By Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org
Not long ago, I was at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park on a Sunday afternoon to hear San Diego’s civic organist, Carol Williams, play her weekly concert. After she was finished I walked over to one of the donation tables to renew my Spreckels Organ Society membership. The woman who helped me saw the book I was reading — a well-worn paperback of Theodore H. White’s book The Making of the President 1964 — and asked, “Is that about the Goldwater campaign?” I said yes, though the book is as much about Lyndon Johnson’s takeover of the presidency after the John F. Kennedy assassination and his campaign to keep the job. The woman then startled me by saying, “We need someone like Goldwater today — a progressive Republican.”
I didn’t say anything to her after that, though I was astounded by the idea that anyone, anywhere for whom Barry Goldwater was a living historical memory would have described him as “progressive.” After all, for goodness’ sake, he’s the man whose best-known book was called The Conscience of a Conservative! I could envision ol’ Barry’s corpse doing cartwheels in his coffin over that one. And yet her peculiar, to say the least, description of Goldwater as a “progressive Republican” only underscored the extent to which Goldwater and his ideas have triumphed in American politics. When the 1964 election happened — I was 11 but an already highly politicized 11, and my mom had taken me to Democratic headquarters to stuff envelopes and lick stamps for the Johnson campaign — we genuine liberals, progressives and radicals heaved a sigh of relief. We had slain the great Right-wing dragon, giving the Republicans such an overwhelming defeat they would have to move back to the center or die as a political force.
Boy, were we wrong. The French composer Claude Debussy described his great German predecessor, Richard Wagner, as “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.” The Goldwater campaign of 1964 was just the opposite: an ugly sunrise that was mistaken for a dusk. Johnson’s overwhelming election triumph of 1964 (with 61 percent of the popular vote to Goldwater’s 39) was almost precisely reversed in the next election in 1968, with the Right-wing campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace garnering 57 percent of the vote between them to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent — though the closeness of the vote between Nixon and Humphrey gave the illusion that the electorate was more evenly divided than it was and lulled the Democrats into a false sense of complacency that lasted most of the next decade.
What happened? Partly that explosive confluence of events collectively known to history as “The Sixties.” The African-American civil rights movement split almost as soon as it had achieved its two greatest legislative triumphs, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Younger Blacks lost patience with Dr. Martin Luther King and his nonviolent strategy; they also rejected the idea of liberal whites as partners (even junior partners) in the movement and called for “Black Power!” The war in Viet Nam droned on and on, as President Johnson abandoned funding for his Great Society programs and fed more and more conscript soldiers into the maw of an unwinnable war — thereby alienating the Left of the Democratic party and ensuring a primary challenge that culminated in Johnson’s withdrawal from his 1968 re-election bid, Robert Kennedy’s murder and Hubert Humphrey’s nomination as blood ran through the streets of Chicago.
But America’s shift to the Right in the 1960’s didn’t just happen. The Right itself knew exactly what it was doing. Unlike the liberals, progressives and Leftists who withdrew from politics in a mixture of despair and disgust after the Republican triumphs of 1972, 1980 and 1984, the Right-wingers who had engineered the Goldwater nomination and the takeover of the Republican Party persisted. They regarded Goldwater’s defeat, not as a catastrophe, but merely as a battle they had lost in a war they still fully intended to win. And they did so by targeting the two mega-issues that enabled them to split the New Deal coalition that had dominated American politics from 1932 to 1964: race and culture.
The 1960’s were the decade in which America’s two major political parties flipped their positions on civil rights for people of color in general and African-Americans in particular. By voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater opened the South as Republican Presidential territory, taking the five states of the Deep South — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi (where he won a whopping 87.1 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 12.9 percent) and South Carolina — and setting the stage for Wallace’s openly racist independent Presidential campaign of 1968, which carried four of the Southern states Goldwater had taken in 1964 (all but South Carolina, which went for Nixon) and added Arkansas.
What’s more, in order to neutralize Wallace’s potential support and win the election, Republican nominee Richard Nixon and U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond created the “Southern strategy,” by which the “party of Lincoln” abandoned its historic commitment to African-American equality and became the party of white resistance and racism. Though Nixon probably intended this merely as a short-term tactic to meet the Wallace challenge, it became a long-term strategy that made the Republican party the representative of white reaction. This helped move not only Southerners but Northern whites as well — particularly the blue-collar ethnics who had been the bulwark of Franklin Roosevelt’s coalition — away from the Democrats and toward the Republicans.
