THE PIVOT

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.

76 thoughts on “THE PIVOT”

  • The first thing that came to mind was the aftermath of the government shutdown of the early nineties. I think the fact that it lead to a political loss for republicans really snapped something loose for those people. They really thought it was a great idea at the time.

  • Is there a third necessary element to this–and I might very well locate it during the Reagan presidency–namely, the collapse of the role of the media as an investigative body, skeptical of the government's version of events? Mark Hertsgaard's ON BENDED KNEE makes a good case for the Reagan years as the moment in which the press essentially quit the hard part of their jobs and decided that they would simply recite the official narrative.

    If all there is in the ether is an official version, then rampant speculation–rather than actual investigation–becomes the predominant discussion in the media. And from there, it's simply a matter of letting party politics determine one's rampant speculation–either pro- or con- The Narrative–and boom, you got Drudge and Fox News making shit up and calling it journalism because why not?

    A stupidly uninformed populace who thinks that they are very informed because they're able to get their news from a confirmation-bias-boutique of televised and on-line sources is surely an essential reason for why the Teaparty exists–the crazy bastards have the conviction of people who think that they know The Truth because it has been reported to them as such by manipulative pricks who don't distinguish between a "version" of the facts and the facts themselves.

  • I was just shy of voting age in 1980. But when Reagan was elected, I knew I was fucked. He shredded the social contract.

  • "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."

    I would say they were being exactly what we should expect a liberal party to be. Let us not forget that liberalism is the historical ideology of the bourgeoisie, who rose from being the "middle class" to the ruling class of society.

  • Part of the Reagan legacy that burns brightest was the breaking of the ATC Union. Even as a 5th Grader I knew that if they can break that type of union things were not looking good.

  • I think it's really Civil Rights. You can fight the plutocrats and win. You can fight the bigots and win. But you can't fight them both at the same time. You need to have either the bigots on board (FDR's coalition) or the plutocrats (New Democrats) or you're going to get your ass kicked.

    However, over the last few debates we've had a lot of victories over bigotry despite this being one long retreat in the face of plutocracy.

    Hopefully eventually changing minds and demographics will get us to the point where you can win without cutting a deal with either devil.

  • middle seaman says:

    Somewhat disagree on Reagan and totally disagree on NAFTA. Carter started it. He was a non liberal Democrat with confused ideas about politics and the talent of a cockroach. Carter was a centrist and not a Democrat. Reagan just nailed it. By the way, in 2008 we reelected Carter.

    The problem with NAFTA is that it wasn't followed by a AU, American Union, a single economic entity made up of the US, Mexico and Canada with free movement of trade and citizens. It would have improved Mexico's economy substantially and made the US way more attractive for business.

    Furthermore, there is no NAFTA with India and China and still a lot of US jobs have migrated to these countries. NAFTA legalized limited global trade. It's impossible in the Internet age to stop globalization as it indeed spread as brush fire.

  • I have to imagine that the removal of lead from paint and gas had a lot to do with the rise of the tea party. You take the lead out of household products…well that's a lot of lead and you gotta do SOMETHING with it. That some seems to have been to dump it in the reservoirs of rural and southern towns.

  • Let's not forget the collapse of the USSR in 1991. This had two major consequences:
    (1) A general belief that socialism had failed and USA-style capitalism was the only game in town.
    (2) Significantly reduced fear of a workers revolution. The reds-under-the-bed paranoia of the establishment may have been largely delusional, but it did discourage them from exploiting those lower down the scale.

  • Long time reader, first time poster:

    Before the election of Reagan, I would cite the success of Proposition 13 in 1978 as a milestone event on the Road to Teabaggery

  • @middle seaman:

    I do think that the election of Reagan was pivotal. His partnership with Thatcher was significant as well; she was more articulate as a spokesperson for unrestrained capitalism (much like Tony Blair promoting the War On Terror (TM) a generation later). Somewhat inept, centrist governments were nothing new on either side of the Atlantic, but Reagan/Thatcher took things in a radical new direction and we are still living with the consequences.

    The problem with NAFTA is that it wasn't followed by a AU, American Union, a single economic entity made up of the US, Mexico and Canada

    I can't speak for Mexico, but Canada *does not want* to be the 51st state of the USA. And that is basically what it would amount to, since the USA would have about 75% of the population of this combined entity. An "Atlantic Union" of North America plus the European Union might be interesting, but the USA would never consent to an arrangement where they could be outvoted by a bunch of cheese-eating, wine-drinking Europeans.

    there is no NAFTA with India and China

    The World Trade Organization (founded 1995) was the driver behind global removal of trade barriers. Arguably NAFTA (1994) was a key precursor to the WTO.

  • @middle seaman (again)

    It's impossible in the Internet age to stop globalization as it indeed spread as brush fire.

    Not so. The Internet allows free movement of information. The movement of physical goods can still be controlled; not doing so was a deliberate policy choice.

  • Just to clarify Ed's point about NAFTA — it was ratified in 1993 when Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress, but Clinton would never have got it through without Republican support. In hindsight, this was the major break between left and centre within the Democratic party, leading to the almost total ascendancy of the centrists under Clinton and Obama. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nafta :

    With much consideration and emotional discussion, the House of Representatives approved NAFTA on November 17, 1993, 234-200. The agreement's supporters included 132 Republicans and 102 Democrats. NAFTA passed the Senate 61-38. Senate supporters were 34 Republicans and 27 Democrats. Clinton signed it into law on December 8, 1993; it went into effect on January 1, 1994.

