i. Magical Thinking and the Memory Hole
LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad, at least for the middle class kids. During the extreme periods of Boom and Busted, Pro and Convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feels the pain; they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles playing out cause and effect: the haves doing things the have-nots don’t have the voice or power to protest. The have-lesses can afford to ignore the news or else lay back like so many frogs, believing the boiling pan is actually a Jacuzzi.
Question: How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter almost each admonition of the (white, muscle-bound) Jesus and stagnate growth for every sector except, of course, the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along?
Answer: The power of magical thinking. It’s the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and it’s amazing how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, regulation is anathema, raising the minimum wage kills job creation, et cetera.
Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient board members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters.
Which brings us to the looming midterm elections. If Obama has been sufficiently underwhelming to induce depression, at least he staved off a Depression. If we have nothing else going for us, no one wants to return to the bad old days when W. took us on a (dry) drunk drive into the ditch, right? The silver lining of falling so far is the full and final repudiation of a greed-first ethos so aggressively sold for thirty-plus years. Isn’t it? Oh…
Instead of putting his boot on the squirming corpse of Reagan’s revolution, Obama postulated that we should heal. Instead of accountability for the Masters of the Universe who insisted the ensuing debacle was not possible even as they gorged at the trough, Obama appointed some of them in charge of the clean-up. Instead of a reckoning—and the welcome spectacle of some well-warranted tar and feathering on Wall Street—we suffered the indignity of a gigantic reset button, paid for by the taxpayers whose 401(k)’s got fucked. The super-connected swindlers whose idea of trickle-down economics is pissing on the collective heads of the middle and lower classes bounced right back into the saddle. Check them out: their fattened wallets broke their falls.
The Democrats, who had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebrand (reestablish?) themselves as the party that not only cared, but governed for the 98%, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as only Dems can do. More egregiously by far, the GOP, who have dedicated six years to temper tantrums and intransigence, stand poised to retake the Senate and retain the House.
How did this happen? How is it possible? The power of political narrative.
ii. The Power of Political Narrative
Understanding, and exploiting, the power of Narrative is the impetus that unites such unlikely—and antithetical—endeavors as Art, Business and Politics. The ones that can tell a story about what you need to know are important; the ones who tell you a story about what you want to hear can become immortal.
Our country was founded on the Narrative of The Future (City upon a Hill, anyone?): always looking toward what we could be, collectively, if we appealed to the better angels of our Nature, our Natural State being invariably democratic, tolerant of disparate faiths—including those without faith—and apparently unperturbed by the genocides inflicted upon our Native and African American brethren. Some eggs, after all, had to be broken in the service of this great experimental omelette called America.
Eventually, it required a Civil War to determine if we would keep looking forward or be cleaved forever into (at least) two countries, one peering over its shoulder, pining to preserve a way of life that never existed in the first place, at least for the majority of the people. (Sound familiar?)
Flash forward one hundred years to the Civil Rights Movement: a generational and geographic divide that once again found us at a crossroads of progress and reactionary segregation. History, as the cliché goes, is ghost-written by the winners. Looking at American history, for good or ill we’ve tended to define our triumphs as events that unified us, moving us along a progressive path from there to here, consistent with the founding notion—however fanciful—that we were collectively edging toward improvement and inclusion.
Two of the big “wins” of the 20th Century involved presidents named Roosevelt. First, Teddy, who took on Big Business and monopolies, instituting some overdue governmental oversight. His Square Deal regulated out-of-control American industry in the name of safety. A few decades later, his cousin Franklin ushered in The New Deal, ensuring that, for the next several decades government would, on balance, be seen as an institution that did more good than ill. Until the ‘80s, both of these developments were generally considered positive for all citizens, regardless of their political affiliation. Books like Sinclair’s The Jungle or indelible memories from the Great Depression reminded people—and their heirs—that government was the last thing standing between them and unfettered market forces. The notable exception, as ever, being the wealthiest percentile, whose disdain FDR all but celebrated (“I welcome their hatred”), a provocation Obama might wish he’d emulated in 2009.
In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as an constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être .With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new narrative. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to make it sacrosanct. Needless to say, it worked brilliantly.
iii. The Ill Communicator
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote, was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and never, ever question The Man—unless he happens to be a Democrat.
All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spike, it’s all good because we feel good. It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend—literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion.
Along came St. Ronnie, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies, parlaying this into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a True Believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine catastrophe and fortified the middle-class for decades.
Now it’s an open competition to see which Republican can invoke him most often and they can’t name buildings after him quickly enough. Reagan has become the conservative alternative to Che Guevara. As we’ve seen in the short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket, by those who stand to profit most from his hagiography), a very intense and deliberate effort was undertaken to beatify and whitewash a legacy that was far from undisputed in the late ‘80s.
