The End of the Reagan Era
Sun Jul 06, 2008 at 07:29:41 PM PDT
What makes a political era? In trying to understand any particular political era, it's necessary to understand the previous era, its duration, its characteristics, what brought it in to being, what stresses led to its demise. In trying to figure out our politics since the late sixties, and definitely since the early eighties, few books have been as helpful to me as a collection of essays published in 1989 by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order: 1930-1980. In their introductory essay, Fraser and Gerstle laid out the premise underlying their investigation of a political order:
Our notion of "political order" draws its conceptual inspiration from the notion of "electoral system" and "party system" developed by political scientists and the "new political historians" in recent years. These scholar have depicted American political history since 1800 in terms of relatively long periods of electoral stability punctuated by brief but intense political upheavals and electoral realignments. In each of the five periods of electoral stability (1800-1820's, 1820's-1850's, 1850's-1890's, 1890's-1930's, 1930's-1970's), the major parties had a fixed relationship to an electoral coalition; the size of the parties' respective coalitions, in turn, determined the relationship that prevailed between the two parties—in particular, whether one dominated or whether the two struggled on a relatively equal footing...
This approach diminishes the importance of particular political actors—presidents, senators, and others—as well as of the normal two-, four-, and six-year electoral cycles. It elevates, by contrast, importance of economic events and social trends. Fundamental changes in political life—those which produce a change in party systems—are seen as issuing from crises in the nation's economy, social structure, and political structure...
In probing why such fundamental historical events are required to change party systems, the new political historians have generally offered "ethnocultural" explanations. American voters, at least from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, they have argued, viewed political parties as the protectors of their most treasured beliefs and vital interests: their religions, their ethnic traditions, their families and their neighborhoods. Voters thus developed profound emotional loyalties to parties; these loyalties, in turn, influenced individual electoral behavior far more than rational reflections on a party's platform or short-term, instrumental calculations of the likely return on casting a ballot for one party or another. Such loyalties were not easily forsaken. Only major economic and social crises triggered broad shifts in loyalty from one party to another.
The New Deal voting coalition was anchored by Southern white protestants and Northern Catholics and Jews. Membership in labor unions, then as now, made one far more likely to vote Democratic. Unlike now, however, where the percentage of workers represented by a union is barely over 10%, by the mid-1950's union members were almost 35% of the workforce. Within a short time Black voters, previously loyal to the party of Lincoln, shifted allegiance to the Democrats (although they were disenfranchised in the Jim Crow South).
After the economic and social devastation of the Great Depression—which lasted throughout the thirties, and didn't fully lift until the country mobilized for war starting in about 1940—Roosevelt, Truman and the New Dealers in Congress used tax policy to largely ameliorate the worst in wealth and income disparities. Increased unionization led to wage pattern bargaining, where union contracts raised wages for all workers in that particular sector. In his book The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman calls the 20 year period of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, when the ultra-wealthy became the merely wealthy and the middle class expanded to include the majority of Americans—even if it included few minorities—the Great Compression.
The US didn't follow the path of almost every industrialized nation and create a social democratic welfare state. But after the Kennedy assassination and the huge 1964 Democratic landslide, the Johnson administration pushed through the Great Society initiatives, including Medicare, to go with New Deal and post-WWII measures like Social Security, the G.I. Bill and FHA loans to further expand and extend the partial welfare state.
Johnson also, of course, finally brought the government to grant full franchise and citizenship to Black Americans by passing the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts. These ended the Jim Crow system in the South. But providing paths for African Americans to join the mainstream of American society, according to Fraser and Gerstle, contributed to the stresses that led to the end of the New Deal order:
The state's rhetorical commitment to distributing civil rights and economic abundance to all its citizens inevitably pushed race to the very center of national politics; the nation's growing military obligations diminished the economic resources necessary to solve or at least mitigate the brewing racial crisis; and the importance attached (by purveyors of mass culture and ideologues of a modernist domestiticity) to achieving a full and expressive personal life predictably resulted in an insatiable hunger for "authenticity" and autonomy in all social spheres...The New Deal order's unabashedly modernist character intensified these tensions and was bound, sooner or later, to provoke the moral outrage of traditionalists. A second source of tension resulted from the failure of the Democratic party and organized labor, in the 1930's and 1940's, to transform, through wage legislation and unionization, the South's social structure. Such failures...meant than an extraordinary kind of judicial fiat—itself, though cloaked in constitutional language, a kind of violence—would be necessary to integrate southerners (and especially blacks) into the New Deal order.
