I was amazed when Ronald Reagan, who I knew then only as a second-rate actor, was elected president in 1980, and I’ve been appalled at what he and his cohort have done to the country since. I’m all the more appalled because the folks whom they’ve mainly done it TO include me, a lower-middle-class cubicle dweller.
The poor and middle class have been disproportionately affected by Republican policies over the last 30 years, as more and more of the national income and wealth has flowed upward away from them. For documentation of this, see my earlier post here:
Believe it or not, I suspected that this slow “pauperization” was happening long before the Internet came along to supply the actual statistics. The metastasizing growth of Wall-Mart and simultaneous waning of traditional department stores told me what was happening. People sliding ever downward in real income were struggling to maintain their familiar lifestyles. To do so they had to abandon shopping at traditional department stores and consign themselves to the noise, disorder, aesthetic challenges, and under-service to be found at Wal-Mart, “the price leader.” *
Periodically during that period I tried to imagine why working people were swallowing the Reagan line — approving his effort to weaken unions, worker- and consumer-health protections, anti-trust enforcement, and the like, and cutting taxes for the most wealthy taxpayers, plus continually weakening the country’s social safety net.
I think I understand why now.
They did it because Reagan revived the founding myth of the USA.
For the generation of people who became the parents of my generation, the Depression had been a terrifying thing that lingered on in their hearts, keeping on raising questions about the wonderfulness of business and capitalism, long after the emergency that business and capitalism had created had passed. After all the suffering of the Depression and THEN of WWII, I doubt that boundless optimism was widespread among them.
But by 1979 those folks were mostly over being scared — and of course their kids, having grown up in a long period of general prosperity, had never been scared. So Reagan was able to come along and revive, even in working class hearts, that great American belief that everyone can get rich, or at least prosperous, if he just applies himself to it**.
That notion, which had had a large element of truth in it when the frontier brought us ever more virgin territory to exploit, is not lightly extirpated from the American heart*** by modern industrial and globalized reality, which drive down wages due to lack of collective bargaining, and easy exportation of jobs . It’s so HOPEFUL, and we’re an optimistic people. And it’s so CONSOLING!
As long as I believe I’m likely to be rich — or at least better off — later, I may manage never to truly notice that right now I’m working retail and taking crap every day for a few dollars an hour. And getting rid of government interference with business is going to seem like a great idea to me too, because, after all, I am surely going to be one of the interfered-with owners/managers some day, and, even if I never am, I will continue to admire the people who do get rich, and wish them well.
And of course I will hate taxes, because I know that when my inevitable richness arrives high taxes are going to steal my money!
Hence, the phenomenon, today, of the aggressively conservative pauper!
Let’s wait and see what happens when a lot of these people at or near the bottom of society, who had hoped to achieve a modest rise over their lifetimes, wake up and realize that not only are they never going to ascend any economic heights, they’re actually slipping back down the modest slopes they’ve already managed to climb.
Looks like some waking up is already going on:
* Back in the 1960s, when I grew up, people who didn’t have to count every penny normally shopped at highly-respected department stores like Sears, Montgomery Wards, Macy’s, and Marshal Fields. Those places were busy but quiet, clean, orderly, carefully designed to appeal to the eye on every side, and full of well-made products and helpful salespersons. The Wal-Marts of that age, Woolworths, Kress, and K-mart, mostly received the custom of the poorer folk.
** That idea was first given compelling literary form in the bestselling late 19th Century stories of Horatio Alger, in all of which a penniless boy becomes, by virtue of his optimism and work ethic, a secure member of the upper middle class or beyond. But the idea was in the American air long before that. If you think about it, what would be more natural than that everyone born into a country with boundless frontier lands waiting to be exploited would assume that his personal prospects were equally boundless?
*** Nor should it be, entirely. The Horatio Alger story is not a “myth” in the sense of a lie, but rather in the anthropological sense of an idealized story known by everyone in a culture, and which serves to explain the world and give meaning to their lives. People can certainly sometimes still “make it” in the USA. Recently I received a narrative of the life of a fellow member of my high school class of ’66. He had ended up doing very well, and it was inspiring to read about the twists and turns of events that he had navigated adroitly for 44 years to to reach his affluent current state. (You know who you are, Bobby!)
But not everyone is fitted to be or wants to be an “entrepreneur”. The big organization in which I work has several thousand employees. They are not paid well, and most of their work is tedious paper-pushing. I suspect they stay because they are people, like the vast majority of every American generation before them, who just want a job where they can make a decent living and then go home and play with their kids. Back in my youth this was a thoroughly respectable aspiration, and millions of such people could achieve it through high-paying factory jobs. Why in fact there were so many people with such jobs back then that I must have seen a million beer commercials on TV that were directed just at them: A bunch of guys are standing around in a bar after getting off work. They are slugging back beers at a great rate while laughing and carrying on and obviously having lots of fun. All is right in their world.
I never thought as I watched those dumb ads that one day I’d be nostalgic for the world they reflected.