  • @middle seaman

    I think you're right about Carter. Deregulation of the airlines and trucking actually took place during the Carter administration even though Reagan is often wrongly credited.

    I think the right-wing narrative has prevented Carter from being seen as the centrist he was. In order for Reagan to be the "Bestest President ever!" Carter has to be portrayed as somewhere to the left of Fidel Castro.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    All good, folks.

    I rank them this way:
    1. In the late 60's, and throughout the 70's, Republicans inviting the Manichean Dominionist Christian Evangelicals into their party, and the political process.
    2. Nixon's "Southern Strategy."
    3. The elimination of "The Equal Time Rule."
    And now for the final, and most dangerous step:
    4. After Obama defeated McCain, Republicans bringing the John Birch Society loons out of the locked basements and attics their families kept them in, taking off their straight-jackets, cutting off their Hannibal Lecter face-shields, and inviting them into the political process.

    Rich sociopaths like the Koch Brothers, whose father was a founder of The John Birch Society, created the astro-turfed Tea Party movement to help take the foul stink off the Republican brand after W's fiasco-filled mis-adminstration, and then inviting the Manichean Birchers into the political process.
    Thus, the Tea Party combines the worst elements of Manichean Authoritarian types, like racists, Evangelicals, and John Birch Society, types.
    This is where "Death to compromise!", met "Extremism in the defense of liberty, is no vice!", met "America – love it or leave it!", and, or, better yet – "Death to infide… people who don't agree with us Conservatives!!!"

    And now, the powers-that-be who freed this sociopathic genii, can't seem to either control it, or get it back into the bottle!

    And this would all be hysterically funny, except that we are one horrific domestic terrorist act, and/or another slide back into serious rec/depr-ession, away from President Ted Cruz, and VP Allen West.

  • I agree with the placement of Reagan near the top, but I'd be interested in both digging a little deeper, and pursuing a little bit of a counterfactual.

    First the counterfactual. Let's say things had been different and Reagan hadn't won. Isn't it possible that the "government is the problem" premises on which his campaign was based could have/would have taken hold and developed, just a bit more slowly than otherwise? The presidency itself undoubtedly did damage, but I think the pseudointellectual underpinnings were laid more by the campaign and its premise than by the presidency itself.

    Second the digging: What made that message, that premise, a seed which found such fertile ground? Was it the success of the Southern Strategy, and the failure of the post-racial paradise to come about in the 4 years between 1964 and 1968? Was it the fact that the stagflation of the late '70s and the Iranian hostage crisis happened to come about under a Democratic president? That is, if Gerald Ford had won in 1976, would Reagan have won in 1980?

    I think, looking at it this way, it really all comes back down to race, and to the ability to channel racial resentment just under the surface. Reagan crystallized a lot of it, but it was started in earnest by Nixon. When Reagan says "government is the problem," he clearly means, at least to some extent, "government [that gives benefits to undeserving black people rather than helping out deserving white folks] is the problem", and it's the underlying composition of society at that point (and at this point, let's be honest, it's not that different) that made that message take root and flourish.

  • I think all of these point to a characteristic that is 'Americanism' that many, but especially Reagan, tapped into. The perfect storm of anti-government/anti-intellectualism/racism that is at the core of much of who we are.

  • OneMadClown says:

    Carter was a centrist and not a Democrat. Reagan just nailed it. By the way, in 2008 we reelected Carter.

    middle seaman – please explain how Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are less "Democrats" than Bill Clinton.

  • It was in the late 1970's and early 1980's. There was a lot of things going on then, in no particular order:

    Arthur Laffer and his stupid ideas about taxes.
    The rise of the Moral Majority.
    Prop 13 (kudos J!!!)
    Paul Volker and Loan Shark Fed rates (appointed by Jimmy Carter.)
    Reagan firing the Air Traffic Controllers
    Iranian hostage mess.
    The press giving Reagan a pass on everything after he was shot.
    Carter deregulating Airlines
    OPEC cartel raising oil prices in the 70's and Saudi Arabia undercutting OPEC in the 80's and selling oil really cheap.

    As you can see, most of this can be laid at the feet of Carter and Reagan. If Ford had not pardoned Nixon he would have likely defeated Carter, and without Carter no Reagan.

    So I guess I'll cast my my lot with "Ford Pardons Nixon"

  • I would throw in a nomination for Lee Atwater. I think the ghost of Willie Horton is still with us as demonstrated by politicians' unwillingness to do anything that might possibly be held against them.

  • I pretty much agree with Ed's analysis, though I would put NAFTA at the top of the list. There's no doubt that Prop 13 and Reagan's ascendancy were huge, but I think NAFTA is key because it prevented the pendulum from swinging back away from their extremism. The foisting of "free trade" and globalization on us not only mortally wounded the labor movement, and destroyed the bargaining power of workers, but it essentially removed all political levers from the progressive middle class and working class, by turning the Democratic party into a corrupt, faux opposition party – who's only real political argument is in holding up crazed Bircher Republicans for their constituents to contemplate.

    With our economic wealth and power destroyed, with our democracy ridiculous, is it any wonder that the main thing that the parties can agree on (other than graft) is that the military, security apparatus and the surveillance state be well-funded and politically sacrosanct.

  • I tend to look at two events: First the hijacking of the Democratic Party convention to name Harry Truman as VP rather than Henry Wallace. Wallace would probably not have created the CIA nor would he have fomented a Cold War with the Soviet Union and he probably would have been able to get a national health plan through Congress. Social democracy cannot coexist with imperial militarism. Truman paved the way for McCarthy in many ways.