As suggested in the previous paragraph, the era of the New Deal was a period of great change in American family relationships. From the extended families of agrarian America that prevailed until roughly the end of WWI, through the ascendancy of the nuclear family as the American norm, to the burgeoning of feminism and the increased integration of women in to the workforce, and therefore the end of the stay-at-home mom as the American norm, many mores and beliefs about family and gender profoundly changed. As with any profound social change, it created political tensions and divides. Much of the conflict in American politics from the late 1960's nearly up to the present has been over social and cultural issues, most rooted in the changes wrought by feminism and racial integration.
Johnson predicted that signing the Civil Rights Act would mean that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. In presidential politics, he was correct, and below the Presidential level, what had been the "solid south" became the geographic base of the Republican party. In the North, where the frontiers of racial integration and accommodation were populated by African-Americans and mostly ethnic Catholics in the urban areas and inner-ring suburbs, issues like school busing and the riots of the late sixties were used deftly by Republicans to pry apart the New Deal coalition and create "Reagan Democrats." Crime and welfare, associated as they were with African-Americans in the minds of many of these voters, became proxies for race.
On cultural issues, probably nothing cut through the New Deal coalition more traumatically than abortion. But it wasn't just abortion, or more fringe issues like prayer in schools. The Democratic Party itself became tarred with the charge of elitism, which was, since Wallace, associated with pointed-headed intellectuals, judges and bureaucrats telling people—especially men—what they could and couldn't do. Many of the cultural issues became proxy battles over feminism, and liberals and the Democratic party became associated with traits generally thought to be effete, or to take the root word further, feminine.
Reagan came along and put a sunny sheen over the anger of the right. The working class, since the oil shocks of the 1970's and the destruction of core industries like mining, textiles, heavy manufacturing and basic steel, had been pummeled economically. But the damage had been mitigated by the relatively untouched New Deal social welfare system, just recently expanded by Johnson. Reagan fought Carter through a close election, and by convincing enough voters that he wasn't crazy, surged to a ten point win.
Once in office, Reagan commenced a counter-revolution against the New Deal, but the visible attacks tended to be mostly in the context of welfare and the like, which for most voters elicited notions of race rather than hostility toward regulation of the economy or government intervention to mitigate the harshness of unfettered and unregulated markets. Attacks on regulation and the welfare state that weren't seen as disproportionately benefiting African-Americans largely went underground. Through the Reagan era, even up through George W. Bush's campaign in 2004, the Republicans stuck mostly to social and cultural issues, or to taxes. Taxes were another proxy for race, as many swing voters felt their taxes were too high, and felt their tax dollars were being squandered on welfare payments to people who refused to work or on supposedly exorbitant foreign aid to people overseas. But publicly the Republicans largely avoided frontal assaults on the New Deal.
With the demise of the Soviet Union and the opening up of China, fears of war faded from the consciousness of voters. This lessened red-baiting, but it also removed the last inhibition preventing what in the 90's became known as the politics of personal destruction. Led by Newt Gingrich, the notion that politics stops at the ocean's shore ended, and everything, including previous off-limits aspects of a politician's personal life, was grounds for attack.
By 2000, most Americans were deeply disillusioned with this petty and nasty politics, but times were generally good. After the huge Republican win in 1994, Republican lost seats in Congress the next three elections. Other than a two-year period during the Eisenhower administration—an administration at peace with the New Deal—Democrats had held the presidency or at least one chamber of Congress for seventy years. The ineptness, hostility toward sound governance and corruption of the GOP had not been fully exposed to the American public; only the Gingrich-led government shutdown of 1995 hinted to casual observers the true intentions of the new mainstream of the radicalized Republican party. Much of Johnson's Great Society had been gutted, but the main legislative pillars of the New Deal, such as social security, after the scares 1981-1983 and 1995, had been left mostly intact. And as often happens when things are good, frivolities like how many times one of the candidates sighed during the debate became a big issue.
Al Gore, his sighs and his supposed exaggerations were savaged in the media. Nevertheless, he won the popular vote, almost certainly won the electoral vote, and was kept out of the White House only by the intervention of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. And Democrats won several upsets in the Senate, leading to a tie broken only by the vote of VP Dick Cheney.
As I've previously argued (here, here and here), I believe we are on the verge of a transforming election. But just as one can argue whether the end of a political era ended in 1968 or was interrupted until 1980 because of Watergate, one could argue that the end of the Reagan era began in 2000 but was interrupted the next year by the terrorist attacks on 9-11. Ruy Texeira and John Judis were already refining their argument for The Emerging Democratic Majority, showing that demographic changes and long-term voting patterns presaged an end to the Reagan era. But 9-11 and the environment of fear exploited by the Republicans prevented GOP losses in 2002. Even then, however, the GOP Congressional gains in 2002 and 2004 (after Texas redistricting) were consistent with the changes in apportionment, with more districts drawn to be pro-Republican accounting for the GOP gains.
