by Mindy Clegg
Rarely do presidential elections seem so consequential, but 2020 has us all in agreement that voting is critical this year. Many simply yearn for a return to “the normal” of the Obama era or the Clinton years. Is the normal of the 90s and 2000s far enough to really address our various existential crises? I argue no. It’s clear that whatever our political orientation, we’re all reeling from the ongoing pandemic (and the threat of more in the future), global economic precarity (from several decades of neo-liberal policies, exacerbated by the pandemic), the erosion of individual rights among those historically oppressed, the rise of the hard right and the terroristic threats they pose, some left-wing accelerationism on the left, as well as the looming existential crisis of climate change, among other things. A general consensus has emerged that the current administration made these issues worse.
With the exception of a few hardcore holdouts, many prominent members of the President’s own party have come to admit the administration’s failures to address the above issues. Yet the administration represents the logical conclusion of the rightward lurch of the Overton window advocated by the GOP for years now. A quick survey of American and global politics tell us that the post Cold War neoliberal solutions failed us all. As we stare into the void that is 2020, now seems the perfect time to reassess and reorient ourselves to push for a more productive mode of problem-solving from our governments. Although voting Democratic down your tickets could begin this process, a real shift to creating more responsive governance that puts citizens first for the country and world will need active engagement and large-scale collective problem solving based on scientific facts rather than ideology. It is helpful to know the roots of our current problem so I will focus on two byproducts of the Cold War itself: the rise of neoliberal economic structures and the culture wars, and how Republicans and Democrats reacted to both. Solving these problems will require a strong political will for a New Deal level intervention that both regulates the economy and offers protection of basic rights for all.
The Overton window has moved rightward since the end of the Cold War. This is true even within the Democratic party, who under the Bill Clinton administration favored less regulation, more free trade, less support for unions, and some support for tax cuts. Since then an extreme pro-business, deregulation-happy mindset has come to dominate, with the current administration representing the logical conclusion of this worldview. Although the current iteration of the right claims to advocate for smaller government, this only holds true with regards to intervening in the economy on behalf of workers, the end consumer, or the public at large—smaller government is for the wealthy and for corporate interests. The rights of individuals play a distant second fiddle to the rights of corporations in the current right-wing political configuration. The neoliberal, free-marketers have partnered with the theocratic right in order to distract from otherwise unpopular policies. If the middle of the twentieth century represented a balancing of interests between (admittedly relatively conservative) labor unions and management, that balance certainly helped create a period of prosperity for a good decade or more. Government worked not in favor of one side or the other; rather they provided a floor from which both sides could express their interests and work for the common good of all. Under the liberal consensus (as historians have come to call the period from the New Deal to the Watergate revelations), the Federal government supported strong worker protections, a relatively robust welfare system (which marginalized groups had to fight to be included in during the Civil Rights movement), and regulations that made the workplace safer and more productive. Such protections, along with government investment in public sector R&D, formed the economic backbone of the American economic juggernaut of the second half of the twentieth century.
Let’s not be naive about that juggernaut. Much of this was due to American interventionism abroad during the Cold War. America sought to impose its ideal economic system onto the rest of the world that would benefit American interests and corporations. In the case of Europe and Japan, that came relatively easy, as Western European governments largely agreed with the aims of a capitalist economy with a strong welfare state. In the case of Japan, the United States played a central role in rewriting their government structures into a pacifist, pro-capitalist government with a parliamentary system—the emphasis on pro-capitalist. In theory, American advocated liberal democracy abroad, but in practice economy trumped democracy. There are plenty of cases where the United States would violate the sovereignty of countries in the global south who sought to exercise any sort of economic policies that clashed with the building of a free market economy, even when that policy sprang from fully democratic processes. Few cases illustrate this as well as the 1973 Chilean coup by Augusto Pinochet that had serious repercussions across South America. American advocates for neoliberalism were part of the complete gutting of the Chilean state. This was complimented in the US with the runaway factory phenomenon discussed by scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein and Aviva Chomsky.1 Events in locations like Chile and the process of deindustrialization back home eventually allowed for the US itself to become a laboratory for what Naomi Klein called “shock doctrine” economic policies after the Cold War.2 At first, the ability of the United States to project its economic interests abroad helped underwrite American economic prosperity at home. But it eventually undermined American labor and manufacturing power. The embrace of neoliberalism came from both parties, though the Democratic party sought to soften its edges far more than the Republican party which has seen an influx of Ayn Rand acolytes since the era of Reagan.
The culture wars were also a byproduct of the Cold War although in a more subtle way. The Cultural Cold War played out both at home and abroad. By the late 1940s, the culture industries were purging themselves of supposedly dangerous leftist elements as were many other institutions and organizations such as Civil Rights groups.3 By the 1950s, far right groups such as the John Birch Society sought to exploit both the Cold War and Mass Resistance practiced by some whites in response to the Civil Rights movement after the Brown V. Board decision.4 In the 1960s, other groups long excluded from American prosperity and freedoms cribbed from the Black freedom movement as they struggled for autonomy and equity under the law. Latinx, Native Americans, the disabled, women, and the LGBQT+ movement all gained new militancy by the late 1960s and early 1970s, winning some local victories along the way. This only strengthened the backlash against rights movements. It gave Richard Nixon a means of winning the White House in 1968 using the notorious Southern Strategy. Nixon’s campaign employed coded but racist language that downplayed openly racist attitudes but played up white middle class resentment. Thus did that middle class white resentment merge with rabid anti-communism to form a new right-wing fringe. The dynamic at play here does not even begin to address the hard right, made up of racist right-wing groups and far right militias. They most certainly sought to inject themselves into the conversation on the right at strategic points to pull even more people into their way of thinking, but this is outside the scope of this current essay.
