I sometimes feel like I’m living in Bizarro America.
Al Gore is a veteran and a successful businessman. He is of Scots-Irish descent from the Upper South where he spent summers working on the family farm in Tennessee where they grew tobacco and raised cattle. Al Gore is boring, if anything, in his being a generally upstanding citizen. He is smart and accomplished. He has lived the American Dream, if you’re into that kind of thing.
George W. Bush is a draft-dodger and a failed businessman, not to mention an alcoholic. He was born in New England to a political family of old wealth, but he pretended to be a good ol’ boy Southerner and a rancher. Even Bush’s Christianity always seemed like pretense. Everything about Bush seemed like pretense, even simple things like putting on a flight suit and declaring ‘Mission Accomplished!’.
Al Gore was an example of what conservatives idealize as a moral citizen, but they attacked him. Instead, conservatives supported George W. Bush who demonstrates the worst attributes of the ruling elite.
Now, conservatives claim Bush jr never was a real conservative. The last real conservative to be president, they claim, was Ronald Reagan.
However, Reagan was the president who chose to use deficit spending which created the permanent debt that later on both Bush presidents grew even larger. Also, Reagan was a part of the Hollywood elite, a union leader, passed the most liberal pro-choice abortion bill prior to Roe v. Wade, and was the first president to invite an openly gay couple to sleep over at the White House. Reagan’s sunny optimism and idealism was a straightforward expression of his liberal-mindedness. He was a former progressive who simply turned his progressivism toward realpolitik and became a neocon. There was nothing particularly conservative about him.
Before Reagan, Jimmy Carter was a Deep Southern Evangelical. He was an actual compassionate conservative, what Bush jr was always pretending to be. He was an old fashioned conservative of a conservationist bent, a type of conservative that used to be more common. It was Carter who was the first Evangelical president and he took his religion more seriously than any other recent president. His so-called malaise speech was all about America’s moral fiber and everything he said about America has turned out to be true.
Despite many perceived successes, Reagan was responsible for the permanent debt which is one of the greatest failings of any president in all of US history. Despite many perceived failings, Carter’s one great achievement was passing an EPA regulation to decrease lead in gasoline which is directly and positively correlated to the largest decrease in violent crime in US history and hence one of the greatest achievements of any president in all of US history.
I just don’t get what is conservative about Bush jr or Reagan nor what is praiseworthy about such ideology, whatever one wishes to call it. It’s equally confusing trying to figure out what liberalism means in all of this. The most liberal president in recent history may have been Reagan who supposedly hated liberalism. Obama is probably more of a conservative than Reagan. Conservative or liberal, there is plenty of cynical and confused, maybe even deceptive, rhetoric to spread equally around.
“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know,there is no such thing as society.” ~ Margaret Thatcher
* * *
I watched Iron Lady, the biographical movie of Margaret Thatcher.
My following thoughts are mostly a response to the portrayal of Thatcher in this movie. Besides some limited websearches done in the process of writing, my analysis is intentionally limited in scope for I have no desire to spend the time that would be necessary to provide a more complex and thorough analysis. Instead, I’m using the movie as a jumping off point for my thoughts on a particular variety of conservatism that has dominated politics for decades.
* * *
I can’t say I ever had much curiosity about Thatcher. I’m not a conservative and I’m not British. Still, her impact on the world (along with that of Reagan) continues to be felt by people far and wide… and so it is hard to be indifferent about her or about what she represents. We are still living in the world of Thatcher and Reagan. The recent worldwide economic problems are the culmination of the neoliberal era. Deregulation, privatization and globalization has finally come to its inevitable conclusion. Maybe that is why a movie about Thatcher is so relevant right now.
To balance my liberal bias, it was helpful to have watched the movie with my conservative parents. As members of an older generation now retired, they have more of a memory of Thatcher. And as strong supporters of Reagan, they are sympathetic to Thatcher’s politics and worldview. My parents, of course, would disagree with my assessment and considering their perspective makes me think more deeply about that era of politics during my childhood.
I asked my parents if they thought the movie was fair. They considered it to be a fair portrayal, although my dad thought her ideas were given short shrift. My dad probably would have preferred a more straightforward political biography. I liked the focus on the personal as it helped me to understand the motivation behind the politics, but like my dad I would have appreciated more focus on ideas or else on the real world consequences of her policies.
Actually, I would like to have seen those two aspects combined (along with the personal). What came across to me in this portrayal is the sense of psychological division, maybe even dissociation. Thatcher had sacrificed so much that it felt to me like she may have sacrificed something of herself, that some aspect of her humanity was lost or blurred or somehow not fully present in her politics, in her professional persona. Showing her as an old lady dealing with the onset of dementia seemed to get at this division… between the personal and the political, between ideas and consequences. She was ‘principled’ and everything else was sacrificed for her principles. The movie seemed to be largely about how much that sacrifice cost on the personal level.
* * *
There was a scene where she recalled her now dead husband proposing marriage to her. She explained to him that she would refuse to be a simple housewife who dies cleaning the tea cups, an apparent reference to her own mother. She told him that she wanted her life to matter.
This could be taken as how even women on the right were beginning to make feminist demands by refusing to be limited to traditional family roles, but it also could be taken as a revelation of how much she hated manual labor and those who make their living by doing it, i.e., the working class. She knew she was better than that, better than the kind of person who lived their life that way. She had more important things to do, more important than simply raising a family as most humans have done since humans have existed. Her hatred or else lack of compassion for the lower classes seemed obvious to me, although she didn’t see herself that way (nor, of course, would conservatives such as my parents see her that way).
She spoke of not being disconnected from average people and she attempted to prove this by demonstrating she knew the price of basic food items that people depended upon such as milk and butter (prices she was aware of because of her having grown up as the daughter of a grocery store owner). To me, this just further demonstrated how disconnected she was. The price of milk and butter is one of the lesser worries of the poor, especially the poorest of the poor who might choose to spend their meager money on more basic necessities than relatively expensive dairy products. There was irony in her self-defense also in that she was responsible for cutting the milk program for public schools.
Anyway, the marriage proposal scene was centrally important to the movie. It was subtly referenced again at the end of the movie. She is an old lady, her husband now dead and her kids grown up, her mind and her self-independence is slowly disappearing. In a sense, she ends up in the place that she thought she was hoping to escape, essentially no better off than her own mother who apparently was a housewife and no better than all the working class housewives, aging as the great equalizer. All the meaning her life might have had is now just a fading memory. The reality of her life is portrayed by the very last scene: standing at the sink washing a tea cup.
* * *
Thatcher said what she cared about was ideas, not emotions; but emotions are what makes us human, what separates mammals from lizards. She saw emotions as weakness. Human life consisting of body and heart, manual labor and emotion, that was weakness, moral weakness. She wanted a life of the mind where thought and principle ruled, the mind relating to the body as God relates to the fallen world.
In another scene, she shared her philosophy with her doctor. It was in response, as I recall, to his asking her how she was feeling. She told him that people were too obsessed with emotions these days, that it is thoughts that matter. Thoughts lead to words, words lead to actions… and then eventually to character. There was also irony in this scene. The doctor was asking if she was experiencing any problems, any halluncinations, etc. She lied to the doctor in saying she was fine. She seemed to believe that by thinking she was fine and saying she was fine that therefore she was fine. Thought trumps reality, at least in her mind.
The way her logic was portrayed in that scene reminds me of something reportedly said by Karl Rove while in the Bush Administration (the aide spoken of is Karl Rove):
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
This emphasis on thought and ideas over everything else directly relates to the perception of someone like Thatcher being ‘principled’. To my parents, this is admirable. To me, less so. I can admire principles and those who hold to them… when those principles are worthy… but ideological beliefs detached from or forced onto reality doesn’t appeal to me. Principles that have such a relationship to reality easily become talking points, rhetorical devices that close down the mind and close down all possible debate.
How my parents see it is that conservative politicians are no longer principled. I sort of understand what they mean, but I also think they are romanticizing the past. Yes, many politicians these days are without principles. However, was Thatcher really all that different?
For example, she supported terrorists in Afghanistan because they fit her agenda, despite her claim of being principled in not bowing down to terrorists. Principles are tricky things when applied to reality for we inevitably interpret our principles to rationalize our actions. Using the Afghanistan example, to remain true to her principles all Thatcher had to do was call the Afghanistan fighters something other than terrorists which is what she did and so they were no longer terrorists, at least in her mind (assuming she was deceiving herself instead of just deceiving others).
* * *
In speaking about another area of fighting, she had to deal with the Falklands conflict. I don’t know if her actions were morally justified or if it was merely the British government defending its colonial empire, but what interested me was the portrayal of her response in the movie.
