When the authoritarians finally and fully take over the United States, they will do so by fear-mongering about authoritarianism.
They will say that government is the problem, that mobocracy is the danger. They will say that they are being oppressed when the poor and minorities, workers and immigrants demand equal rights and freedom, equal representation and opportunity. They will accuse of others the very authoritarianism they seek to promote.
It is no accident that in this country that there is an overlap between authoritarianism and the conservative movement. Many studies have shown this strong correlation. These people don’t fear authoritarianism, but rather the possibility of sharing power with others, which means the loss of their privilege and position.
As they lose power in the numbers they once held, they will become more vicious and devious in their manipulations of that waning power. Sure, they will likely wrap themselves in the American flag and hug the cross, but it won’t end there. They will do anything and everything. They will even embrace the rhetoric and tactics of the political left, as they take on the mantle of populism and progressivism. They will offer the solutions to the problems they created.
The attack is merely the first step. That is where fear takes over, the battlefield that ever favors the demagogue or worse still the dictator. Only then will they offer their stark vision.
When Reagan was a Democrat, he was a union leader, socially liberal Hollywood actor, starry-eyed liberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending FDR New Deal supporter, big government public welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.
And then when Reagan became a Republican, he instead was a union opponent (although still able to get labor union support to get elected), socially liberal political actor, starry-eyed neoliberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending permanent debt-creating militarist, big government corporate welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.
Nothing fundamentally changed about Reagan, as he admitted. He liked to say that the Democratic Party left him. This is in a sense true as Democrats turned away from their racist past. Other things were involved as well.
I’d say that his shifting attitude about the New Deal welfare state was more situational, as many white Americans were less willing to support a welfare state after the Civil Rights movement because it meant blacks would have equal access to those public benefits. Reagan probably was always a racist, but it remained hidden behind progressivism until black rights forced it out into the open. Even his union views were more of a situational change, rather than an ideological change, for the Cold War reframed many issues.
The combination of Civil Rights movement and Cold War were a powerful force, the latter helping to make the former possible. The Cold War was a propaganda war. To prove democracy was genuinely better, the US government suddenly felt the pressure to live up to its own rhetoric about civil rights. Black activists pushed this to their advantage, and many whites in response went from liberalism to conservatism. This created a strange form of conservatism that was dominated by former progressives turned reactionary, which in some ways just meant a reactionary progressivism that hid behind conservative rhetoric.
This is how Reagan went from a standard progressive liberal to the ideal personification of reactionary conservatism. Yet he did this while politically remaining basically the same. Reagan didn’t change. The world around him changed. There was a society-wide political realignment that went beyond any individual person.
Still, it wasn’t just a party realignment with the old racist Southern Democrats switching loyalties to the Republicans. There was that, but also more than that. Many old school Democrats, even those outside of the South, changed party identification and voting patterns. Prior to the shift, many Republicans would praise liberalism (from Eisenhower to Nixon) and there was room for a left-wing within the party itself. After the switch, all of that was replaced by a mix of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, an alliance between economic libertarians and war hawks. So-called conservatism became a radical and revolutionary force of globalization.
The deeper shift involved not just to the political spectrum but the entire political framework and foundation. Everything shifted and became redefined, as if an earthquake had rearranged the geography of the country to such an extent that the old maps no longer matched reality.
One major change is that the noblesse oblige paternalism of the likes of the Roosevelts (TR and FDR) simply disappeared from mainstream politics, like Atlantis sinking below the waves never to be seen or heard from again. Politics became unmoored from the past. Conservatism went full reactionary, leaving behind any trace of Old World traditionalism. Meanwhile, liberals became weak-minded centrists who have since then always been on the defense and leftists, as far as the mainstream was concerned, became near non-entities whose only use was for occasional resurrection as scapegoats (even then only as straw man scapegoats).
Two world wars had turned the Western world on its head. Following that mass destruction, the Cold War warped the collective psyche, especially in America. It’s as if someone took a baseball bat to Uncle Sam’s head and now he forever sees the world cross-eyed and with a few lost IQ points.
As with Reagan, nothing changed and yet everything changed. The Reagan Revolution was greater than just Reagan.
