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Parry writes: "For many years, it appeared that the Right wanted to take the United States back to the 1950s - when blacks 'knew their place,' women were 'in the kitchen' and gays stayed 'in the closet' - but it turns out that the intended back-in-time-travel was to the 1920s, to an era of a few haves and many have-nots, not only before the Civil Rights Movement but before the Great American Middle-Class."

In the movie 'It's a Wonderful Life,' George Bailey is taken by his guardian angel, Clarence, into the alternate reality of poor choices called Pottersville. (photo: Paramount/IMDB)
In the movie 'It's a Wonderful Life,' George Bailey is taken by his guardian angel, Clarence, into the alternate reality of poor choices called Pottersville. (photo: Paramount/IMDB)

Turning America Into Pottersville

By Robert Parry, Consortium News

17 January 12


The Republican presidential race has taken a detour into the "class warfare" that the party supposedly despises, with Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry tagging Mitt Romney as an elitist who got rich by laying off workers. But this spat misses the larger point of what the Right is doing to America, writes Robert Parry.

or many years, it appeared that the Right wanted to take the United States back to the 1950s - when blacks "knew their place," women were "in the kitchen" and gays stayed "in the closet" - but it turns out that the intended back-in-time-travel was to the 1920s, to an era of a few haves and many have-nots, not only before the Civil Rights Movement but before the Great American Middle-Class.

The Right's goal has been less to recreate the world of "Father Knows Best" than to establish a national "Pottersville," like in the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," where the existence of the average man and woman was brutish and unfulfilling, while the 1 percent of that age lived in gilded comfort and held sweeping power.

That is the message ironically coming from the expensive ad wars of the Republican presidential battle, where frontrunner Mitt Romney has emerged as the personification of the 1 percent and has been attacked by rivals who - while supporting similar policies favoring the ultra-rich - have savaged his career as a venture capitalist, or as Texas Gov. Rick Perry puts it, a "vulture capitalist."

Romney's response has been telling. The former chief executive of the corporate takeover firm Bain Capital went beyond the Right's usual lament about "class warfare," terming the criticism of high-flying financiers who use layoffs to fatten their bottom lines "the bitter politics of envy."

And, if there remained any doubt about Romney's status as the nation's "elitist-in-chief," he added that it was wrong to have a noisy and open debate about the dangers of growing income inequality. He told Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" that "I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms, and discussions about tax policy and the like."

In other words, keep the rabble from protesting their lot; leave these matters to the well-bred and the well-off, in their think tanks and their board rooms.

For decades, the Right has largely concealed this elitist agenda behind appeals to social conservatism and flag-waving patriotism. Many working- and middle-class Americans, especially white males, have sided with the economic free-marketers because the hated "lib-rhuls" supported civil rights for blacks, women and gays - and also questioned America's military might.

Plus, many Americans have forgotten a basic truth: that the Great American Middle-Class was largely a creation of the federal government and its policies dating back to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. For many Americans in the middle-class, it was more satisfying to think that they or their parents had climbed the social ladder on their own. They didn't need "guv-mint" help.

But the truth is that it was government policies arising out of the Great Depression and carried forward through the post-World War II years by both Republican and Democratic presidents that created the opportunities for tens of millions of Americans to achieve relative comfort and security.

Those policies ranged from Social Security and labor rights in the 1930s to the GI Bill after World War II to government investments in infrastructure and technological research in the decades that followed. Even in recent years, despite right-wing efforts to choke off this flow of progress, government programs - such as the Internet - brought greater efficiency to markets and wealth to many entrepreneurs.

So, not only is Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren right when she notes that "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," it's also true that government policies enabled large numbers of Americans to climb out of poverty and into the middle-class.

The Dick Cheney example

Oddly, one of the best examples of this reality is the life of right-wing icon Dick Cheney, as he revealed in his recent memoir, In My Time. In the book, Cheney recognizes that his personal success was made possible by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the fact that Cheney's father managed to land a steady job with the federal government.

