“The paradigm shift of the 1980s really was equivalent in scale and scope to those of the 1960s and the 1930s. Key intellectual foundations of our legal system were changed. Our long-standing consensus about acceptable and unacceptable conduct by big business was changed. Ideas about selfishness and fairness were changed. The financial industry simultaneously became reckless and more powerful than ever. The liberal establishment began habitually apologizing for and distancing itself from much of what had defined liberal progress. What made America great for centuries, a taste and knack for the culturally new, started to atrophy in the 1980s.
This conservative momentum – the Reagan revolution – kept charging ahead through the 90s and onwards. Eye-glazing changes in business and financial regulations gave oligarchs their spoils, while leaving the majority of Americans in a state of ever-increasing economic insecurity, stranded on the wrong side of a canyon of income inequality not seen since the Gilded Age.
The villainous masterminds of the story – people like the Koch’s, Richard Mellon Scaife, Joseph Coors, and Robert Bork, and think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, hid their plan to make a tiny number of people super- rich and replace FDR’s New Deal, projecting a veneer of philosophical and ethical worthiness that persuaded the media and the public that it would be best for everyone if business was less restrained.
This was achieved firstly by manipulating the boring rules and regulations that protect the public from predatory capitalism. Secondly, the rich conservatives ramped up the pre-existing spirit of extreme individualism and self expression that took off in the 1960s. The message was: “O.K, hippies and liberals, you win. From now on, it’s maximum freedom and individualism for all. You have your sexual and artistic self-expression by all means. You do your thing and we’ll do ours” (that is, make pots of money). Thirdly, conservative interests played on the longing for the “good old days”, manufacturing nostalgia for a public ready for calm after the tumultuous 1960s.
The book brings us up to date with the virus that has tested us and found us wanting. On top of the unaddressed climate crisis and the extreme form of short-term, profit-obsessed capitalism that serves only the plutocrats, it is clear that the current paradigm is played out. Support for Trump is a cry of anger and frustration, a cri de coeur from a huge section of the population who feel the promise of America has evaded them. They blame Washington while in fact it is the “conservative” plutocrats and money men who have skewed life to their own selfish benefit and then blamed Democrats and the Washington civil service. We have to restore the sharing of economic power and wealth we once had. Enough is enough.
(Adapted slightly from a review by Tom Krattenmaker of a book by Kurt Anderson: “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History”: (Random House, 2020)
Tomorrow: other reasons why we went wrong, not to be easily corrected.