    Then we have to account for the rise of the right and that seems to be tied to the rise of fundamentalist religion and to some extent Roe v Wade. That ruling gave those who wanted to hitch their wacky religion to political action a cause celebre.

  • Number Three says:

    I think the "single point in time" frame is not the best approach–as the number of potential points others have raised demonstrates. The fact is that the USA is effed by a long series of points (path dependency). If one has to pick a single point in time, it was when the first African slaves reached the New World (or the part that became the USA). That set up, in part, the divide b/w North and South (economically, then ideologically) that still infects American politics. Others have pointed to the Civil Rights era, and that's right, but we had a Civil Rights era b/c of hundreds of years of white supremacy. The intensity of hatred for Obama among the teatards is also racist in orientation (at least in part). So for the single "point", I'd pick the nation's awful history of white supremacy. But that's not a "point", but really our national past.

  • I'm going to take issue with a couple of your pivot points. Why was Reagan elected? It wasn't just because so many people hated Carter. When Ford pardoned Nixon, he also pardoned the GOP, since they didn't have their party members dragged through the mud for years. That also gave us Rumsfeld and Cheney and Caspar Weinberger and some other gifts that kept on giving…if Nixon had gone to trial, we'd be in a very different country today, politically speaking.

    Economically, automation had been already been destroying manufacturing jobs for decades by '93. Remember the original Ford Taurus? Little-known fact: it required half as many man-hours to build as the car it replaced. Today there are factories where they don't bother turning the lights on unless a human has to go on the floor and fix something. NAFTA was more of a symptom than the disease itself. The problem with the Democrats is that they took the same view of unrequired workers that Wall Street did: close their eyes and hope they go away. NAFTA was a pure giveaway to plutocrats and certainly accelerated some bad trends, but it didn't cause them.

  • I am a bit dissatisfied with these answers because they (a) leave the deeper question unanswered why neoliberal policies suddenly became so attractive to so many people and (b) are a bit parochial. It is not only the USA, after all, but virtually the entire developed world that has been on a privatization, deregulation, tax-lowering and safety net shredding binge since around 1980. It started a bit earlier here and a bit later there, it went a bit faster in Britain and slower in Germany, but the tune is the same. Any answer that contains Reagan but not Thatcher, Schr

  • I am a bit dissatisfied with these answers because they (a) leave the deeper question unanswered why neoliberal policies suddenly became so attractive to so many people and (b) are a bit parochial. It is not only the USA, after all, but virtually the entire developed world that has been on a privatization, deregulation, tax-lowering and safety net shredding binge since around 1980. It started a bit earlier here and a bit later there, it went a bit faster in Britain and slower in Germany, but the tune is the same. Any answer that contains Reagan but not Thatcher, Schr

  • (Sorry about this. I assume your blog does not like Umlaute? Can you delete the first two?)

    I am a bit dissatisfied with these answers because they (a) leave the deeper question unanswered why neoliberal policies suddenly became so attractive to so many people and (b) are a bit parochial. It is not only the USA, after all, but virtually the entire developed world that has been on a privatization, deregulation, tax-lowering and safety net shredding binge since around 1980. It started a bit earlier here and a bit later there, it went a bit faster in Britain and slower in Germany, but the tune is the same. Any answer that contains Reagan but not Thatcher, Schroder or Howard is falling short.

    My own suspicion is that the entire reason the wealthiest and most powerful elements of Western civilization ever agreed to have a welfare state etc was that they were mortally afraid communism would win, perhaps even that communism would turn out to be the better economic model, which by some accounts even the leaders of the Free World themselves considered a reasonable possibility as late as the early 1960ies. Sputnik shock and all that.

    But around the late 1960ies, early 1970ies two things became clear: state communism as practiced in the Warsaw pact countries was an inferior economic model destined to ossify and lose ground, and the working class of the West was increasingly satisfied with its lot, increasingly unlikely to support a communist revolution, and, perhaps most importantly, increasingly apathetic towards labour parties and trade unions, now that they did not seem so important any more.

    It is perhaps no accident that neoliberal ideas gained momentum in the 1970ies and started to achieve political hegemony at the end of that decade. Maybe certain groups of political and economic actors simply decided that they did not need to worry any more about blow-back from making people poorer again because the only groups that could have channeled that blow-back were either discredited or asleep.

  • The rise of the tea party coincides with the aging of the baby boomers into retirement. As Alan Simpson once opined, this is a generation that hates their grandchildren and is happy with rapacity and wishes to leave nothing behind. Hence "drill baby, drill".

    They will have their social security, Medicare, and medicaid, and don't you dare touch it. But more than happy to gut SNAP and school lunches. This is the essence of the tea party; a rapacious grandpa shitting on junior. Just look at the tea party demographics. Old people aren't formed ex nihilo.

  • What about the steady decline in K-12 education starting in the 1970's? Since that time test scores (I know, I know) compared to other industrialized countries have slipped, as have high school graduation rates. Inequality (racial and geographic) in education is horrifyingly bad.

    If our population can't read, write or do math, how do we expect them to think critically about the outcomes of their trips to the ballot box?

  • As someone who's been listening to Gore Vidal's last interview (on YouTube) and reading his collected essays "The United States" as an ebook, I reflexively wonder how he might have answered this question. I'm ill-prepared to answer for him, but he might have taken the long view, seen Roosevelt's policies, the Civil Rights Act, etc. as mere aberrations in a long history of effectively, and proudly, right-wing governance.

