As we sit home — hands chapped from scrubbing and wondering what invisible enemy drifts on the spring breeze with the pollen and the neighbors’ barbecue smoke — we may find it prudent to ponder something besides our own mortality.
Since we can follow the stay-at-home order and still have books delivered to our front doors, this is a great time for some pre-election reading. So, I would like to propose a list. Let’s leave Republican/libertarian-favorite Ayn Rand in the dust bin and engage some sober, intellectually honest thinkers, reporters and writers: The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch; Dark Money, Jane Mayer; What’s the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank, and The Age of Acquiescence, Steve Fraser.
In Revolt of the Elites, published in 1995, Lasch contends that democracy is under threat from wealthy elites and that decency should be more highly regarded than wealth or “brilliant achievement”; that decency is the “preeminent civic or political virtue.”
Writes Lasch, “When the market preempts all the public space, and sociability has to ‘retreat’ into private clubs, people are in danger of losing the capacity to amuse and even to govern themselves…A public philosophy for the twenty-first century will have to give more weight to the community than to the right of private decision. It will have to find a better expression of the community than the welfare state. It will have to limit the scope of the market and the power of corporations without replacing them with a centralized state bureaucracy.”
Speaking of those elites, Mayer writes in Dark Money of the late David Koch and his brother Charles: “As they sought ways to steer American politics hard to the right without having to win the popular vote, they got valuable reinforcement from a small cadre of like-minded wealthy conservative families who were harnessing their own corporate fortunes toward the same end. Philanthropy, with its guarantees of anonymity, became their chosen instrument. But their goal was patently political: to undo not just Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era, too.”
Their idea mirrors the platform of the Libertarian Party, to repeal virtually every major political reform of the 20th century – including environmental protection, work safety and child labor laws – and reduce the function of government to the protection of individual and property rights. Their zeal to succeed knows no bounds, from funding fake scholarship on everything from public pension plans to climate change, and creating fake populist movements, including the Tea Party, writes Mayer.
What sort of life would such policies create for the mass of Americans? One need only look at Kansas, writes Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? He chronicles the destruction of his home state’s economy and way of life wrought by a concerted effort by the wealthy to convince the working class that big money and its Republican Party speak on behalf of the common people.
“The situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal,” writes Frank. “For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. …The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege …They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands, ‘We are here,’ they scream, ‘to cut your taxes.’”
And then there is this eloquent truth: “The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.”
“Conservatives are only able to ignore economics the way they do because they live in a civilization whose highest cultural expressions – movies, advertisements and sitcoms – have for decades insisted on downplaying the world of work,” writes Frank.
Fraser, in The Age of Acquiescence, appears to agree with Frank: “The social inequities and iniquities and the cultural brutalization this will entail have been in plain sight for a generation now. Dispossession and loss are tough enough to bear. How much sorrier is it when a culture is so coarsened that it looks at legions of casualties and without batting an eye, dismisses them as ‘losers.’”
He chronicles the growth of the power of labor from the 19th century horrors of industrialization through the Great Depression and the New Deal to today’s surrender to a brutal ruling class.
“Our political universe may indeed be locked in the past,” Fraser writes. “It looks backwards because that’s just where we’re headed.”
Even so, he ends Acquiescence on a positive note:
“But all of the great social upheavals of the long nineteenth century, including the passionate, moral outburst of the civil rights movement, always originated in a realm before money and looked for gratification in a realm beyond money. To be sure they were rooted in material need and not shy about saying what they needed to live in a civilized way. However, intermingled with those material wants and desires, affixed to them like emblems of the spirit, were ineffable yearnings to redefine what it meant to be human together.”
Like Fraser, I am optimistic. I believe that we started a Progressive movement in 2018 and we are set to build on it this November.
But we must look forward, not back to The New Deal. That Progressive movement had an impetus of its own and it created a unique reaction to its time that carried through the middle 1960s.
This Pandemic is not the same as the crisis of the Great Depression. But like that financial calamity, it points to the need for change — and the danger of a small and ignorant government. We face an existential crisis, this time climate change, which is more dangerous than a war fought in analog, and for which there is no vaccine.
Again we must remake our Republic and while there are lessons to learn from the last Progressive era, we must look deeply into our time to build our own path forward, to make our own investment in self-rule, in humanity. We will need much deeper social programs, including medical care, basic income — possibly from a living-wage minimum wage — and drastic education, tax and immigration reform. We do not need to re-build the Hoover dam, we need to build a renewable energy infrastructure; engage American investment, research, technology and labor to build the products to be used here, and then to be exported and sold around the world. We can invest our great wealth to invigorate our Republic – not line the pockets of the 1 percent. I think the ridiculous ignorance on display in our highest elected offices along with the destruction it is leaving in its wake will lead to an historic Progressive election. Let’s honor hard work and ingenuity and remake our great nation; show the world what free people can do.
Image credit: the selfie of Bill Caton wearing his homemade COVID-19 mask was taken by the author.