My — our — long wait: Enduring the Reagan Revolution

Ronald Reagan lays down the law to PATCO

I’ve pined thirty-years for something like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thank God — I’m an atheist! — it’s here. I’ve waited that long because it’s been a little more than thirty years since the 1981 Washington, DC Solidarity Day March. The AFL-CIO organized and paid for it. (I was collecting unemployment but took a union sponsored bus to DC.) Estimates of the march’s size range from 100,000 to 5000,000 (I’m drawing upon my memory here). Whatever the precise numerical count might have been, the March was large. The purpose of the March was clear to the participants and to its adversaries. It expressed a popular disgust with the Reagan Administration, which had recently concluded the PATCO strike by firing the striking air traffic controllers. The PATCO strike was a seminal event in American history. It revealed the weakness of organized labor in America and the willingness of the Reagan administration to demolish a conservative union filled with labor aristocrats who had supported Reagan in the 1980 election. I thought then that the March would be the initial event of an on-going popular response to the Reagan Presidency. Surely many if not most Americans would see Reagan and his policies for what they were and what they promised. Surely they would push back.

In 1984, ironic as that date may seem to America’s critics, the Reagan reelection campaign gave us the now famous Morning in America advertisement, a trope which became the theme of the 1984 Republican National Convention, America’s kleine Reichsparteitag. This staged event frightened me when I watched it, more so when the spectacle was generally well-received; likewise the Reagan-Mondale debates, during which one could see Reagan’s dementia for what it was. As we know, a demented and ideologically driven Reagan easily won the election. His victory allegedly and likely did signal the death of the New Deal Coalition, Mondale being a figure associated with that kind of politics and Reagan having a political project opposed to the New Deal and its legacy. Americans could have repudiated Reagan and Reaganism in that election. But they did not.

Today, Americans must try to master the consequences produced by their past political mistakes. Among these mistakes we would want to include our tolerating or even applauding policies which produced a declining standard-of-living and our accepting a party politics meant to insulate the political elite from the electorate. To be sure, our current and future standard-of-living along with the democracy deficit of the legacy parties provide just two of the many motives that have elicited the Occupy Wall Street movement. And these ‘problems’ were foreseeable outcomes specific to the so-called Reagan Revolution, which we today should characterize as a political project which consolidated neoliberalism and imperialism in American politics. We are living in the Reagan Revolution’s long shadow, and it is this history which we must master to address the problems of our present.

I wish to conclude by pointing out that it seems to have taken the many failures and betrayals of the Obama administration to convince some — many? — Americans that the legacy parties do not represent their interests. Perhaps, Americans needed to elect a black man president in order to learn that the political project created by rich white men only results in disasters for so many of them. They could recently learn this while they watched the one-time community organizer selling what they considered their birthright to Wall Street and America’s imperial apparatus. In any case, whether my speculative point about Obama’s historical significance is at all sound, it is unfortunate that Americans needed thirty discouraging years before they could begin face the truth about their leaders and their country. Let us hope that it is not too late to pull hard on the brake handle.

On Obama’s centrism

How might one make Obama’s reactionary economic policies appear reasonable? Achieving this would be a real trick since a reactionary politics is nearly unreasonable by definition. A transformation such as this requires a bit of magic. The trick: The magician needs to utter the words, “He’s a centrist” and “He’s a pragmatist,” and presto: The class warrior Barack Obama turns into the ‘savior’ of Social Security and Medicare!

The New York Times shows how it is done:

President Obama made no apparent headway on Monday in his attempt to forge a crisis-averting budget deal, but he put on full display his effort to position himself as a pragmatic centrist willing to confront both parties and address intractable problems.

At a news conference preceding the latest round of debt-reduction talks with Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders, Mr. Obama said he would not accept a temporary agreement to kick the problem down the road a few weeks or months.

He said that he was willing to take the heat from his own party to move beyond entrenched ideological positions and that Republicans should do the same. And he continued to insist on “the biggest deal possible,” saying that now is the best opportunity for the nation to address its long-term fiscal challenges.

Republicans dismissed his performance as political theater. But Mr. Obama’s remarks appeared to be aimed at independent voters as well as at Congressional leaders, and stood in contrast to the Republican focus on the party’s conservative base, both in the budget showdown and in presidential politics.

There is so much irony here. A part of it issues from the fact that Obama’s deficit politics sit to the right of those held by the Congressional Republicans (see this)! Lest we forget, Obama’s maximalist demands will, if realized, destroy the remnants of the New Deal and the Great Society. It is because of this that Obama is publicly redefining the party he leads! Obama is not seeking to implement structural reforms intended to benefit the “lesser people,” reforms that will actually maintain the integrity of America’s sparse social safety net by putting this net on a stronger fiscal foundation. Obama wants to implement an austerity program during an economic downturn. Even Lawrence Summers calls for another stimulus. Barack Obama, the transformational President, is now pushing the Reagan Revolution closer to completion.

