The scam of the Reagan-era neoliberalism is crumbling — and there's a battle for its replacement
Do we stand on the edge of a grand new progressive era, with good wages for all, racial and gender equality and justice, and a reduction of the political power of reactionary forces in America? Or will the next president gleefully overthrow American democracy, shutter the free press, and imprison those who object?
When Mussolini put Antonio Gramsci, the founder of Italy’s Communist Party, in prison in 1927, Gramsci wrote from his prison cell that, “[T]he old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Two forces in American politics are similarly on a collision course today: neoliberalism and progressivism. In the friction zone between the two, the “morbid symptom” of Trump’s white-power neofascism is claiming territory and has largely seized the power structures of the GOP.
Whether American history goes in cycles, as Strauss and Howe posit in The Fourth Turning, or merely “rhymes” as in the apocryphal quote from Twain, we can identify periods when a particular political and economic philosophy holds court — and the periods when that philosophies or regimes begin to collapse.
The Fourth Turning posits roughly 80-year cycles in American history, each ending with an economic crash and a war, then each rebooting into a new progressive era: the Depression of the early 1770s and the American Revolution, the Panic of 1856 and the Civil War, the 1930s Republican Great Depression and World War II.
It’s been about 80 years since the end of that war, indicating, if this theory is right, that a crash and war may be around the corner.
Another way of looking at the cycles of American history is through the lens of “regimes,” as articulated by Stephen Skowronek in his 1993 book The Politics Presidents Make and recently revived in The New York Times by Professor Corey Robin.
“The Jeffersonian regime lasted from 1800 to 1828,” Robin writes, “the Jacksonian regime, from 1828 to 1860; the Republican regime, from 1860 to 1932; the New Deal order, from 1932 to 1980.”
The Reagan order is thus now almost certainly in its calcification stage, becoming brittle, more fragile, and less vigorous as inevitably happens with every turn of regimes.
In my opinion, the progressive movement — for example the unionization effort where Kellogg’s fired their workers and irate young people crashed their job-application server — is the ascendant group that will soon take power and hold the country for another turn of history.
Unless, of course, Trump’s neofascists succeed in closing off that option by utterly destroying our system of government.
Evidence abounds that the Reagan era or regime is rapidly disintegrating; that the Trump neofascist movement isn’t strong or broad-based enough to replace it (although they can cause considerable violence and distress); and, like in the 1930s and 1960s, that a young progressive movement is rapidly acquiring and consolidating political power.
If I’m right and that’s what’s happening, it’s almost certainly because Americans are realizing that Reagan’s neoliberalism regime (which was carried on by the following five presidents) was largely a scam designed to disempower the working class while enriching the already well-off.
All its vaunted rhetoric about “fiscal responsibility” and “conservative values” was just a smokescreen to hide naked theft, racism and misogyny.
In overthrowing FDR’s New Deal politics and economics, Reagan’s era:
- Destroyed most of the American labor movement
- Shifted trillions in both income and wealth from the middle class to the top 1 percent
- Consolidated business and the wealth it creates into the hands of monopolies in every sector of our economy
- Moved over 60,000 factories and tens of millions of good-paying jobs to low-wage countries
- All while fattening the money bins of the morbidly rich with the Reagan, Bush and Trump tax cuts.
Reagan, of course, had what he thought was a good rationale: he was holding back a growing tide of social change that intimidated wealthy older white men like himself and, he believed, threatened “The American Way.”
It started back in 1951, when Russell Kirk electrified a small coterie of conservatives like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater with his prediction that the middle class was growing too rich, and the inevitable result would be massive and widespread social upheaval in this country.
This little band of conservatives predicted that if the middle class continued to gain income and wealth faster than the top 1% (which was the case in 1951), soon “the rabble” of working class people would be so wealthy that they’d feel safe challenge the institutions and social norms of America.
Racial minorities would demand parity with white people, these conservatives warned us, women would disobey their husbands and leap into competition in the nation’s workplaces, and young people would openly defy their elders.
The result, they predicted, would be social chaos and out of that chaos would come a new and perhaps even communist — certainly more socialist — America, unrecognizable to the John Wayne-loving white men of America.
Few in America took Kirk’s warnings seriously at the time, as I laid out in detail in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy. Buckley was sidelined to public broadcasting and Goldwater lost the 1964 election in an historic landslide.
