Profound changes in the U.S. economy that began during the 1970’s should’ve triggered public-policy responses to mitigate their bad side effects, keeping the middle class strong and growing in part by increasing public-sector investment, maintaining the country’s manufacturing base and backstopping organized labor.
Instead, public policy accelerated, intensified and entrenched the bad side effects, with the predictable result that our manufacturing base is gutted, organized labor is a shadow of its former self, and our shrinking middle class is hurting in ways unknown since the Great Depression.
We can account for how the world’s largest, strongest, most dynamic economy was brought low, and how the democracy with the most productive, stable and affluent society ended up deep in debt, with high unemployment, no job security, a tattered social safety net and gridlocked government, in five words: ignorance, bigotry, ideology, inattention and selfishness.
Ignorance: Most Americans think they know more about our country — its geography, Constitution, history, government, society and economy — than they actually do. A few decades back, a reporter went out on the streets of midtown Manhattan and read the First Amendment to a random sampling of passers-by. He asked them if that should be the law in our country. A shockingly high percentage said no.
For an equally revealing exercise at home or at work, hand out sheets of paper and challenge your friends, family or co-workers to name the 50 states. Then, ask them to explain in a simple paragraph the main differences between U.S. senators and representatives. If those in your group are all or mostly college educated, see if even one can accurately define capitalism, democratic socialism, state socialism and communism. Finally, ask for a simple paragraph explaining how banks create money.
Good luck. And remember, in our system, the people decide who to trust with the levers of governmental power. The people decide who will make public policy affecting our society, and our national and economic security. Thus, it’s reasonable to expect that the less voters know, the more likely they are to let themselves be flim-flammed into electing ignorant, incompetent, dishonest, ideologically warped and/or crackpot-crazy public officials.
Bigotry: If you’ve ever used a shoehorn to ease a foot into a stiff new shoe, you can appreciate how useful people steeped in prejudice are to low-road politicians. A congressional district or state with a high percentage of racially biased people can be used to slide an unscrupulous and/or incompetent politician into a House of Representatives or Senate seat, or other high office, in much the same way. This explains the long, lucrative political careers of people like South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms.
That these two examples are Southerners figures, because unfortunately, from Virginia to East Texas and including all or large parts of border states of the old Confederacy, a relatively high percentage of white residents are more or less prejudiced against people of different races and backgrounds. We want to be clear, however, that not all white Southerners are racists, and that those who are vary greatly in how far they’ll go in acting on prejudice. We also want to be clear that, unfortunately, bigots can be found in every part of the country.
Our reason for explaining the above is to make an unassailable point. That is, white Southern voters are overwhelmingly Republicans for reasons other than just a regionwide desire to shrink and weaken the federal government and limit federal taxation. Social, economic and political traditions, all of them intertwined with racial prejudice, are key factors in the relationship. Simmering resentment and elements of spite are no less so.
Politically, this means the GOP is the party of the South. It also means proactive support from the overwhelming majority of white Southern voters is essential to Republicans winning the White House and controlling Congress. The South and GOP need, use and empower each other in ways harmful to our whole country.
We suspect many white Southern Republican voters who aren’t rich and powerful know in some corner of their mind that trickle-down economics is a scam that hurts them. They nevertheless continue supporting Republicans dedicated to trickle-down policy for three reasons. First, they believe doing so protects their Southern way of life, with its vestiges of racial bias and separation. Second, they’ll be damned if they’ll join their black neighbors in voting for Democrats after what Democrats did to their Southern way of life through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the mid-1960’s, and other interference. Third, they’ve been cushioned from some of the economic pain caused by trickle-down failures due to migration to their region of Northeast and Rust Belt businesses. Pork-barrel largesse arranged by their senators, representatives and Republican presidents has helped buffer the South’s economy as well.
Thanks to the Southern-Republican marriage, in the 31 years since 1980 voters have elected three Republican presidents who served a total of 20 years and two Democrats who served (so far) just 10.5. Two of the Republicans were rooted in the Deep South part of Texas. A third Texan, Ross Perot, ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1992, winning 19 percent of the vote. Now, another Texas Republican is running for president.
