
At a dinner during my first visit to Washington, D.C., in June 1972—on the very evening of the Watergate break-in, as it happened—a mod young Department of Education bureaucrat informed me that the liberal political era in America was ending. To a 17-year-old fresh from Nebraska looking forward to wearing my McGovern for President button to a White House reception with Vice President Spiro Agnew the next day, this was a shocking revelation.
The guy turned out to be right, of course. And that fall, when I started college, I saw firsthand that the youthquake and student movement and greening of America, everything I’d spent the past few years getting stoked about, was palpably, rapidly ending. The Vietnam War was winding down and nobody was getting drafted, so fighting the Man started to seem like a pose. My senior thesis argued that more and more white-collar jobs, thanks in part to technology, were apt to become more and more proletarian, and it discussed whether workers in such professions might follow the lead of federal air traffic controllers, who had recently unionized.
But I wasn’t romantic or quite as enthusiastic about unions as liberals and Democrats used to be. In fact, the basic college-educated-liberal attitude toward unions was evolving from solidarity to indifference to suspicion, the result of a crack-up at that very moment of the old New Deal political coalition. The antiwar movement and counterculture, coming right after the successful civil-rights movement, had generated intense mutual contempt between the two main kinds of white Democrats, members of the working class and the expanding so-called New Class. The televised beatings by Chicago police of protesters outside the Democratic convention in 1968—beatings encouraged by Mayor Richard Daley, the principal national white-working-class Democratic power broker—was the most spectacular early episode in the crack-up, though there were others, most notably an organized attack in New York City by union construction workers on young antiwar protesters, in May 1970, that became known as the Hard Hat Riot. Plastic hard hats became a nationalist antiliberal symbol.
Beginning right then, the suspicion and contempt between less-educated white people and the liberal white bourgeoisie became what the American class struggle was most visibly and consciously about. And it would define our politics as the economy was reshaped to do better than ever for yuppies and worse and worse for the proles.
During the 1960s, liberals had also started falling out of love with unions for reasons more directly related to political economics. It was a side effect of the long triumphalist liberal complacency, how Americans in general were taking for granted the progress and prosperity that the New Deal had helped make possible. Sure, an emerging liberal consensus had it, back in the day unions had been an essential countervailing force to the capitalists, but now—having won 40-hour workweeks, good health care, good pensions, autoworker salaries of $75,000 (in 2020 dollars), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—organized labor was victorious, powerful, the establishment. As a result, as the former machinist Irving Kristol wrote at the beginning of 1970, just before publicly moving full right, “trade unionism has become that most dangerous of social phenomena: a boring topic,” and “none of the younger reporters is interested in spending so much time in the company of trade union officials.”
Another reason people like me found unions kind of boring was that a unionized job was almost by definition a boring job. When I started work as a writer at Time in 1981, I joined the union, the Newspaper Guild, but I understood that everything I cared about in that job—good assignments, decent salary increases, titular honorifics—would be entirely at my editors’ discretion, not a function of collectively bargained rules. A union? Sure, fine. But I was talent. I was creative. I was an individual. College graduates tend to think of themselves that way, younger ones all the more, younger Baby Boomers at the time probably the most ever. And the intensified, all-encompassing individualism that blew up during the 1960s—I do my thing, and you do your thing—was not a mindset or temperament that necessarily reinforced feelings of solidarity with fellow workers or romantic feelings about unions.
How the Media Helped Kill the Labor Movement
What happened with organized labor in journalism during the 1970s is an excellent illustration of those early days of the deepening fracture between upper-middle-class and lower-middle-class (white) Americans. It encompasses both the cultural split (yuppies versus yahoos) and the introduction of transformative technology in the workplace.
Between the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 through the end of Watergate in 1974, The Washington Post became a celebrated national institution, sexy liberalism incarnate. Following immediately on those two heroic achievements was another milestone episode, not very celebrated or heroic but likewise emblematic of the moment. In the spring of 1974, the journalists of the Post went out on strike—bumblingly. They didn’t even ask the paper’s blue-collar unions to join them, they refused their own Newspaper Guild leaders’ request to walk a picket line, the paper continued publishing, and after two weeks they gave up and accepted management’s offer.
