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Mission Accomplished: The Reagan Occupation and the Destruction of the American Middle Class

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Eighty years ago, something occurred in America that was never supposed to happen. An aristocrat came to the presidency and engineered a policy revolution that created a broad and prosperous middle class where it had not existed as such before.

To do this, Franklin Roosevelt and his party had to rewrite the existing rules of wealth redistribution in the United States such that the traditionally fantastically wealthy overclass (which had grown even fatter as the industrialism of the prior century concentrated wealth yet further) would become merely tremendously wealthy from that point forward, in order to leave enough for others to live a decent life.

Needless to say, this rankled the country club set, but, remarkably, they more or less made peace with this development during the early decades of the post-war era, and largely cooperated with the new economic order. So did their political representatives. The Eisenhower administration was the first chance after twenty years of the New Deal to dismantle the newly created American welfare state, and Ike not only refused to take that opportunity, but famously labeled those in his party who wanted to as "stupid".

If Eisenhower, in his gray suit, black-and-white photos and de rigueur businessman's hat from the era seems quaint today, so does his political restraint. By the 1980s that was ancient history, and remains so to this day, including through (and via) two Democratic presidencies now.

If Americans understood the real ambitions of Ronald Reagan and his puppeteers, and if they knew the degree to which the supposed patriotism of those folks extended beyond falsity and into the far darker waters of being an irritating irrelevance put on purely for show, then they would not only stop seeing Reagan as some sort of national hero, but would also understand that he instead launched a process far more equivalent to an invasion and occupation of this country.

The goal of the right which cares about America about as much as it does about Burkina Faso has been to restore the economic order last seen under Herbert Hoover, in which a tiny minority possess vast sums of wealth and there is (therefore) essentially no remaining middle class. It is nothing short of a breathtaking display of a world class greed, worthy of the ages.

It has also been a work of strategic genius (in much the same way one might appreciate the Germans' engineering prowess in figuring out the logistics of how to mass murder ten or twelve million civilians in a year or two), one which has drawn upon deep psychological insights, absolutely sociopathic amoralism, and clever tactics that have all simultaneously pushed in the same direction. In plain English, they hired some politicians of hit-man level moral integrity, who then marshaled fear, insecurity, hate and deceit into a witch's brew of self-destruction that would prove highly attractive to a large segment of the population already sinking from the effects of a global economic order rebalancing after decades of post-war American dominance.

Of course, you couldn't just come right out and say, "Vote for me and I'll give your money to people so rich they can't even imagine what they'll do with it (but they still demand to have it anyhow)", so slightly more subtle tactics had to be employed. It is telling that the most honest thing Barack Obama ever said was when he thought there were no microphones in the room. But he was right when, at a presidential fundraiser in San Francisco he told the wine and cheese set that the right uses guns, god and gays (I would add Gaddafis) to scare people out of their money. I'll believe that Republicans are serious about protecting heterosexual marriage on the day that you can't find half of them prowling the gay bars of DC every night (and you don't even want to know what the other half are into).

This bait-and-switch tactic worked perfectly well whenever it was applied. It didn't hurt that the regressive Billy-Bobs who vote for these folks are as dumb as a tree. With bags of hammers for leaves. But stupid is really only the facilitating quality, and often one that is neither present nor required. What really drives this stuff is fear. If you can turn that into a loathing of fur'ners, fags, bitches, blackies and brownies, you got their vote. Then you can do what you really set out to accomplish in the first place. George W. Bush's 2004 campaign was the paradigmatic example. All year he talked about jamming through a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Big priority. Urgent national issue. The religitarded across America just about peed themselves, they were so excited. Then he gets elected and is brazen enough to announce that there'll be no such effort, after all, and that his signature legislative initiative will be an attempt to hand over the fat Social Security pot of money to Goldman Sachs. The redneck dolts with their Bush/Cheney "04 bumper-stickers didn't know what to think. So, of course, they just didn't.