He may be the patron saint of limited government, but Ronald Reagan started out as a registered Democrat and New Deal supporter. An F.D.R. fan, the Gipper campaigned for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her fruitless 1950 Senate race against Richard Nixon and encouraged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat in 1952. While he was working as a spokesman for General Electric, however, his views shifted right. “Under the tousled boyish haircut,” he wrote Vice President Nixon of John F. Kennedy in 1960, “is still old Karl Marx.” By the time it actually happened in 1962, Reagan’s decision to cross over to the GOP didn’t come as much of a surprise. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he famously said. “The party left me.”
Giller said Reagan endorsed the presidential candidacies of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 as well as that of Nixon in 1960 “while remaining a Democrat.” [ . . . ]
Historian Edward Yager, a government professor at Western Kentucky University and author of the 2006 biography Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican, said Reagan “was registered Democrat from the time that he voted for FDR in 1932, when he was 21.”
Yager said he’s never seen copies of the voter registration cards, but noted “virtually all the sources that refer to” Reagan’s party affiliation indicate that he was registered as a Democrat and that “he has two autobiographies in which he refers to his voting for FDR four times, then for Truman.” Reagan was a Democrat, added Yager, even when he voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Interestingly, Ronald Reagan himself did not always espouse the firm anti-government beliefs that eventually came to define Reaganism. As a young man, Reagan was actually a Roosevelt Democrat. The Reagan family only survived the Great Depression because Jack Reagan, young Ronnie’s unemployed father, was able to find a job in one of the New Deal’s work-relief programs. A few years later, Ronald Reagan found himself admiring Roosevelt’s leadership of America’s World War II effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (Reagan joined the military but performed his wartime service in Hollywood, acting in American propaganda films.)
Reagan was a New Deal Democrat. He joked that he had probably become a Democrat by birth, given that his father, Jack, was so devoted to the Democratic Party. The younger Reagan cast his first presidential vote in 1932 for Franklin Roosevelt, and did so again in the succeeding three presidential contests. His faith in FDR remained undimmed even after World War II, when he called himself “a New Dealer to the core.” He summarized his views in this way: “I thought government could solve all our postwar problems just as it had ended the Depression and won the war. I didn’t trust big business. I thought government, not private companies, should own our big public utilities; if there wasn’t enough housing to shelter the American people, I thought government should build it; if we needed better medical care, the answer was socialized medicine.” When his brother, Moon, became a Republican and argued with his sibling, the younger Reagan concluded “he was just spouting Republican propaganda.”
I had two basic thoughts in response to what I’ve already written.
First, I was considering what it is that form’s a generation’s worldview. It is a confluence of events. There are cycles that seem to endlessly repeat (or, if not precise cycles, history does rhyme to an impressive degree). Still, no generation is ever the same as what came before. There is a unique moment in time, an era of childhood, a beginning point that forever shapes the collective mindset of an entire generation (at least within a single country and, increasingly so, within the larger world during this new era of globalized mass media).
Second, I was considering the present older generation and why it is so easy to see them as stalling progress. The situation we find ourselves in is somewhere between a stalemate and outright dysfunction. As a society, we can’t seem to resolve the simplest of issues, much less move forward in a productive fashion. This becomes increasingly relevant as my generation and the next takes on the reigns of power.
The first thought leads into the second.
So, about the first thought.
As I explained with the KKK post, it isn’t as if the members of the KKK (the ‘Klansmen’) were evil incarnate. Most of them were normal people doing normal things. The Second KKK in the 1920s was mostly a civic organization. Yes, it was a racist civic organization, but so were many others. Back then, especially among older whites, you would have been outside the norm to not have been racist.
Klansmen probably wouldn’t even have thought of themselves as racists. Most people don’t define themselves in terms of negatives. Racism was just the cultural background they were born into. It was the world of their childhood.
Childhood is that time of key formative experiences. It creates what we consider normal and acceptable. It is what we look back upon often with fondness and sometimes with righteousness. Even if our childhoods were bad, it is easy for people to not understand why younger generations should have easier childhoods that will make them soft and weak. Whatever the case, we don’t tend to be very objective and neutral about our childhoods.
I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine:
“a 1957 novel by Ray Bradbury, taking place in the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, based upon Bradbury’s childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois. [ . . . ] The main character of the story is Douglas Spaulding, a 12-year-old boy loosely patterned after Bradbury. Most of the book is focused upon the routines of small-town America, and the simple joys of yesterday.”