Another group shaped the new right coalition, the Christian right. Beginning with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority reacting to the rise of gay rights and women’s rights movements, conservative, right-leaning Christians got politically active during the 1970s. Many consider the role played by the Moral Majority to be crucial to Ronald Reagan’s defeat of evangelical Christian President Jimmy Carter. As many Americans became more accepting of LGBQT+ and greater equality for women in public life, groups like the Moral Majority began to market themselves as outsiders bent on saving the “real” America for God. The Christian Right also expanded thanks to Roe v. Wade, the SCOTUS decision which legalized abortion nationally in 1973. Decided on the right to privacy, the decision drove a new wave of conservative activism and made a new alliance in American religious life. The pro-life movement brought together evangelic protestants with conservative Catholics into a coalition against abortion rights. These various groups that opposed abortion became rebels against what they saw as a godless, sexualized, and secularized society that utterly devalues human life. They employed tactics lifted straight from the Civil Rights movement such as sit-ins and direct, non-violent action in their activism.5 Today many on the right see the willingness to overturn Roe as a litmus test for the appointment of judges. The appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsberg has just been the most visible example of this struggle. Though she steadfastly refused to say whether she’d vote to overturn Roe, Barrett has most cetainly spoken out against the right to abortion during her time as a professor at Notre Dame. She holds the hardline positon on abortion, that life begins at conception and abortion is always immoral, whatever the reason. Today, a general consensus on the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling from the American public in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion. Despite the controversy around her appointment, her nomination just moved to the floor of the Senate.
One issue the centrality of abortion brings up here is the general concept of “pro-life”, which claims to hold all life sacred. One wonders how true that is at least for some pro-life activists when they support a candidate who regularly assaults that sanctity with his preferred policies on a number of issues. As of this writing, over 200,000 Americans have died from the COVID-19 pandemic, many of whom might have been spared had the President not downplayed the severity of the virus. It would have been trivially easy for him to simply support mask wearing and social distancing in public, but he made it a divisive political ploy to rally his supporters, some of whom have died as a result. This included former presidential candidate turned Trump supporter Herman Cain. But as it looked like the hardest hit were going to be blue states, and especially communities of color which tend to break Democratic, the strategy became “herd immunity” instead. This is a strategy guaranteed to lead to excessive deaths. On Friday October 23, the US had over 83,000 cases, the highest number to date. In addition, after the initial round of economic support for the American people and the economy, the GOP is refusing to negotiate with the Democratic party in good faith, while demanding new appropriations for military equipment in a new bill. The family separation policy at the border has resulted in over 500 children still separated from their parents 3 years later. In some cases, the government lost track of the deported parents. The administration has pushed for more executions of Federal death row inmates, another red-line for some pro-life activists, especially Catholics. The administration’s economic policy of cutting taxes only served to undercut working class families by cutting tax revenue coming in from the highest earners and giving the rest crumbs in terms of “relief”—to continue the Reaganesque policy of deregulation at all cost. The administration continues to go after the ACA even as the pandemic rages around us. None of these policies seem particularly aimed at honoring the sanctity of human life, yet the self-professed pro-life crowd continues to give Trump overwhelming support because of their opposition to abortion for any reason. Contrast this with the recent Encyclical by Pope Francis which criticizes neoliberalism and its failures to address very real human needs and dignity. It seems like the Holy Father has been reading some Polanyi recently (maybe even a little Marx)! There difference here could not be more stark. But the above issues are just the tip of the iceberg.
Overall, it’s clear that the United States (and the world, in many respects) stands at a tipping point, or perhaps many tipping points. The current President seems a depressing culmination of years of GOP dog-whistling and obstructionism, while the current leadership of the Democratic party has essentially only vague kindness and some tepid changes when many are demanding deeper transformation. People seem hungry for more than just a return to normalcy and bipartisan compromise. The current President won in (relatively small) part due to a real desire to deal with the problems that face all of us. Many on the progressive side of the Democratic party feel the same frustration as the right, that no one is doing the jobs for which we elected them. The left and right most certainly do not agree on the causes of the problems we face, but they do seem to agree that we are in a state of constant alienation from our political system. How is this gap resolved? A tricky question, but rather than destroying it all as some on the right advocate for, rebuilding the public trust in all our public institutions (government and academia, most especially) that have been well-colonized to serve corporate interests would be a great start. Part of what made the liberal consensus of the postwar period work was that most agreed we needed public institutions that served all Americans, not just private, for-profit entities that served only their board and shareholders. We need a fundamental dismantling of the neoliberal economy and the states that prop it up. Otherwise, little will change and we will continue down a path that could lead to widespread global misery. What we’re all experiencing now is only a taste of what to come. The problems faced in the postcolonial world, imposed by neoliberalism since the end of the Cold War are starting to boomerang back to our own shores. Problems here are starting to look like those abroad that we normally would chalk up to “third world problems.” The massacre of peaceful protesters in Nigeria this week doesn’t seem too far removed from the violence currently being visited upon Black Lives Matter protesters here in American cities. We should work to ensure people-centered political solutions here, in order to advocate for such abroad. If America wishes to retain global leadership in the world, we must tackle these issues head-on, putting human dignity, science, and fact-based decision making at the center of government. Anything less would be failing those who have struggled for a better world over the last century. All the blood spilled would be for naught.