Way back in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith, in The Affluent Society, bemoaned what he saw as an America characterized by personal luxury alongside public squalor. To his mind, as long as Americans had their own little piece of suburbia with a tail-finned behemoth parked in the driveway, they cared little about public infrastructure, cultural amenities, or a long list of common-good government services other wealthy nations took for granted. It’s a good thing he never lived to see today.
In 1958, after all, the top tax rate was nearly triple what it is today, and the great middle class enjoyed a larger share of the national income than ever before. Tuition was FREE at the University of California, and federal dollars were being lavished upon education at all levels, if mainly to keep up with the dreaded Commies. The Interstate Highway system was connecting the country as never before, and the postwar housing shortage was being gamely, if ill-advisedly, building hundreds of thousands of homes for the urban poor.
In short, the America that troubled Galbraith was, by today’s standards, something of a socialist utopia. The children of the Baby Boom packed the public schools to bursting, and most were expanded and upgraded to accommodate them. Funds poured into public colleges and universities, too, and rising standards of living were assumed to be almost a birthright.
Meanwhile, though, a second rate actor quietly left his flagging Hollywood career behind to become a roving spokesman for General Electric, selling something called Free Enterprise to the benighted masses.
The pitch worked a little to well, as it turned out. Catapulted into the California governor’s mansion (not the existing one, but a cheesy replacement more to Nancy’s liking) by his speech at the 1964 Republican Convention, Ronald Reagan set out to change California, and later America, into the third world basket cases we see today, and in the process, created a whole generation of selfish martinets and true believers that, decades later, continue to wreak havoc on us all.
Whether he believed his own rhetoric when he said, “Government is not the solution; government is the problem” really doesn’t matter. The fact that so many boobs and charlatans did, is. Reagan never actually shrunk government, but expanded it, both in California and nationally, but he did get rid of the parts that benefitted ordinary people, which had the desired effect for his wealthy puppet masters.
In more civilized countries, people complain about taxes, but they do get something in return for them, and the genius and success of the New Right was to sever that crucial link once and for all. Massive military spending, while undoubtedly beneficial for chosen corporate backers, serves another, more insidious purpose, as do deep tax cuts for the wealthiest: it makes the masses pay and pay to get jack squat.
Better yet, squeezing the middle class in this manner while endlessly repeating that their money is being frittered away, not on Star Wars, but on shiftless darkies, makes people identify with those above them while resenting those below. Thus, opposition to taxes and spending trickle down from crackpot rich people to society as a whole, and when that happens, upward redistribution of wealth is much easier to sell.
Of course, such a transparent con game would not be possible without a compliant media, but Reagan had an answer for that, too; abolishing the Fairness Doctrine and gutting ownership limits for media conglomerates created a hole big enough for Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh to march through triumphantly abreast, which they promptly did.
It’s become commonplace in what remains of the mainstream media to say that the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that even St. Ronnie wouldn’t make the cut, which is true as far as it goes. But thanks to Reaganism, it doesn’t need Ronnie anymore. It’s his world, and we’re living in it.