Do you remember this stunning moment? Seems like a lifetime ago now.
America's original sins of slavery and racism seemed at least momentarily to be overcome by the purveyor of hope, an inspiring figure who spoke with the eloquence and in the tradition of the great Civil Rights and abolitionist leaders. The goodness of the American people seemed affirmed, voting in a manner some never thought possible, making an African American the leader of the free world.
We were just beginning to understand the ramifications of the global economy in free fall. We had lived through 9-11 and seen the unity of a collective resolve to conquer fear and terrorism torn asunder by leaders who dragged us into an unrelated war in which winning the peace was an afterthought paid for in American and Iraqi lives and 2 trillion dollars of taxpayer money. This past and the storms on the horizon were present on election night 2008, but were swept away in the rejoicing of this improbable feat as a nation. In Barack Obama, America had turned another corner.
The election of an African American President affirmed that what Martin Luther King Jr. had told us was correct: the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.
Except when it doesn't...
We are coming off what may be the most difficult week in our American political life in quite some time. The full brunt of the indecency and misogyny of a US President combined with a complicit and conniving Republican Senate leadership undermined the broad support as a fair instrument of government long enjoyed by the Supreme Court since the beginning of the Civil Rights Era This third branch of our government now is subject to and complicit in the power politics that embraces moral deviance and relativism in the allowance of the sexual assault of women and lying under oath as no real barrier to having a seat on the high court. The Supreme Court, already comprised of a sexual harasser and other conservative justices that allow unfettered money into our political system will now form a majority that will further erode the gains of the Civil Rights Era, the feminist movement, the labor movement and all the progress that has been made to make this country a more fair and decent society for its citizens dating at least back to the Progressive Era politics of Teddy Roosevelt.
This is the final step necessary to complete what I call the Great Regression.
The Long Arc of History...
For someone living in the mid-twentieth century as Martin Luther King Jr. did, positing the existence of a moral universe that gets increasingly more just over time seemed like a reasonable conclusion, even amidst the violence and anguish of confronting white Americans in the Civil Rights movement. Decades of abolitionism, which started small but became an overwhelming force in American politics set the stage for a Civil War that ended slavery while killing off some ten percent of the population. The excesses of Industrial Revolution and great income inequality were tempered by Progressive Era government regulation and trust busting and New Deal Keynesian economics that sought to provide for everyone's basic needs. Disenfranchised women organized for decades before finally got the vote and eventually found their way into the workplace. Labor unions fought for and one greater protections for workers and set the stage for a prosperity that was lifting most ships. Jim Crow was dismantled by the Supreme Court who served as the guarantor of the civil liberties of black Americans.
As King's activism got under way, he could believe in the hope that in a democracy like the United States, you could convince enough folks in the population that change was not only necessary, but possible. When changing minds broadly failed, you could state your case to those in power and eventually they could be morally compelled to act. The love power that he called activists to embrace was rooted in this hope, and indeed belief, that Civil Rights activism was pulling on that arc. King could point to a number of important wins to corroborate his thinking.
The Great Regression Explained.
Right at this juncture in American history, the Conservative movement formed in the modern sense, eventually finding a home in the Republican Party. Nixon's southern strategy first sought to engage the racist grievances of southern white men who lived through a Civil Rights Era where the social arrangements and full privileges that they grew accustomed to shifted away from them. Nixon combined this racism with the Republican tenets of a muscular foreign policy, a preference for the wealthy, and an ongoing attack against the new social movements seeking greater equality for women, homosexuals, and people of color.
By the time Reagan received the nomination in 1980, the modern evangelical movement of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority was in full swing. The GOP used their opposition to abortion as the wedge issue that would be used to undermine feminism. Reagan was able to combined the racist aggrievement with this newly politically engaged religious movement to form a winning coalition. Many working class white folks found themselves pulled into cultural and religious issues, even if the economic policies pursued by the GOP were against their economic interest. The wealthy would see drastic tax cuts and increases in wealth while Republicans could drape themselves in the flag while holding a Bible.
The Conservative project of the last 40 years is now undeniably at its apex. Despite an unorthodox conservative in Donald Trump, Republicans found someone who would continue economic policies that favor the rich, while speaking more directly to racist and misogynist grievance of the working class white folks that Nixon targeted in an increasingly culturally and racially diverse nation. Conservatives who spent years chipping away at the underlying tenets of a fair and decent nation that most Americans simply took for granted and in many ways still do are now able to pursue these regressive policies in a more robust way. Republican leadership like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, would actually prefer that Medicare and Medicaid didn't existed. They voted time and again to kill off Obamacare, even though it provided insurance to millions of Americans. Conservative governors refused to take Medicaid to insure more of their state's citizens. The goal is no government involvement in health care or any other social good. Indeed there is no social good in this thinking, only private gain. This is one of the logical ends to the Reagan Revolution which I would call more broadly the Great Regression.
The Great Regression has occurred throughout most of the adult lives of those living today. We have not seen it as this larger retrenchment as periods like President Obama's presidency masked the overall trajectory of the nation's descent into a plutrocracy. We are living it, but understanding the Great Regression on this longer time trajectory will help us think through how we more effectively fight back over the medium and long term. Even with a mid-term election coming up, the immediate future looks bleak, but progressives and seekers of justice have fought longer odds in American history. My addendum to King's adage:
The long arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but only if we make it so...