It was a generation before websites and browsers, universal PCs and cell phones, 30 years before print dailies entered their death spiral, but technology was already changing newspapers in a big way, in the manufacturing part of the operation. Owners were eliminating typographers, who operated obsolete, elephantine Brazil-meets–Willy Wonka linotype machines that turned molten lead into blocks of type, and they also wanted to pay fewer people to operate the printing presses. A large majority of the Post’s 2,000 employees were those blue-collar workers, a large majority of whom were suddenly redundant. In 1975 the 200 pressmen wouldn’t come to terms and went on strike, and the other blue-collar unions at the Post went on strike in solidarity, as unions are supposed to do.
Absolutely key to how it played out was the behavior of the Post’s journalists. Just as the recent exposure of the secret Pentagon report on Vietnam and Nixon’s crimes had been game-changing work by journalists with the essential support of management, the crushing of the strike and pressmen’s union, also a game changer, was the work of management with the essential support of journalists.
Two-thirds of the Post’s unionized editorial employees didn’t stop working at all, and a majority voted again and again against striking in solidarity with the pressmen. “What I find ominous is that a number of Guild people don’t think they have common cause with craftsmen,” a Post journalist told a reporter at the time. “They feel professionally superior to guys with dirt under their fingernails.” At a guild meeting, a Post reporter referred to the striking pressmen as “slack-jawed cretins.” Four weeks into the five-month strike, a Times article reported that “if a Post Guild member is asked why he or she is not supporting the strike,” many “say they do not see themselves as ordinary working people. One said, ‘We go to the same parties as management. We know Kissinger, too.’” And while probably none of the pressmen knew the secretary of state, their average pay was the equivalent of $111,000, about as much as reporters, which is the excuse one of the paper’s reporters gave for crossing the picket line from day one. “If they got slave wages, I’d be out on the line myself,” said the 32-year-old Bob Woodward, co-author of the second-best-selling nonfiction book of the previous year.
The strike ended just before the release of the film adaptation of All the President’s Men, a fictionalization that only intensified the love of American liberals for The Washington Post, even though the Post pressroom was about to become nonunion. As a Post columnist wrote back then in The New Republic, “The pressmen’s strike was crushed with methods and with a severity that the press in general or the Post in particular would not be likely to regard as acceptable from the owners of steel mills. Yet because it was a newspaper management that broke the strike, no other newspaper has touched it properly, or even whimpered a protest.”
When I arrived at Time as a writer five years later, I went out of my way to produce copy the modern way—abandoning my office Selectric to use one of the special computer terminals crammed into a special little room, holed up with a few of the other young writers. That technology presently enabled the company to eliminate the jobs of the people downstairs who were employed to retype our stories. At the time I probably shrugged, like the newspaper reporters who hadn’t cared much about the redundant linotype operators and pressmen.
I think that if I had been one of those unionized craft workers who were abandoned by my unionized journalist colleagues 45 years ago, I would have watched journalists getting washed away and drowned by the latest wave of technology-induced creative destruction over the past 15 years with some schadenfreude.
What happened at newspapers (and magazines) back then also had disproportionate impact on this history of the right’s hijacking of America’s political economy, because once journalists were actively ambivalent about organized labor, that disenchantment spread more contagiously than if it had just been random young professionals bad-mouthing unions. News stories about labor now tended to be framed this way rather than that way or were not covered at all. Thus like most Democratic politicians at the same time, media people became enablers of the national change in perspective from left to right concerning economics.
During the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s, the right had derided liberal writers and editors as Communists’ “useful idiots,” unwittingly doing the Communists’ propaganda work; it looks in retrospect as if, starting in the 1970s, a lot of them—of us—became capitalists’ useful idiots. A huge new cohort of college-educated liberal professionals got co-opted.
From New Deal to New Democrats
My political coming of age coincided neatly with this process of assimilation.
One afternoon in the summer of 1971, at age 16, I was among 100 or 150 people in Omaha’s big central park watching Senator George McGovern deliver a speech. He was the most liberal, most antiwar candidate for the Democratic nomination. I remember nothing of what he said, because I was furtively inching toward and trying to overhear the two men standing near me: the 34-year-old actor Warren Beatty and McGovern’s 34-year-old campaign director, Gary Hart, whom I also recognized because I was a politics geek and a McGovern volunteer.