"I've often reflected on how different was the utterly stable environment he provided for his family and wondered if because of that I have been able to take risks, to change directions, and to leave one career path for another with hardly a second thought," Cheney wrote.

By contrast, in sketching his family's history, Cheney depicted the hard-scrabble life of farmers and small businessmen scratching out a living in the American Midwest and suffering financial reversals whenever the titans of Wall Street stumbled into a financial crisis and the bankers cut off credit.

After his forebears would make some modest headway from their hard work, they would find themselves back at square one, again and again, because of some "market" crisis or a negative weather pattern. Whether a financial panic or a sudden drought, everything was lost.

"In 1883, as the country struggled through a long economic depression, the sash and door factory that [Civil War veteran Samuel Fletcher Cheney] co-owned [in Defiance, Ohio] had to be sold to pay its debts," Cheney wrote. "At the age of fifty-four, Samuel Cheney had to start over," moving to Nebraska.

There, Samuel Cheney built a sod house and began a farm, enjoying some success until a drought hit, again forcing him to the edge. Despite a solid credit record, he noted that "the banks will not loan to anyone at present" and, in 1896, he had to watch all his possessions auctioned off at the Kearney County Courthouse. Samuel Cheney started another homestead in 1904 and kept working until he died in 1911 at the age of 82.

His third son, Thomas, who was nicknamed Bert (and who would become Dick Cheney's grandfather), tried to build a different life as a cashier and part owner of a Sumner, Kansas, bank, named Farmers and Merchants Bank. But he still suffered when the economy crashed.

"Despite all his plans and success, Bert Cheney found that, like his father, he couldn't escape the terrible power of nature," Dick Cheney wrote. "When drought struck in the early 1930s, farmers couldn't pay their debts, storekeepers had to close their doors, and Farmers and Merchants Bank went under. … My grandparents lost everything except for the house in which they lived."

Finding security

Bert Cheney's son, Richard, ventured off in a different direction, working his way through Kearney State Teachers College and taking the civil service exam. He landed a job as a typist with the Veterans Administration in Lincoln, Nebraska.

"After scraping by for so long, he found the prospect of a $120 monthly salary and the security of a government job too good to turn down," his son, Dick Cheney, wrote. "Before long he was offered a job with another federal agency, the Soil Conservation Service.

"The SCS taught farmers about crop rotation, terraced planting, contour plowing, and using ‘shelter belts' of trees as windbreaks - techniques that would prevent the soil from blowing away, as it had in the dust storms of the Great Depression. My dad stayed with the SCS for more than thirty years, doing work of which he was immensely proud.

"He was also proud of the pension that came with federal employment - a pride that I didn't understand until as an adult I learned about the economic catastrophes that his parents and grandparents had experienced and that had shadowed his own youth."

Like many Americans, the Cheney family was pulled from the depths of the Great Depression by the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, cementing the family's support for the Democratic president and his party. The family celebrated when little Dick was born on FDR's birthday.

"When I was born [on Jan. 30, 1941] my granddad wanted to send a telegram to the president," Cheney wrote in his memoir. "Both sides of my family were staunch New Deal Democrats, and Granddad was sure that FDR would want to know about the ‘little stranger' with whom he now had a birthday in common."

However, Dick Cheney took a different path. Freed from the insecurity that had afflicted his father and earlier Cheneys - caused by the cruel vicissitudes of laissez-faire capitalism - Dick Cheney enjoyed the relative comfort of middle-class life in post-World War II America. He took advantage of the many opportunities that presented themselves.

Most notably, Cheney attached himself to an ambitious Republican congressman from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld. When Rumsfeld left Congress for posts in the Nixon administration, he brought Cheney along. Eventually Rumsfeld became White House chief of staff to President Gerald Ford and - when Rumsfeld was tapped to become Defense Secretary in 1975 - he recommended his young aide, Dick Cheney, to succeed him.

