I’ve been reading about American society from a few different directions. I have just read some books about political history (such as the writings of Richard Hofstadter), but most recently I’ve focused on the the generational theory of Strauss and Howe (I’ve perused several of their books) and the moral frames model written about by George Lakoff in his book Moral Politics.
Last night at work, I was reading Lakoff’s book and found it quite fascinating. His main premise is that conservatives use the Strict Father family model to frame their political views and liberals use the Nurturant Parent family model to frame their political views. It makes a lot of sense to me, but that isn’t what got me thinking.
Lakoff was using Reagan and Bush sr as an example of how conservative morality plays out in politics. Conservatives use the rhetoric of small government, but obviously there are many exceptions to this rule and many moral principles they hold higher than the ideal of small government. Basically, when a conservative speaks of big government they’re referring to social programs that benefit the people who conservatives don’t believe are deserving. It’s not about saving taxpayers’ money but about doing the right thing. Those who do right should be rewarded and those who do wrong should be punished.
So, in terms of Reagan and Bush sr, who was rewarded and who was punished? By giving tax cuts to the rich and increasing the size of the military, what was the moral purpose that conservatives were trying to achieve? Increasing the military seems more obvious on the surface. The evil, Godless commies needed to be punished and it was the righteous duty of God-fearing Americans to punish them. So, what did the rich do to deserve tax cuts? Well, the basic idea is that we live in a meritocracy and so the rich have earned their wealth through hard work and ingenuity. It’s wrong to take away from the rich what they’ve earned fair and square. The corollary of this is that the poor deserve to be poor and so it’s perfectly fine that the tax cuts don’t benefit the poor (including the working class poor). As the Bible says (Matthew 25:29), “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”
Still, Lakoff takes this one step further and it’s the best explanation that I’ve ever come across. He argues that Reagan and Bush sr (along with their advisors) weren’t stupid. They fully realized they were increasing the size of government and creating a massive deficit as had never been seen in all of US history. This wasn’t an accident. It was quite intentional. If social programs benefit the undeserving, this becomes a moral problem that must be solved no matter what the cost. If the country becomes immoral at the core, then all is lost and nothing else matters. By creating an enormous deficit, this forced Congress to tighten its belt and cut funding to all social programs. And that is exactly what happened. It’s so clever it’s evil.
This brings me to something else I read in of the books written by Strauss and Howe (I don’t remember which one). They pointed out that the GI generation was the most politically powerful generation in all of US history. The GI generation had more than three decades of GI presidents and two of those were Reagan and Bush sr.
The GI generation came to see itself as the Greatest Generation. They fought hard and worked hard. For most of their life, they saw American wealth and power ever increasing. They believed two things about this situation. First, they took personal credit for all of it and so they thought they were deserving of being rewarded for that they had done. Second, they assumed that this trajectory of increase would continue for a very long time. They were wrong on both accounts. There were complex reasons for America’s rise to wealth and power, but the main reason was that Europe was decimated by WWII. Without much competition, America’s exports dominated the global economy. This situation wouldn’t last for very long since the European countries were able to rebuild.
When Reagan and Bush sr were presidents, the GI generation was at the height of its power. They were golden and they were mostly free to use their power as they so desired. Since they thought they had earned it, they redicrected America’s wealth towards their own generation. The tax cuts to the rich were disproportionately directed to the GI generation since their generation was (and is) the wealthiest generation in US history. They also redirected money to their generation by funding expensive social programs for the elderly. So, where did this money come from? As I pointed out, social programs for the undeserving (i.e., the poor) were cut. A related example was Reagan’s kicking the mentally ill out of the psychiatric hospitals (and created a large population of mentally disturbed homeless people who then needed to be rounded up and put in prison).
Even more interesting is the fact that social programs directed at youth (from welfare to school funding) were all cut. This had two impacts. First, starting with young Boomers and ending with Generation X, the quality of public education decreased and SAT scores decreased. Second, Generation X became the most poverty prone generation in a century. While the GI generation remained wealthy, GenXers grew up to discover that their employment opportunities were as bad as was experienced by the whole country during the Bust Years of the Great Depression.
