By RUTH CONNIFF, The Wisconsin Examiner, July 4, 2023.
In his book “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America,” best-selling author Kurt Andersen connects the marketing of nostalgia for an idealized American past to the organized campaign led by big business over the last four decades to destroy unions, public schools, progressive taxation and the middle class.
Andersen’s highly readable history provides some bracing context for our current political moment, including the raft of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions rolling back affirmative action and debt relief for college students and snatching away rights from women and LGBTQ people. Those decisions are the culmination of a decades-long campaign to crush opportunity, undermine democracy and buttress the wealth and power of elites.
The original cheerful frontman for the “greed is good” philosophy that put us on the path to exploding inequality by harnessing cultural backlash was Ronald Reagan. But the effort to remake society to favor the rich by rolling back the gains of the Civil Rights movement, the New Deal and even the Progressive Era got going long before “morning in America” in the 1980s.
Andersen digs out a 1964 campaign ad for Barry Goldwater that never aired but that, in retrospect, seems ahead of its time, so perfectly does it capture the toxic culture war narrative of Trump-era Republicans. Scenes of Black protest marchers and ominous messages about crime are cut together with footage of wildly dancing hippies and then clean-cut white people going to church. The ad, Anderson writes, “tries to exploit popular unease with the culturally new as a way to get a green light for the rollback that Goldwater and the serious right really cared about — a restoration of old-style economic and tax and regulatory policies tilted toward business and the well-to-do.”
Republicans are following the same playbook today — talking about trans kids in locker rooms and rioters in the streets while they work behind the scenes to rewrite policies like the progressive tax code in Wisconsin to transfer enormous wealth to the already rich.
It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t until recently that the bitter politicized nostalgia associated with white Southern politicians after Reconstruction became a national Republican brand.
Andersen has a lot to say about the way newness and progress are deeply ingrained in American history, culture and politics. From this viewpoint, the Republicans’ current retrenchment and backlash are fundamentally anti-American.
In the 1970s, when economic equality was at its zenith in the U.S., white racist politicians who stirred up hatred of Black Americans and immigrants and who openly pushed for destroying unions, reversing environmental regulations and handing huge tax giveaways to the very rich were considered fringe characters.
“For most of the 20th century most Americans seemed to have permanently learned lessons about the mortal dangers of pathological nostalgia and resistance to change,” Andersen writes.
It’s actually incredible to look back at the 1970s, when the CEO of the Ford Motor Company was calling on the federal government to regulate automakers and declared that the industry must develop an emission-free car.
“Restraining excessive business power was a bipartisan consensus,” Andersen writes, quoting Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower on the subject. Unions were viewed as an important check on an economy dominated by big business. Progressive Era victories ending round-the-clock factory work and child labor and improving workers’ wages were generally celebrated. Now child labor is back. Trust-busting is out. The progressive income tax is under attack in Wisconsin, birthplace of those progressive reforms.
Andersen traces how, just when the liberal consensus seemed strongest, in the early 1970s, the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote his secret strategy memo for U.S. corporations – right before he took his seat on the Court.
The now-famous Powell memo, embraced by the Chamber of Commerce and business leaders across the country, laid out the plan they diligently followed, creating the network of think tanks and media outlets that reversed decades of progress on economic opportunity, civil rights and the environment. Powell’s vision of an activist judiciary has finally come to full fruition on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here in Wisconsin, we witnessed the culmination of the right-wing anti-labor push Powell helped orchestrate when Scott Walker gutted labor unions in our state with Act 10.
Unfettered campaign contributions — another Powell triumph – and the rise of massive corporate lobbying have completely overrun democratic guardrails in elections.
What are citizens to do?
For one thing we need to call out the phony patriotism of the right. The people seeking to destroy democracy and civil rights are not the “real Americans.” They are the enemies of the fundamental American ideals of opportunity and progress.
If civic complacency that took shared prosperity and enlightened social policy for granted created an opening for the rapacious greedheads who are undermining the best aspects of our country, we are now in a very different time. Young people confronting staggering college debt and a perilous gig economy are not buying the fuzzy nostalgia or the trickle down economics the right is selling. The recent budget debate in Wisconsin exposed the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of politicians who want to impose austerity on our state in the midst of a historic surplus while giving away millions of dollars to their rich friends.
The wheels are off the right-wing bandwagon. It’s time to shove it out of our way.