McGovern had led the Democratic Party commission that had just democratized the process of nominating presidential candidates, making it a matter of winning citizens’ votes in primaries rather than delegates’ votes at closed state party conventions. Which meant that from then on it was much harder for labor unions to influence the Democrats’ choice of nominee—which in turn enabled Hart to help win the 1972 nomination for the hippie-loving, antiwar, women’s-lib, “acid, amnesty, abortion” candidate despised by so many of the blue-collar union members.
Immediately after the 1972 wipeout, Hart launched his own political candidacy, for a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado. The Vietnam War and its cultural effects had made leaders and members of unions dislike McGovern, but as a child of the Depression and a former history professor, he had totally been on their side concerning the whole point of unions—maximizing worker power versus corporate power. Hart, on the other hand, was a cool young Yalie whose 1974 Senate campaign stump speech was actually called “The End of the New Deal.” He disparaged liberals who thought that “if there is a problem, [you] create an agency and throw money at the problem,” who “clung to the Roosevelt model long after it ceased to relate to reality.” In that first post-Watergate election, Hart beat the Republican incumbent by a landslide and became the very model of a modern major Democrat.
I felt some affinity for this new, youthy, college-educated political wing—as I felt at the time for postmodern architecture and New Wave music. I was in my 20s, so partly it was the sheer hubris of the young, rejecting the older generation because it was old. The slogan for Hart’s Senate campaign, even though he was a decade older than the oldest Baby Boomer, was “They had their turn. Now it’s our turn.”
But more than that, I actually, earnestly considered myself, as Hart put it, “a new breed of thinker questioning old premises and disregarding old alliances.” I wanted to be counterintuitive, contrarian, evidence based, ready to look at everything afresh. Like so many in my generation, I learned from the war in Vietnam and the war on drugs to mistrust the government, so maybe in other ways it had gotten bloated and inefficient, maybe nitpicky regulations were making it too hard to do business, maybe the antitrust approach invented in my great-grandparents’ day was outmoded. And weren’t labor unions retrograde and lumbering in lots of ways?
And thus the new buzzword that spread like mad during the 1970s and ’80s through art and culture, postmodernism, acquired a younger sibling in American politics—neoliberalism. Back then, at least in the United States, neoliberalism wasn’t yet what it is in the 21st century, certain leftists’ all-encompassing derogatory term for anything to the right of state-owned-everything socialism. Rather, it was a term proudly self-applied by a certain kind of U.S. political wonk. The notion, certainly among many writers and thinkers, if not necessarily the politicians, wasn’t to pursue centrism or moderation for their own sakes, or political triangulation between left and right, but intellectual rigor and honesty.
The new approach propagated rapidly. Soon almost every up-and-coming national Democratic politician was a New Democrat: Hart, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Bob Kerrey, Bill Clinton—all first elected senator or governor between 1974 and 1984 when they were in their 30s, all about to become serious presidential candidates.
For two generations, liberals had been in control of the government and the news media and the culture, so it seemed as if that hegemony afforded them the luxury of true liberalism—admitting mistakes, cutting some slack for the other side, trying new approaches. For 44 of the previous 48 years, Democrats had controlled both houses of Congress, and they had also held the presidency for most of that half century. All through the 1970s, when the GOP had only about a third of Senate seats, a third of that small Republican minority were bona fide liberals. Of course good-faith compromise and consensus between left and right were possible.
Which helps explain why almost nobody foresaw fully the enormity of the sharp turn America was about to take. Nobody knew that we’d continue heading in that direction for half a lifetime, that in the late 1970s big business and the well-to-do were at the start of a 40-year-plus political winning streak, economically, at the expense of everyone else.
Liberals were ill-prepared to appreciate or cope with what was about to happen. The suddenly energized economic right was led by a confederacy of corporations and the rich as well as zealots who’d been shut out of real power for decades. Modern liberals prided ourselves on entertaining all sorts of disparate policy ideas for improving the world, whereas the economic right really has one big, simple idea: Do everything possible and anything necessary to let the rich stay rich and get richer, and big business to stay big and powerful and get more so.
Most liberals, like most Americans, preferred not to regard capitalists as categorically rapacious and amoral, or to imagine the U.S. political economy as a never-ending struggle in which everyone must ultimately choose between two sides. That seemed crude. They didn’t vote for Reagan, but most didn’t hate him, certainly not at first, because in their way they shared his dreamy faith in the 1940s Frank Capra movie vision of America. And to some degree, most liberals succumbed, like most Americans, to a new form of economic nostalgia that was being revived and popularized—the notion that market forces are practically natural forces with which we dare not tinker or tamper too much. Finally, affluent liberals didn’t want to think badly of all their nice friends and neighbors and classmates who happened to work at banks or in real-estate development or in the vicinity of C-suites.
