The WASP Ascendancy was born of the Civil War and lasted until WW II. As the country soldiered on and emerged victorious on VE Day and VJ Day, it was more or less worthy of the name United States. But the new US Power Elite – the troika of Big Government, Big Industry and Big Military – soon ran into trouble keeping the country together as patterns of division emerged, patterns that still haunt the nation. How did we get here? Mystère.
Since WWII, in the US we have been seeing political backlash follow hard on any attempt at dealing with change – a Newtonian kind of Political Physics: Newton’s Third Law “for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction” becomes “for every movement, a counter movement.” This kind of dialectical process erupted repeatedly in the period from the 1950s through the 1970s, each time further dividing the country.
For example, the success of the Labor Movement and New Deal programs like Social Security generated a carefully orchestrated reaction financed by rich backers from Big Industry. Among these were the Koch brothers, Charles and David who started the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation in 1953 as a funding source for right-wing causes – a family tradition as their father Fred Koch was a founder of the John Birch Society. This became part of the larger post-War movement known as “conservatism.” But this was linguistic sleight of hand; the brand of conservatism promulgated by pundits like William Buckley during this period was a far cry from that of Edmund Burke or that of Senator Robert Taft Sr., the leading conservative of the post-War years. The more theatrical wing of this movement is known as libertarianism – staffed by debaters so artful that they actually manage to make the accusation of “Class Warfare” a weapon against their opponents! Divisiveness was their hallmark; add right-wing talk radio and today’s Fox News and you have a powerful and divisive propaganda machine still at work. Pathetically, as part of his effort to sell his new book, Charles Koch is now expressing regret for the divisions in America caused by his decades long “partisanship” (WSJ Nov 13, 2020).
The landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was a signal victory for the Civil Rights Movement; the reaction was fierce, epitomized by the national disgrace of howling mobs trying to prevent children from going to integrated schools, most infamously in Little Rock, Arkansas. For a reminder, click HERE . The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a non-violent movement for Civil Rights that generated violent reaction from the outset as did the activism of organizations like SNCC and CORE. King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize “outraged” groups like the Klu Klux Klan and the White Citizen’s Council. And then the Black Panthers unsettled many people to the point that there was sudden support for gun control. Overt haters like George Wallace made racism part of national political campaigns, crying “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But the Civil Rights Movement led to the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965); tragically here the backlash was stark and violent, with the assassination of King following quickly. Politically, the reaction was especially blatant in the states of the former Confederacy, states that had voted solidly Democratic since Reconstruction: they all flipped and have been reliably “red” states ever since.
An irony here is that it was the Civil Rights movement and the end to segregation in the South that created the prosperous Sunbelt and made world cities of Atlanta, Dallas and Houston: before then corporations like IBM shied away from the segregated South because these companies themselves had an integrated workforce; and the area was not attractive to foreign firms and investors for similar reasons. Atlanta in particular owes a debt to its native son MLK. The baseball team from 1902 to 1965 was unapologetically named the Atlanta Crackers, a minor league franchise; it was only in 1966 that the major league Atlanta Braves moved in. Indeed, the Atlanta subway system MARTA would not have been feasible if Black passengers had to use separate entrances and turnstiles and go to the last car or whatever – especially when over half the population is African-American. Add the honor of hosting the Olympics in 1996 plus the prestige of having the busiest passenger airport in the world since 1998.
There was a period of movement toward national unity during the Kennedy presidency as the nation rallied behind JFK for Cold War dramas like the Cuban Missile Crisis and as people were energized by his calls for American greatness such as “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon.” New York even accepted the news that California was now the most populous state in the union graciously. But the escalation of the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson dramatically split the country, launched as it was by the charade known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (which set the bar low for manufactured pretexts for going to war). Vietnam intensified the generation gap as the draft was reinstated and body-bags returned from Asia. The Peace Movement and resistance to the war engaged national figures like Senators Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy and led to the national disgrace of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago where machine-mayor Richard Daley unleashed the police and National Guard on anti-war protestors. Protestors were met with yet more violence at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 when four students were shot dead by National Guard troops – something absolutely incomprehensible. For that iconic tragic photo, click HERE .
The reaction against the War in Vietnam also led to the end of the conscript army and the creation of a professional army (which looks unconstitutional to this observer as Article I, Section 8, Clause 12 stipulates that “The Congress shall have Power … To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;”). In many ways soldiers today are like paid mercenaries: service in the military is most often an economic choice made more attractive by the perennial GI Bill, VA medical care and other post-service perquisites. Military service also offers a path to citizenship for immigrants which is a significant pay-off, indeed. If nothing else, this move to a professional military has deprived the US of one of a country’s most important tools for blending its citizens and building national identity, shared national service. Now, the Pentagon and its commander-in-chief, like warlords, have an army of their own, a population apart from the rest of us – another tear in the nation’s fabric. A sociological side-effect of the move to a hi-tech professional army (and one with more and more women at that) has been to undermine one of the rocks on which male supremacy is built: the need for masses of young men to fight the nation’s inevitable wars (e.g. French feminist writer Virginie Despentes).