    Our liberal gestures (e.g., ending slavery) have often been milksops for bleeding hearts that served other, more strategic purposes, in a history rife with Injun extermination, imperial conquest (the Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii), and corporate coddling (United Fruit Company) with government-supplied military force. The owners of America (Vidal might argue) have always been in control, in spite of our democratic posturings, and it is just that, since Reagan aka Lonesome Rhodes, the un-rich have been recruited in huge numbers to assist the owners in acquiring an ever more open rule. Big Brother comes in two flavors, since choice is part of the illusion.

    If anyone here can approximate Vidal's take on the question better than this (an easy feat, I'm sure), I'd love to hear it.

  • I agree with Ed's analysis, but agree with Talisker that the benefit of having Margaret Thatcher as an ally at that precise point in time cannot be underestimated.

    And to Talisker's two points about the collapse of the Soviet Union I would add a third.

    It allowed America's political class to develop all of the social control mechanisms of the Soviet Union that they had envied for so long – State surveillance, militarised police forces, a sort of enslavement and political impotence mentality in the citizenry, State authoritarianism – and reject all those grand Socialist mechanisms of the Soviet Union such as State housing, State healthcare, relatively flat income distribution, State development of infrastructure etc.

    What a bargain!

  • middle seaman says:

    Most of us can agree that Ed didn't intend to say the Reagan by himself destroyed the Democrats, but he is a more than reasonable sign post. Most of us agree to that.

    As for NAFTA, comments to blog post are not the best way for a constructive discussion. DADT was deemed the worse crime on earth until Admiral Mullen broke the gay glass ceiling (Obama run fast to claim the credit). We all comfortably forget that DADT was the best the Democrats could get in 1993-94. This was the camel's nose. This broke the taboo. The current way too late success of equal rights to LBGT wouldn't have happened had the early 90s push totally failed.

    NAFTA is global trade first formalization. You can fight it, I don't think it was avoidable. AU means that each country has an equal vote. That's the way the EU works. Nothing moves without consensus.

    The Internet is where Amazon is. Amazon sells shoes, books and audio system. That's not information.

  • If we're just talking Teabaggistan, then I'd agree that Reagan is a good starting point with the "government is the problem" nonsense. Not that that sentiment didn't exist before him, but he brought the megaphone and the loud voice.

    Next I'd say the rise of of right wing tools via radio (like Limbaugh, for example) and Fox "news" later on. They were/are able to saturate the airwaves and reach/rile up a lot of people with their stupidity and foolishness. This was amplified exponentially during the whole Clinton-Lewinsky ordeal.

    Lastly, I'd say the public in general for letting themselves be hustled by the likes of used car salesmen like Limbaugh and Hannity and for voting the same morons back in to office year after year.

  • I'd like to blame Carter, but he just got whacked with the jib as it swung to the right, and noticed it. Reagan, as first possible president ever elected while senile, and therefore a muppet, just had a very large hand up his ass.

    1973 was the year Western Civilization took a shit in the shower, slipped on it, and cracked its head open. It lay there moaning and pissing itself until 1978 (hysteresis effect lf the built world), which, if you look hard enough, was the Zenith Year. But even by then the middle class and working was starting to hollow out from the inside from automation, robots, and computers. NAFTA merely accelerated the trend, the same way comet Chicxulub put an exclamation mark on the decline of the dinosaur. It just looked like those little brown peoples was stealing our jobs because they was cheaper than robots, but…

    So, it's just been false prosperity and one panic-driven stimulus after the next, and then the stupids finally noticed, like what-his-name, Rick Santelli. And now get ready for the steady slide back to feudalism, which apparently is the default setting when you fall into the trap of agriculture. (I'd use the movie Elysium as an example, but it is just so fundamentally ass-backwards in portraying the Rich in Space. Space is a shitty place to live, and that's where you send the poor to slave for you, if you can. You can't beat Earth for luxury living, and the Rich know it).

    Ironic indeed that our last great liberal president was Richard Milhouse Nixon, who never met a doomed civilization he didn't feel comfortable around…

  • @Alex SL: Great points, but I need to correct you on "Howard". It was actually under Keating and with Keating manoeuvring in the background of Hawke that lead to Aus becoming an "aspirational" society.

    Bob Carr was highly adept at selling off NSW assets to MacBank, then just happened to find a desk there when he quit politics—the first time. Now he's back and how he survived "the purge"?? So I wouldn't be surprised if he knifes Kev in the back this time around.

  • Great thread!

    I was thinking 1964– the Civil Rights Act (and more importantly the backlash against it– when Johnson said he'd lost the south for a generation he was seriously underestimating) and Goldwater's resounding defeat, which caused the hardcore 'wingers (Birchers, nativists, "free marketers", Randians, etc.) to Get Serious. Soon followed by Nixon/ Kevin Phillips' cynical and successful "Southern Strategy" in 1968, which killed the Democratic Party of the New Deal. As Mr. Charles P. Pierce says, it's Never About Race.

    Lot of excellent points above, however. Number Three, I originally was thinking back to maybe the failure of Reconstruction, but you're right, it's all turtles back to the nation's original sin of slavery. (Oh yeah, and the slaughter of the natives.)

    The oil shocks and stagflation and national humiliations of Vietnam and the Iranian hostage crisis in the 70s also surely set the stage for Reagan's ascent and all that came with it and with which we're still dealing.