But then came Jane Fonda, Tim Leary and the Beatles:
- By 1968 the birth control pill was in widespread use and the women’s movement was well underway.
- Martin Luther King was leading marches across America even as cities kept erupting in violence in response to white police beating and murdering unarmed Black people (which triggered literally every single one of the “race riots” of the ’60s and ’70s).
- And young people were smoking pot, exploring spirituality, joining SDS, and refusing to go to Vietnam.
Suddenly, every conservative in America was reading Russell Kirk, as right-wing foundations and billionaires were rushing to fund “conservative think tanks“ and groups to influence the media and the courts.
Richard Nixon rode the white fear of this change into office that year and set the stage for the 1971 Powell Memo and the rise of Reagan ten years later. Reagan then brought to a screeching halt much of the forward motion of those three movements, along with the gay rights movement, by stripping working-class people of wealth and political power while demonizing gays around AIDS.
But nothing stays the same. Circumstances change, failures are exposed, new generations acquire power as old generations pass away. If there’s a constant to politics it is this: every new cycle is eventually rejected and replaced as time moves forward.
When Mussolini used state violence to imprison the progressive workers’ movement that was then sweeping both America and Europe, Gramsci wondered out loud: “Will the interregnum, the crisis whose historically normal solution is blocked in this way, necessarily be resolved in favor of a restoration of the old?” Or, will this “lead in the long run to widespread skepticism and a new ‘arrangement’”?
After all, Gramsci noted, that “new arrangement” would require “a reduction of the highest superstructures” of politics and society, “in other words, the possibility and necessity of creating a new culture.”
And, indeed, it appears that’s just what’s happening today in America.
Starbucks just got their first unionized American store in their 50 years of existence. Kellogg’s is engaging in extreme union-busting, firing and replacing striking workers, while Amazon is facing a renewed effort to unionize their warehouses.
Much like with Mussolini’s state violence, the only reason there’s not been a widespread and successful wave of unionization efforts in America is because multiple Supreme Court decisions since the 1960s have eroded union rights in this country so severely, tilting state power against workers.
While last-gasp-reactionary states like Texas are fighting to put women back into the bedroom and kitchen, progressive states like California are preparing for a post-Roe America by expanding and institutionalizing women’s rights to healthcare, contraception and abortion.
Progressive states like Oregon have decriminalized all drugs and provide terminally ill people with a “right to die with dignity,” while reactionary Red states are doubling down on their death penalties and Nixon-era anti-drug laws.
Bifurcation, a splitting apart, appears to be the current state of America, but significant social change always happens just as “opposite” forces like these battle for the approval of the larger culture and its media, to soon be followed by its voters.
Corey Robin points out in The New York Times how “regimes grow brittle” and, much like the way the Reagan regime replaced FDR’s New Deal regime, we may be at the end of our generation’s 40-year neoliberal experiment (my phrase, not his).
For this to actually happen, though, is going to take not just a cultural shift but an actual change in the political and legal structures Reagan’s neoliberalism and its reactionary predecessors erected.
It will require, as Robin notes, ending the filibuster, overcoming the resistance of a small handful of sold-out Democrats in Congress (from Sinema/Manchin in the Senate to the “corporate problem solvers” in the House), expanding voting rights while ending partisan gerrymanders, and returning to an explicit right to unionize. I’d add overturning Citizens United and breaking up corporate monopolies to Robin’s list.
All of these are within our grasp and, for the first time in over 50 years, are supported by the administration in power and the Democratic Party overall.
The question is whether the forces arrayed against such change, from corporate media (and social media) to packed courts to cranky billionaires, can be overcome.
In a brilliant little (63 page) book (The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born) whose title came from Gramsci’s famous quote, Nancy Fraser argues that progressive populism is today on the verge of replacing neoliberalism in its several forms.
She makes a strong argument, although notes candidly that it will take all of us, particularly requiring a widespread mobilization of the young people who will face the worst outcomes, from the ravages of climate change to the rise of neofascist bullies, if we fail.
We stand on the verge of major social and political change.
The GOP has embraced the oligarchic strong-man police-state values that reigned in the South between 1830 and 1865.
The Democratic Party is returning to its progressive and populist roots more rapidly than anybody would have thought possible just five years ago.
As the old cliché goes, we face a moment of great danger, but also one of great opportunity.
Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of The Hidden History of American Healthcare and more than 30+ other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute and his writings are archived at hartmannreport.com.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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