Bradbury would only have been 8 years old in 1928, but the fictionalized boy was 12. That is a mythical number of a complete cycle such as 12 months. In the child’s world, life revolves around summer. The end of summer in the novel is symbolic of the end of childhood with the last moment of childhood at age twelve. That last moment of childhood is the end of one period of life and the beginning of another, the ending of elementary school and the halfway point of primary education, halfway point on the way to full adulthood.
Many stories focus on this magical time of life, this point of transition. Stand by Me begins with the voiceover, “I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being.” Like Dandelion Wine, this is a story about the ending of childhood and the emergence of adult awareness which is most poignantly made known through death. 12 and Holding is yet another story about the dual themes of age 12 and death.
Maybe one can tell a lot about an individual or a generation in considering what the world was like when they were twelve.
For example, Reagan was twelve in 1923. That is that same quiet period as the setting of Dandelion Wine. It was the 1920s, a carefree time following the end of WWI and before the beginning of the Great Depression. I’m sure Bradbury used 1928 as signifying that innocent moment prior to 1929. The whole country was innocent. WWI would have seemed like an anomaly and anyway it was a war far away that never had much directly to do with the United States, especially for a child who would have had no memory of it at all. WWII and the Cold War were a long way off in the future.
Both Reagan and Bradbury remember childhoods during the 1920s in small towns in Illinois. Reagan considered that to be a formative period of his life. His home at age twelve supposedly is the only house he mentions in any of his books. The 1920s was a time of peace and optimism. Magnified by the memories of a pleasant childhood, Reagan carried that sensibility into his adulthood. And it was that sunny optimism that made him so popular.
Reagan spent his childhood going to school. Many of the Lost Generation, instead of schooling, spent their childhoods working whatever jobs they could find. Unlike Reagan and his cohort, the Lost Generation had less of a childhood to reminisce about. Spending age twelve in a factory or a mine would give you a different worldview for the rest of your life. The Lost Generation was unique in this way. Even the generation before them didn’t have this experience for, in their childhoods, they didn’t know mass urbanization and mass industrialization. So, neither the generation before nor the generation following could understand what the Lost Generation had lived.
Similarly, although to less extremes, Generation X had a relatively difficult childhood and young adulthood.
At age 12, the Cold War was still going on and the oppressive Cold War culture (e.g., comic book codes). As I’ve often pointed out, GenXers childhood was unique in many ways. We were the most aborted generation ever and so a small generation between two large generations. In childhood going on into young adulthood, my generation experienced high rates of poverty, child abuse, homicide, suicide and unemployment. When we were young, society stopped being oriented toward and accommodating of children. Restaurants became less welcoming of young families and less tolerant of the antics of children. Very little entertainment was made for kids and plenty of entertainment was made about evil and possessed children, rebellious and violent teens, and nihilistic and self-destructive young adults.
When most Americans were experiencing economic good times, there were two specific demographics that were hit hard in the last decades of the 20th century: GenXers and blacks. Both demographics experienced high rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and incarceration. If you were a GenX black, it would have felt like the whole world was against you for everyone would have seen you as nothing but a gangsta and a drug dealer. The GenX black was the ultimate scapegoat of our society.
At age 12, GenXers saw a cynical age of greed, oppression and ignorance. That is what many in my generation came to expect as normal, just the way the world is. As a small generation, it didn’t feel like there was much we could do about it. Many of my generation embraced this worldview and so we became the generation with the highest support of Reagan. Cynical realpolitik and Wall Street greed seemed to be the name of the game. We put a very different spin on Reagan’s optimism, though, for we were better able to see through it. Optimism simply meant survival of the fittest and fuck the downtrodden. A not very nice ideal, but nice ideals were for wimpy flower children of the ’60s. That is what we learned from Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties.
That is the sad result of my generation. We played the game that was presented us, but not all of us wanted to play that game. The only other choice was to drop out entirely or at least psychologically. The advantage my generation has had is that many of us always knew it was bullshit. We never swallowed the lies to as great an extent as the older generation. Reagan actually believed what he said, an actor who became the role he played: first a cowboy, then a corporate spokesperson, and then a politician. His optimism was self-delusion. My generation at least had the sense to realize that there were alternative viewpoints.