The 1960’s also “flipped” the historic positions of the Left and the Right on the issues Goldwater called “ethics” and which since have been known as “values” and “culture.” In America’s two previous peak decades for the Left, the 1890’s and the 1930’s, Leftists had tended to be quite conservative culturally even as they were radical in their politics and economics. Indeed, in the 1890’s Democratic and Leftist campaigners pointed to the social excesses of the 1880’s — the sexually open lives led by many of the 1 percent of the time, the huge parties, the orgies, the jealousy-related murders — as examples of moral decay which could only be stopped by reining in unbridled capitalism. In the 1930’s the Left made similar claims about the 1920’s. But the 1960’s —in particular the open and visible experimentation by many young people with drugs and multi-partner sexual lifestyles, and the breakdown of the last taboo with the emergence of Gay Liberation at the end of the decade — horrified culturally conservative people and drove them towards the political Right as well.
The result was an ongoing Right-wing political majority that first manifested itself in 1968 with the Republican “Southern strategy” and came to dominate U.S. politics especially after it elected Ronald Reagan President in 1980. Reagan first emerged as a mass political figure in the 1964 campaign, when he made a last-minute televised appeal for Goldwater and was widely considered a more effective spokesperson for the Right-wing cause than Goldwater himself. Since then, the Republicans have become the dominant party in Presidential elections, largely by changing the “solid South” from solid Democrat to solid Republican and also winning enough white ethnic votes to remain competitive in most of the big Northern states. The three Democrats who have won Presidential elections since 1968 — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — did so only because they were able to take some Southern states away from the GOP, Carter and Clinton by being white Southerners themselves and Obama by doing such a formidable job mobilizing the Black vote to be competitive despite overwhelming opposition from the white South.
Since 1968, and especially since 1980, the radical Right has gradually grown in power and influence until today it essentially dominates the American political agenda, especially on economic issues. It’s true that the Right has had reverses, and a lot of social changes have occurred despite its opposition. Though the “gender gap” between men and women in terms of economic opportunity still exists, it’s no longer unusual to see women in executive and professional jobs in both the public and private sectors. Despite the relentless opposition of the so-called “Christian Right,” which emerged as a junior partner of the overall radical-Right coalition in the late 1970’s, America’s Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people have gradually won a level of social acceptance and, at least in the more cosmopolitan “blue” states, civil-rights protections that would have been unthinkable in the late 1960’s.
But on the key economic issues, the country has moved slowly but surely and steadily in the radical Right’s direction. Few things illustrate this better than a talk Lyndon Johnson gave in the White House during the 1964 campaign, quoted on page 424 of the paperback edition of The Making of the President 1964:
Our prosperity is not just good luck. … It rests on the basic belief that the work of free individuals makes a nation — and it is the job of government to help them do the best they can. … Today our whole approach to these problems is under attack. We are now told that we, the people, acting through government, should withdraw from education, from public power, from agriculture, from urban renewal and from a host of other vital programs. We are now told that we must end Social Security as we know it, sell TVA [the Tennessee Valley Authority public-power project], strip labor unions of their gains, and terminate all farm subsidies. This is a radical departure from the historic and basic currents of American thought and action.
Fifty years later, this “radical departure” has become the political orthodoxy. The Right-wing view first advanced in a Presidential campaign by Barry Goldwater, and now the ruling ideology of the Republican Party (and accepted by a lot of Democrats as well), agrees with Johnson that “the work of free individuals makes a nation,” but fundamentally rejects that “it is the job of government to help them do the best they can.” Over and over again we are told by Right-wing ideologues in politics and the media that government is helplessly corrupt, that all its attempts to intervene in the economic system cause more harm than they do good, and that, as Ronald Reagan famously put it, “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” (Reagan actually prefaced that quote with the word “sometimes,” but that qualifier is almost universally edited out today.)