Thatcher explained in one scene (speaking to other politicians questioning the war) that she knew what the soldiers experienced because she too had to fight hard as a politician and in another scene (writing to the parents of deceased soldiers) that she too was a mother with a son. This further demonstrated how disconnected she was. Her metaphorical fighting in politics is no where near the same as soldiers fighting where they are forced to kill and to risk their own death. Also, just because she was a mother doesn’t mean that she had any possible hope of understanding the experience of the actual mothers of those soldiers. Her political persona was that she was a normal Britain and that she shared in the suffering the country was undergoing, but that is obvious bullshit whether it was a lie told to others or a rationalization told to herself.
This reminds me of what could be called empathetic imagination. Research shows that liberals test higher on the measurment of ‘thin boundaries’. One attribute of ‘thin boundaries’ is empathy. Other research shows that liberals are more distracted because they are constantly paying attention to other people such as watching eye cues. In this way, liberals are more tangibly aware of the people around them. This makes sense when one considers liberal philosophy which focuses on empathy and compassion, on considering the larger collective of humanity rather than just the individual or the group the individual belongs to. For liberals, this isn’t just a set of beliefs but an actual experience of reality.
There is an example of this.
Stem cell research is supported by liberals because, whether or not they have personal experience related to the issue, they can imagine and empathize with the suffering of those who could be helped by medical procedures developed through stem cell research. On the other hand, conservatives on average don’t support stem cell research, but conservatives who have a loved one who could be helped because of stem cell research show a majority support for it. The key difference between the two categories of conservatives is personal experience. Conservatives depend on personal experience more than liberals when it comes to empathizing with others and treating them compassionately.
Everyone, whether liberal or conservative, can understand the suffering of others more easily if the person suffering is a loved one or if the suffering touches upon some other personal experience. However, only liberals show the propensity to care about suffering to which they have no personal connection. It is easier for someone with a liberal predisposition to imagine how others experience the world (empathy, imagination and liberalism are found to be correlated in the research done on MBTI ’intuition’, FFM ’openness to experience’ and Hartmann’s ’thin boundary type’). This is why conservatives perceive liberals as moral relativists for the liberal mindset is more open to considering such subjective and intersubjective factors, rather than narrowly focused on emotionally-detached principles.
From my liberal perspective, someone like Margaret Thatcher seemed to lack empathetic imagination. She could privatize public property and public investments because of her lack of a personal connection to the average working person who was negatively impacted by unemployment and because of her personal connection to her crony friends who profited from the deal. The inability or unwillingness to see outside of one’s personal experience is something all humans struggle with to some degree, but obviously not everyone feels the need to struggle with it for it simply isn’t as much of a priority for some people (not as much of an emotionally pressing issue, just an abstract set of data to be unemotionally analyzed or else ideologically dismissed). In fact, such empathy is often seen as moral weakness by those on the right and so liberals are perceived as ‘bleeding hearts’.
This saddens me. There is so much heartlessness in the world, so much lack of genuine understanding. It seems that, if we have to wait for conservatives to have personal experience to actually care about the worlds’ problems, then we will be waiting a long time.
* * *
Let me return to my parents.
They aren’t heartless as conservatives, but it seems clear to me that neither do they have an overabundance of what I personally experience as empathetic imagination, not to say that they are entirely lacking in this. They care and they are good people, something I want to strongly emphasize as they are some of the most morally principled people I personally know. It’s just that they don’t seem to have a tangible sense of concern about the poor and disadvantaged, not in the bleeding heart liberal sense. They feel bad about the suffering and struggle of others, but they see it as being to some extent separate from their personal lives (by which I don’t mean to imply that we don’t all to varying degrees feel this constraint of separation between our experience and the experience of others, but the difference in degree of this emotional disconnection is very important).
I sense this fundamental difference, although it is hard to explain for I can’t claim to know my parents’ actual experience. However, I do know my own experience and I can sense the difference. For me, the suffering in the world is tangibly part of my sense of self as if an extension of my own body. I intentionally worded it that way. My dad likes to share an example from Adam Smith where the body is used as a way of arguing for the limits of empathy:
“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment…And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.“
The argument is that empathy is limited to proximity, that we are more likely to identify with the suffering of our own potentially lost finger than the suffering of massive numbers of strangers. This is true, but research shows it isn’t equally true in all ways for all people, for example:
“We see that liberals and progressives are more sympathetic toward animals and foreigners than are conservatives and libertarians.”
So, it may be true that all humans will care more about their own finger for fear of physical pain and the related potential of death is a strong instinct, although I would argue that if empathy for strangers wasn’t also a strong instinct then large-scale civilization as we have wouldn’t be possible. The difference isn’t that liberals care less about their own finger but that they care more about strangers. Unlike the implications of Smith’s argument, caring about one doesn’t inevitably limit the caring about the other. For conservatives’ relationship to strangers, though, there would seem to be a perceived conflict between the two for conservatives have more of an instinct of fear and mistrust toward strangers. What conservatives don’t understand is that liberals don’t share this strong instinct which isn’t to say liberals entirely lack it.
In speaking to my dad, he didn’t understand this view. I can, as a liberal, accept that there are differences between types of people and that some differences are just differences with no inherent moral superiority for one or the other. Sometimes fearing strangers is evolutionarily advantageous and at other times empathy is the better option. Conservatives, especially social conservatives, tend to see this as moral relativism whereas liberals are more likely to just see it as reality (or what science has so far been able to discover about the reality of human nature).
Part of the reason liberals are better at empathizing with others, especially others who are different, is that liberals don’t require one side to be entirely right and the other side to be entirely wrong. Data shows that liberals are the only American demographic to have majority support for compromise (i.e., making personal sacrifices in order to avoid unnecessary conflict, in order to find a middle ground of agreement or possibly just a good enough solution).
One of the problems I see as a liberal is that the more that empathy is limited the more projection becomes inevitable. Conservatives genuinely believe that their view of human nature is simply right and so they tend to project their own conservative predisposition onto everyone else. Liberal’s higher propensity for empathy offers more protection against this kind of projection, but there is another kind of weakness to the liberal position. Liberals have a hard time understanding and accepting that conservatives either don’t have as strong of an ability to empathize or else don’t have as strong of a desire for it. Empathy is the very foundation of the liberals experience of reality. It’s mind-blowing to the liberal to consider someone who puts principles over empathetic compassion. To a liberal, the only principles that would be morally worthy are those that originate from empathetic compassion. Conservatives just see this as moral weakness, moral relativism.
So, even my desire for compromise between conservative principle and liberal empathy is just another liberal bias.
* * *
My parents are very principled, more principled than I am in terms of acting on what they believe (although that may have more to do with my severe depression than with my morally relativistic liberalism). Even if they don’t have a strong liberal response of empathetic imagination, they do respond compassionately based on their principles and act accordingly.
It isn’t that conservatives lack the ability to be compassionate. It’s just that they would experience it differently and act on it differently, constrained as it is to conservative biases and predispositions. For my parents and many other conservatives, compassionate action is seen as part of their religious duty, organized religion representing their ultimate sense of moral order. Religion is one of the greatest forces humans have for mobilizing individual and collective action, both for good and evil as history shows. I have tons of respect for the ability conservatives have in getting things done through organizing around religious authority, even if I don’t always respect the purposes to which this is used.
I’m not exactly criticizing conservatives. Many conservatives do a lot of good in the world. There are some clear advantages to the principled way of relating to other people, assuming that the principles are worthy. However, according to my liberal bleeding heart, naive as it may seem to conservatives, I feel the world would be a better place if conservative principledness was combined with liberal empathy… or at least if the two could work together instead of being in conflict.
* * *
Let me end with some commentary on the quote I began with. Margaret Thatcher said:
“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.”
When I first heard that, I was utterly amazed, baffled even. There was no way, it seemed to me, that someone could honestly believe such a declaration, especially not a political leader of society. It had to be political rhetoric. Of course, society exists for civilization couldn’t exist without the social quality of humans, that tricky element that differentiates once again between mammals and lizards… and, I’d add, between higher primates and most other species. I understand the modern focus on the individual, but one would have to be detached from reality to deny the inherently social nature of the human species.
There goes my liberal bias again, rearing its ugly head.
This issue of ‘society’ came up last night while I was perusing some books about liberalism. In The Future of Liberalism by Alan Wolfe, he quoted James Oakes (p. 12):
“Society was the great discovery of enlightened liberals. They felt liberated by their conviction that most of the things that previous generations had taken to be “natural” or “divinely ordained” were, in fact, the products of human history. Families, political systems, even economies were, as liberals realized (and as we would put it), “socially constructed.” For liberals, humans were above all social beings. They were born tabula rasa and were thus the products of their upbringing, their environment. To function freely as a flourishing human being, everyone had to be, well, socialized. And if humans are the products of society, then the social institutions that shape them must be constructed so as to produce the kind of individuals each society wants.”
