The year 2019 offers several landmark dates: the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, the 70th of the founding of NATO and the 30th of the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, it also marks the 50th year of America’s long retreat from the promise of the 1960s. I call it the Great Regression.
To understand the Great Regression, it’s important to understand what preceded it. Postwar America, reconverting to a peacetime economy after World War II had ended the Great Depression of the 1930s, was uniquely placed to enjoy a spell of global dominance. With Soviet Russia and soon Communist China quarantined, and with its wartime adversaries, Germany and Japan, reduced to client states, the U.S. bestrode the worldwide capitalist economy. At home, this produced the greatest prosperity in the nation’s history, and, thanks to the lingering effects of New Deal reform, a powerful labor movement that produced, in major American industries, an implicit grand bargain: large corporations would provide decent wages and job security in return for labor peace. There was more than enough wealth to go around, and the baby boom that followed the war seemed to ensure that there would be the consumer demand to sustain it. Returning GIs, too, had been told they were fighting for a better America. It seemed only prudent, not to say fair, to give them one.
Thus was the American middle class born, with its suburbs and highways, its cars and station wagons, its modern kitchens and backyard barbecues. It was a whole new way of life, whose implicit promise was that if you worked hard and played by the rules, life would be reasonably good and perhaps even better for your children. They called it the American dream.
African-Americans heard about the dream too, but they weren’t invited to share it. As for women, their role in it was as unpaid domestic workers whose satisfaction would be the replacement of washing boards by washing machines. Accordingly, the 1960s brought the civil rights movement and feminism. The Vietnam War ruptured the superficial social peace of the preceding decade, and the first of the baby boomers, coming to maturity, would question the bland materialism they had been told to accept as the good life. An increasingly polarized country erupted in violence.
Then came Richard Nixon.
Nixon, entering the White House in 1969 after the country’s most divisive election since the Civil War, had no grand plan. He did, however, have shrewd instincts. He put together a political coalition, based in the Southern and Heartland states and playing on the fears of workers newly risen into the middle class. It worked. Despite Nixon’s own fall, Republicans would control the presidency for 20 of the next 24 years. He and his successors would systematically pack the courts with conservatives, a tactic that rewarded the Republican Party with the presidency of George W. Bush when the Supreme Court usurped the 2000 election and decided it for itself. With the election of Donald Trump, Republicans controlled all three branches of government for the first time since the Great Depression.
Republicans not only won command of the levers of power, but also of ideology. The department of economics at the University of Chicago, led by Milton Friedman, updated the myth of the unregulated market as the most efficient engine of wealth growth and distribution. Under the rubric of so-called supply side economics in the Reagan Era, it redefined the role of government as stimulating growth by cutting taxes and eliminating agencies and regulations designed to assist the poor, protect the environment and avoid a new depression. Government, as Reagan explained, was not the solution to social ills such as racism, poverty and inequality, but the problem. It was best for it to simply get out of the way.
In all of this, Republicans were simply being Republicans, the devoted party of Wall Street. Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, all progressive movements had ultimately channeled their efforts and energies through the Democratic Party. Having lost control of the political narrative in the 1970s, however, the Democrats turned GOP-lite, posing no threat to the growth of rampant inequality that began under Reagan and offering no alternative to the emergence of a new Gilded Age. At the same time, the U.S. lost its privileged position in world markets as other economies rebounded. Corporate profit margins suffered, and the grand bargain of the postwar decades disappeared. Labor unions were put on the defensive, and, as the manufacturing sector collapsed, they virtually disappeared from the private economy. Without collective bargaining, workers found themselves returned to the conditions of 19th century capitalism. Over the past five decades, tens of millions of them have fallen out of the middle class into a limbo of shrinking wages, evaporating pensions and job insecurity. Exploited where not redundant, with neither unions to protect them nor a government to shield them, they are a new class of the dispossessed for which no name yet exists. As technology eliminates their jobs and the medical insurance tied to them, they are an illness away from pauperdom. No longer a working class but closer to a servant one, they are without a future they can imagine, let alone a dream they can hope to achieve.
And so came Donald Trump.
The election of Trump was made possible by the cratering of the middle class and the pent-up misery and frustration of those abandoned by its collapse. Trump said he would fix things for them; instead, he has provided a new bonanza for the rich in a spasm of unbridled greed and political reaction. Whether this will at last trigger a response that can translate itself into sustained resistance remains to be seen. Nothing, however, was ever won without a struggle, and the struggle necessary to reverse the Great Regression will be a long one.
I have lived most of my political lifetime watching my country march backward. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for something different, like common decency and the common good.