Still, it will require a more demanding vision of the generation following mine to have a chance in hell of challenging the 20th century status quo that now bleeds into this new century. GenXers are too mired in the Boomer worldview that has dominated our entire lives, especially for older GenXers. We are more a generation of doomsaying prophets than inspiring visionaries. The main thing my generation can do is to starkly portray and grimly explain the reasons we got here. I’m part of a generation of clowns for only clowns can speak the truth, not that speaking the truth is a requirement of being a clown.
In my second to last post (of which this post is a continuation), I somewhat simplistically implied that it was Boomers were mucking up the work. To be fair, as explained above, older GenXers are also to blame. Some would even see older GenXers as part of the older generation now ruling politics, rather than as being of the same generation as younger GenXers:
“If Mannheim’s Germans constituted a political generation because in their plastic years they experienced the Napoleonic Wars, the men and women who today dominate American politics constitute a political generation because during their plastic years they experienced some part of the Reagan-Clinton era. That era lasted a long time. If you are in your late 50s, you are probably too young to remember the high tide of Kennedy-Johnson big government liberalism. You came of age during its collapse, a collapse that culminated with the defeat of Jimmy Carter. Then you watched Reagan rewrite America’s political rules. If you are in your early 40s, you may have caught the tail end of Reagan. But even if you didn’t, you were shaped by Clinton, who maneuvered within the constraints Reagan had built. To pollsters, a late 50-something is a Baby Boomer and an early 40-something is a Gen-Xer. But in Mannheim’s terms, they constitute a single generation because no great disruption in American politics divides them. They came of age as Reagan defined a new political era and Clinton ratified it. And as a rule, they play out their political struggles between the ideological poles that Reagan and Clinton set out.”
That fits some of my experience. All of history is continuous. Disruptions are perceived which depends on the experience of those perceiving. If generations exist, it is because they share a common perception of historical events. Simply sharing the same historical period would not be enough.
However you dice the generations, the older demographic dominating politics has been creating dysfunction. I think we can all agree on that much.
So, why are the older folk mucking up the works?
It’s not just that there was a baby boom. No doubt we are experiencing the slow digestion of the elephant in the python, but there is more to it. An elephant, of course, is a difficult thing for a python to digest. More importantly, why does the elephant keep struggling so much in the process? The elephant in question obviously doesn’t want to be digested and is far from giving up the ghost.
This older generation isn’t simply in the way of progress. More specifically, this older generation is resisting progress and reacting to it, fighting it tooth and nail. They’d rather shut down the government than have an honest discussion about our collective problems. It isn’t even as if they are genuinely against government as government grew bigger under their watch than ever before.
There is a lot going on with that generation. They were a more monocultural and whiter demographic. As I’ve pointed out before, they were born at the lowest point of immigration in the 20th century and I’m not sure when it had last been that low. The conflict they grew up with wasn’t between natives and immigrants but between American whites and American blacks, especially between whites from the Northern states and blacks from the Southern states. Still, even between whites and blacks, there was a sense that the country was progressing to some extent, even though less quickly for blacks.
This generation couldn’t understand what followed nor sympathize with those who were negatively impacted. This is why many older blacks also came to support tough on crime laws and the War on Drugs, despite the fact that blacks were being harmed by it and black communities were being destroyed because of it. These older people remembered a world that no longer was and they couldn’t understand why it couldn’t remain that way. They had to blame someone. The young were one useful target, young blacks being one of the best targets of all. This is why someone like Bill Cosby can say idiotic things about poor black people.
It’s also a class thing. The economic divide didn’t just grow between whites and blacks. It also grew within the races. The middle and upper class blacks found themselves disconnected from the experience of most blacks. You would think not being accepted into mainstream white society would make older and well off blacks sympathetic to the plight of young blacks, but apparently that often isn’t the case. The power of a generational worldview can be even greater than the solidarity of race, especially for blacks who never were the exemplaries of solidarity as were the Germans, Irish and Italians.
The younger generation in general and minorities in particular, who have been hit hardest by mass incarceration, don’t receive much sympathy. Their lives have been destroyed. In response, their families and communities offer them nothing but shame. The Civil Rights movement was never good about helping the worst off among blacks.
As mass incarceration continues, a new generation is growing up either incarcerated or with the fear of incarceration. Even if not incarceration, society is offering them little to hope for. GenXers were at that magical age of twelve when all this began. Millennials at age twelve saw it continuing. Now a new generation will be coming to that age in a few years and likely it isn’t going to end anytime soon. The event of 9/11 was simply used as justification for more of the same and worse still. We will have several generations who knew nothing but a police state ever increasing in its oppression.