It is ‘society’ that is the key element that many conservatives don’t understand, even when they acknowledge it. This connects back to Adam Smith.
It wasn’t just about a person’s finger vs the faceless masses in a distant country. No, more fundamentally it was about the individual vs the group (i.e., society), in particular the individual vs someone else’s group. In saying there is no society, Thatcher was saying that this ‘society’ proposed by liberals isn’t my society (isn’t the group I belong to as a wealthy person, as a political elite, as a conservative Christian, or whatever else). Liberals like to see humanity as a whole (as seen with their tendency to care about strangers) whereas conservatives see humanity divided up into separate, competing groups. Thatcher was willing to admit that humans exist in basic social groups such as families, but she refused to admit that her family had anything directly to do with the families of the working class or the families in a poor country (earthquake or not). It’s an individual attitude of me and mine. It is groupthink combined with a sometimes implicit but often explicit xenophobia.
Conservatives see the idea of a greater society as a threat. Liberals, however, see it as a reason for hope, a potential for progress. Instead of being isolated in a world of fear and violence, liberals want to live in a world of shared humanity with a shared destiny, shared sacrifice and shared benefit. Progress is the central part in this different response. As Mike Kane explained it:
“Might it be that the whole of my disagreement with Smith lies in this: that an event in China was so remote to the European “man of humanity” in 1759 as to be near negligible? If so, then the greater proximity, the so-called global village, that technology enables, does serve to broader both the depth and scope of empathy. It seems to me that distance in the 18th century created the same remove that time continues to do for us. I feel more empathy for, which is another way of saying I feel more in common with, the victims of the Japanese disaster, than I do with the victims of the Irish potato famine, who are some of my ancestors, or more than I do with the millions of victims of the “Spanish flu”, with most of whom I have a greater cultural, religious, and linguistic fit than I do with the Japanese.
“The theory I am testing is that technology exponentially increases the proximity by which people can feel empathy and obliterates cultural differences and geographic distance. The only distance that exempts itself from the compassion-broadening effect of technology is the distant past. The fact that the past is so exempt only goes to show in a new instance the inherent difference between the space and time of human experience.”
Mike’s above response seems like a typical liberal response. Unlike the conservative view, humanity isn’t forever constrained by the seeming limits of human nature for human nature isn’t singular and unchanging, rather human nature contains infinite potential and so is malleable to the degree that potential is tapped. Change the conditions and the human response will change. This is the power of ‘society’, a power that scares shitless many a conservative. A conservative like Thatcher denies ‘society’ not because she doesn’t believe in its power but because she does believe in it and so perceives it as a threat that must be disempowered. Society is to liberals what religion is to conservatives, both forces to be reckoned with.
* * *
I don’t see this difference ever being resolved through discussion. Individual people don’t change for the most part. Change happens over generations as society itself changes. My only hope, as a liberal, is that society has across the centuries become ever increasingly liberal. Even conservatives like my parents, fairly typical conservatives, are ideologically more liberal than conservatives were a century ago. My dad has admitted to me that conservatism needs to change with the times, a very liberal attitude for a conservative to hold.
However, just because society becomes more liberal it doesn’t follow that the conservative predisposition is going away, unless some major genetic engineering project is implemented in a dystopian future of totalitarianism (in which case it would no longer be a liberal society). More reasonably, I suspect that as long as civilization as we know it doesn’t collapse the trend toward a liberal society will continue, however slowly and imperfectly.
Such a liberal society will be forced to find a compromise between the two predispositions, even though conservatives may not appreciate being made to play as equal partners with liberals. That is the only good possibility that I see. A conservative society, almost by definition, can’t allow freedom for the liberal predisposition. A liberal society, on the other hand, necessitates allowing freedom for the conservative predisposition… for that is the nature of the liberal predisposition.
Only liberals care about compromise and so only liberals will be able to find a solution of compromise… or else, in failing, give conservatives the opportunity to create a society of anti-liberalism. I’m not sure that even most conservatives would be happy if conservatives were victorious in creating such a society.
* * *
As a note, I wanted to point out that I’m speaking very broadly here, and so there is plenty of room for pointing out exceptions and criticizing about overgeneralization. Still, I think my speaking in such broad terms is useful for delineating the general meanings of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’.
I have for the most part stopped identifying myself as a ‘liberal’. Mostly what I mean here by ‘liberal’ is liberal-minded in the psychological sense, although there is obvious correlation to various political ideologies. I, however, am not advocating a specific ideology here, especially not the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party. The liberal predisposition has led to minds as diverse as Locke and Paine, has led to ideals as diverse as individualism and progressivism. What form liberalism may take in the future is probably beyond my imagination.
As for specific ideologies of my own preference, I’m less of a liberal and more of a weird combination of socialist and libertarian. So, in reference to a ‘liberal’ society, I’m speaking about an open society of multiculturalism and social democracy. This wouldn’t necessarily require a welfare state or even a strong, central state government at all.
I should also point out that, even though my parents may not be atypical as American conservatives, I’m not sure that they are the best representatives of the conservative predisposition. On the spectrum of predispositions, my parents are nowhere near being far right-wingers (such as, for example, measured by tests for Right-Wing Authoritarianism). I’m not sure that genetically my predisposition is all that different from my parents, but different social environments and life experiences have brought out the liberal potential within my genetics.
Research and basic observation shows that people also can switch predispositions for short periods of time such as during stress or permanently because of trauma. Predisposition is just a tendency, a potential. However, once manifest, most people tend to maintain a particular predisposition as the resting point of their personality.
* * *
In case anyone is interested, I came across an interesting review of the movie in question and a couple of interesting videos about Margaret Thatcher:
WASHINGTON—At a press conference Monday, visibly embarrassed leaders of the Republican National Committee acknowledged that their nonstop, effusive praise of Ronald Reagan has been wholly unintentional, admitting they somehow managed to confuse him with Dwight D. Eisenhower for years.
The GOP’s humiliating blunder was discovered last weekend by RNC chairman Reince Priebus, who realized his party had been extolling “completely the wrong guy” after he watched the History Channel special Eisenhower: An American Portrait.
“When I heard about Eisenhower’s presidential accomplishments—holding down the national debt, keeping inflation in check, and fighting for balanced budgets—it hit me that we’d clearly gotten their names mixed up at some point,” Priebus told reporters. “I couldn’t believe we’d been associating terms like ‘visionary,’ ‘principled,’ and ‘bold’ with President Reagan. That wasn’t him at all—that was Ike.”
“We deeply regret misattributing such a distinguished and patriotic legacy to Mr. Reagan,” Priebus added. “We really screwed up.”
Following his discovery, Priebus directed RNC staffers to inform top Republicans of the error and explain that it was Eisenhower, not Reagan, who carefully managed the nation’s prosperity, warned citizens of the military-industrial complex’s growing influence, and led the country with a mix of firm resolve and humble compassion.
“Wait, you’re telling me Reagan advocated that trickle-down nonsense that was debunked years ago? That was Reagan?” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said upon hearing of the mistake. “I can’t believe I’ve been calling for a return to Reagan’s America. I feel like an asshole.”
According to sources, millions of younger Republicans have spent most of their lives viewing Reagan a stalwart of conservative principles, and many were “horrified” to learn that the former president illegally sold weapons to Iran, declared amnesty for 2.9 million illegal immigrants, costarred in a movie with a chimpanzee, funneled aid to Islamic militants in Afghanistan, and suffered from severe mental problems.
Romney claims he wishes he'd never aided helpless sick people.
BELMONT, MA—Though Mitt Romney is considered to be a frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the national spotlight has forced him to repeatedly confront a major skeleton in his political closet: that as governor of Massachusetts he once tried to help poor, uninsured sick people.
Romney, who signed the state’s 2006 health care reform act, has said he “deeply regrets” giving people in poor physical and mental health the opportunity to seek medical attention, admitting that helping very sick people get better remains a dark cloud hovering over his political career, and his biggest obstacle to becoming president of the United States of America.
I just noticed a reference to David Sirota’s recent book, Back to Our Future. It looks interesting. After reading some reviews and hearing some interviews, I decided to purchase the book on my Kindle. So far, I’ve only read the beginning and skimmed later sections. This post is more about my initial response, but it’s a very thorough initial response.
To put it simply, this book provides analysis of 80s culture’s impact on politics and how that impact continues.
•Atari: Best-selling videos Missile Command, Combat and Space Invaders sold techno-militarism to a generation of future drone pilots.
