Despite the end-of-the-year upturn with Congressional ratification of the START Treaty and repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the United States remains stuck in a quagmire that has paralyzed our politics for 30 years. While the Republican party holds our government hostage, Democrats typically collaborate in public policies that don't have a prayer of resolving the deeply serious problem we face.
Though Americans younger than about 40 have never experienced it, there was a time when government was seen as a vehicle the American people could use to resolve pressing societal problems. When government failed to address the needs of relatively powerless groups, it was possible for them to mobilize around their grievances and place them on the public's agenda.
No longer. Today, protest has become routinized and all-but-impotent. Or, like the Tea Party, it has been coopted by the agenda of wealthy conservatives.
The dominant political message beamed at younger Americans for the past 30 years is that government is the problem, the market is the solution, and the United States must rely on aggressive military intervention to defend "our" interests.
And so, when the Democrats pledge to end the tax cuts enjoyed by the wealthiest Americans, the Republicans cry "class warfare," and the Democrats cave. With former Senator Alan Simpson gleefully anticipating the budgetary "blood bath" this coming spring when Congress has to raise the ceiling on national debt, we'll see more of the same. Social Security looms as perhaps the likely next target.
If we are to escape this quagmire, it is important to understand how we got into this mess and why we have lost the sense that we as a people can solve our problems and determine our future.
The crucial turning point occurred with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan's policies were anticipated in earlier pronouncements by then corporate attorney Lewis Powell and the Trilateral Commission who blamed America's economic woes of the 1970s on the "democratic excess" of the 1960s -most notably the entry of new populations -racial minorities, women, and the young- into an increasingly agitated political process. Both Powell in 1971 and the Trilateralists in 1975 called for a concerted effort to shift American public opinion to the Right, while turning politics over to the market.
Reagan's electoral success stemmed from his ability to appeal through folksy rhetoric to voting majorities while simultaneously producing the market friendly policies corporate America desired. Thus he appealed to time-honored "family values" that allegedly prevailed in a simpler, if mythical, United States before the era of "riots, assassinations, and domestic strife over the Vietnam war," as he characterized the 1960s.
By tapping into the very real grievances of Americans who felt they were losing ground in the 1970s, Reagan created the key to the Right's electoral success ever since: a pseudo-populism that blamed the "strife" of the 1960s on an allegedly liberal elite: liberal Big Government, liberal university administrators, and the "liberal" media who paid attention to the strife. Pseudo populism drew crucial populations who felt aggrieved by 60s era movements -notably the white South and the white working class-away from the Democratic Party. The Democrats' response was telling: a new Democratic Leadership Council was organized to move the party into the corporate-friendly center.
The political backlash against the 60s was greatly aided by the commercial media -by a narrowed range of political discourse produced by an increasingly subservient news media, and by a wide range of films (think Big Chill or Forrest Gump), television sit-coms (Reagan's favorite: Family Ties), and advertisements that either reinforced the 60s imagery played up in the conservative backlash or converted 60s social movements to stereotypes that robbed them of their political meanings relevant to today.
It would take pages to explain adequately, but I argue that during the 1960s era the very same forces -a narrow range of media interpretation and the commercial emphasis on dramatic imagery, conflict and personalities- provided an open invitation to the kinds of "strife" backlash types love to equate with something they call the "Sixties." The mass media did not consider the more system-challenging meanings and arguments of 60s-era social movements worthy of serious consideration. But they were attracted to the behavioral expressions of what they too glibly saw as a generation in revolt.
These are the same images, behaviors, and personalities -and generational frame for understanding them- that continue to provoke unending media treatments and "hip" sales pitches designed to encourage our consumption of material goods and entertainment. We are stuck with a discourse that loves to use media images to blame some "Other" for our problems.
As for the now-distant 1960s era, it has been relegated to an alleged "generational debate" between those who continue to blame the 60s for our contemporary problems and those who are, perhaps, wistfully nostalgic for a more vital and hopeful time. What we have lost as a people is, first, a history whose central meaning was that even relatively powerless people can organize and achieve historic change, and second, the ability to carry on a democratic conversation with each other across the boundaries that have long been rigidified in what passes for political discourse in our mass media.
Left to its own devices, a capitalist economy extracts enormous wealth from the labor of employees and reliable access to cheap resources. The inequality capitalism produces is supposedly balanced by the one-person-one-vote equality of a political democracy. The "people" are thus empowered to rein in the excesses of capitalism through the political process. Under the neo-liberal regime, we the people have lost that power.