Meanwhile, to say that this kleptocratic revolution worked really well is only untrue by means of the verb tense employed. It is still working really well. And the final leg of Reagan's March to the Sea is now upon us. Chunks of middle class body parts have been hacked off, bit by bit, over the decades, "til there's little remaining anymore. Remember how they told us that "free trade' wouldn't decimate our jobs, our unions and our bargaining power? Is that why little old ladies serve Happy Meals at McDonald's all across the country, assuming they're lucky enough to get that job? Remember how they said that massive tax cuts for the wealthy would be "revenue neutral' and would jump-start the economy? Which is confusing since the national debt doubled under George W. Bush, and then he proceeded to hand us the worst economy since the Great Depression. Remember how they told us that we needed to slash wasteful government spending on benefits? Now that we've become the ones who need those, they're gone. Remember when they said that government is our enemy and corporations should be free to do whatever they want? You know, like spill oil or trade derivatives?

There's another little trick that is about to become especially prominent in the coming years. When Reagan came to office and began his "voodoo economics" project of nearly quadrupling the national debt, after having promised to cut it instead, many people were puzzled by this. Personally, I figured that they just did the math and realized that in the real world (where governments sometimes live but campaigns rarely do) something simply had to give. If you slash tax revenues and massively increase military spending, guess what's gonna happen to your budget? Others, however, saw a more nefarious game being played, and perhaps they were right. This is the idea that they intentionally ran up deficits so large that the national government would be forced to do what it otherwise would not, which is to slash spending on popular entitlements and other social programs.

Whether or not the conspiracy was real, it is the case that the federal government is running humongous deficits every year, which pile up further on the massive national debt. And it is also the case that we are now hearing a rising chorus on the right especially from the tea party know-nothings about slashing government spending as the top priority for Washington. Even though, according to the principles of Keynesian economics, this is the last thing we should be doing during a recession.

And, of course, something tells me that as the pinch is increasingly felt, the call for cuts won't be in the domain of military spending, even though our allocation there is obscenely out of proportion to any imaginable threat in the world, and is roughly equal to what almost the entire rest of the world spends on defense that's one country equal to almost two hundred others, combined. I'm also guessing that we won't be raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans either, even though they pay far less than they did in the pre-Reagan era, when the country was generally very prosperous, and even though they often pay a lower percentage in taxes than the secretaries and janitors who work for them. No, we can't touch those folks.

Instead, the intense pressure now will be to finish the job of eviscerating the middle class and transferring every last nickel of their wealth to the oligarchs who fancy themselves masters of the universe. Unemployment insurance, for example. Never mind that we have ten percent official unemployment and closer to twenty percent in reality, or that whole cities like Detroit are being wiped out. The Republican minority in the Senate, along with the Democratic "moderates" there, are now refusing to extend expiring unemployment benefits (which are already a pittance when they exist). Nine hundred thousand laid-off workers have thus lost their meager sub-subsistence benefits, and that number will grow to more than a million-and-a-half in a few days now. Guess why. Because regressive senators including John Kerry and Maria Cantwell are holding unemployment insurance extensions hostage to protecting a loophole that allows wealthy fund managers to be taxed on their profits at an obscenely low percentage rate. How's that for national priorities? How's that for compassionate conservatism?

Next, inevitably, will come entitlements. Indeed, most of the states in the union are already heading that way, cutting pensions for employees. Not to mention certain low priority areas like education, which is getting slashed from California to New York. How long can it be before Medicare and Social Security are put on the chopping block? And why? Because we have our priorities good and straight, pal: a morbidly bloated military and pathetically low tax rates for the wealthiest among us comes first. Then, if we could somehow do it for free I suppose we could allow decent education, or health care, or retirement with dignity for our elders. But, of course, since that can't be done without cost, those things must go.

The other strategic initiative now reaching fruition during the right's three decade-long campaign to massively redistribute wealth in this country literally, the crime of the century is the evisceration of the state. This must be done (or, more accurately, it must be done in some respects but absolutely not in others) because the state is the only force capable of standing up to the power of concentrated wealth, and because the state sets the very rules by which such wealth either is or isn't concentrated. It also must be done because the state nominally speaks for the public and the public interest, as against the private interest.