•Rambo: Embittered vet refought America’s wars and “gets to win” this time.
•Ghostbusters: The movie’s lesson: When government fails, these private security contractors saved us from interdimensional “terrorists.”
•World Wrestling Federation: Theatro-sport in which American good guys like Sgt. Slaughter body slammed foreign bad guys like the Iron Sheik.
•Mr. T: No matter what character this Mohawk-wearing strongman played, he represented racial stereotyping and threw it back in our faces.
•The Cosby Show: The pre-Obama image of the “post-racial” brand, the Huxtables were the first black family to dominate TV.
•Ferris Bueller: John Hughes’ cheeky truant glorified “going rogue” years before Sarah Palin.
•Air Jordans: Best-selling sneakers pushed the idea that we can each be superstars if we “just do it.”
•The Yuppie: Upwardly mobile wealth-obsessed Alex P. Keatons rejected ’60s idealism for modern materialism.
•“Greed is Good”: Gordon Gekko’s line from Wall Street became the decade’s most famous phrase — and its most enduring ethos.
- – -
My discovering this book was serendipitous. I happened upon a reference to it the other night. A few hours prior, while at work, I had been talking to a coworker about all things apocalyptic, the Japanese nuclear plant problems being the starting point of the conversation. She mentioned something about a tv show and I was reminded of how many post-apocalyptic movies there were in the 1980s when I was a child. Between that and evil children movies, a child of the 80s was almost inevitably warped in the head.
I’m a child of the ’80s, and I was deeply impacted by that decade and that pop culture — and for many reasons, that pop culture is back in a lot of ways. So I started thinking about why it’s back — and some of it is Hollywood laziness, some of it is coincidence — but it’s really kind of eerie, too, with the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant happening; you know, the last time that kind of thing was happening was at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the ’80s. So there’s a real zeitgeist of the ’80s returning.
I don’t know that Sirota discusses the post-apocalyptic genre, but it seems to fit in with his overall analysis. The nuclear accidents back then made nuclear apocalypse an increasingly real possibility which was imaginatively portrayed in various entertainment media. As a GenXer born in 1975 (the same year Sirota was born), I’m well aware of the impact of 80s culture.
Sirota takes this a step further and says this impact is continuing as if the 80s somehow stunted America’s natural development. The country was going in one direction with the civil rights movement, environmentalism and other things, but then the 80s came and a different attitude took over: hyper-individualism, capitalist greed, paranoia of government, aggressive militarism, ultra-nationalism, racial fear-mongering, class war, culture war, radicalization of religion, etc. Americans haven’t yet collectively recovered from the trauma of the 80s. There were the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and it’s been the 80s ever since. An endless nightmare as if Reagan were still president.
[T]he ’80s speak to us today for one simple reason: “Because it’s still the ’80s. The calendar doesn’t say ’80s, but we’re still looking through an ’80s mind-set.” Think Charlie Sheen. Think Lehman Brothers. Think McMansions.
As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The ’80s set the stage for our lives today, Sirota says, and he explains it best in his introduction: “Almost every major cultural touchstone is rooted in the ’80s. … The Sopranos was an update of an ’80s Scorsese flick (Raging Bull and later Goodfellas).The Wire was Baltimore’s own Colors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a Los Angeles-set Seinfeld. American Idol is Star Search.” And so on.
[ . . . ] “The reason you see so many remakes is not just because nostalgia resonates,” Sirota says, “but because (’80s movies) are still culturally relevant.”
Part of his argument relates to his realization that most people aren’t political at all, or rather don’t consciously identify as political, don’t consciously think out their political views. And, even those who are consciously political as adults, usually didn’t identify as being political when growing up. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that everyone has political views. Even children, when asked, can offer views on political issues. We all gain our political views from somewhere. Sirota thinks that pop culture has a greater impact on our minds and worldviews than we normally realize. He even goes so far as to see it playing a role of pseudo-propaganda in some cases and outright propaganda in other cases. This can be seen to some extent as part of the normal enculturation process, but the 80s were anything other than normal… and, in the process, a new norm was created for American society.
So I’d been reading some social research, and one thing that’s been coming up is that pop culture and entertainment — especially for children — is just as formative to how we see the world as news; as children, this entertainment that’s packaged as non-political, it can be as reality-shaping as reality is.
All the buzz in the entertainment/tech world about the blockbuster new video game Homefront brings back memories of the 1984 film Red Dawn – and rightly so. The creator of Homefront is none other than John Milius, the writer/director of the 1984 film that later became the deliberate namesake of the most famous operation in today’s Iraq War. But it should also bring back memories of the larger militarist themes that continue to define our entertainment culture — themes that ultimately bring up the direct but little-examined connections between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry. It is the legacy of those connections, first intensified in the 1980s, that continue to embed militarism in seemingly non-political products like video games and action movies.
As I show in , much of the video game industry was subsidized by the military and military contractors, and many of the earliest games were consequently martial in thrust. Think: Atari Combat and Missile Command, which then grew into a larger video game world that, as one Konami executive said in 1988, “takes anything remotely in the news and makes it a game.” You could see that in Nintendo’s Iran-Contra era game Contra just as you can see it in today’s hits like Call of Duty. And in almost each of these games, the ideology of militarism (i.e. military action solving all problems) is reiterated and reinforced.
Same thing when it comes to the Pentagon-Hollywood relationship since the 1980s — only in that case, we’re now seeing military officials quite literally line-editing scripts to make them more pro-military.
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Several points stand out to me in Sirota’s analysis.
First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.
Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence. This hero worship also led to our culture of idolizing celebrity and wealth (a celebritocracy borne out of a distorted vision of meritocracy).
“A lot of the changes that happened (in the ’80s) weren’t good,” Sirota admits. “The deification of celebrity, for instance. The individual. Michael Jordan could soar above all the rest. It wasn’t about the team anymore. That wasn’t so good.”
[ . . . ] “It was the outlaw with morals. The guy working on the inside for the common good,” Sirota says. He says that trend translated to sports, pointing to a poster of bad-boy Barkley. “He broke the rules but he was a good guy.”
As for ’80s greed, the examples are endless both then and today.
He cites Michael J. Fox’s The Secret of My Success (1987) as glorifying the ’80s goal of “working your way up to huge sums of wealth.”
But another 1987 movie perhaps summed up the era best. Wall Street (which co-starred Sheen) lives on because of three famous words uttered by Michael Douglas: “Greed … is good.” The sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, was released last year. Still relevant. Bernie Madoff, anyone?
“The young of the ’80s didn’t want to save the world,” Sirota says. “They wanted to get rich. It became the norm, and it’s the norm today.”
Third, Sirota explains how all of this was disconnected from reality. It had become a collective myth that couldn’t be questioned. He gave some examples about the enemies the media and government demonized during the 80s.
The US government was using propaganda about the Godless commies for the purpose of justifying the building up of the military-industrial complex, but the US government had plenty of data in their own reports that the Soviet Union was technologically inferior by far and was destroying itself trying to keep up with US technological advancement. The US government knew the commies were no real threat, but the myth of a powerful enemy was necessary and desired. To have a powerful enemy, gives a nation a sense of meaning and purpose even if it’s an utter lie.
The other example shows how lies when repeated enough become collective reality. On some level, I suspect most Americans were aware that the commies couldn’t be used as a scapegoat forever. The Cold War was drawing to a close and so the search for a new great enemy was already beginning. The new enemy to be feared was Islamic terrorists (which was already at that time starting to become the new standard enemy in American entertainment).
In our fighting the commies, we had at times aligned with radical Islamic fundamentalists and theocrats. I think many people realized that this would eventually lead to blowback, that our allies once we were finished using them would turn against us. More importantly, we just needed an enemy. If we had to create that enemy by funding, training and arming radical Islamic fundamentalists, by overthrowing democratic governments and supporting oppressive regimes in the Middle East, then so be it. Creating enemies is no easy task. It takes a lot of money and time, a lot of effort and planning, a lot of destruction and loss of life. But what the 80s have taught us is that endlessly fighting enemies of our own creation is something worth fighting for.
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Here is another related factor that Sirota may or may not touch upon. The attitude of seeking enemies was an all-encompassing way of making sense of the world and hence of making public policies.
Worst of all, the demented paranoia of the 80s even led to the American people becoming the enemy. There was evidence of this mentality from earlier times such as with COINTELPRO from the decades prior, but the 80s brought it to a whole new level. COINTELPRO only targeted specific groups. The War on Drugs, however, targeted the entire American population. In many ways, it was worse than even McCarthyism. The War on Drugs has done more damage than probably any other public policy in American history. I doubt there is any US policy that has led to more people being imprisoned, more people having their lives destroyed, more increase in violence, more increase in a corporatist elite profiting off of the suffering of others, more targeting of the poor and minorities. My God, even Prohibition wasn’t this damaging. The War on Drugs has been going on for decades which has only led to an increase in drug use and drug-related violence. Now, the War on Terror (funded by the black market for drugs) has ratcheted up even further this paranoid oppression and authoritarian fear-mongering.
