I keep coming back to something that Rutgers University Professor W. Carey McWilliams said once at a meeting I attended at the Eagleton Institute of Politics in the 1980s. He quoted Ronald Reagan’s famous campaign line from 1980 and 1984: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Of course, in 1980, after Jimmy Cater’s term, the answer was supposed to be no, and in 1984, after four years of Reagan’s supply-side trickle down policies, the answer was supposed to be yes. But McWilliams had a different interpretation of what Reagan was doing, and he was not happy about it.
Said McWilliams, “Reagan has boiled down more than two hundred years of constitutional government to a question that appeals only to the citizen’s craven self-interest. It is as far from democracy as one can get.”
Forty years later, we are living the ultimate manifestation of Reagan’s transactional politics and for most people, we are decidedly not better off than we were in 1980. Despite repeated tax cuts, the wealthy are doing just fine while the middle and lower classes have fallen farther behind with every passing decade. Buying power has declined, and it’s now absolutely necessary for everyone in a family to work in order to pay for monthly living expenses and to save for big ticket items such as cars, appliances and college educations. Many Americans love the myth that women should stay home and take care of the children, but the reality is very different. Economically, despite the explosion of wealth tied to technology and the rising stock market, it’s difficult to make the case that the people, however we define that, are better off than they were when the conservatives took power.
In addition, the social policies of the party that supposedly supports family values have not led to stronger families, in large part because the religious conservative’s definition of the family is rooted in a gone-forever past. Regressive policies regarding women’s health, family planning and welfare programs have resulted in more families living on the margins, and the prospects are that 2018 could see major cuts in social programs in order to pay for the trillion dollar tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. The fight to reverse gay marriage and abortion rights is one-conservative-to-replace-Anthony-Kennedy-away from reality. The right of religious people to use their beliefs to discriminate could be ratified by the Supreme Court this June.
The same is true regarding foreign policy. The West’s victory in the Cold War was supposed to usher in a period of peace and prosperity led by liberal democratic values and the respect for human rights. We’ve seen glimpses of this, but since the September 11 attacks, we’ve been involved in unnecessary and unwinnable wars against foes who don’t play by World War II rules. We’ve spent trillions trying to fight or buy off countries that will never be true allies, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we’ve seen a resurgence of Chinese and Russian nationalism and power rise to the point that we are now in a second Cold War being fought over economic issues rather than ideological ones. North Korea reminds us that we always one step away from disaster.
Both parties can take blame for these developments. The difference now is that we have a regime in the White House that doesn’t understand that American power is tied to its moral commitments, not just to whether a country has paid its bills. Republicans since Reagan have tried to question and undermine the role the United Nations should play in the world, and I have no doubt they would pull us out if the right scenario presented itself. The Trump Administration is fine with right-wing strong men (and it always seems to be men), and has said nothing about dictatorial actions in the Philippines and Myanmar, where a Rohingya genocide is unfolding right before the world’s Ray-Ban’d eyes.
Of course, there have been victories, and anyone who was over the age of 12 in 1970 can tell you that, this past year notwithstanding, the country does feel better about itself. Crime is down. Most of our major metropolitan areas have thriving cultural lives. Music, television and movies are far better than that of the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Inflation tamed, for now. Disco is dead.
I am of the humble opinion that we are at the end of the conservative movement and soon will be entering a period where the political pendulum will begin swinging back to the left. Perhaps the congressional elections will be the beginning of this trend. Will conservatives still win elections and continue to influence policies? Of course. And president Trump will continue to remind the majority that opposes him that his view of how this country ought to operate is an outlier, the same way that many moderates saw the counterculture of the 1960s as an outlier.
But the excesses of the conservative movement will begin to receded. The unending focus on money and competition and winning will give way to a more tempered view of what’s important in life and our place in the world. Taxes on the wealthy will go up. We will be less divided.
Am I an optimist? You bet. Am I confident about the future of our country? Yes indeed. Will the short-term be a trying, difficult, maddening, stressful period? Afraid so.
Another year dawns. See the best. Be the best. Do your best.
Happy New Year.