Over a century ago, many members of the public were outraged over the abuses of private corporations and founded Municipal Ownership Leagues and other organizations to take over the private gas, electric, transit, trash collection and water companies and run those services of, by and for the benefit of the people who use them, not profit-making investors. Today the trend is exactly in the other direction; under the influence of Right-wing propaganda and in defiance of actual experience, public services are increasingly being “privatized” or “outsourced” to the highest bidder, based on the wrong idea that somehow private companies, governed by “the magic of the market,” can provide these services better than public agencies for lower cost. This is nonsense; a private company can provide a public service cheaper than government in only one of two ways — either by paying the workers less or lowering the quality of the service — and in real-world privatizations, they generally do both.
Even the very concept of public education — which Thomas Jefferson, amazingly cited as a model by a lot of Right-wing Libertarians (the crazies who want the eastern parts of California, Oregon and Washington to secede and form a new Right-wing state want to call it “Jefferson”), said was the bulwark of a free people and a republic — is under sustained attack. Not only does the Right want to abolish federal support for education (one of the key accomplishments of Johnson’s presidency), they want to destroy the public school system by attrition. They want to divert education funding to private schools through voucher programs. They heavily support so-called “charter schools” even though there’s no evidence that charter schools generally do better at educating students than traditional public schools (some charters do better, some do worse, some do about the same). And they want to destroy the teachers’ unions and the tenure system that provides teachers the only real protection they have from being censored in the classroom.
As for the Right’s desire to “strip labor unions of their gains,” that is one area in which they have almost completely accomplished their mission. A relentless assault on union workers, which began in the early 1970’s and accelerated as the world economy became more globalized starting in the late 1980’s, has resulted in the percentage of the American work force organized into unions dropping from 32 percent in the 1950’s (its peak) to a shade over 11 percent today — and in the private sector it’s less than 7 percent. Even the few unions that still represent private-sector workers have so little bargaining power they can do hardly anything but negotiate the terms of their surrender as employers relentlessly drive down wages, benefits and workers’ health and safety protections. If it weren’t for the labor movement’s success in organizing public-sector workers, there would essentially no longer be a union movement in the U.S. — and the Right has responded with vicious attacks on the wages, benefits, job security and (especially) pensions of public workers.
The Right has also never accepted the very idea of a social safety net, which the U.S. slowly and grudgingly started to put together during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in the 1930’s (Social Security, unemployment insurance, federal minimum wage and hour legislation, Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and expanded during the Johnson administration (Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps), has gradually been unraveled over the last three decades and is now under the same sort of full-frontal attack the radical Right has launched against every other social institution that displeases them. In an economy that has yet to recover from the 2008 recession, America’s most desperate economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the talk in Washington is not about spending government money to stimulate the economy.
Rather, the policy being followed by both major parties — the Republicans by conviction and the Democrats by desperation — is cutbacks and “austerity.” The Federal Reserve has been able to stimulate a sort of recovery by keeping interest rates at nearly zero — thereby making America’s inequality of wealth and income even worse by helping rich people make money off stocks. Cash-rich companies like Apple, instead of making investments that would actually put Americans to work, are either hoarding their cash or paying it out to shareholders in dividends. The thirty-year pattern of exporting manufacturing jobs overseas, which has devastated once-thriving industrial cities like Detroit, has spread to service industries as well.
America’s ruling capitalist elite seems to have declared war on the very idea of a middle class, and despite all the Right-wing mythology that anyone who works hard can make it in the economy and even become rich, the U.S. now has less income mobility than the once highly stratified countries in western Europe that America’s (white) settlers escaped to come here so they could advance. The quiet death of extended unemployment insurance benefits for long-term jobless workers — killed by Republicans in both houses of Congress — and the willingness of Republicans and Democrats to agree on cutbacks in food stamps and the so-called “chained CPI” that will gut Social Security shows how policies that will worsen and lengthen the recession have become unchallengeable orthodoxy in Washington.
One other thing that happened was the so-called “fall of Communism.” In the 1890’s the capitalists who ran the American economy had reason to fear for the survival of their system. Mass movements of the Left — populism, socialism, anarchism — existed, and every time there was an economic crisis (the 1870’s, the 1890’s, the 1930’s) they flared up. Responding to the existential threat of the mass Left, the ruling class responded both by repression — there were three periods of intense government assault on the Left (1917-1925, 1945-1955 and 1967-1975) that permanently shrank it — and by compromise. All the economic changes we took for granted for so many decades — allowing labor unions to exist and function, offering government guarantees to retired and unemployed workers, minimum-wage and worker health and safety legislation, government-funded health care for older and poorer Americans — came about because the government and the corporate ruling class were scared of a mass movement that would overthrow them, so they offered the masses just enough to keep them content and keep them from rebelling.