The 80s created a schizophrenic mentality. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the supposed even greater enemy of commies, terrorists, and drug dealers. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the enemy that is hiding within. Any American potentially might be a commie, a terrorist, or a druggy (or a gangsta, or a welfare queen, or an illegal alien, or an eco-terrorist, or a radical liberal). Everyone potentially was an enemy. No one could be trusted. It was everyone against everyone. A society of trust and cooperation was a thing of the past. The role of the government in helping average Americans was seen as evil and the power of the government to hurt the enemy was seen as good.
So, spending on social services and infrastructure (what conservatives like to call socialism) were reduced as the military-industrial complex (along with the alphabet soup agencies) continued to grow (along with the debt). Both fiscal and social conservatism were ironically used as part of the propaganda to increase the power of the ruling corporatist elite. Fiscal conservatism!?! Give me a fucking break! Neocons like Reagan believed in fiscal conservatism in the same way a pedophile priest believes in God. Even if their belief is genuine and earnest, those negatively effected would hardly find much comfort. I don’t know if a laissez-faire ideology correlates to reality any more than Christian theology. What I do know is real are the impacts that those who believe in such things have on the real world and on real people. And the enduring results of 80s culture of greed ain’t pretty.
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What appeals to me about David Sirota’s view is that he is putting this all in the context of the larger history of the 20th century. The 80s concretized a particular worldview of culture war that continues to this day, and it continues to be grounded in mainstream culture. He explains this well in giving a summary about his book:
The book really has four basic sections. There’s a section about how the 1980s redefined our memories and our ideas of the 1950s and the 1960s, basically by remaking our memories of the 1950s into this idyllic time of calm and prosperity, and remaking the 60s into things that are bad, things like chaos and assassination — and so that ’50s vs 60s battle is still something that influences groups like the Tea Party and so forth, and it really divides along political lines.
[ . . . ] You know, the 1980s really was the time when there was this conflation between entertainment and real — Reagan was constantly referencing movies and pop culture in his speeches; you know, he’d been an actor himself. And so people might say, oh, The A Team wasn’t a big deal, Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t a big deal — but The A-Team, this one one of the highest rated shows for preteens, this show with the premise of four, you know, private contractors on the lam from a government that can’t do anything right. This stuff has a real impact on how you think about your world.
“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”
With all the angry right-wingers, fear-mongering fundies and cold-hearted neocons these days, it’s hard to remember there was a time when a Republican could be portrayed as being a genuinely kind, lovable character. With all the horrifying results of trickle down economics, all the rampant crony capitalism following deregulation and all the cynical class war against the working class, it’s hard to imagine that fiscal conservatism once upon a time could’ve been shown as almost quaintly charming in it’s innocent naivette. It’s understandable that many at that time were persuaded, inspired even, by Michael J. Fox’s role:
The world has changed. The contemporary equivalent of Alex P. Keaton would be Eric Cartman from South Park. In the episode “Die, Hippie, Die”, Cartman sees hippies as dangerous vermin to be exterminated.
“Every time one of these ex-hippies comes prancing in from yesteryear, we gotta get out the love beads and pretend we care about people.”
~ Alex P. Keaton
“For the past several days I’ve been noticing a steep rise in the number of hippies coming to town.… I know hippies. I’ve hated them all my life. I’ve kept this town free of hippies on my own since I was five and a half. But I can’t contain them on my own anymore. We have to do something, fast!”
~ Eric Cartman
Alex as the charming fiscal conservative has morphed into Cartman the not-so-charming bigoted conservative. And yet both capture some basic essence of the desire of many contemporary conservatives to rebel against society (a corrupt, lazy and generally inferior society that deserves being rebelled against).
The radicalization of the conservative movement is one of the oddest phenomena in US history. There were always radical elements in American society, but something about Goldwater’s campaign allowed the radicals to take over the entire conservative movement. Now we have Cartman-like pundits on the radio and on cable. They still rail against mainstream culture despite having become so much apart of mainstream culture that they now help to shape it. That, of course, doesn’t stop them from acting like victims as if hippies were somehow still a dominant force. The right-wing mindset is forever stuck in the past which blinds them to the present. To the right-winger, Cartman’s paranoia is the reality they live in.
Alex P. Keaton continues to be relevant more than a couple decades after Family Ties ended. Having gained power, the conservatives inspired by the likes of Alex may now feel disgruntled by their failure which has inevitably followed from their success. But that doesn’t stop them from believing, doesn’t give them pause, doesn’t cause them to doubt their ideology. It remains relevant because the True Believers keep it relevant:
Still, it’s tempting to conclude that Keaton’s near-iconic status requires more explanation. Last summer in the New Republic, Rick Perlstein, the left-leaning author of a book on Barry Goldwater, argued that, even now, after years of Republican rule, the “culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side.” Having been “shaped in another era [the mid-1960s], one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered,” conservative culture—Perlstein had in mind everything from “Goldwater kitsch” to Fox News—still feeds on this antagonism, reflecting a sense that righteousness is always at odds with the decadent mainstream.
Alex P. Keaton fits this vision perfectly. Throughout the show’s run, he was on his own: His parents were liberal, his sister was a ditz, and his one conservative ally, Uncle Ned, was a fugitive and then a drunk. Still, he persevered.
Conservatives nowadays have plenty of Uncle Neds who may seem like frauds and failures to those who don’t share their capitalistic idealism. Still, conservatives persevere.
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Not only do they persevere, their becoming disgruntled has made them even more rabidly motivated. And big money has given their minority voice a big megaphone. This is what the Tea Party is or has become, arguments aside about how it began. Tea Party leaders and icons, such as Beck and Palin, represent this tendency toward nostalgia that Sirota writes about (Back to Our Future, pp. 27-8):
Now, during the Obama presidency, the Tea Party opposition is an exact analogue to the Reagan vanguard, all the way down to the latter-day roots of its very name—in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the The New York Times labeled what were then the first contemporary antigovernment/antitax revolts “modern Boston Tea Parties.” Not surprisingly, the goal of today’s Tea Party protesters is a return to the politics of the fifties-worshiping, sixties-bashing 1980s.
Tea Party protesters and their leaders in the conservative movement acknowledge this intrinsically in their choice of language and extrinsically in their most unfiltered declarations. For example, an essay posted on the website of Freedom Works, the organization that sponsors Tea Party demonstrations, says protesters are enraged by “the sense that the country that they grew up in is slipping away right before their eyes.”
[ . . . ] Glenn Beck, the Tea Party’s media field general, says it is about “real outrage from real people who just want their country back”—and he’s very clear that “back” means before The Sixties™. In one recent diatribe, Beck praised Joe McCarthy for “shin[ing] the spotlight on the Communist Party” in the 1950s. In another, he insisted “fifty years ago people felt happier” than they do today because today “we have less God,” prompting his guest to agree by saying, “Something happened in the 1950s where everything went down … that’s when they started taking God”—“they” being the hippies, “God” presumably being a reference to mid-twentieth-century courts barring prayer in school.
This kind of nostalgia now slashes its way through today’s politics and policy debates, and its lack of connection to specific issues betrays its eighties-crafted anchor in intergenerational conflict.
[ . . . ] “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower,” Bob Dole told Politico in a discussion about 2012 presidential candidates.
The language—“back,” “real people,” “deviating from,” “slipping away,” “the way it was,” “different country than I grew up in,” “legacy,” “better time”—underscores the fierce yearning for a fantastical authenticity and conformity of old-time fifties America, sans the real-world downsides like lynch mobs, religious bigotry, burning crosses, chauvinism, union-busting, and smokestack pollution that plagued the mid-twentieth century. Whether or not Tea Party leaders are specifically pointing to the actual 1950s is less important than that the broader movement is advocating that bigger, 1980s-manufactured concept of The Fifties™.
The tragedy, of course, is the elimination of the kind of moderate Republicanism that once played a pivotal political, cultural, and legislative role in the real 1950s and 1960s. Conservatives today accept no compromise positions on taxes, national security, social issues, or anything else, because to Republican leaders, conceding such middle ground is akin to aiding and abetting the hippies—an unthinkable proposition, but not just to them.
That passage caught my attention. I’ve been thinking about the Tea Party for quite a while now. Last year I started to write a post about the documentary Generation Zero. The documentary created quite a buzz at the time (at least, on Fox News), but it is mostly unknown outside of the Tea Party crowd. I only heard about it because of a blog I follow which focuses on the topic of generations. The documentary is based on the generation theory of Strauss and Howe.
