For most Americans, things have been changing for the worse for a long time. Good jobs are disappearing. Wages are stagnant. Health and other job benefits are disappearing. More and more people are permanent temporary workers or permanent part-time workers. American industry is being hollowed out. The current generation of Americans is the first that could not look forward to a better life than the generations that came before.
If this is a democracy, why do we put up with it? Why isn’t there a strong political movement for change, like the Populist movement, the Progressive movement, the New Deal or the civil rights movement?
It seems to me that for real political change to take place, two things have to happen, and one of them hasn’t happened yet. The first thing is that people come to understand that the ideas of the past no longer fit the conditions of the present. This has happened. The second thing is that people have to reach a new consensus on what is to be done. This hasn’t happened yet.
I think there were two big changes in the 20th century about how Americans think about politics. The first came out of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the second out of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.”
My parents were young in the 1920s, when the American consensus was rugged individualism, small government and isolation from world affairs. This changed as a result of the Great Depression and World War Two, and a new consensus emerged. I was born in 1936. My thinking was (and is) shaped by my memories of the war and my parents’ stories of the Depression. I am part of the that consensus.
I grew up with a national consensus that the country needed strong social safety net, government regulation to prevent corporate abuses and strong alliances against totalitarian foreign aggressors. This was the baseline of American politics—the point of departure for any suggested change. It was the baseline for Republicans such as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon as much as for Democrats. You could move one way or the other from that baseline, but this was your starting point.
By the 1970s, that consensus had lost its hold on Americans, but it wasn’t until the Ronald Reagan administration that a new consensus emerged. The new baseline was tax cuts, deregulation, privatization, law and order at home and a free hand by the U.S. government abroad. This has been the starting point for Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as much as for the elder and younger George Bush.
Now a new generation has come of age to whom the assumptions of the Reagan era are not taken for granted. The new generation does not remember the Oil Embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis or rioting in the streets. It is not hung up on differences of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
Many of them are highly educated and unemployed or with marginal jobs, while loaded down with debt. All of them are being told that the good jobs are going away and never coming back, and nothing can be done about it. They fit the profile of a generation ripe for revolution. But while there is unrest, there is as yet no consensus on which direction in which to go.
Young people turned out to elect Barack Obama and Democrats in 2008, but the Obama administration turned out to be as committed to the assumptions of the Reagan era as its predecessors. The labor union movement seems divided as to whether to stick with the Democrats and follow its more radical members. I don’t know what to make of the Occupy movement.
What I don’t see is anything comparable to Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, which was both a complete philosophy of politics and economics and a blueprint for change for the Reagan era. Nor do I see any movement strong enough to force the political establishment to respond, such as the labor union movement of the 1930s or the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
My own political thinking is backward-looking. I want to defend the social safety net, the separation of corporation and state and basic civil rights, and to restore basic protections that have been taken away. My political desires are modest, but as things stand now, bringing them about would require a radical transformation and overthrow of the American power structure.
And the people on top positions are acting more pro-actively to forestall any threat to their power than anybody as the bottom is acting to bring about progressive change. I’ll write more about this in a followup post.