  • I'd go farther back. Something around the OPEC oil embargo. That suddenly taught a generation of people that nothing was secure any more, money wasn't trustworthy, jobs weren't trustworthy (extremely weak labor market lasting ten years), followed by Nixon teaching us that government isn't trustworthy…. And that generation of young adults (30's) grew up to believe that only gold and selfishness and controlling the world oil supply were the keys to the future. They didn't control the world yet, but the seeds were sown. Trust no one! Get yours and pull up the ladder afterwards!

    Then you have the Carter presidency, not exactly the world's most successful, but the neo-liberals in the Democratic Party used it to stage an internal coup, eviscerating any future resistance from the Democrats. So after that, you only get neo-liberal Democratic people in high office. You get NAFTA, you get Reagan, you get Clinton and Obama.

    OPEC oil embargo also explains the worldwide nature (or at least western worldwide) of the change. Breaks power of labor through crappy labor market, teaches fear and selfishness and distrust to a generation.

  • @middle seamen
    It depends on what you mean by avoidable. When free trade was being pushed it was clear that it was specifically and intentionally engineered to usher in a race to the bottom on wages, environmental protection and labor law. In exchange for not rebelling we would get cheap shit to buy. Yes, we've been told that that was the one and only path that was available to us, but I think I'm going to call BS on that. With different leaders, we could have had globalization, which insisted that in order to take part in "free trade" you had to actually play by rules that included a living wage, environmental protections and a right to organize. That would have been globalization, too – but a different kind.

  • Alex SL, excellent point about neoliberalism's global successes. Hope I'm not being too US-centric, but I'd credit that largely to the widespread influence of Milton Friedman and the (University Of) Chicago school's rebuttal of Keynesianism and embrace of radical Free Market ideology, which was spread all over the world by the (U of) "Chicago boys" and supported by the fat corporate cash of The Hoover Institution (among other right wing think tanks).

  • In my mind, middle America accepting/agreeing with the murders at Kent State has always stood out as a significant milestone. Not a pivot in itself, but evidence that the pivot had already taken place by May 1970

  • @ anotherbozo: I can't speak to the entirety of Vidal's hypothetical answer, but I feel pretty confident that he'd probably locate the pivot at Truman, whom he once called "the president who did us the most harm" or some close variation thereof. I think the Cold War, the recognition of Israel, the Atomic Age, and the paranoia that enabled both government and media to run amok were his big "We're All Fucked" moments, all linked directly to Harry S. He certainly regarded Reagan as a mere blip on a downward trajectory–a sign of how far we'd fallen, rather than any kind of cause.

  • @ J. Dryden: thanks, I remember Vidal's screed against Truman, and he probably would give an answer specific to Ed's exact question re: right-wing seismic shifts of the past few decades. Gore took a very sweeping view of US history in his last years, though.

    BTW what I've been reading is called "State of the Union," not "United States," which is good too.

  • @Benny Lava:

    Considering where we are, I'm surprised it took this long for someone to bring up collective Boomer narcissism.

    Their historically unique lifelong power and comfort made the Doonesbury generation adept at self-congratulation, selling out, and pulling up ladders.

  • I used to read Dean Baker's Beat the Press columns all the time (got too depressing), and he often featured NYT and WP stories about how Italy had to allow big grocery chains to move in and destroy local grocers because it was "inevitable". The free market demanded it, you see.

    Baker pointed out that Italy is a democracy, and if the people there would rather pay slightly higher prices to preserve their perceived quality of life and traditions, they have every legal and moral right to do so.

    We had the right to turn down the glories of "free trade" as well, in exchange for less cheap shit at Wal-Mart. Alas, we chose not to exercise it.

  • @geoff

    Great link! Interesting that D are in red and R are in blue. Wallace did not pull enough electrol votes to swing the election. Humphrey was closer than I thought in the popular vote. I still think Kennedy was a better candidate than Humphrey, and would have won the popular vote; and maybe picked up a couple of more states.

    I'll go back to the link later, it's great!!!

  • As far as teabaggistan I always wondered if the starting point was the Reagan campaign and not Reagan himself. Sure he did some idiotic things *cough* but the current teabag memory of Reagan is certainly more powerful than the actual president was.

    I'm to young to remember the 1979/1980 presidential campaign but my guess is that it likely had more and/or a stronger message of 'look what the government did to you / elect me and we won't do that to you' than previous campaigns and formed the blueprint for all subsequent GOP platforms and teabaggishness.

  • @sluggo @Geoff:

    It's fascinating for me to be reminded that the hard Red State / Blue State divide didn't really exist before 2000.

    Can you imagine New York, California, Arizona, Louisiana, or Georgia breaking for the other team in 2016?

  • Many many good ideas here. I too considered mentioning 11/22/63, as the effective end of idealist governance, and I might want to make a case for various events in 1968 (Chicago, Paris, Prague, Tet) that seem to me to hang together in weird and foreboding ways.

    But for an actual pivot point, a singular event that stirred currents for years to come, I'd say the drafting and promulgation of the Powell Memo, which tied together a bunch of ideas about what the One Percenters' ideal society would look like, and spelled out the processes that would make it happen, from the demagogues (Fox, Rush) to dish out crude hatred and propaganda to the network of think tanks to provide intellectual cover, not forgetting the union busting and outsourcing to defund any people power alternative. Not everything was planned in advance– I don't think Francis Schaeffer had read the memo when he engineered his takeover of the religious right– but the various strains of American authoritarianism were adroit enough to take advantage of opportunities to work together.

    Now I dare to hope that these alliances will break down. The theocrats tend to want to bring on the End Times, but I think the business interests recognize what havoc an apocalyptic religious revival might wreak on their bottom line!