I never finished writing my post about Generation Zero. I felt like I was missing some element to bring my thoughts together. Sirota’s analysis may be that missing element. It wasn’t a bad documentary per se. However, it did fall into this mythology of everything wrong with America is the fault of the hippies.
Sirota is correct that the nostalgic worship of The Fifties has become popular again. And Sirota is correct that this nostalgia is disconnected from reality, from the actual history of the 50s. John Oliver of The Daily Show did an awesome clip (Even Better Than the Real Thing) which utterly lambasted this naive vision of the past that is favored by right-wingers.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with looking for the positive in the past. But one can’t learn from the past by turning it into a Hallmark movie or a Norman Rockwell painting. One particular detail that caught my attention in the above passage is Bob Dole’s saying that, “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower”. If only Republicans were genuine about their reverence for the good ol’ days, many liberals would be more than happy to cooperate. In the good ol’ days of the first half of the 20th century, liberalism was triuphant and politicians were usually unwilling to publicly denounce liberals for fear of their political careers being destroyed by doing so. As Eric Alterman pointed out in his book Why We’re Liberals (p. 4):
It may shocking to some to discover that for much of the past century, the term liberal suggested, in the words of historian John Lukacs, “generosity nay, magnanimity; not only breadth of a mind but strength of soul.” A liberal was someone “free from narrow prejudice,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Even the enemies of liberalism sought legitimacy within it. In 1960, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article by the philosopher Charles Frankel in which he observed that it would be difficult to locate a single major figure in American politics who could not find a favorable remark or two about American liberalism. Indeed, he wrote, “Anyone who today identifies himself as an unmitigated opponent of liberalism…cannot aspire to influence on the national political scene.” Frankel noted that even politicians who indulged in attacks on “liberals” were usually sufficiently cautious in their criticism to attach qualifiers to the word, lest they be accused of antiliberalism themselves. Southern conservatives, for instance, complained about “Northern liberals,” often insisting that they themselves were liberals in matters of social welfare. Even Joe McCarthy usually restricted himself to attacking “phony liberals,” leaving open the inference, as Frankel put it, “that he had nothing against genuine liberals, if only he could find one.”20 Later the same year, “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert A. Taft, claimed the liberal label for himself, stating—accurately, as it happens—that he was in reality “an old-fashioned liberal.”21 The party’s successful 1952 presidential candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also on board: “To be fully effective,” Ike explained, “we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress.”22 As late as 1968, voters heard this moving tribute to the virtues of liberalism: “Let me give you a definition of the word ‘liberal.’…Franklin D. Roosevelt once said…It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him. ‘A liberal is a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life.’” The speaker? That famous liberal presidential candidate: Richard Milhous Nixon.
Eisenhower was more progressively liberal than most Democratic politicians are today. So, these right-wingers aren’t being genuine when they reference the past as if, prior to the hippies, all of American society was ruled by the far right. Today’s Republicans, unlike Eisenhower, aren’t moderate about anything. Moderate Republicans are an endangered species. How can the right-wing loons of today bring up Eisenhower’s name when the right-wing loons back then thought Eisenhower was a commie (and mainstream Republicans back then thought such right-wingers were radicals and extremists). You’d be hard pressed to find even a self-identified liberal in contemporary mainstream politics who would make the type of statements Eisenhower made such as (Letter to Edgar Newton Eisenhower, November 8, 1954):
“You keep harping on the Constitution; I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Consequently no powers are exercised by the Federal government except where such exercise is approved by the Supreme Court (lawyers) of the land.
“I admit that the Supreme Court has in the past made certain decisions in this general field that have been astonishing to me. A recent case in point was the decision in the Phillips case. Others, and older ones, involved “interstate commerce.” But until some future Supreme Court decision denies the right and responsibility of the Federal government to do certain things, you cannot possibly remove them from the political activities of the Federal government.
“Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
“[ . . . ] I assure you that you have more reason, based on sixty-four years of contact, to say this than you do to make the bland assumption that I am surrounded by a group of Machiavellian characters who are seeking the downfall of the United States and the ascendancy of socialism and communism in the world. Incidentally, I notice that everybody seems to be a great Constitutionalist until his idea of what the Constitution ought to do is violated–then he suddenly becomes very strong for amendments or some peculiar and individualistic interpretation of his own.“
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So, what exactly are conservatives today reminiscing about? Where did they get their revisionist history from?
Sirota argues that much of this revisionist history and 50s mythologizing came from the 80s. That is the origin of the problem we now face. The 80s is the source of much revisionist history because the 80s is the point where the country started heading back toward some of the worst elements of the past. An example of this is how bigotry was championed in the 80s and was put in deceptive packaging to make it more socially acceptable. This racism has been disguised in the language of culture war and class war, but the underlying racism is obvious for anyone who has their eyes open. Most recently and most obviously, there has been a resurgence of this racism which can be found in the Tea Party. As Sirota wrote in his book (p. 212):
In light of the blitz, to blame Obama for seeking “to transcend, if not avoid, the issue of race” is to yet again avoid blaming the real culprit: the white America that since the 1980s demands reticence on race from all black public figures as the price of public support. Sure, as a purely tactical matter, you can credibly argue that Obama’s Cosby-esque deal with white America is a self-defeating Faustian bargain. Survey data show roughly six in ten whites openly admit to believing in at least one bigoted stereotype, and a recent study showed that when asked about health care legislation, a significant number of whites expressed less support for the exact same bill if it was coming from President Obama rather than from a white Democratic president. A black leader who tries to circumnavigate that intense bigotry by avoiding race may be emboldening the bigotry inevitably coming his way. Similarly, American politics is increasingly steered by a largely white Tea Party movement whose supporters are, according to polls, disproportionately motivated by racial resentment. An African American leader who goes out of his way to downplay that right-wing racism to the point of rebuking former president Jimmy Carter for criticizing it—well, that only helps the Tea Party opposition play its duplicitous dog-whistle games.
I was already aware of this. I have a post about the study done where Tea Party supporters admitted to having racially prejudiced views. Of course, this is nothing new… but I guess that is why it’s so disheartening. One of Sirota’s basic points is how we as a nation are atavistically mired in our own dark past. We are stuck in this manner because the distorted 50s mythology has appealed to what has been a white majority in this country, and the appeal becomes stronger as whites increasingly lose their majority status. In the words of Sirota from the article, “The Motto of Mad Men”:
As one tea party leader told The New York Times: “Things we had in the ’50s were better.”
To the tea party demographic, this certainly rings true. Yes, in apartheid America circa 1950, rich white males were more socially and economically privileged relative to other groups than they are even now. Of course, for those least likely to support the tea party—read: minorities—the ’50s were, ahem, not so great, considering the decade’s brutal intensification of Jim Crow.
But then, that’s the marketing virtuosity of the “I Want My Country Back” slogan. A motto that would be called treasonous if uttered by throngs of blacks, Latinos or Native Americans has been deftly sculpted by conservatives into an accepted clarion call for white power. Cloaked in the proud patois of patriotism and protest, the refrain has become a dog whistle to a Caucasian population that feels threatened by impending demographic and public policy changes.
I’m not sure how many people understand the way this came about. I’ve met many conservatives who seem to have a dim awareness that the world was once different when they criticize the Democratic Party as being the party of racists because it used to have it’s stronghold in the old KKK South. What conservatives forget, in making this criticism, is that the Republicans are now the party of the South. Republicans purposely gained the South by using the Southern Strategy which was an often overtly racist strategy. It began with Nixon, but became even more important with the campaigns of Reagan and Bush Sr. From Sirota’s book (p. 18):
The magma of resentment politics that had been simmering underground since the late 1970s exploded during the stretch run of the 1980 presidential campaign. In August of that year, Reagan channeled white rage at the civil rights movement by endorsing the racist euphemism states rights, an endorsement that came during a speech to a Confederate-flag-waving audience in the same Mississippi town where three civil rights workers had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
I remember reading last year about Reagan’s campaign. I was shocked and amazed by the bravado of so blatantly referencing a violently racist past just for the sake of winning an election. You can’t get any more cynical than that. As I recall, the speech that started off his campaign was that very speech given at that town which was famous for having previously hosted the Ku Klux Klan’s murdering of civil rights workers. That was the beginning of the Republican Party and conservative movement we know today. That is the past America that conservatives feel nostalgic about.
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I find myself simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by this history of American culture. I’m generally interested in any analysis of generations. It’s very strange how whole generations can get caught up in a single worldview, especially with our mainstream media today which offers everyone the same entertainment and news.