The Women’s Movement sparked a powerful reaction from the very start. While participants in this movement had to endure the barbs of self-congratulatory “male chauvinist pigs” like Norman Mailer and macho construction workers, there was also strong reaction on the distaff side – for example, the movement headed by formidable writer and activist Phyllis Schlafly; her Eagle Forum pressure group was even able to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment just as it seemed on the way to ratification. Reaction to the Women’s Movement was also intensified by fundamental social changes that were taking place such as women’s access to higher education, the availability of inexpensive and effective birth control, smaller family size, the higher divorce rate and the massive entry of women into the workforce. But rather than helping deal with these changes with national child care and pre-K with nutritious hot lunches (as in France with its renowned Ēcole Maternelle system), Big Government in the US has left people to fend for themselves.
The environmental movement in the US was launched with Rachel Carson’s alarming book The Silent Spring (1962); this was also the time when climate scientists began warning about CO2 emissions and global warming. The response by pesticide companies and the fossil fuel industry was deafening; however, some legislation was passed and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was set up, under Richard Nixon no less. But the reaction to environmentalism gathered force leading to the creation of a new lobby, “climate change deniers.” Indeed climate change denial has become a core position of the Republican Party making them a true danger not just to the US but to the planet itself. Venality triumphant – to quote Paul Krugman’s column in the NY Times (Dec 12, 2019): “But why have Republicans become the party of climate doom? Money is an important part of the answer: In the current cycle Republicans have received 97 percent of political contributions from the coal industry, 88 percent from oil and gas. And this doesn’t even count the wing nut welfare offered by institutions supported by the Koch brothers and other fossil-fuel moguls.”
The Gay Rights Movement broke out into the open with the Stonewall Inn uprising against the police and the mob (1969). Newtonian politics produced a homophobic reaction immediately; opposition to the movement unified the religious and non-religious right and spawned a crusade: there were campaigns such as Save Our Children, a media savvy organization led by former Miss Oklahoma, Anita Bryant; not to be outdone, Pastor Jerry Falwell’s movement the Moral Majority made homophobia central to its platform from the outset.
In the summer of 1969, Woodstock electrified half the population and horrified the other half just as the “Swinging 60s” was giving way to the “Me-Generation” of the 1970s. From divided, the population became atomized. The War in Indo-China continued, entire countries were bombed back to the stone-age. Recreational drug use was rising and Harvard research scientist turned LSD guru, Timothy Leary was exhorting Americans to “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out.” In reaction, under President Richard Nixon, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 intensified the “War on Drugs” and turned a good swath of the population into serious lawbreakers. A milestone in political stupidity was reached when Nixon authorized the Watergate break-in as he was coasting to a huge victory in the 1972 presidential election over anti-war candidate George McGovern. The scandal further polarized the country and the decade wore on miserably: disco music and leisure wear, oil embargos and endless lines at gas stations, 14% mortgage rates, the fall of the Shah and hostage taking in Iran. The post-WASP leadership was clearly failing; to quote Lincoln paraphrasing St. Mark, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Moreover, during this time, Capitalism in America was itself in a period of transition. The divided country was struggling economically. By the mid 1970s powerful companies from Japan, Germany et al. were competing successfully in critical sectors – automobiles, aviation, ship-building, appliances, cameras, machine-tools, electronics, … . But American capitalism had resources and was itself ready to react. To start there was the Almighty Dollar which made the banks and financial markets of New York so dominant. And finance was becoming more mathematical and more bold, armed with options and other financial derivatives such as futures, forwards, swaps, mortgage-backed securities and other trendy securitizations. The deal was becoming more important than the factory or the product.
The Age of Industrial Capitalism was giving way to the Age of Financial Capitalism. Big Industry was yielding to Big Capital. And the 1980s and 1990s would see the country fracture along new fault lines. To the Newtonian pattern of action/reaction would be added a new process of division from the top down. To Gallicize a Bette Davis line: Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy fin de siècle.
One thought on “Power in the US III: Newtonian Politics”
Wonderful summation of developments in the U.S. for the last 70-80 years and the Newtonian nature of political actions and reactions. John and I are sending it on. (He just said he thinks it is your best piece yet and he has appreciated all of them. He described it as entertaining, informative, and a sobering challenge for us to consider further.
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