Starting in the 1970s, the Milton Friedman Doctrine, the righteous pursuit of maximum profit to the exclusion of absolutely everything else, freed and encouraged businesspeople and the rich to be rapacious and amoral without shame. Indeed, the new economic right even encouraged them to wage a class war—explicitly against (traitorous white) liberal professionals and the (black) “underclass,” more discreetly against the (white) working class they were enlisting as political allies. Such a colossal irony: After Socialists and Communists in the 1930s and then the New Left in the 1960s had tried and failed to achieve a radical class-based reordering of the American political economy, the economic right took its shot at doing that in the 1970s and ’80s and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest hope or fear.
Joseph Schumpeter was a brilliant economist at Harvard in the first half of the 20th century who celebrated entrepreneurs but also thought that capitalism as it existed would collapse and be replaced by some new social-democratic system—not through workers’ uprisings but by means of a subtle, nonviolent process. The “perennial gale of creative destruction” would drive this evolution of advanced economic systems, he wrote (without italics) in 1942, right after the Great Depression. “This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.”
I feel sorry for Schumpeter, who died in 1950, because three decades after his death, with the rise of newfangled old-fashioned free-market mania, he got famous when that phrase was revived and reduced to a meme, repeated endlessly to explain and justify the sudden obsolescence of blue-collar production workers (and then the lesser white-collar workers). Creative destruction was popularized in a way Schumpeter hadn’t meant it, as a celebratory sorry-suckers catchphrase for rootin’-tootin’ Wild West American capitalism as a permanent condition, where the rich and tough and lucky win and the losers lose hard. In the 1980s the term and its distorted meaning were enthusiastically embraced by the right and accepted with a shrug by college-educated liberals whose livelihoods didn’t look likely to be creatively destroyed anytime soon by competition from computers or foreigners.
We liberals had heard of Schumpeter, and we knew a bit about the industrial revolutions at the turns of the previous two centuries, and had learned in college to take it as a truism that painful transitions like these were just how history and economic progress inevitably unfolded, and that after a difficult patch—for the actual, you know, workers, in what we started calling the Rust Belt—things would sort themselves out.
That long view, however, tended to omit the history that had made the previous industrial revolutions come out okay in America—the countervailing forces that took a century to build, all the laws and rules and unions and other organizations created to protect citizens and workers and keep the system reasonably fair and balanced. And it was exactly this web of countervailing forces that, at exactly that moment, were being systematically dismantled by the right.
The Discreet Solidarity of the Bourgeoisie
By the 1980s, unions had been reduced to desperate parochial struggles to save jobs in declining heavy industries and, as mistrust of government grew, to unionizing more government employees. Moreover, the mainstream left offered no distinct, inspiring, politically plausible, national economic vision of a fairer future, as it had back in the 1930s and ’40s. In response to economic Reaganism, liberals were committed to preserving the social-welfare status quo for old people and the (deserving) poor, and to convincing America that Democrats were now modern and pragmatic, not wasteful bleeding-heart suckers or childish protesters or comsymp fools. Very few believed anymore that a term FDR used in his 1944 Economic Bill of Rights, unreasonable profits, could even be a thing.
The faction that was now dominant in the Democratic Party had been pushing for a more centrist economic and social-welfare policy since the 1970s, but the Republican Party after 1980 had no comparable moderating faction—which in a two-party system meant that Democrats kept moving toward a center that kept moving to the right.
Like most people in my milieu, I always voted for Democrats, and I wasn’t anti-union or anti-welfare or anti-government. The probability that elected Democrats would tend to increase my taxes wasn’t a reason I voted for them, but my indifference to the financial hit felt virtuous, low-end noblesse oblige. However, even after the right got its way on the political economy around 1980, many people like me weren’t viscerally skeptical of business or Wall Street either. Big businesses—various media and entertainment companies—paid me well and treated me fine, which probably didn’t sharpen my skepticism toward a political economy that was being reordered to help big business (and people like me). When it came to the millions of losers, I felt grateful that my work couldn’t be automated or offshored or outsourced, and I thought, Creative destruction, invisible hand, yada yada, and voted for politicians who said we should retrain steelworkers to become computer programmers.
