On account of what I do for a living and what I do for fun (namely this), people ask me questions about politics on occasion. Not often, mind you, because politics is a subject on which everyone is automatically an expert. But it happens here and there. Recently one of my friends asked me what should have been a very easy question; unfortunately it stumped me. So as people with my personality type tend to do, I obsessed over it mentally for a few hours until I satisfied myself with an answer.
The question, which came at the tail end of a lengthy discussion of how far to the right American politics and public policy have lurched, was: What was the starting point on the road to Teabaggistan? What one single event or point in time, if we could go back and change it, might have avoided (or at least delayed) the ideological and practical mess in which we find ourselves today?
"Stumped" was a poor word choice. Rather, I had an answer but I figured it was too obvious and therefore the real answer must be something deep and convoluted that only a true Doctor of Thinking such as myself could elucidate. After much thought, though, the best answers I can concoct are far from obscure historical events.
The first and most obvious one that came to mind was the election of Reagan. That is the moment in which the official policy of the government became "Government is the problem; government is the enemy." This began 30 years of Wrecking Crew governance, where the sole purpose of governing was to govern so badly that people would agree that government can do no good and should be done away with. It was the point at which one could say things like "Government should be drowned in a bathtub" in public discourse without being considered an insane person.
The second candidate was the passage of NAFTA with the support of congressional Republicans and a Democratic president. The enactment of NAFTA was the beginning of the end of the American economy; at that moment, the death of manufacturing jobs and labor unions became inevitable, a matter of when and not if. This event is a good choice because it signaled the end of the Democratic Party as a legitimate liberal party and the beginning of the New Democrat (i.e., Republican Lite) economic policy. Out with the New Deal and Great Society, in with welfare reform and globalization. From this point forward, we have had one party on economic policy. The two major parties differ only in how they wish to implement the neoliberal Wall Street agenda.
To give myself a few Cred Points for avoiding obvious answers, I also considered the Dixiecrat separatist movement of 1948 with the presidential candidacy of Strom Thurmond. At this point, the collapse of the New Deal Democratic coalition around the issue of race became inevitable, although the process took nearly thirty years to play out. It presaged the Civil Rights movements, the GOP Southern Strategy, and the unified conservatism – social, foreign policy, and economic – that Reagan was able to bring to his party. Because this unfolded over such a long period of time, I don't consider it to be a great answer to a question seeking one pivotal event.
I'd rank my three answers in the order given. Reagan was the catalyst for our current ideological condition. NAFTA ushered in our current economic condition. And the southern white exodus from the Democratic Party made possible the polarized social/moral politics of the last few decades. One could make an argument that the 1-2 punch of the Vietnam War and Watergate initiated Americans' distrust of government, but it took an effective leader to make it an ideology rather than an undercurrent.
Reagan and NAFTA. Those are the best starting points for a 90-second version of the how and why of America 2013.