Since Reagan, regressive puppet politicians have been spouting anti-state rhetoric and sarcastic venom with increasing intensity. Saint Ron of Hypocrisy told us that government was the problem, not the solution, seemingly without noticing the irony of his massive military build-up or the government-enforced restrictions the right favors on everything from abortion to gay marriage to euthanasia. Now, as gutted and corrupted regulatory institutions have permitted massively harmful meltdowns ranging from Wall Street to coal mines to oil wells, we are forced to listen to sermons from those on the right about the incompetence of government. Well, yeah. If in fact you staff government regulatory bodies with industry shills who are explicitly ordered not to actually, er, regulate, and if you legislate away their power to effectively do so anyhow, and if you pulverize conscientious whistleblowers to within an inch of their lives, then guess what? That little bit of government will in fact be incompetent. In fact, it will be nearly as bad at the competence thing as, say, all the big banks on Wall Street (which had to be rescued by the, uh, government), or all the big auto companies in Detroit (ditto), or British Petroleum, or Enron, or the savings-and-loan industry, or...

And so, despite the astonishing illogic of it all, the American people now clamor for more harm to be brought upon themselves and more of their money to be looted for the further enrichment of the wealthiest one-tenth of one percent of the population. It certainly doesn't help that the supposed "party of the people" is every bit as much a part of the problem as anyone else, and arguably far more so given the extra measure of disingenuousness involved. From NAFTA to WTO to welfare "reform' to the Telecommunications Bill, Wall Street never had better friend in the White House than Bill Clinton. That is, until Barack Obama simply outright changed the address of Goldman Sachs' headquarters to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As we speak, the president and his party in Congress are busy gutting meaningful "reform' of the shamelessly gluttonous finance industry, just as their masters have ordered them to do. And if you think Obama's bad now, wait until after November. Like Clinton in 1994, he will take the trouncing he's about to receive in the election as a signal to move even further to the right.

And thus the Reagan Occupation inches closer yet to a full-blown "mission accomplished". The middle class is on its knees and shrinking fast. Unions have been broken into irrelevance. Government, supposedly an agent of the public interest, has become a complete tool of those it is meant to monitor. Both political parties are fully owned by the oligarchy. The public has been brainwashed into seeing its allies as enemies and its enemies as allies. We have been drained of hope that any actor on the horizon can come to our rescue.

Bad policy choices by self-serving politicians? Would that "twere only thus.

We are occupied.

 

www.regressiveantidote.net

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
 

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This sounds more like the rantings of a liberal de... by Michael Jones on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 8:26:28 AM
Raygun started what just failed-called the 800 Bil... by Michael Dewey on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 11:22:45 AM
"the liberals came back into power and done their ... by Jay Farrington on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 11:44:50 AM
Did you know Reaganomics was supposed to pay off t... by Perry Logan on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 12:05:56 PM
The thing Reagan is best known for is global free ... by liberalsrock on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 3:15:58 PM
certainly tell you he was a failure starting with ... by Stanimal on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 9:30:06 AM
was and is a delusional exercise of the the credit... by Mark Sashine on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 9:47:01 AM
But I always thought he had good instincts as a sa... by Margaret Bassett on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 10:33:32 AM
You have said it yourself: citizens now had better... by The Other Side on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 4:19:14 PM
That Article sums up times like these very well. T... by Michael Dewey on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 11:38:15 AM
In spite of the ignorant rantings of Mr. Jones, wh... by Jeff Rock on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 2:52:28 PM
Is really in regard to the comment section. Taken ... by Jay Farrington on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 4:29:11 PM
I am utterly non-partisan. I see DMG article as on... by TomK on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 4:41:37 PM
FASCISM!... by Donald on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 5:21:16 PM
Grover Norquist is famous for his widely quoted co... by Nancy S on Friday, Jun 25, 2010 at 10:42:40 PM
My capsule version of recent American history is t... by Perry Logan on Saturday, Jun 26, 2010 at 5:40:51 AM
Ask David Stockman. Oh, that's right, the Blues b... by Richard Lee on Saturday, Jun 26, 2010 at 7:26:58 PM
if memory serves correctly. ... by Richard Lee on Sunday, Jun 27, 2010 at 8:26:23 PM