When will a new generation come along who will be able to fondly remember the age of 12 as a time of peace and optimism?
I’ve been utterly fascinated by the rise of the religious right and its bizarre relationship to neocons.
The social and political transformation happened because of a specific migration pattern. It was made most famous by the Okies, but was part of a larger migration. Beginning prior to the Civil War, many waves and streams of migration went to the West Coast from the Western South, including Texas along with what some call the Southern Plains or the Southern Midwest. This migration slowed down around the 1970s and shifted direction. Like others who left the South for the North, many of these Southern Californians and their descendants headed back to Texas and the Southern Plains/Midwest.
Combined with other migrations from the East, California was transformed. Most significantly, as the North/South divide began to take shape in the East, it also nearly split the California in two with Northerners in Northern California and Southerners in Southern California (see: The Golden State in the Civil War by Glenna Matthews, The Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by Leonard L. Richards, Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 by John W. Robinson, and The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H.W. Brands). This set the stage for the 20th century migrations of Evangelicals.
What is interesting and truly strange is how vast the transformation was.
Even before the migration, these people were very religious, but it was a religion that was mostly grounded in rural farm communities. These people weren’t right-wingers. They were New Deal Democrats, labor unionists, socialists and other varieties of liberal and left-wing radicals. The region they called home was particularly a hotbed of agrarian socialism. The righteousness of their radicalism was born out of their religiosity.
They were on a moral crusade to save their way of life against corrupt capitalists and monopolizing industrialists, especially railroad tycoons. This began, following the Civil War and Reconstruction, in the Populist Era in the last decades of the 19th century. These people were further radicalized by the Great Depression which was when socialism really took hold. Oddly, this was when a mass migration began to set their eyes on California, but their native ideological roots were left behind for the most part. They were uprooted and when they were replanted in California soil new fruits would come forth.
There are two reasons for this.
First, they were independent farmers back home, but in California they became laborers for massive farms the likes not seen often back on the Southern plains. Their populist rhetoric romanticized the farmer. This very agrarian ‘free soil’ rhetoric made it hard for them to see the Californian farming elite as bad guys, even as they were being taken advantage of.
Second, as time went on, more of them got factory jobs. They were living in an area that boomed because of the vast wealth pumped into it by the federal government’s military defense funding. These former migrants became middle class and respectable. Their entire way of life, including the vast wealth of their churches, was dependent on government funding and the Cold War that fueled it all. This formed a marriage between Evangelical Second Coming eschatology and Cold War patriotic propaganda, a marriage that gave birth to a deformed child of a corporatist military-industrial complex that saw its purpose as saving all of the world’s soul.
In American politics, this took shape as the Southern Strategy. Nixon, a native Southern Californian, began the Southern Strategy and used it to great success. Reagan inherited it and revved up this style of propaganda to levels maybe never before seen in American politics. He was a native Midwesterner with an easygoing personality of Midwestern sunny optimism which he brought to Hollywood. Allying with Southern Evangelicals, he was able to cross the boundaries between North and South in California and in America at large. He took the dark vision of Evangelical End Times and made it a capitalist salvific vision of unending progress and profit.
As the Cold War began to slow down and then ended, the migration pattern reversed. Many Southern Californians headed back to their cultural homeland. With them, they took their weird Californianized ideology and they Californicated Texas along with the Southern Plains. Former Democratic strongholds became Republican majorities. This was a new Solid South, but one with the most modern techniques developed in California.