It was those compromises that ensured that, at least in the last half of the 20th century, world capitalism in general and American capitalism in particular didn’t fulfill Karl Marx’s prediction that capitalists would always drive wages down to subsistence levels — and by doing so they’d cut their own throats because workers wouldn’t be left with enough money to buy the goods and services they produced. Now, with the “Communist world” a dim memory and the American mass Left basically nonexistent, the capitalists don’t see any more reason to play Mr. Nice Guy. Instead they’ve joined forces with the radical Right, not only because they don’t have to worry about their powers and privileges being threatened by a mass Left but because the younger breed of capitalists are themselves more radical. In 1914 Henry Ford, a viciously anti-labor capitalist and so virulent an anti-Semite that his book The International Jew was cited as a source by Adolf Hitler, nonetheless realized that he should pay his workers $5 per day so they could buy the cars they made for him.
Today the spirit of capitalism is exemplified by people like Charles and David Koch, Art Pope, and Shark Tank host Kevin O’Leary, who’ve read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and accepted its view that capitalists are the world’s super-people and it’s not only wrong but immoral to tax them to support a social welfare state, or allow their workers to organize. Asked about a recent report from Oxfam — a middle-of-the-road British charity — that the world’s richest 85 families have as much wealth as the lower 50 percent of the entire global population, O’Leary said, “It’s fantastic. And this is a great thing because it inspires everybody. They get the motivation to look up to the one percent and say, ‘I want to become one of those people. I am going to fight hard to get up to the top.’ This is fantastic news and of course I applaud it. What can be wrong with this?”
And as for today’s youth, they’re growing up in a world where they’ve been told all their lives that “there is no alternative” to rampant capitalism, inexorably driving wages down and roaming the world for the cheapest workers, the most lax (or totally nonexistent) regulations, the greatest horizons for worker exploitation and environmental destruction for short-term profit. The collapse of authoritarian Communism in Russia and China (ironically, China has kept in place the apparatus of repression built by Mao and used it to assure the world’s capitalists that they can locate there and enjoy the world’s biggest sweatshop) has discredited all non-capitalist alternatives, to the point where even the Occupy movement (remember them?) did a great job articulating the case against the corporations that rule the world but didn’t articulate any ideas of what a post-corporate society could be.
Burdened by their student loans — impoverished before their careers even start, and all too often finding that their ultra-expensive degrees are virtually useless in today’s shrunken job market — the youth of today can’t do anything socially useful with their lives that would challenge the capitalist hegemony. What’s more, they’ve been told all their lives that there’s nothing they can do about it anyway. The enormous popularity of the Hunger Games cycle — both the books and the two films (so far) made from them — plays directly into today’s young generation and its alienation from even the possibility of collective action for social change. The heroine of The Hunger Games begins as a rebel, becomes a nationwide celebrity, gets enlisted in a revolution that builds a society just as repressive as the one it rebelled against, and ultimately drops out of public life altogether and spends her days literally cultivating her garden.
That’s the ultimate triumph of the radical Right: not only to have established ideological, political and social hegemony but to have destroyed even the hope that the world could be anything different from the one its corporate leaders, their political handmaidens and media shills have made. It’s a triumph that, like most such ideological victories, bears within it the seeds of its own destruction. The modern-day capitalist world is economically and environmentally unsustainable, and it’s hard to imagine which set of catastrophes will destroy it first: the inability of workers whose wages have been driven down to subsistence levels to buy anything and thereby keep a consumer-driven economy going, or the rebellion of nature itself that has so far given us Katrina, Sandy, Hyeyoon, Fukushima and the wild swings in weather patterns (the hot seasons hotter, the cold seasons colder, than we’re used to or able as a species to handle) most of America now experiences. But it’s a measure of the totality of the Right’s triumph that it seems more likely now that capitalism will be brought down by factors beyond human control — its greed and rapacity towards both its workers and the environment — than by any human intervention either to reform or replace it.