The irony increases in intensity because the Deficit Crisis is nonsense. The United States has a demand constrained economy. Aggregate demand today will not prompt investment in the real economy, thus triggering job growth. If investors lack confidence in anything, it is because they believe — correctly! — that markets do and will not exist for the goods they would produce if they were to invest in the real economy. Therefore, at this very moment, the Federal government ought to increase the deficit by implementing programs meant to pull the economic system it governs out of its slide back into recession. Obama, as we have seen, will have none of that. He wants to give away the store, to enrich his rentier benefactors. He also wants to degrade further the conditions of labor in this country by securing a high-unemployment, low-wage labor market. This is a political decision. It is one that he has made. And we know he made this decision because his administration now has a contractionary fiscal policy, and a policy such as this lacks an antidote to the unemployment crisis. But the social problems caused by a high-unemployment, low-wage economy which also lacks a welfare state able to secure the well-being of those entitled to its benefits do not trouble Obama. I would guess he believes their solution will come sometime in the future, perhaps not long after a single-payer system comes on line.

A final irony, as I see it, is this: The Republicans and the Tea Party crazies are, at best, impediments to achieving Obama’s great reactionary political cause. They mostly seem to be stalking horses Obama uses to achieve the policies he wants. This is, as Elich points out, “Class war without mercy.” It is a war of choice for Barack Obama.

Those crazy Tea Partiers

According to E.J. Dionne, the House Republicans are now seeking to reprise and play two past Republican strategies. On the one hand, Dionne assumes they want to blackmail a Democratic President by threatening to shut-down the Federal government. It is, of course, obvious the House Republicans adopted this tactic. Their choice might seem surprising to observers today since the use of it did not favor the Republican Party the last time a reactionary upsurge helped the Republican Party to gain control of the House. As we know, President Clinton soundly defeated Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans he led in a political battle over the budget, a conflict which ultimately destroyed Gingrich’s House career.

But choose it they did.

On the other hand, Dionne asserts the House Republicans are also drawing upon a tactic used by another disgraced Republican — Richard Nixon.

Richard Nixon espoused what he called “the madman theory.” It’s a negotiating approach that induces the other side to believe you are capable of dangerously irrational actions and leads it to back down to avoid the wreckage your rage might let loose.

House Republicans are pursuing their own madman theory in budget negotiations, with a clever twist: Speaker John Boehner is casting himself as the reasonable man fully prepared to reach a deal to avoid a government shutdown. But he also has to satisfy a band of “wild-eyed bomb-throwing freshmen,” as he characterized new House members in Friday’s Wall Street Journal by way of comparing them fondly to his younger self.

Thus are negotiators for President Obama and Senate Democrats forced to deal not only with Republican leaders in the room but also with a menacing specter outside its confines. As “responsible” public officials, Democrats are asked to make additional concessions just to keep the bomb-throwers at bay.

This is the perverse genius of what the House Republicans are up to: Nobody really thinks that anything like their $57 billion in remaining proposed budget cuts can pass. It’s unlikely that all of their own members are confident about all of the cuts they have voted for. But by taking such a large collection of programs hostage, the GOP can be quite certain to win many more fights than it would if each reduction were considered separately.

Does Dionne’s madman claim make sense in this case? Yes, I believe it does, for we may safely assume members of the recent Freshman Republican class do need a leash, newspaper on the floor when their master is otherwise occupied and rabies shots. The Tea Party Freshman class is, when evaluated with less facetious terms, composed of true believers of the reactionary line. It is unsurprising, then, that they largely ran on an anti-Obama platform while also challenging the Republican Party establishment, which they believed to be inauthentic in a decisive way.

That said, House Speaker Boehner, a co-author of the Contract with America, hardly provides a politically healthy alternative to the reactionaries. Dionne suggests as much when he states that “Boehner can just sit back and smile benignly as Democrats battle over which concessions they should give him.” Boehner can smile because he only wants to use the intransigence of reactionary freshman to blackmail President Obama just as Gingrich tried to blackmail Clinton years ago.

Why, we might now ask, would Boehner and the ‘sensible’ and ‘moderate’ House Republicans take the risk by using this dangerous tactic in 2011 given the known outcome it produced in 1995-1996? Why would Boehner wish to court Gingrich’s fate? The answer, I believe, can be gleaned in the fact that Obama is hardly a friend of Federal budget deficits, that he is committed to political compromise with the rightwing and that he has already gone on record as supporting austere budget goals. Consequently, Boehner and his followers can depend on Obama and the Congressional Democrats to reach a favorable agreement with them. They have bent to the will of the Republican Party before and can be expected to do so again.

And it is because Obama is a neoliberal opportunist that the reactionaries and their leaders in Washington can and will perform once more a chore for which they are well-suited, namely, serving as an origin of a political gravity that pulls the Federal Government and the national public political discourse to the right. America’s reactionaries — the black hole in American politics, an oblivion into which everything plunges.

The workings of this mechanism are well-known. It was, of course, working quite effectively during the Health Care Debate, and served, as we know, to pull Washington away from policy choices favored by the majority of the country while simultaneously pushing Washington towards those policies favored by the Health Care Industry.

In sum, then, the Federal budget battle and a possible government shut-down provide little more than evidence showing that the duopoly party system is functioning normally. By working normally I mean to say that the reactionaries will merely provide coverage for Washington’s ‘sensible’ politicians while they rid the country of the remnants of the New Deal.

Fortunately, common Americans — the “lesser people” — now have a political alternative to complying with the machinations of the duopoly parties. This alternative emerged in Madison, Wisconsin. It began when the “lesser people” refused the fate Scott Walker wished to give to them. It then proceeded to motivate the soft-liners in the Democratic Party to risk their careers by supporting a non-partisan social movement. While the Battle for Wisconsin has not been won, Americans can use these events to relearn what it means to be a citizen.

Cross-posted to FireDogLake