Then in 2005 George Bush and the GOP were exposed. Bush tried to mount an overt assault on Social Security, precipitating the decline in his standing that continues today. The disastrous response to Katrina shamed most Americans. And the war in Iraq finally was seen as another disaster made by Bush and the GOP. Democrats went on in 2006 to big wins, and all indications are that we could be on the verge of more big wins this November.
Now many Americans, including many who grew up in families lifted in to the middle class by the New Deal, feel intense economic pain. By historical standards unemployment is not particularly high. But other than a few years in the late 1990's, earnings adjusted for inflation have fallen steadily since 1973. Some of that loss in earnings and wealth was made up for with low and easy credit and skyrocketing home values, and home owners spent against their increased equity. But now, as people's home values plummet, foreclosures mount, credit is unavailable, and wages continue to decline, there's nothing to soften the economic blows to working families, even including many which in the past would have been considered comfortably in the upper middle class.
As the wage and wealth hits accumulate, Americans' economic health is being attacked from other directions. Secure pensions are no longer a given, and 401K accounts have been devastated by the recent crash in the stock market. Health care costs continue to rise faster than inflation, and the number of uninsured Americans continues to grow. And the costs of going to college or having children are too great to bear for many younger Americans.
The long period of doing nothing to address Americans' addiction to gas guzzlers, combined with instability (and most likely price manipulation) in the petroleum markets, has created yet another economic stress on Americans. As in the 1930's, when everything in politics was dominated by the effort to subdue the depression, in coming years, almost all the major policy problems faced by America—our foreign policy, the price and availability of food in the US and the food demands in developing countries, our declining manufacturing base, our balance of payments to foreign nations, wage and income inequality, environmental and climate changes, construction, the "financialization" of the American economy—will be connected to energy and climate change.
Finally, there's a sense with many Americans that there's something seriously wrong in America. All the polls show it. The young have been voting Democratic for the last three elections, and young voters appear ready to vote in much higher numbers this November than in any election since the vote was extended to 18 year olds in 1972, maybe in higher numbers than ever seen. Black voters, driven by the candidacy of Barack Obama, appear ready to vote in record numbers. Latinos continue to grow as a percentage of the vote, and continue to become more solidly Democratic. But the greatest movement may be among working class and middle class voters no longer motivated to vote on issues of race, social change or cultural issues, but instead motivated by the inequities of wealth that have reopened during the Reagan era.
According to NYT Reporter Steven Greenhouse, author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,
the top 1 percent of households, averaging $1.1 million in annual income, received nearly 22 percent of all reported income in 2005, up from 9 percent in 1980. That income shift helped create the greatest level of inequality since the Roaring Twenties.
Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president and Treasury Secretary, found that were it not for this increased inequality the bottom 80 percent of Americans would be doing considerably better. If the distribution of income today were the same as in 1979, Summers said, assuming the same level of economic growth since then, income of the bottom 80 percent of Americans would be about $670 billion more a year--or about $8,000 per family. For many households in the bottom half, this would mean a welcome 20 to 30 percent increase in income, perhaps the boost needed to avoid foreclosure.
One can see the economic divide widen in another way. The average income for the top 1 percent of households was ten times that for the middle fifth in 1979. By 2005, those in the top 1 percent earned 21 times as much as those in the middle. Income for the top 1 percent of households averaged 70 times that of households in the bottom fifth, the greatest gap on record, up from 23 times as much in 1979.
At the pinnacle of the inequality pyramid are the nation's CEOs. American corporations may be tightfisted about raises for most workers, but they paid their chief executives $10.5 million on average in 2005, including salary, bonuses and stock options. That was quadruple their pay a dozen years earlier. This means the typical CEO earns 369 times as much as the average worker, up from 131 times in 1993 and 36 times in 1976.
We have reached the point where we have unsustainable energy policy, and unsustainable foreign and military policy, an unsustainable fiscal policy, and, as many Americans now feel personally, economic inequities that aren't sustainable if we wish to maintain the broad middle class created by the New Deal order. We've reached the end of the Reagan era, and are on the cusp of something new, hopefully better, and characterized by a bold, vigorous, creative Democratic party with which people bond as they did with the Democratic party of the New Deal era.
have a great week.