The great accomplishment of Republicans over the last 28 years has been to make privation, struggle, and, “The rich get rich and the poor get poorer” seem normal, even supposedly exemplary, aspects of American life for the middle and lower-middle class people who must struggle to survive under this new regime.
Adults in the 1950s and ’60s, by contrast, had all lived through the twin awfulnesses of the Great Depression and World War II, and their attitude was different. They wanted and expected prosperity. They felt they had earned it by the privations they had suffered in the War and the Depression. I was there. I know.
The working people among them may not have been big fans of new social programs, but they did believe in a society of overall fairness. The believed they could improve their lot by loyally providing reliable work to employers, who would in turn be loyal to them. Lots of them knew they would never be businesspeople, had no desire to be in fact, but they hoped that labor unions would steadily increase wages all across American society. And government would offer reasonable protection to unions so they could, precisely, exert continual pressure that would “spread the wealth around”.
But, spending big money on right-wing foundations and allying with racists and religious extremists in the 1970s, wealthy people and their Republican theorists set the stage for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and became the majority party soon after. They were able to take over the national narrative, shifting it from the former New Deal emphasis on community to a belief in the virtues of free markets and hyperindividualism.
Why were they so effective in shifting the country’s view of itself over 30 years? I’m sure there were strong economic reasons for it, but I am not an economist. As a student of mankind, however, I can see that the shared struggle of a whole society to get through the Great Depression, then World War II, would have produced in the generation that had been through all that a strong sense of national community feeling that would have cut across class lines.
Perhaps American capitalists responded to that “we’re all in the same boat” feeling by mitigating their natural acquisitiveness, and letting the workers have more of the pie. In other words, investors’ and managers’ “values” actually changed for a while. I remember, for instance, that it would have been unthinkable in the 1950s and 1960s for a non-bankrupt business to lay off thousands of people around Christmas. Now it’s routine — as are many other ways of behaving that seem to me unfair to working people.
Beginning in the 1970s the children of the Great Generation were pushing aside their elders as the arbiters of public morality. Having NOT passed through any long communal struggle, they had no reason to have fellow feeling for members of other classes. Capitalists became greedy and unions became greedy. Unions made big pay gains that helped increase inflation. I think that set the stage for the Nobles to in turn get tough again, through their representative Ronald Reagan, who was handed a great chance to announce the New Economic Order by firing all the striking air traffic controllers.
And in all the years since 1970 the US has never suffered another dark passage that all of us had to endure together, like the Great Depression and World War II. We have therefore gradually fallen back into the hyperindividualism that expresses itself in the USA above all through acquisitiveness. Now the owners of capital try to extract every cent they possibly can from the businesses they invest in, with no thought to leave some for the workers. And the workers are crippled as unionizers by a weak National Labor Relations Board and by globalization.
However this great change in the thinking of a nation came about, many of use believe that it has swung way too far to the right.* If more of us believe that now than believed it eight years ago, we have George W. Bush to thank for the societal change.
And then there is the world’s ongoing descent into deep recession, which could provide at least a bit of that shared struggle that made for more humane government two generations ago.
So this is the time, if there ever was one, for Democrats to begin to redefine our society.
Here is the outline of a way that President Obama can take back control of the national narrative:
*a swing that has had very bad consequences for working people’s incomes, and very strong benefits for the wealthy. Later I will give an overview of what has happened to the distribution of incomes and wealth across the various classes over the course of the Republican Years.