We live in interesting times. Boomers are losing power as GenXers are coming into power. Whites are losing majority position as minorities are gaining majority position. Religious fundamentalism and politicized religion is becoming less popular as religious diversity and non-religiousness are becoming more popular. We’re in a new century with a media of the likes never before seen. The world is becoming globalized and Americans are trying to find meaning and purpose in a time when everything is shifting.
Not everyone responds to this change with a positive attitude and an open embrace. But I, for one, am ready to leave the era of the 80s behind.
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Note: I think that is all I have to say right now. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts once I read more of the book. Maybe I’ll continue my thoughts by eventually finishing my post on the documentary Generation Zero.
Posted on February 8, 2011 by Benjamin David Steele
This post is perfunctorial. I just wanted to gather a bunch of data in one place (videos first and links at the end), but I feel no motivation to analyze any of it or add my own commentary. So, take it or leave it. If you’re so interested, here is the real Ronald Reagan. As he once said, “Facts are stubborn things.”
Posted on November 4, 2010 by Benjamin David Steele
Here is the type of information we’d regularly see in the US mainstream media if it wasn’t controlled by corporate interests, the same corporate interests that control our government.
Otto Reich worked for the Office of Public Diplomacy which was created during Reagan’s administration. You remember Reagan… the guy rightwingers idolize for being the greatest defender of freedom. Don’t listen to those lies about the Iran-Contra affair.
Posted on September 23, 2010 by Benjamin David Steele
I’ve been thinking about Republican presidents recently. I had a particular thought comparing Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Reagan is remembered as great by conservatives and remembered as less than perfect by liberals. Either way, the best liberal argument is simply that Reagan would be considered a RINO by today’s Repbulicans. Bush jr is the closest these far right purists have come to their ideal of a ‘real’ Republican. That is a sad state of affairs.
I only want to point out one detail: tax cuts. Both Reagan and Bush campaigned on fiscal responsibility and both implemented tax cuts once in office. The comparison, on this point, ends there. Both Reagan and Bush faced economic problems after having implemented tax cuts, but they responded differently. As everyone knows, Bush kept the tax cuts to the bitter end. Neither 9/11 nor the wars following could stop Bush from implementing and maintaining his tax cuts. It is hardly fiscally responsible to massively increase spending while cutting taxes. I realize Starve the Beast seems like a wonderful policy to wealthy Republicans, but it can’t honestly be called fiscal responsibility.
So, what did Reagan do when it became obvious that tax cuts were failing and the economy was in trouble? He increased taxes. I was just reading that Reagan raised taxes 16 times. These tax increases also included the largest, at least at that time, tax increase during peacetime. Reagan was imperfect in his fiscal responsibility. He made the same mistake of increasing defense spending just because a big military gives rightwingers a hard-on.
Both Reagan and Bush followed the policy of Starve the Beast. The difference is that the latter did so with more enthusiasm. For Bush, reality was less important than ideology. That is what the American public gets when they elect a born-again fundamentalist. Reagan must be given blame for creating the deficit we now have, but his relative moderation kept him from having created an even greater deficit had he refused to increase taxes.
This is centrally important. Republican politicians haven’t shown they’ve learned any lesson from Bush’s failure and Reagan’s willingness to compromise. I was just listening to Boehner speak and he basically said that Republicans don’t plan to change which seemingly implies that there perfectly fine with the Republican policies during the Bush administration. Like Bush and unlike Reagan, they would want to keep all tax cuts (especially tax cuts for the rich) no matter what is going on with the economy and no matter how many wars are going on. They want to push Starve the Beast to its inevitable conclusion of economic crisis and broken budget. The Tea Party’s platform seems to fit perfectly into the vision of Starve the Beast. The Tea Party turned out just to be a maneuver for the GOP to reign back in former Republicans who strayed away because of Bush’s unpopularity.
Sadly, most of the American people and most of the American media won’t see past the GOP rhetoric. The resignation and cynicism right now is overwhelming. Even Obama doesn’t seem to genuinely believe in the hope he campaigned on.
Posted on September 21, 2010 by Benjamin David Steele
Here is an early speech given when Ronald Reagan was still a liberal Democrat.
What he says in this speech still applies today. The odd part is that the gist of his criticisms apply equally to the results of his own trickle-down economics and union-busting. How did Reagan go from being a union leader who fought for average Americans to becoming a cynical neocon who undermined the ability of the working class to have a voice in politics? Working class people are worse off in that their manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas and their wages have decreased. Did Reagan ever care about helping people or was he always in it just for the power?
This isn’t a partisan criticism. I’m genuinely bewildered by Reagan’s motives. He is the only union leader to be elected as president, but he wasn’t even your average union leader. He was elected 7 times as a union leader. He originally defended the New Deal reforms. How does someone like that become a corporate spokesperson?
There was an article in Business Week last week describing some of the consequences of the American state’s vicious anti-labor activities. Illegal firings for union organizing have gone up sixfold, it reckoned, in the past 25 years. In particular, thousands of union organizers have been illegally fired since the start of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981.
According to the US Labor Department, the destruction of the unions as been the main factor in the decline of real wages that has continued since the Reagan era. Health and safety standards in the workplace have also deteriorated: there are laws, but they’re simply not enforced, so the number of industrial accidents has risen sharply in the past ten years. Then there is the effect of the decline of unions on democracy: the unions are one of the few means by which ordinary people can enter the political arena. Finally, there’s a psychological effect. The destruction of the unions is part of a much more general effort to privatize aspirations, to eliminate solidarity, the sense that we’re all in it together, that we care for one another.
But why did Reagan turn against working class people and become a corporate spokesperson? Why did he, as a union leader, turn against his own union members? Why did he become involve in the commie withchunt which was one of the darkest periods of American history?
The young Reagan was a staunch admirer of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (even after he evolved into a Republican) and was a Democrat in the 1940s, a self-described ‘hemophilliac’ liberal. He was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947 and served five years during the most tumultuous times to ever hit Hollywood. A committed anti-communist, Reagan not only fought more-militantly activist movie industry unions that he and others felt had been infiltrated by communists, but had to deal with the investigation into Hollywood’s politics launched by the House Un-Amercan Activities Committee in 1947, an inquisition that lasted through the 1950s. The House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of Hollywood (which led to the jailing of the “Hollywood Ten” in the late ’40s) sowed the seeds of the McCarthyism that racked Hollywood and America in the 1950s.
In 1950, U.S. Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-CA), the wife of “Dutch” Reagan’s friend Melvyn Douglas, ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate and was opposed by the Republican nominee, the Red-bating Congresman from Whittier, Richard Nixon. While Nixon did not go so far as to accuse Gahagan Douglas of being a communist herself, he did charge her with being soft on communism due to her opposition to the House Un-Amercan Activities Committee. Nixon tarred her as a “fellow traveler” of communists, a “pinko” who was “pink right down to her underwear.” Gahagan Douglas was defeated by the man she was the first to call “Tricky Dicky” because of his unethical behavior and dirty campaign tactics. Reagan was on the Douglases’ side during that campaign.
The Douglases, like Reagan and such other prominent actors as Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, were liberal Democrats, supporters of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal, a legacy that increasingly was under attack by the right after World War II. They were NOT fellow-travelers; Melyvn Douglas had actually been an active anti-communist and was someone the communists despised. Melvyn Douglas, Robinson and Henry Fonda – a regist
The world we live in today is the vision of Reagan. The administration of George W. Bush and the downfall of the economy was the final culmination of the policies of Reagan. We now have a country with 1 in 200 citizens in prison and a wealth disparity comparable to developing nations. The permanent deficit we now have was created by Reagan. Fiscal conservative? Small government?
What exactly is this vision that Reagan helped to create and promote?
The United States, said Ronald Reagan, “is engaged in a war on terrorism, a war for freedom”
How familiar it all sounds.
Merely replace Soviet Union and communism with al-Qaeda, and you are up to date.
And it was all a fantasy.
The Soviet Union had no bases in or designs on Central America; on the contrary, the Soviets were adamant in turning down appeals for their aid.
The comic strips of “missile storage depots” that American officials presented to the United Nations were precursors to the lies told by Colin Powell in his infamous promotion of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction at the Security Council in 2003.
Whereas Powell’s lies paved the way for the invasion of Iraq and the violent death of at least 100,000 people, Reagan’s lies disguised his onslaught on Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
By the end of his two terms, 300,000 people were dead.
In Guatemala, his proxies – armed and tutored in torture by the CIA – were described by the UN as perpetrators of genocide.
There is one major difference today.
That is the level of awareness among people everywhere of the true purpose of Bush and Blair’s “war on terror” and the scale and diversity of the popular resistance to it.
