Waking Up from Reagan’s Dream
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
First there was Katrina, then the less devastating Rita, then Harriet – a topical depression.
Harriet Miers, the W’s nominee to fill Sandra Day O’Connor’s vacating seat on the Supreme Court, has been greeted learily on both sides of the conventional political divide. While she is a crony in good standing in the Bush League, her history as a corporate lawyer and a White House counsel has not left the judicial spoor that either side wants to see when it comes to such red meat issues as abortion.
Rush Limbaugh sounds truly teary-eyed when he lusts for someone who would put “the final nail in the coffin of the Left” and doubts that Miers is it. The Right longed to prove that their 50.5% majority in government meant absolute power: they could select another Scalia or Thomas, a full-blown cracked ceramic, and force him/her down the united throats of Democrats and all those to the left of them. Even if she does, as White House parrot Scott McClellan maintains with a coded wink, share the Chief’s views on absolutely everything, even if the Prez cites her evangelical commitment as his primary reason for choosing her, the right does not want a stealthy seduction; they want an overt gang rape — to prove to the Preterit once and for all that the One-Party State rules.
Will Miers be the final piece in the generation-old Republican plan to overturn Roe v. Wade? Both sides have been raising campaign contributions on the abortion issue for thirty years, since the runup to Reagan’s election, sometimes as if that were the only issue that really mattered. In fact, it would be interesting to see how the general public would react to a reversal of abortion rights. While most Americans claim religious affiliation, even if only to a non-denominational God who approves of everything they do, just as large a number insist they do not want the government making their moral decisions for them. Even most evangelicals who were polled faulted Congress for getting involved in the Terry Schiavo case.
Believe it or not, the above brings us back to Katrina. Recently heard is the resuscitation of an old joke retooled for the post-Katrina catastrophe: during the disastrous White House response, what choice did Bush offer to the people of New Orleans? Row versus wade.
It has already been widely and correctly noted that Katrina’s aftermath represented the logical culmination of the Republican jihad against government. Readily recalled was Reagan’s mantra: “The government is the problem, not the solution.” In fact, rightwing ideologues should have claimed the high ground, in short supply after the hurricane, by continuing to preach the virtues of individual initiative as the locals looted shops for water, food, and other supplies. Of course, doing so is harder if, as a conservative, you reserve looting as the privilege of CEOs, Republican politicians, and Halliburton.
It was predicted long ago that dismantling public services would breed such consequences. We can go back to the early months of the Reagan presidency, when an awful warning appeared under the title Speak Out Against the New Right. Edited by Herbert F. Vetter, published by Beacon Press, it was a collection of essays by concerned pundits including Gloria Steinem, Norman Lear, and Isaac Asimov. In his contribution, liberal economist, author, and former ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith focuses specifically on the conservative attacks on the public sector. He quotes such conservatives as William Simon and Milton Friedman, who see government as a hive of inherently “noxious, authoritarian parasites,” observing that their arguments lead explicitly to the conclusion that public services can be “reduced more or less without limit and without significant social cost or suffering.”
In the same section of the book, Lester Thurow worries that the result of Reaganomics will be more working poor and a runaway military budget. Like Galbraith’s warning that curtailing social services on ideological grounds would inevitably have deleterious social consequences, Thurow’s prediction has proved correct. Under Bush the working poor comprise the fastest growing demographic of our class layer cake, and the military expenditures in Iraq and elsewhere, coupled with the Thief-in-Chief’s generous tax giveaway, have busted the national budget.
Many essays in this 1982 collection are devoted to the rise of the Religious Right, then embodied most prominently in Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Such writers as James M. Wall and Leo Pfeffer worry over the creeping censorship of books and other media on moralistic grounds, on the suppression of women’s and gay rights. The good news 23 years later is that liberalism ended up in sync with popular culture on these issues. Despite all the sneering about “political correctness” over the last fifteen years, women and gays have continued to make progress, both in the real world and in the virtual reality of pop culture. Despite the Republican hegemony of our times, it is hard to imagine Will and Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy being forced off the air on moral grounds. Granted that TV land remains a vast waste of blurred flesh and bleeped expletives, it reflects a range of acceptance and tolerance almost unimaginable in 1982, even if it still has a long ways to go.
In their essay in the book, in fact, Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab play down the power of the religious right, arguing that the “Americans who ‘turned right’ in the last election did not by any means agree with the Moral Majority”; replace “Moral Majority” with “Christian Coalition” and you could say the same about the “values” election of 2004. Regardless of all the hand-wringing — or cheering, depending on which side you were on — over the apparent triumph of the evangelical vote last November, today’s true believers have not kept Bush’s approval from slipping below 40%. Where is their supposed majority now? Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, indeed, is struggling for survival, with a trail of unpaid bills and a bank account only five percent of what it was a decade ago.
On a related issue, the scientists in the 1982 volume — astronomer Carl Sagan, science fiction author Isaac Asimov, and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould — all bemoan the self-imposed stupidity that comes from placing creation myths over scientific rigor, from subordinating intellect to orthodoxy. As Asimov worries, if Americans permit this retreat, “[w]e will inevitably recede into the backwater of civilization, and those nations that retain open scientific thought will take over the leadership of the world and the cutting edge of human advancement.” Because this subject has already been addressed in this space, no more need be said about it here (see “Taking On Science with a Fake I.D.“).
One of the more intriguing essays in the book is Karen Rothmeyer’s “Citizen Scaife,” an exposé of Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to the Philadelphia Mellon fortune who was then channeling millions into think tanks, lobbying groups, and the print media in order to create a public relations army for the Right. Scaife himself comes across as secretive and weird, a sort of political Howard Hughes without the charisma. Like many an activist on the Right — Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz both come to mind — he has a vicious potty-mouth, as when calls the persistent Rothmeyer to her face a “fucking Communist cunt.”
Scaife has proved very successful. Indeed, alongside Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News operation has made him the Joseph Goebbels of today’s Right, Scaife’s propaganda empire has changed the nature of our political discourse since the Reagan era began. That is the main reason that this nation is so out of step with the rest of the globe today, continuing to march backward as the civilized world moves on into the 21st century. The unworkable ideas propounded by the crackpot right could not survive in a democratic society where a free exchange of ideas leads to sensible conclusions and good governance, the sort of society envisioned by our Founders. But in one where free speech and access to elected officials goes to the highest bidder, money talks very loud.
Especially noteworthy in Rothmeyer’s article is that Scaife’s allies claim they were copying the success of the liberal-left. Judging from today’s frequently heard laments about the right getting the jump on the media and about the need to play catch-up, apparently the liberal-left has forgotten that it pioneered the use of think tanks, publications, and broadcasting to put its message across. This is worth remembering in a year when Rush Limbaugh is losing listeners and Air America is gaining them.
So it is neither the best of times nor the worst of times — yet. After successfully stealing two elections, Bush is on track to becoming the least popular president in our history. In the meantime, he can only continue doing what he does best: damage.
In a recent article British journalist Dermot Purgavie asks “Is This the Death of America?” He writes: “America’s sense of itself, its pride in its power and authority, its faith in its institutions and its belief in its leaders — has been profoundly damaged. And now the talking heads in Washington predict dramatic political change and the death of the Republicans’ hope of becoming the permanent government.”
Reagan’s Dream has come true, and the nightmare has begun — even for the generation of Americans who bedded down with him.
Beware of what you wish for.