  • Great blog and comments. Thanks for the deep thoughts. I love a good "tipping point" type discussion.

    The exponential rate of change to our lives and lifestyles engendered by fast communication, fast mass communication, fast travel, widely available birth control, medical advances, etc. – essentially an exponential growth of technological change – have combined to create a world where there are simply too many people for the jobs available / workers needed to provide the basic food, clothing, shelter etc.

    In my opinion there are no problems that wouldn't be solved or mitigated with a globe containing one billion people instead of 6 billion going on who knows how many.

    I agree with many of the comments above that there is no one event/person to whom you could point and say "that did it", it'd be different now if…

    I sometimes wonder if the Native Americans had immunity to the old world diseases… If the horse were still in existence in the new world… If the Catholic church hadn't divided up the new world the way it did… If the Atlantic slave trade hadn't been economically viable… If Lee Harvey Oswald had missed…

  • I'll defend Ed's NAFTA position in this way – what he's saying isn't that NAFTA was itself the event that created the economy, it's who is saddled with it. It is essentially remembered as Clinton's bill, and regardless of who in Congress came up with it, it was the signal that labor had no political party working on their behalf. Prior to the Clinton administration you could argue that there was no 'labor party' because the Democrats were that by default. Now, there was no one. With no representation, it became possible to screw them.
    Under the 'what if it didn't happen' test, it would go like this. Say Clinton vetoes it. Sure, under Bush II he may have pushed it through. But the narrative in the electorate is still, if you think we need more globalization, vote R and if you think we need more protectionism, vote D. By having the dems own that there is literally no way you can vote for a national industrial policy.

  • Nixon impeachment. The right has been crazy obsessed with a notion that the Democrats only can win when they cheat since that time. In the 1990s the GOP was obsessed with finding something—anything—they could impeach Clinton over (remember when it was Travelgate? a real estate deal that lost the Clintons money? the Vince Foster murder?) and avenge that supposed wrong, and they've been rather open about hoping to impeach Obama, too. That's the ur-story for movement conservatism.

    That's only if you take the contingent view of history, if you believe that little events actually do have such big consequences. If you instead take the social-forces view, you'd probably see Teabaggistan as the confluence of some number of broader trends, including increased polarization of the two major parties and the increasing dominance of European-style partisan press, particularly in the Internet era, where a conservative Republican can spend 99% of his existence entirely within a media chamber that reinforces what he already believes. (You could add the absence of class consciousness that contributes to What's-the-Matter-with-Kansas-ism, but you should locate that at the peak of the labor movement in 1972, not Reagan or NAFTA. Lewis Powell's COC memo broke the world.)

    Now, it's worth noting that while Fox News and redstate.com are a novel (and unwelcome) development in American history, the partisan polarization is not. The ideological difference between the Democratic and Republican parties is high compared to recent memory, but it's approximately on the same level as the corresponding measure from the 1920s, and while the measurement can't be drawn, it's probably below what you would have found in the 1850s. Now, after that first period, the watershed of 1932 led to a generation-long beatdown by the Democrats, and the other led to a generation of electoral pwnership by the Republicans. But we haven't had that in a while; the last realigning election in America was 1958. So the parties just keep drifting apart, and now we are where we are.

  • In terms of the mood of the people in '80-'81, only a minority wanted Reagan. John Anderson took enough votes away from Carter to enable Ronzo. Then people became enchanted with the "selfishness is fine" message — so much more fun than the old 70s rants about living within the planet's limits. Then the downward spiral accelerated.

    There's another alternate history turning point worth mentioning. The Repubs persecuted Clinton unfairly and it was entirely right for him not to resign. But imagine if as a piece of practical politics he had resigned in favor of Gore. That would have made it seriously difficult for Bush the Lesser to steal the 2000 election, and we would have avoided another big inflection point rolling faster into the abyss.

  • Eduardo Dinero says:

    Additional candidates for commencement of the ideological warfare we suffer from today:

    Watergate: Ever since, the Republicans have been hell bent on exacting revenge.

    The Judge Bork Repudiation: Ditto.

    Which leads me to think the ideological freak show may even be tagged to an even earlier antecedent: Eisenhower's installation of SCOTUS Chief Justice Earl Warren.

    Just spit-balling …

  • Reading up a little on Justice Powell, I found that not only did he write the infamous Chamber Of Commerce memo referenced above by Squeech and others, but (and this I did not know) wrote the majority opinion in First Bank Of Boston vs. Bellotti (1978), which was the intellectual precursor to Citizen's United:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_National_Bank_of_Boston_v._Bellotti

    Also, nice one Negative 1: as Mrs. Thatcher put it, "there is no alternative". (Not that that's at all what she meant.)

    Thank you Ed and everyone here for a very interesting and POLITE discussion.

  • Reagan was the final nail in our coffin. Reagan destroyed unions and did away with the Fairness Doctrine, which allowed nuts like Fox to sell lies.
    NAFTA and Glass Steagel are Clinton's babies, selling us out to Business and Wall St.

    the evil that is Republican is just who they have been since Nixon. Pardoning Nixon allows the Reagan Junta to trade arms for hostages, empty the mental hospitals. Lee Atwater's Southern Strategy of blaming Blacks to get the White vote. well. Republicanism is so evil it is hard to fathom.

    The killing at Kent State, killing our "young", killing leaders like King and Kennedys showed how serious the Right was intent on taking over. not sure you can stop such hatred and greed.

    though Carter started cutting taxes on the Rich, so i was surprised at that too. and the Sell out of the Democrats by Tony Cuelho, speaker of the house, set up the Democratic Selling out of America to Business.