What must be understood is that GIs such as Reagan and Bush sr did all of this out of their sense of morality. They were simply doing what they thought was right. They were rewarding those who they thought deserved it and they were punishing those they thought deserved it. In doing so, the made America into a deficit-driven militarized empire which they saw as forcing America into its role of being the greatest nation in the world. The heavy costs of this were worth it in their minds.
The problem is that they couldn’t see the long term consequences. I don’t think they realized that creating such a deficit would increase out of control and end up crippling our entire country. They didn’t foresee how deregulation of markets would eventually lessen the power of the American economy. They saw the world through the lense of their own generation and didn’t realize how differently it would look to later generations.
They thought that benefitting the rich was the right thing to do since they believed the rich deserved the wealth they earned. It’s easy to argue against this in pointing out that it takes everyone in a society and not just those at the top to make an economy successful, but there is an even more important factor they didn’t understand. Many GIs became wealthy during a time when there were high taxes on the rich. How is that possible? How did the GIs become so wealthy despite being heavily taxed? This cuts to the heart of the misunderstanding that motivated Reagan and Bush sr.
There are many arguments about who deserves what, but there is a more essential issue about who can use wealth to the greatest benefit of society as a whole. To conservatives, those who become rich deserve their wealth because they theoretically will put their extra wealth towards wise investment in the economy. Sadly, it doesn’t work out this way. Innovation happens from the bottom up. Reagan and Bush sr implemented policies that increased the wealth gap which concentrated the wealth at the top. I forget the source, but I was watching an interview recently where the person was referring to data about wealth. That person pointed out that wealthy people don’t invest their wealth wisely. Beyond a certain level of wealth, extra money loses any practical worth. What the super rich tend to do with their extra money is gamble it in risky investments because it doesn’t really matter to them if they lose it. What they generally don’t do with it is invest it in further innovation. That is what happened recently with our economy. There were too many people making risky gambles and not enough people investing in industries that produce concrete products. Our economy has become dependent on the banking business and America has lost its innovative edge.
The conservative moral vision of Reagan and Bush sr has backfired.
Lakoff puts all of this into a larger context of the metaphorical frames used by conservatives and liberals. Reagan and Bush sr as GIs were seeing the world according to the experience of their generational cohort. And as conservatives they were seeing the world according to the Strict Father moral frame. It was because of their being GI conservatives that they implemented those particular policies. Like most of us, they couldn’t see outside of their reality tunnel. But the consequences of their narrow vision have been immense. Bush jr, although of the Boomer generation, was simply the ultimate endpoint of this particular worldview. Under Bush jr (aka The Decider), the military was strengthened and regulation was paralyzed (with eventual consequences as we now see with the BP oil spill), the deserving were rewarded and the undeserving were punished. Bush jr certainly was trying to return America to the conservative moral vision of a righteous country, but it’s become obvious that this vision has failed. The costs are just too high: undermined Constitutional rights, massive deficit, crippled economy, struggling small businesses, ever increasing wealth gap, shrinking middle class, environmental disasters, etc.
An opening has developed in the status quo of recent decades. People are hungering for a new vision. Many hoped that Obama could bring that new vision, but many have been or become doubtful. Lakoff sees the liberal vision as being in a difficult position. For various reasons, conservatives have been very successful in framing most of the political discourse in recent history. Liberals have an opportunity right now. It’s just not clear if liberals are presently capable of organizing their own moral vision and communicating it well. Even though conservatives have indisputably failed in their attempt, it isn’t yet determined if liberals will likewise fail during this time of change. What is for certain is that many cultural narratives are being formulated right now. The narrative that gains the most traction will most likely be dominant in politics for the next several decades… or so that is the prediction of Strauss and Howe. I guess we’ll find out.
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