Although very few people I knew voted for Reagan, affluent college-educated people, liberals and otherwise, tended not to disagree ferociously about politics in the 1980s and ’90s, and certainly not about economics. In retrospect, the rough consensus about economics looks like the beginning of an unspoken decades-long class solidarity among the bourgeoisie. Affluent college-educated people, Democrats as well as Republicans, began using the phrase socially liberal but fiscally conservative to describe their politics, which meant low taxes for higher-net-worth individuals (another new term) in return for tolerance of . . . whatever, as long as it didn’t involve big new social programs that affluent people would have to pay for. It was a libertarianism lite that kept everything nice and clubbable and it did at least have the virtue of ideological consistency.
When Gary Hart ran a second time for president, in 1988, one of his tax-policy advisers was Arthur Laffer, Reagan’s inventor of supply-side economics. When Jerry Brown ran for the 1992 Democratic nomination, he too sought Laffer’s help, to devise some kind of tax scheme “that was clear and easy to articulate,” and Laffer himself says he voted for Bill Clinton. (He’s now a Trump adviser.) The Democratic Leadership Council, co-founded by Clinton in 1985, became a think-tankish anchor for Democrats who didn’t disagree with Republicans that pretty much the only acceptable new solutions to any social problem were market based.*
For the remainder of the century, no candidate from the Democratic left became a plausible finalist for the nomination. In 1992, when Clinton won the nomination, his only serious competitors were two fellow New Democrats, Brown and Tsongas. Democrats had settled into their role as America’s economically centrist party. There was no organized, viable national economic left in the vicinity of serious power. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism at the beginning of the 1990s was very good news, but it had the unfortunate effect of making almost any left critique of America’s new hypercapitalism seem not just quixotic but also kind of corny and quaint.
Not everybody in the 1990s was sanguine about the emerging future, or as oblivious as I still was to the multi-faceted unfairness that had been built into the economy, or as complacent as I was about the millions of Americans losing out in the go-go globalizing digitizing frenzy. Around this time, a middle-aged law-school professor and bankruptcy expert, until recently a registered Republican who’d been affiliated in the late 1970s with the conservatives’ hugely influential new Law and Economics movement, began to see the light. Elizabeth Warren has said that she realized only in the ’90s that “starting in the ’80s, the cops were taken off the beat” in financial services. “I was with the GOP for a while,” she has said, “because I really thought that it was a party that was principled in its conservative approach to economics and to markets. I feel like the GOP just left that. They moved to a party that said, No, it’s not about a level playing field. And they really stood up for the big financial institutions when the big financial institutions are just hammering middle-class American families.”
I’m betting that at the end of 1999, Warren didn’t feel complete solidarity with all the thousands of demonstrators in Seattle outside the biannual World Trade Organization meeting. Their grievances were various—from AFL-CIO folks pissed off about U.S. companies manufacturing more and more things overseas to anarchists smashing store windows and otherwise acting out their hatred for the System. I know I rolled my eyes at the Gen-X kids in Seattle chaining themselves together and getting off on tear gas; at their lack of a feasible agenda or nuance or even coherence; and at the belief of so many of them in a shadowy, multi-tentacled conspiracy of the omnipotent elite to tyrannize the little people and subvert democracy. It took me a few more years to realize that their caricature of the new economic paradigm was closer to right than wrong. What that new paradigm ultimately brought us, of course, is Donald Trump.
How the Rational Right Begat the Madness of Trump
Back in the early ’70s, when the band of intellectuals and CEOs and politicians and the rich began pursuing their dream of hijacking the U.S. political economy and dragging it back in time to the days before the New Deal, surely none of them imagined they’d wind up here. Neither with the scale and durability of their victory, nor with such a front man—so brazenly racist and xenophobic and misogynistic and proto-fascist, a businessman so completely incompetent as an executive. Over the decades, however, as they decided again and again that their ends (money, supremacy) always justified any and all means (stoking hatred, spreading falsehoods, rousing their rabble while also rigging the system against them), it was bound to end somewhere in this horrid vicinity. In 2016, as the current generation of Fausts made their darkest bargain yet, surely some of them smelled a whiff of sulfur or heard a demonic cackle as they signed away whatever remained of their souls.