    Read Louis Powell's Memo about getting US Chamber of Commerce to take over the Government, which is what we have today.

    and don't forget Reagan et al put people like John Roberts in the Court system. and the Borking of Education. the total destruction of our Educational system for profit.

    the establisment of the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise INstitue and the Rest by the Rich Republican/ Mellon to find talking point from people like Frank Luntz. the Rich laid the groundwork for the Corporate Wall St. we have today.

    what really amazed me was watching Hillary Clinton make NICE with Andrew Mellon after Mellon subsidized teh Whitewater Affair and the attack on Clinton. Hillary is to be TRUSTED? LOL neo liberal.

    that Gore didn't fight the Coup d'etat the Supreme appointing Bush Pres.

    gosh the list is endless. the left was eviscerated by teh Right. who would have though the Right would sell their souls, if they had any to begin with, to take over America.

    but then again the White Folks found a handy target in attacking Blacks and gay and "uppity Women" who dared point out the truth. Black vs. White.

    the Republican were determined to take the Country Back from Liberty, justice and fairness. and they succeeded big time.

  • Reagan was the final nail in our coffin. Reagan destroyed unions and did away with the Fairness Doctrine, which allowed nuts like Fox to sell lies.
    NAFTA and Glass Steagel are Clinton's babies, selling us out to Business and Wall St.

    the evil that is Republican is just who they have been since Nixon. Pardoning Nixon allows the Reagan Junta to trade arms for hostages, empty the mental hospitals. Lee Atwater's Southern Strategy of blaming Blacks to get the White vote. well. Republicanism is so evil it is hard to fathom.

    The killing at Kent State, killing our "young", killing leaders like King and Kennedys showed how serious the Right was intent on taking over. not sure you can stop such hatred and greed.

    though Carter started cutting taxes on the Rich, so i was surprised at that too. and the Sell out of the Democrats by Tony Cuelho, speaker of the house, set up the Selling out of America to Business.

    Read Louis Powell's Memo about getting US Chamber of Commerce to take over the Government, which is what we have today.

    and don't forget Reagan et al put people like John Roberts in the Court system. and the Borking of Education. the total destruction of our Educational system for profit.

    the establisment of the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise INstitue and the Rest by the Rich Republican/ Mellon to find talking point from people like Frank Luntz. the Rich laid the groundwork for the Corporate Wall St. we have today.

    what really amazed me was watching Hillary Clinton make NICE with Andrew Mellon after Mellon subsidized teh Whitewater Affair and the attack on Clinton. Hillary is to be TRUSTED? LOL neo liberal.

    that Gore didn't fight the Coup d'etat the Supreme appointing Bush Pres.

    gosh the list is endless. the left was eviscerated by teh Right. who would have though the Right would sell their souls, if they had any to begin with, to take over America.

    but then again the White Folks found a handy target in attacking Blacks and gay and "uppity Women" who dared point out the truth. Black vs. White.

    the Republican were determined to take the Country Back from Liberty, justice and fairness. and they succeeded big time.

  • Ed's question and analysis are indeed complex and I agree with much of what everyone has to add, but one thing that has not been mentioned deserves some thought, the tea party people are by and large old (50 plus) angry white guys. What are they angry about? I think they feel strongly about the loss of what they conceive to be their culture, the kind of stuff that we were fed in the 1950's, maybe even Leave it to Beaver. We were the heroes of WW 2 and the world belonged to us, but this has fallen away. The small steps we have made to liberate women, the availability of birth control, abortion, these things drive these people nuts. Add civil rights to this mix and the old white boys start foaming at the mouth. If we could just get the ladies back into the kitchen the world would be a better place.

  • @middle seaman:

    AU means that each country has an equal vote. That's the way the EU works.

    No, it isn't. It depends which EU institution you're talking about, but most voting is weighted by population. Otherwise Malta (half a million people) and Germany (82 million) would have exactly the same voting power, which would be totally unworkable.

    The Internet is where Amazon is. Amazon sells shoes, books and audio system. That's not information.

    Amazon is not just a website. It's a network of warehouses and distribution centres.

    The Internet might allow Amazon to give you ownership of a cheap TV made in China, but you still have to physically move the TV from China to your living room. At the point when the TV enters the USA, the US government could charge a high import tax if it so wished. No payment of tax, TV gets taken away by men with guns.

    Of course the US government has chosen not to do this in the name of "free trade", but it is a policy choice, not some inevitable consequence of new technology.

  • As for why a global free-trade system took hold… it's easy to forget just how much power, prestige, and optimism the USA had in the period 1989-2001. Communism was dead, and American capitalism reigned supreme. As a military power the USA was completely unchallenged. Not only that, but the Internet was going to make us all filthy rich.

    The USA (by which I mean its ruling elites) leveraged this power to promote unrestrained capitalism around the world. Free trade agreements are the most obvious consequence, but there were others. Russia's economic shock therapy in the early 1990s was inspired by ideas from the USA (as well as the promise of loans and trade). Similar versions of disaster capitalism were imposed on poorer countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. In short, privatise and deregulate everything and let the good times roll — for multinational corporations at least, not so much for the local people.

    I understand the danger of being US-centric, but in this case I think American leadership really does deserve a lot of credit/blame.

