Power in the US IV: The Re-Org

From the Civil War through World War II, power in America lay with the WASP Ascendancy, an Eastern leadership class with colonial roots and Ivy League diplomas. After the War, a triumvirate took power: Big Industry, Big Military and Big Government. On the one hand, the triumvirs had an easy time of it as the economies of the US and Western Europe enjoyed the “30 glorious years” of post-war economic prosperity, 30 years which were especially good for organized labor and the emerging “middle class.” But at the same time, the country was constantly rocked by the Newtonian politics of action and reaction to political movements – the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-War movement, the women’s movement, the Gay Rights movement, … .

After the national calamity of Watergate and the clumsy interregnum of Gerald Ford, outsider Jimmy Carter became president in 1977. For his part, Carter was a proponent of energy conservation and of alternative energy and the Superfund Act was passed during his presidency, but his most remembered effort in this area was the installation of solar powered water heaters on the White House roof. It was a period where optimism was hard to come by. The social and political divides created by the 50s and 60s persisted ; the Cold War and nuclear insecurity continued on; “stagflation” characterized the economy; industry was being humiliated by competition from Europe and Asia; mortgage rates hit 14%; the 1979 Oil Crisis doubled the price of a gallon of gas; personnel at the US Embassy in Tehran were seized as hostages by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s forces. Things were not good; the Triumvirate was floundering.

But in the last 20 years of the 20th century, the power structure of America would go through a “re-org.” Big Military would get bigger yet; Big Industry would stay powerful but would be hollowed out as much of production would be outsourced abroad; Big Government (and its regulations) would be shrunk; Big Capital would emerge as even more important even than Big Industry itself; Big Labor would be marginalized. This is when the programs of the Heritage Foundation and other well-financed right-wing think-tanks gained traction, when Ayn Rand became required reading, when the ideological propaganda of William Buckley went mainstream: libertarian class-warfare under the reassuring label of “conservatism.” This was the shift from the Age of Industrial Capitalism to the Age of Financial Capitalism when the deal became more important than the product; this was the passage from the America of the New Deal and the Great Society to the dystopian world of libertarian ideology and government by think-tank; this was the transformation that left congress dysfunctional and concentrated the power of government in the president and nine unelected justices.

This shift fissured the American populace in a new way. Rather than through a process of action/reaction, division was rammed through from the top down by means of a powerful mechanism – income inequality and its Wealth Gap. By 1980 the long game of right-wing plutocrats Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife, the Koch brothers et al. would show results, big time: with the Triumvirate flailing, the opportunity for a quiet sort of coup d’état would not be missed. In 1980, economic inequality in the United States was about average for advanced industrialized nations – with France and Italy actually being among the worst. Things have since been reversed and the US now exhibits the greatest gap (according to the World Bank’s GINI index). Moreover, income inequality interacted with other forces of division splitting the country ever more insidiously; thus the Wealth Gap added to the racial divide and led to the situation where today black family wealth has fallen infinitely far behind white family wealth; it exacerbated the urban/rural divide alienating the heartland townsfolk from the Chardonnay sipping coastal elites, who ideologically could be their allies; it stoked the resentment of downward mobile white Americans driving them to ugly identity politics; it created a monstrous health-care gap saddling the US with the highest rate of death in childbirth and the worst medical outcome per dollar spent in the industrialized world. Etc. Etc.

In the early 1970s, despite his defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Barry Goldwater was still their man. But Goldwater was too honest in his views and too consistent in his libertarian thinking to succeed as the right-wing presidential standard bearer – he supported abortion rights, civil rights and “the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment.” And then too he opposed allying the Republican Party with religious groups, an alliance fostered specifically  by Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Heritage Foundation and cofounder with Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority movement.

But for the 1980 presidential election, the right-wing had their new standard bearer ready: Ronald Wilson Reagan, the perfect foil – promising people a Shining City on a Hill, setting the country on the road to dystopia instead. Indeed, the Reagan presidency marks a dramatic turning point in American history. Here was someone from a modest background whose presidency led to a new class hierarchy, a development that has hurtled the nation back into a farcical rerun of the Gilded Age.

Reagan began his career as a movie actor in the late 1930s, interrupted by WW II service at the Army’s First Motion Picture Institute in Culver City CA. In the post-War period, he became an anti-communist informant for the FBI and a star witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). With a push from his powerful agent Lew Wasserman and a nomination by progressive Gene Kelly, he became president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1947 and would be elected 6 times in all. In 1952, during his fifth term, Reagan arranged a “blanket waiver” which exempted Wasserman’s company MCA from the SAG rules that prohibited a talent agency from also undertaking film or TV production. Investigations did follow: Reagan’s tax returns were subpoened for evidence of kickbacks and payoffs, MCA was indicted for federal anti-trust violations; in the end, despite clear evidence that Reagan had benefited financially after his concessions to MCA, the investigation was inconclusive. In any case, by the end of the decade, MCA was not only the biggest seller of talent in Hollywood, it was the biggest buyer as well. For more, click HERE.

Indeed, from there Reagan became the producer of the MCA show General Electric Theater (1953-62) also becoming its on-screen host for 9 of its impressive 10 year run; that stint plus two more years as host of the TV show Death Valley Days (1964-1966) made him a nationally known television personality – a harbinger of Donald Trump. Add in his work as General Electric’s corporate spokesperson and all this made him a wealthy man. BTW, Reagan too had a precursor who used television as a launching pad to the presidency: in 1949, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s narrated a very successful documentary TV series based on his memoirs, Crusade in Europe (which also made him a wealthy man thanks to a strange U.S. Treasury ruling that his earnings did not count as income but rather as capital gains, a windfall of $400,000 in 1949 dollars for Ike – the top income tax rate then was 91% while the capital gains tax was a flat 25%).

A New Deal Democrat when younger, Reagan’s politics later veered right. He supported Truman in 1948, Eisenhower in 1952 and Goldwater in 1964. He ran a tactically brilliant campaign for Governor of California in 1966 to handedly defeat the incumbent Pat Brown – the popular, forward-looking New Deal Democrat who had beaten Richard Nixon in 1962. Reagan ran on a simple platform: “to send the welfare bums back to work,” a racially charged dog-whistle and “to clean up the mess at Berkeley,” a politically charged dog-whistle as UC Berkeley was a center of the counter-culture and anti-war agitation – [Adapertio integra: Publius ipse apud agitatores tunc fuit.]

Once elected, he continued his war on the University of California and on education at all levels. In 1966, California had one of the top education systems in the nation; it suffered badly under Reagan – something it still hasn’t recovered from. For a detailed account, click HERE .

Reagan sought the Republican nomination to run for the presidency in 1976 but was outplayed by appointed president Gerry Ford. At which point, he retired to his Santa Barbara ranch to pose for photo-ops in cowboy gear and to wait for his moment, a moment that would come a couple of years later. He dominated the Republican primaries in 1980 and sailed through to the nomination. Though well behind in the polls at the outset, his impressive performance in the one debate with the incumbent Jimmy Carter turned the polls around and, in the end, he cruised to victory.

Reagan’s administration took office with a policy guidebook at hand, the Heritage Foundation’s study Mandate for Leadership, 1981 edition. The study called for cuts in taxes, cuts in social spending and cuts in government regulations but for an increase in military spending – all since cornerstones of the ideology of the Republican party.

More to come. Affaire à suivre.

One thought on “Power in the US IV: The Re-Org

  1. As one who lived through all this, with dismay, outrage, and occasional activist opposition, I can only say that digesting the full sweep of that era in one cogent exposition is even more painful than that associated with any “cause of the moment” during those times.

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