Rick Perlstein’s new book Reaganland chronicles the cultural discontents roiling America during the tumultuous administration of Jimmy Carter (1977 to 1981) that led to the election of Ronald Reagan and the end of the New Deal consensus.
Perlstein describes the “New Right” that swept Reagan into office–a network of evangelical Christians, neocons, tax revolters and corporate lobbyists–that used these discontents to radically transform American politics. He makes clear that the “New Right”, a movement that he’s written so much about, (Before the Storm, Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge), was consolidated on cultural fronts as much as political ones.
One of the biggest challenges for Reagan’s was that most Americans didn’t actually agree with his views on policy. Reagan’s political genius was putting a genial face on the radical, right-wing policies of Senator Barry Goldwater even though Reagan touted many of the same policy beliefs that had led Goldwater to be dismissed as a crank both before and after his 1964 election drubbing.
Conventional political wisdom had Reagan too far out of the mainstream with his devotion to antiquated economic theories, John Birch-anti-communism, and his wholesale rejection of the New Deal economic and political consensus.
Reagan’s amazing timing allowed him to take full advantage of cultural discontents that included race, religion, abortion, gay rights and the ERA. These cultural discontents were piggybacked on by discontents against government regulations by savvy “New-Right” strategists (Perlstein describes them as “boardroom Jacobins”) who super-charged corporate power during this pivotal period.
It’s in the battle over religious private-schools that we get a glimpse of the ferocity of this new political movement: the “get government off our back” efforts of the corporate lobbyists coalescing with the culture war grievances of evangelical Christians, all energized by dog-whistle racism. Reagan and the “New Right” proved masterful in harnessing Americans social-atomization–individualism, selfishness and consumerism–in their quest for a political revolution.
One of the main reasons these cultural discontents had such power is that the nominal “left party” in the US stopped promoting universal economic policies and moved to the right economically, following the ‘neoliberal’ counter-revolution of the late 1970’s. Moreover, it’s fair to say that Carter was the first neoliberal president.
Perlstein relates how Carter’s administration was racked by one crisis after another leading to his crafting his controversial malaise speech, where he spoke about resetting American values and calling for universal sacrifice. However, the sacrifice was confined to American workers who were devastated by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker actions to combat inflation. Carter had previously nominated Volcker. Carter also didn’t follow his aides advice to stress that, “national revival was impossible until corporate power was checked”.
This set a pattern. Democrats who came after could have depicted the Reagan Administration as a radical project that violated every American principle of government to benefit “we the people.” Instead they turned it into a bipartisan project.
I’m looking at you Mrs Clinton and Obama.
We chose to allow corporations to gut America’s industrial and manufacturing infrastructure and off-shore millions of high-paying jobs. We chose to cut taxes on billionaires and to deregulate the financial industry. We chose to permit giant corporations to control monopolies astride choke points in our economy. We chose to punish the workers who still had jobs by making work temporary and precarious. Moreover, we chose to get government out of the way of the “free market.”
Getting government out of the way has made the rich a lot richer. Indeed, a cynic might conclude that the “New Right” was an ideological conspiracy by a tiny and ever more fabulously wealth elite to further enrich themselves and to maintain their power, their dominance, at all costs. Indeed, the wealthy and corporate backers of the “New Right” have to be extremely pleased with their efforts to mine the cultural discontents in the decades since the election of Ronald Reagan.
Reviews of Reaganland don’t go there but I believe there to be a direct correlation between the efforts of the “New Right” and the remarkable RAND report that documents the $50 trillion in earnings that’s been transferred to our feral elite from the bottom 90% of American households in the past 45 years.
Going further, it’s apparent that Make America Great Again is the new version of Reaganland. MAGA supporters voted against abortion and got cuts in capital gains. They voted against transsexuals using women’s bathrooms and got lower corporate taxes. They voted for a wall to keep Mexicans out then watched as US corporations fled across the border to avoid safety and environmental regulations and screw American workers.
Maybe Reaganland is a state of mind where–“You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.”