The obeisance of the rich right and their consiglieri to Trump for the past four years has exposed more nakedly than ever their compact—everything about money, anything for money—and the events of 2020 pushed that along to an even more hideous crescendo. In early spring, when COVID-19 had killed only dozens of Americans, Stuart Stevens, a strategist for the four previous Republican presidential nominees, wrote that “those of us in the Republican Party built this moment,” because “the failures of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis can be traced directly to some of the toxic fantasies now dear to the Republican Party … Government is bad. Establishment experts are overrated or just plain wrong. Science is suspect.”
Entirely apart from this administration’s unique incompetence and Orwellian denial of facts, while its handling of the pandemic may wind up as a political failure for them, every piece of the crises’ exacerbation came directly out of the right’s playbook of the past four decades. Stevens could have also listed Believe in our perfect mythical yesteryear, Short-term profits are everything, Inequality’s not so bad, Liberty equals selfishness, and Entitled to our own facts.
Government is bad. A Republican administration uniquely unsuited and unready and unwilling to deal promptly and effectively with such a national crisis? Decades before this latest show-business president defamed his entire executive branch as a subversive “deep state,” the co-creator of late Republicanism announced in 1981, a few minutes after becoming the first show-business president, that “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” and then made a shtick out of warning Americans to consider any offers of help from the government “terrifying.”
Believe in our perfect mythical yesteryear. The right twisted and exploited nostalgia in the 1970s and ’80s to get its way, selling people on a restoration of old-time America with storybook depictions that omitted all the terrible parts of the past—including the epidemics before we had a U.S. public-health system and before government-funded vaccines that governments required citizens to get, the economic panics and collapses before governments intervened to help unemployed workers, the phony miracle cures marketed by huckster showmen before government put a stop to that.
Establishment experts are wrong, science is suspect. Since the 1980s, the oil and gas and coal industries have conspired with the right to encourage Americans to disbelieve the climate-science consensus, because that science created pressure to mitigate a global crisis with government interventions that could reduce those businesses’ profits. From the start in 2020, the reckless right, the president in the lead, encouraged Americans to disbelieve virologists and epidemiologists and other experts in order to achieve their overriding goals of keeping stock prices and corporate profits up.
Entitled to our own facts. That systematic spread of coronavirus misinformation by Trump and the right couldn’t have happened without the creation in the 1980s (Rush Limbaugh) and ’90s (Fox News) of big-time right-wing mass media. Their continuous erasure for two generations of distinctions between fact and opinion and truth and fiction have always served the propaganda purposes of the political party most devoted to serving the interests of big corporations, and during the COVID crises—Reopen Now—tried to serve those business interests directly.
Short-term profits are everything. Years of reckless greed by Wall Street and financial operators dragging healthy companies into leveraged buyouts, and piling on so much debt they become weak, rendered them barely able to survive in normal times. Excessive corporate debt turns out to be a main underlying condition comorbid with the economic effects of the pandemic.
Liberty equals selfishness. After the right spent decades forging a tantrum-based politics focused on sensible rules that reduce unnecessary deaths and sickness—No gun control! No mandatory vaccinations! No universal health insurance!—of course mobs of childish adults in the spring and summer of 2020 were excited to throw self-righteous tantrums on TV about the mean grown-ups grounding them and telling them to wear stupid masks. While also playing soldier by carrying semiautomatic rifles in public.
Inequality’s not so bad. The glaring new light of the pandemic showed what we’ve become—the health risks and the economic burdens borne disproportionately by people already near the financial edge, Black people, and people with low-paying jobs that can’t be done from home.
Countries with better social contracts and more effective national governments promptly put strict pandemic protocols in place and have COVID death rates running at a third, a quarter, or just 2 percent of America’s. They also straightforwardly and immediately addressed the massive economic consequences, without much political rancor, because providing good social-safety nets to try to protect everyone from economic disaster is simply what governments do.
A New World Again
Before this fresh hell, our political economy and society were already at an inflection point, Americans stuck uncomfortably and often dysfunctionally on the cusp between searching for lost times and imagining a better future. We have now arrived at a scarier place. But it’s not exactly unprecedented. We’ve been here before.
We were in a place like this when my grandparents were young, in the 1910s.
There was the global influenza epidemic, of course, which killed one in 150 people in the United States, the equivalent of 2 million Americans now. But in many other ways, those early 1900s look remarkably like the early 2000s.