During that 31 years the economy returned to boom-and-bust cycles. It gave us debacles like the savings and loan collapse, the Enron scandal and collapse, the tech and housing bubbles and wreckage that followed them. Through it all, working-class and middle-class Americans’ net worth, earning power and other aspects of economic well-being and security declined.
None of this is coincidental. The longterm best interests of all Americans, of the country as a whole, is not the top priority of most white Southern voters or of Republican activists and politicians wherever they hail from. Race, resentment, religion and regionalism are. Political power and control are.
Ideology: Educated, informed and involved people legitimately hold differing views and preferences about public policy. When the clash is among honest, conscientious people devoted to the country’s longterm best interests, those differences hinge on facts and truth. Issues are debated and decided within certain bounds. So, if a particular approach repeatedly yields bad results, those behind the approach will be willing to try something different. It means evidence from carefully conducted studies will be weighed fairly and discussed sensibly, changing minds, votes and policy.
When the situation deviates as far from that ideal as is currently the case, politics becomes a war of wills, dirty tricks and power plays. There is constant warfare without bullets between people committed to serving the public interest and bullies who’ll say and do whatever it takes to get their way, regardless of the country’s needs. Ideology becomes a combination of cover story and sucker bait used to reel in the gullible, poorly educated and uninformed.
In such a political climate, one side always becomes adept at twisting truth and rejecting facts. The resulting nonsense is fashioned into propaganda with which to inundate the gullible, poorly educated and uninformed. Propaganda is also used to win the loyalty of people heavily motivated by resentment.
Inattention: Democracy is utterly dependent on an informed, interested and engaged public, if the people’s interests are to be well served. That doesn’t mean all Americans could or should become avid political junkies. It does mean millions who now mostly ignore government and politics between major elections, unless there’s big crisis, scandal or war, must make the effort to be reasonably well — and honestly — informed.
Keeping up with news and background stories on current events from ethical, independent sources is a requirement. Watching a (nominal) half-hour evening newscast full of infotainment, human-interest stories and fluff doesn’t suffice. Neither does scanning newspaper headlines, only rarely stopping to read the first paragraphs of a story before moving on. Relying on a broadcast extension of a political party for propaganda misrepresented as news is worse than worthless. So is listening to rantings of a misanthropic bully and greedmonger who’s grown rich on spewing lies, distortions, racism and anger.
Most employed Americans are busy people with limited free time. An incredible array of entertainment and diversions compete for a share of the little they get. Becoming honestly, factually well informed requires commitment and self-discipline.
Judging by developments such as the rise of Glenn Beck as a commentator, Sarah Palin becoming a vice presidential candidate and Sharron Angle’s getting traction as a major-party-backed Senate candidate, relying on legitimate news sources and digesting details as well as headlines isn’t standard operating procedure for millions. Widespread public willingness to buy into death-panels and “birther” propaganda indicates how incapable or unwilling many Americans are to exercise sound judgment and self-discipline.
Selfishness: Like the poor, the selfish will always be with us. That pernicious human failing takes many forms and can easily lapse into criminality. In politics, it’s sometimes vaunted as a virtue by conservative and libertarian extremists. Paradoxically, many of those justify their attitude and actions with self-servingly distorted notions about Christianity.
An amazing aspect of contemporary American politics is how efficiently people who’ve divorced themselves from basic honesty, responsibility and even reality have managed to meld greed, selfishness, authoritarianism and ruthlessness into a formula for winning and keeping political power.
A way up and out: Try to imagine a period of three presidential election cycles, 12 short years, wherein all the ridiculous, self-punishing nonsense we’ve highlighted is reversed. Try to imagine an electorate that overwhelmingly sets aside ideology, prejudice, regionalism and selfishness, instead concentrating on doing its homework, paying strict attention and holding elected officials accountable for any misleading and missteps.
Try to imagine “commentators” and politicians who pander to prejudice, suspicion and fear being roundly ignored, between elections and, especially, as most Americans cast their votes. Try to imagine our political landscape all but cleared of politicians and officeholders caught out in lies or spotlighted repeatedly for outrageous hypocrisy.
Try to imagine an America where truth trumps party loyalty and even the most costly and uncomfortable facts are accepted by virtually all Americans for what they are, and for what they mean.
If you can even imagine those things and encourage others to imagine them as well, they could become our way out of 30 years of division, disarray and decline.