Here is how Darren Dochuk describes it in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (Kindle Locations 7783-7806):
Many Southern California evangelicals found the South’s new suburbs promising as well and played a direct role in populating (and politicizing) them. Indeed, as much as evangelicalism’s repositioning within Southern California dulled some of its power, a fourth force of change— more migration— blunted it altogether. This time, the migration was outward-bound. During the 1980s and 1990s, Southern California’s political economy underwent dramatic restructuring as a once spectacularly strong defense sector began to lose government contracts, its fight against inflation, and, generally, its luster. A declining tax base (exacerbated by Proposition 13) coupled with rising costs further tore up local neighborhoods. Orange County— once the epitome of California’s cold war boom— went bankrupt, marking a very real end to decades of unimpeded prosperity. Cold war defense suburbs that ringed Los Angeles County suffered similar burdens of adjustment, as did the evangelical communities that had banked their livelihoods on this economy. In reply, countless evangelical citizens and their institutions picked up and went east. Some , like James Dobson and his organization, Focus on the Family, were enticed by boosters and cheaper living to a newer defense community tucked away in the Mountain West: Colorado Springs. More often they simply returned to the place from whence they came: the western South. In a dramatic reversal, California began losing southern migrants in the 1980s, Oklahoma and Texas reclaiming them. Retirees, job seekers, and the homesick now steered their automobiles east on Interstate 10. Writing about this rising trend in 1983 that was remaking the Texas “oil patch,” social scientist William Stevens declared that the “great surge of post– World War II westing migration” had “bounced off the West Coast and ricocheted back to Texas.” He added that “both money and people” were making the trip. 13
This reverse migration was also primed to “Californiaize” Texas political culture and Republicanize Texas politics, pundits noted. To be sure, they overstated the case for the former, since Texas political culture was always protective of its character. And by the 1980s, Texas and the entire western South boasted a political and cultural authority that the rest of the nation now envied. This was the new epicenter of the new political economy , a home for NASA, Texaco, and Wal- Mart, emblems of the Sunbelt’s high-tech, resource-based, service economies and financial clout. In the late 1930s, Houston politician and philanthropist Jesse H. Jones had given an impassioned speech to students at John Brown University in tiny Siloam Springs , Arkansas , imploring them to take control of their region by applying a frontier mentality to its development. It was time, he said, for the western South to become strong and independent of northern industrialists’ grasp. Thanks to the work of educator-entrepreneurs like John Brown, George Benson, and R. G. LeTourneau, two generations of Christians had internalized this message and, with the aid of federal funds and venture capital, helped turn the western South into the colonizer rather than the colony.
Thus, the Great Amnesia took over American politics and the American populace. It was as if the Populist and Progressive Eras had never happened. Ignorant of the past, Americans became puppets whose strings were pulled by a plutocracy that had nearly all former restraints removed. They didn’t need democracy for they had Capitalism and God… or rather they had a Capitalism that was their God… along with some culture war issues to prettify his divine visage.
As Thomas Frank sums it up (What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, p. 5):
… the Great Backlash [is] a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues-summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art-which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements-not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars-that are the movement’s greatest monuments.
The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and deunionization that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don’t deliver and their “New Economy” collapses. It makes possible the policy pushers’ fantasies of “globalization” and a free-trade empire that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance. Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.
The Great Backlash has made the laissez-faire revival possible, but this does not mean that it speaks to us in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary; the backlash imagines itself as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history’s receiving end. That its champions today control all three branches of government matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest people on the planet does not give it pause.
In fact, backlash leaders systematically downplay the politics of economics. The movement’s basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern-that Values Matter Most, as one backlash title has it. On those grounds it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans of the New Deal to the standard of conservatism. Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country’s return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people.
The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may “matter most” to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act. Even the greatest culture warrior of them all was a notorious cop-out once it came time to deliver. “Reagan made himself the champion of ‘traditional values,’ but there is no evidence he regarded their restoration as a high priority,” wrote Christopher Lasch, one of the most astute analysts of the backlash sensibility. “What he really cared about was the revival of the unregulated capitalism of the twenties: the repeal of the New Deal.
This is vexing for observers, and one might expect it to vex the movement’s true believers even more. Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining. _____
Backlash theorists,(as we shall see) imagine countless conspiracies in which the wealthy, powerful, and well connected-the liberal media, the atheistic scientists, the obnoxious eastern elite-pull the strings and make the puppets dance. And yet the backlash itself has been a political trap so devastating to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical of stringpullers would have had trouble dreaming it up. Here, after all, is a rebellion against “the establishment” that has wound up cutting the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.
Like a French Revolution in reverse-one in which the sansculottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy-the backlash pushes the spectrum of the acceptable to the right, to the right, farther to the right. It may never bring prayer back to the schools, but it has rescued all manner of rightwing economic nostrums from history’s dustbin. Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson’s estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust measures). With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire twentieth century.
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.
– – –
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.
– – –
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.
– – –
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.
– – –
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.“
– – –
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.
– – –
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.
– – –
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.
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.”
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.