Corporate mergers and consolidation had accelerated and political corruption by the rich and powerful had become extreme at the end of the 19th century. A Wall Street crash occurred in 1907. Americans experienced an extraordinary period of technological change—electrification, telephones, movies, airplanes, and cars, all at once. The foreign-born population of the United States reached 15 percent, up from 5 percent just a half century earlier. The influx of non-Protestant foreigners and the mass migration into U.S. cities of Black people, accompanied by skillful racist fictions in a riveting new medium (The Birth of a Nation), prompted a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Political engagement was high: The big turnout in the midterm elections of 1914 wasn’t exceeded until … 2018.
Back then as now, anarchism was bubbling up on the right as well as the left in America, along with a general “sense of conspiracy and secret scheming,” as the young political journalist Walter Lippmann put it in 1914. Lippmann noted the rise of nostalgic anti-modern anger and its political embodiment by the populist Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, who’d just been a presidential nominee for the third time.
Twenty years after that, in the 1930s, when my parents were young, we were also in a place not unlike the one we’re in today. The Depression revealed the precariousness and unnecessary unfairness of our economy, then prompted a great political paradigm shift and the creation of fundamental changes that redeemed American capitalism by making it new and improved and more sustainable.
And we were in a place a little bit like this when I was young, in the 1970s. Crazy inflation and various disconcerting large events—the oil-price crisis, Watergate, the defeat in Vietnam, the collapse of iconic U.S. manufacturing—combined to create high anxiety of which the economic right took brilliant political advantage.
Today’s economic right was instantly determined to exploit the pandemic crises to maintain and increase their political and economic power, and thus the share of American wealth that flows to big business and the rich. So, too, must the economic left try to use the crisis to increase its political power and thereby begin to restore the democratic sharing of economic power and wealth we had as recently as the 1970s, and improve on it. And Americans at large need to rediscover the defining but atrophied national knack for taking up the challenges of the new in new ways.
We can already see how the pandemic will change the economy, the culture, and daily life temporarily. We will continue adapting and adjusting. But the permanent changes? For one thing, I’m betting that a jobless super-automated future will arrive even sooner than experts have been predicting. In just the past few months many of us have become habituated to working only from home by communicating only with little talking pictures of human colleagues. That’s why this week, when the overall Dow Jones stock-market average was back up 43 percent from its early-pandemic low, the Big Tech stocks were doing fantastically well—Netflix up 68 percent, Facebook up 75 percent, Amazon up 87 percent, Apple up 95 percent. Websites and AI and robots don’t get sick or sicken people or worry about getting sick.
But we really don’t know where the national experience of the pandemic will lead us—the overnight upending, the long trauma, judging how individuals and institutions and systems worked or failed. People in 1918 and 1929 and 1970 (and 1347, as the Black Plague began) had no clue what was coming next, either. Will my hypothetical grandchildren grow up as ignorant of the current events as I was of the global viral pandemic my grandparents survived? For Americans now, will surviving a year (or more) of radical uncertainty help persuade a majority to make the necessary radical changes in our political economy to reduce Americans’ unnecessary chronic uncertainty and insecurity? Like Europe after the plague 600 years ago, will we see some fantastic flowering of new creative works and the emergence of a new economic system? Or will Americans remain hunkered forever—as confused and anxious and paralyzed as we were before 2020—descend into digital feudalism, and retreat back into our cocoons of nostalgia and cultural stasis, providing the illusion that nothing much is changing or ever can change?
The United States used to be called the New World. It’s a new world again, maybe the way it was becoming new in the 1910s. Lippmann was pragmatic, in many ways conservative, in no way a utopian, but back at that chaotic, pivotal moment he quoted Oscar Wilde’s line that “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,” because social progress only comes by navigating toward hopeful visions of perfection. “Our business is not to lay aside the dream,” Lippman explained, “but to make it plausible. Drag dreams out into the light of day, show their sources, compare them with fact, transform them to possibilities … a dream … with a sense of the possible.” He also wrote that the urgent national inflection-point struggle a century ago was “between those who are willing to enter upon an effort for which there is no precedent, and those who aren’t. In a real sense it is an adventure.”
So let’s go already.
This post was adapted from Andersen’s recent book, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History.
* This article originally misstated the name of the Democratic Leadership Council
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