The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people—then; now—understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.
Despite an inconvenient eight year blip on the radar, where taxes were raised and the economy soared, the GOP, led by Dick “Deficits Don’t Matter” Cheney, had eight years to use the country as a demented sort of lab experiment. The result: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.
iv. The Five Commandments
After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a handful of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—only belief is not optional. The first and foremost commandment, propagated to the extent that it’s literally received as gospel—no matter how repeatedly disproven it is in practice—is that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.
The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. They’ve succeeded so thoroughly in this monomaniacal mission that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content excessively enough to render them neutral, if not neutered. The Op-Ed page has for more than a decade been patrolled by whacked-out hardliners who would have been laughed out of conservative circles only twenty years ago; back in the days when the GOP was devising health care reform that is now successfully considered socialism.
The third, which has been accomplished with considerable assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, is the demonization of unions. Long, sad story in one sentence or less: during the last half-century—but with a vengeance beginning in the ‘70s—unions lost influence while Democrats simultaneously abandoned them to court wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses. Why the Republicans want to eradicate the same movement that helped bring us regulation, forty hour work weeks, overtime and collective bargaining is beyond no-brainer. Why the Democrats have allowed this to happen, abetting it more often than not, is owed to an opportunistic cynicism that has gutted the sensible and effective backbone of the Progressive cause in ways both myopic and tragic.
The fourth is that public education fails us, that teachers are overpaid and underachieving, and that while no cuts to any military spending are conceivable, all manner of funds and aid to public schools are forever on the table.
The fifth, final and most cheeky involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.
v. Faith in Something Bigger than God
To see the full flowering of this psychosis, one needs look no further than the recent passing of James Brady.
Brady, for those who weren’t alive in 1981, is the unfortunate aid who had the bad luck of being mortal, and getting in the way of some bullets that could never have killed Reagan anyway. Before Brady died I might have been embarrassed to write something so churlish; a cursory glance at the comments section of any of the Brady obits confirms that there are a lot of people out there spouting shit like this, if even sardonically. Don’t kid yourself, beneath the sarcasm is a sincere reverence, the type of veneration we typically reserve for saints (and members of the Kennedy clan).
It’s a matter of Faith: Reagan wasn’t meant to be assassinated. And by Faith, of course, I don’t mean God (Reagan didn’t need God), I mean the Free Market. If the Free Market had wanted him to die, he would have died.
Speaking of faith, freedom and folly: the only force of nature more powerful than any of the fixations previously mentioned is that of the gun fanatics. Maybe, maybe—coming as it did less than half a year after John Lennon was murdered—if Hinckley’s assassination attempt had been successful, we might have had a national consensus of sorts. This, after all, was the moment, where we could—and should—have rallied around sensible gun control. It was the moment when all forces came into focus; it was, after all, their hero in the crosshairs.
Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. Brady became an advocate for a more sane approach to gun ownership, earning him the enmity of idiots who should have never ceased appreciating him. These, after all, are the same sorts who will swear up and down that Reagan did as much as anyone not named Rocky Balboa to defeat the Evil Empire.
How then, was any of this possible and how can such farce still hold sway over a sizable portion of our populace? The same technique that ensures certain stories get told and taught centuries after they are composed: the power of good narrative. That the Iran-contra affair is glossed over the way we never talk about our drunken uncle in the retirement home, or that taxes are actually lower during Obama’s tenure than Reagan’s, or that the First Couple regularly consulted an astrologist never tends to come up in not-so-casual conversation is part and parcel of the almost entirely successful enterprise to consecrate The Gipper.
The moral, as it applies to our contemporary political scene, is straightforward as it is distressing: risible dialogue delivered by a screen-tested salesman will always win more votes than substance offered up, however earnestly, by a substitute teacher. This helps explain the (mostly) refreshing phenomenon of Bill Clinton and underscores the inestimable potential squandered by Barack Obama: when the Democrats have a personality commensurate with their common-sense policies, they have half a chance.
There have, of course, been elections won and lost by both parties, PR initiatives shifting momentum (and money, always money) from the haves to the have-mores and there is little new under the sun. But if we look back at the last three decades, the Biggest Victory—transcending all the skirmishes fought during the last several presidential terms—and the enduring legacy of the Reagan Revolution, is the impervious story it continues to tell, and sell. It informs our craven political discourse; it intimidates an increasingly incurious media and bulldozes an ever credulous Republican base.
Data, facts and near-depressions be damned, we have seen one side nominate a succession of buffoons who should only have inspired bad fiction instead of engineering ever-more-implausible reality. Against all probability, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.
Against all tolerability, the rest of us might remain stuck to it.