Sun Jul 6th, 2008 at 05:30:09 PM EST
One of the stories of our age has been that there was a cultural revolution which started during the Nixon era and reached its culmination with Reagan. There are three parts to this view of history.
- Conservative "values" became the majority viewpoint in the nation
- Evangelical Christian views on social issues were made into policy
- Libertarian style economic policies became the norm
The press and many politicians have certainly acted as if these were widely accepted ideas. Recently, as the age of Rove winds down, people have been discussing the fall in the power of the GOP and implicitly equating its political power with the conservative themes listed above.
I'm not going to detail all the studies about attitudes over the past 60 years, but just point out some examples of the disparity between what was enacted and what was claimed.
Let's start with the three most culturally defining "values" of the period: abortion, homosexual rights and evolution. The right (especially the religious, evangelical right) made these issues the cornerstone of their support for candidates. Looking at the statements made by politicians over the period it would seem that they did cause a shift in electoral preferences - more pols supporting the conservative positions were elected.
When we examine the actual course of legislation and court rulings, however, we find a much more mixed picture. Abortion rights have been slightly limited, but most of this has happened at the state level and many of the restrictions have been overturned by the courts. This pattern allows pols to say to the religious right: "I supported your demands, but it's not my fault that the legislation failed/was overturned."
With homosexual rights even the pretense of limiting rights has been a sham. There have been a few symbolic laws about marriage, but in general there has been a steady progression towards more civil rights for homosexuals during the entire period. Over the loud objections of the religious right we now even have gay marriage in a number of places. The politicians talked the talk, but didn't walk the walk.
Anti-evolution has fared even more poorly. Every attempt to make the teaching of biblical creation has been struck down by the courts. The misinformation has had an effect in the public sphere, however. Too many people now are confused about Darwinism and, as a consequence, are willing to support bogus treatments and ineffective public health policies. The results have been an avoidable increase in diseases such as TB and HIV as well as common childhood infections.
With economic policy, the situation looks different, after all this was the age of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. They preached free markets, trickle-down economics and smaller government, but didn't actually support policies to put these ideas into force. What we had instead was a period of government growth, tax breaks for the wealthy with no claims about trickling anywhere, and market consolidation. In other words, the rise of traditional economic (or national) syndicalism. This is where government and industry work together against the interests of the workers, the general population and foreign competitors. It was the standard approach used in the 1920's in Germany to eliminate the power of the workers and in Italy under Mussolini for the same ends. At least these regimes didn't pretend to be promoting free market capitalism, but made the alliance between business and government an explicit goal.
What happened in all three cases was that the views of a vocal minority were misrepresented as those of the majority and then used as a cover to put policies into place that not only weren't those of the majority, but weren't those of the minority either.
Throughout this period the majority of people have favored modestly regulated abortion, increased civil rights for homosexuals (although the specifics have changed over time) and regulation of markets. Furthermore most people want to see expanded government social services, especially with regard to health care and support for education.
The fact that the GOP is now losing control of legislatures does not indicate a change in people's attitudes, it indicates that the false promises of the conservative minority are no longer fooling people. There is a lesson to be learned from the past 60 years and it is one that needs to be relearned time and again.
It is that when the majority is silent or allows itself to be manipulated by a well-organized or well-funded minority things will turn out for the worst. Not only will the majority end up poorer, but the overall society will just be a less pleasant place. Suspicion, fear, anxiety all rise, the opportunities for the free expression of ideas declines and even the ability for entrepreneurship declines. Even the wealthy may end up worse off, very few people would claim that they came out ahead in Italy or Germany by the end of WWII.
Germany and Italy had their armed gangs of thugs to aid in the rise of totalitarianism, in the US we have only had a compliant press and some overzealous government officials. There have been no overt acts to close down publications as happened in the US in 1917, there have been no Palmer Raids and mass imprisonments either, yet the press has been complicit in promoting factual lies about events, misrepresenting public opinion, giving voice to extremists while claiming they represent the majority, and ignoring opposing voices.
Now that there is a willingness for people to see a change in majority party one needs to ask whether this will also lead to a change in real policies. So far it would seem not. There are signs that all viable candidates running for office are still pandering to the religious right, still supporting the privilege of corporations over workers, and still favoring tax policies which disproportionately aid the wealthy. Modest promises about health care and other social services may also turn out to be all talk and no walk.
The people need to make it clear that their desire for a more equitable society has not changed over the past 60 years and that they expect the new broom to do more than sweep the GOP out of power. The wealthy can outspend us, but they can't outvote us. Throwing a few incumbents out on their ears will be a message that many who get re-elected will understand regardless of how much money they raised.