  • I must admit my surprise that no one else has called it (unless I missed it): The coup in 1963 was the beginning of the end. Great Society schmeat society, to include Civil Rights: The powers that be today won their first and most important victory deep in the heart of Texas. Robert Caro's Johnson bio tells us everything we need to know, making a thousands of pages long, lock-tight circumstantial case for how Johnson was their tool to begin what we have now suffered for 50 years, only to BS the reader with a single sentence caveat that he has found no evidence of Johnson's knowledge/complicity in the assassination. Right, Bob, except for literally every other sentence in all four volumes. I get it, he is concerned for the safety of his family if he blows it wide open. Nevertheless, the seeds of the bitter fruit our so-called democratic republic now bears are scattered all around that event.

  • Rick Perlstein writes this gem of a paragraph at the end of the preface to Nixonland:

    "The main character in 'Nixonland' is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name–but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason."

    It still gives me the chills.

  • ConcernedCitizen says:

    I think anotherbozo was onto something important. As Gore Vidal would argue, America has never at any point in its history been truly liberal. The New Deal – as implemented – and the three decades of its prosperity grew out of the Bretton Woods summit of 1944. This economic system, crafted by those at the "commanding heights" of finance and government, was based on the expansion of internal markets in the West and fueled by the spending power of a broader-than-ever middle class. In short, everyone won. The corporations won – as they always do – but their post-depression victory was tied to the economic stability of the population at large. They supplied well-paying manufacturing jobs and turned a profit because people could afford to buy their products. There was even money left over for social decency on the part of the government, which furthered the "virtuous circle" of productive growth.

    This all changed in the 70s, as it had to eventually. Internal markets were becoming saturated. Automated machines began replacing employees. Western Europe and Japan had recovered from their post-war devastation and were now competitors rather than buyers of American products. OPEC jacked up oil prices as domestic oil production peaked, and inflation ensued. Corporations had to become transnational conglomerates to stay afloat. The circle was broken.

    My point is, the economy pivoted before the politics did. Sure, Reagan and Thatcher made sure that government went along; they even accelerated the growing domestic/global inequality. But they never would have come to power and stayed without the economic upheavals that preceded their administrations.

    Those right-wing nut jobs on the radio and in our legislatures? They've always been there. They appeal to emotions and psychological states as old as humanity itself. But people are less likely to listen to them and follow them during times of prosperity, when the status quo nurtures and the horizon is clear.

    In the mid-920s the Nazi Party was marginal and floundering, and usually referenced only as the butt of a joke about the Beer Hall Putsch. Then 1929 happened, and less than four years later Hitler was appointed Chancellor, after a legal and purely democratic ascendance.

  • Gotta second the commenters who say: The Kennedy Assassination. That is the pivot point. Interestingly, it is also the moment that the "Intelligence Community" otherwise known as the secret police took over the helm of the country.

  • Others have mentioned it, but I'd say the biggest thing wasn't a single point in time, but it *was* lightly correlated with the Raygun years: the fall of communism.

    Why? Because ultimately the foundation of American society for much of the twentieth century can be summed up with this quote from Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr

    "[I]n those days I felt and said I would be willing to part with half of what I had if I could be sure of keeping, under law and order, the other half."

    This was the "grand bargain" of the time: the wealthy accept a higher level of taxation than they otherwise would prefer, and government takes care of folks that otherwise might be fomenting revolution.

    The implied threat lost a great deal of impact with the fall of communism, and now we get this asshole:

    http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/07/09/2271841/wsj-homeless-people/

    TL;DR the link: it's a hedgie insisting that – get this – *volunteering* to help the homeless "encourages homelessness". That's just one example, but you can hardly open a 1%-oriented publication like the WSJ or the Financial Times without finding an op-ed complaining about the minimum wage being "too high" or basic benefits like paid sick leave "too expensive".

    Not, mind you, to suggest that actual Communism would have done well or even helped workers necessarily – but as a bogeyman it acted as a sort of Pascal's Wager for the folks at the top of the heap.

  • Before there was Reagan, there was Nixon, architect of The Southern Strategy, prolonging a meaningless foreign war for profit, starting The War On Drugs (Social Deviance), and The War on Crime (Negroes), all "wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross", "talking out of both sides of his mouth and lying out of both sides" (Harry Truman) like a good, decent, patriotic Republican today.

  • Two contributions I haven't noticed here:
    1. The Special Act of Congress that made Rupert Murdoch a U.S. citizen (1989 or thereabouts).
    2. I recall reading a lengthy article (it might have been one of those really in depth Playboy interviews back when men did read their articles)that described how the religious fundamentalists planned their long-term influence on government. They were going to start out running candidates for local school boards in middle America, spread out toward the coasts; then continue with city elections and state-wide representatives; finally build enough influence to run their religionistas for Congress. I remember it being something like a 30 year plan. Little did I know how successful they would be. If anyone remembers also reading this, I sure would like to know, especially if anyone can pinpoint the origin.

  • Nixon not only damaged the country, he crippled the rational wing of the conservative movement.

    How does any conservative get elected within four years of Watergate?

    By repudiating the direction of the conservative movement; by implying that not only are Democrats wrong but also the conservative leaders and values that produced this national shame!

    Nixon enabled the radicalization of his the party.

  • Dain Brammaged says:

    I'll take ya back a bit, but it all starts with the court clerk declaring corporations have the same rights as citizens. See the results of the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case. Also Gore Vidal would have pointed out the rise of American dominance in the world followed the curve of oil. As soon as American Peak Oil hit, OPEC took over as the world's supplier. The beginning of the end of the American empire and the start of the rise of corporate power.

  • Still living the Dream that America was at some point NOT a right-wing Teabaggistan. You do your interlocutors a great disservice, but I notice that a lot with liberals…

Comments are closed.