In Reagan’s day, the notion that presidents and prime ministers lied as deliberate, calculated acts was considered exotic.
Reagan displays none of his storied optimism here. There’s no “Morning in America,” no soaring talk about making “a new beginning.” Instead, he warns that America is on the verge of an apocalyptic doom. It is a bleak speech, verging on despair, that unabashedly employs the most extravagant historical and philosophical comparisons—“Should Christ have refused the cross?”—to denounce our moral weakness and warn of our imminent demise. It is one of the great role player’s darkest roles.
The Speech is disturbing because it shows the paranoid, millenarian side of American conservatism, unleavened by Reagan’s Main Street sunniness. But it is also disturbing because it presents that right-wing vision in its pure form, unsullied by history. The Speech predates Reagan’s entry into the world of politics, with its compromises and accommodations. As president, Reagan ended up backing away from some of his most cherished ideals. He raised taxes, reached agreement with the Communists, folded his cards in the face of terrorism, increased the federal deficit, and expanded the federal government. Reagan never abandoned his rhetoric of good versus evil, but it turned out not to apply to the real world. The Speech allows us to imagine an alternative Reaganist future, in which he lives up to his words—a world where he really does bomb the Soviet Union, get rid of Social Security, and end the progressive income tax. The Speech is a kind of distillation of Reagan’s Platonic right-wing essence. Like Keats’s Grecian Urn, it freezes him, an immortal figure from a strange, lost part of the American id, eternally raging against communism, big government, and liberal traitors.
That future never happened, but Americans think it did. That’s one reason that New Right conservatism continues to wield a disproportionate influence in American life. But the other reason has to do with the inchoate anxieties, wishes, and fears to which The Speech appealed then, and to which the dream it spoke for appeals today.
The Speech tapped into the primordial American myth: untrammeled individuality. There must be a territory for Huck Finn to light out to, a promised land where authority—or government—does not reach. In this always-beckoning frontier, all the hindrances that drag Americans down are left behind. Businessmen can run their businesses as they like, free from the plague of do-gooder bureaucrats. White people need not carry the spurious cross of racial guilt. Unruly and ungrateful minorities—pinkos and softies and degenerates and pointy-heads and uppity women— are shown their place. Above all, the profoundly destabilizing specter of relativism, of compromise, of moral ambiguity, is banished. No longer need Americans accommodate themselves to evil. A divine certainty stretches from sea to shining sea.
This is as much a metaphysical wish as it is a political platform. It is a sermon as much as a speech. And it is in the gap between those two things—the space between the dream of absolute freedom and the reality of a fallen world—that America forever stumbles
What happened around the middle of last century that caused such insanity? How did the entire political system get flipped on it’s head?
Reagan was the first great neocon. The necons were the progressive liberals who became disenchanted with the New Deal and so became cynical-minded progressive conservatives. Looking back, it all seems very strange. The working class was smashed under the heel of corporate power and corporations gained a stranglehold on Washington politics. The American idealism was turned into a dark dream of power for the ruling elite. A movie actor and corporate spokesperson was elected president and he spun inspiring propaganda.
Sadly, there was disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Reagan preached values ideology and free market rhetoric. Government was part of the problem, Reagan told Americans. What Reagan gave Americans was a permanent deficit, an even stronger military-industrial complex, decreasing wages, shrinking middle class, outsourcing of good manufacturing jobs, and a growing wealth disparity.
Eventually, Americans elect George W. Bush who campaigned on the same Reagan neocon vision and gave America the same failures. After Bush is out of office, the Tea Party is taken over by people once again selling the same message of values ideology and fiscal responsibility. More of the same. Endlessly, more of the same. Libertarian Goldwater led to neocon Reagan. Ron Paul libertarians led to the Tea Party. It’s the same pattern repeating. Why? What does it all mean? And why don’t the American people see through the charade?
I’ve never understood why so many Republicans admire Ronald Reagan. I guess he was likeable in some basic way. In certain ways, he was actually liberal compared to what we hear now from some rightwing pundits, but he certainly was no liberal. He even campaigned on racial fears (“welfare queens” and Willie Horton ads) and by doing so made racial fears a mainstay of Republican politics.
I saw a documentary of his life a few years ago. What I got from it was that Reagan was no genius and he had been played like a puppet by his various advisors. I think Reagan meant well, but he seemed out of touch and his policies have been proven failures.
Still, Republicans go on defending him. I do give credit to the Libertarians in that many of them rightly criticize Reagan’s administration. What is absolutely clear is that Reagan was a social conservative but not a fiscal conservative. George W. Bush was simply the inevitable conclusion of what Reagan started.
Leftofawesome — June 06, 2009 — Part two of me explaining why Reagan was an awful and overrated president.
Rich and defenders of the rich (who have an unfounded belief that one day they will be rich) love to argue for tax cuts for the rich. Afterall, they earned it. The people working in the factories didn’t earn it. The indigenous who were living on natural resources the rich took away didn’t earn it. The taxpayers (which excludes some of the wealthies US companies that pay no taxes at all) who bail out the rich didn’t earn it.
Who owns most of the wealth? The best way to determine this is to add all wealth and invested wealth. The only factor that should be excluded is the wealth invested in the houses people live in because it can’t easily be translated into tangible wealth and in this market many people lose their homes after investing lots of money into them. So, going by all wealth accept for homes, the top 1% own more wealth than the bottom 95%.
How do wealthy people get their wealth? Most wealthy people are born into and grow up with wealth. Most wealthy business owners received larged start-up money, inherited a business, or inherited other forms of wealth.
Another way of thinking about wealth is wealth disparity. Ever since Reagonomics, the wealth disparity has increased to the highest in the developed world.
“At the simplest factual level, it is not accurate that Reagan’s tax policies were responsible for bringing inflation down, from an average rate of 8.2 per cent under Nixon, Ford and Carter, to 4.6 per cent under Reagan. The main force here was the stringent monetary policies imposed by then Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker. Volcker was appointed not by Reagan but by Jimmy Carter in 1979… Volcker did indeed break the back of persistent and rising inflation brought on primarily by the four-fold oil price increases in 1973-4 and again in 1979. But he achieved this at a very high cost… real wagesi.e — . the buying power of your dollars of wages — peaked in 1973, the period of high inflation. Average real wages fell sharply throughout the Reagan presidency. The average figure for those eight years, at $15.72 per hour (in 2005 dollars), was 7.6 per cent below the average hourly wage under Carter of $16.95, and 9.6 below the Nixon/Ford peak of $17.39.
…This decline in real wages, beginning in the late 1970s and accelerating sharply in the 1980s under Reagan, is also a crucial link in understanding why inflation did not rise up as unemployment fell in the 1990s, contrary to expectations of virtually every single economics textbook. The standard theory held that when unemployment gets too low, workers gain in bargaining strength. They then push up wages, and businesses pass along these additional costs in the prices they charge consumers. This means rising inflation. But beginning in the 1990s under Clinton, unemployment fell, to as low as 4.0 per cent in 2000, but inflation stayed low. What happened?
Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan’s own answer to this question (as reported by Bob Woodward in Maestro, his book-length hagiography of Greenspan) was that U.S. workers had become increasingly “traumatized” in the 1990s, and as such did not feel sufficiently secure to attempt to bargain up wages even at low unemployment. …if one would have to pick the single most important turning point over the past 30 years in the treatment of U.S. workers, I would choose Ronald Reagan’s decision to summarily fire more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who, as members of PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union, went on strike eight months into Reagan’s presidency, in August 1982. This early attack by Reagan was followed by eight years of relentless hostility to the organized working class.
But Reagan did not attack the organized working class only. More broadly, Reaganomics entailed a dramatic new framework for fiscal policy, the area in which Mr. Roberts was likely to have primarily involved as a Treasury official. Reagan’s fiscal program was fundamentally about tax cuts for the rich, a massive expansion in military spending, sharp reductions in social expenditures, and an acceptance-or better still, an embrace-of large-scale federal government fiscal deficits on these terms. All of this should have a familiar ring to those who have followed the course of economic policy under George W. Bush.
No doubt Mr. Roberts recalls President Reagan’s frequently recounted stories about “welfare queens” driving to pick up government checks in their Cadillacs. It was through repeating stories like this that Reagan was able to build support for an assault on even the minimal welfare state programs that had been operating prior to his taking office. It is no surprise that the individual poverty rate rose from 11.9 per cent under Carter to 14.1 per cent under Reagan. ..large-scale fiscal deficits create persistent pressure for a permanent contraction in social spending by the federal government… Remember the Reaganites, as with the Bush group, apparently experienced few qualms about throwing more money to the military while cutting taxes for the already overprivileged.”