Cheney's career path through the ranks of Republican national politics, with occasional trips through the revolving door into lucrative private-sector jobs, was set. He became a major player within the GOP Establishment, building a reputation as an ardent conservative, a foreign policy hawk - and a fierce opponent of the New Deal.

Demonizing guv-mint

The Right's ongoing campaign to dismantle the New Deal also has hinged on the demonization of "guv-mint," a darkening of attitudes that became more possible when many middle-class Americans lost their memory of how their families had moved into the middle-class.

In the 1960s and 1970s, middle-class white men in particular came to view the government as a force for helping the poor, women and minorities, while putting pressure on white males to change long-established attitudes. Plus, they were told that the government was taking their hard-earned dollars to give to the undeserving.

When these messages - along with a mix of patriotic hoopla and coded appeals to bigotry - were delivered by the personable Ronald Reagan in 1980, middle- and working-class whites rallied to the Right's banner. It was time, they felt, to dismantle many government programs for the poor and to get tough on foreign adversaries.

But Reagan's most important policy was slashing taxes, especially those on the rich. Under Reagan's "supply-side economics," the top marginal tax rate - that is what the richest Americans pay on their highest tranche of income - was more than halved, from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Yet, since the promised surge in "supply-side" growth didn't materialize, one result was a dramatic rise in the national debt. Another less obvious change was the incentivizing of greed. Under presidents from Dwight Eisenhower (when the top marginal tax rate was 90 percent) through Jimmy Carter (with a 70 percent top rate), taxes had been a disincentive against greed.

After all, if 70 to 90 percent of your highest tranche of income went to the government to help pay for building the nation, you had little personal incentive to press for that extra $1 million or $2 million. So corporate CEOs - while well-compensated - were happy earning about 25 times as much as their average worker in the 1960s. A few decades later, that ratio on CEO pay was about 200 times what the average worker was making.

As the Washington Post's Peter Whoriskey framed this historic development in a June 19, 2011, article, U.S. business underwent a cultural transformation from the 1970s when chief executives believed more in sharing the wealth than they do today.

Whoriskey described the findings of researchers with access to economic data from the Internal Revenue Service. The numbers revealed that the big bucks were not flowing primarily to athletes or actors or even stock market speculators; America's new super-rich were mostly corporate chieftains.

The article cited a U.S. dairy company CEO from the 1970s, Kenneth J. Douglas, who earned the equivalent of about $1 million a year. He lived comfortably but not ostentatiously. Douglas had an office on the second floor of a milk distribution center, and he turned down raises because he felt it would hurt morale at the plant, Whoriskey reported.

However, just a few decades later, Gregg L. Engles, the CEO of the same company, Dean Foods, averaged about 10 times what Douglas made; worked in a glittering high-rise office building in Dallas; owned a vacation estate in Vail, Colorado; belonged to four golf clubs; and traveled in a $10 million corporate jet. He apparently had little concern about what his workers thought.

"The evolution of executive grandeur - from very comfortable to jet-setting - reflects one of the primary reasons that the gap between those with the highest incomes and everyone else is widening," Whoriskey reported.

"For years, statistics have depicted growing income disparity in the United States, and it has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. In 2008, the last year for which data are available, for example, the top 0.1 percent of earners took in more than 10 percent of the personal income in the United States, including capital gains, and the top 1 percent took in more than 20 percent."

The old New-Deal-to-post-World-War-II notion had been that a healthy middle-class contributed to profitable businesses because average people could afford to buy consumer goods, own their own homes and take an annual vacation with the kids. That "middle-class system," however, had required intervention by the government as the representative of the everyman.

The consequences of several decades of Reaganism and its related ideas (such as shipping many middle-class jobs overseas) are now apparent. Wealth has been concentrated at the top with billionaires living extravagant lives while the middle-class shrinks and struggles. One everyman after another gets shoved down the social ladder into the lower classes and into poverty.

Those real-life consequences are painful. Millions of Americans forego needed medical care because they can't afford health insurance; young people, burdened by college loans, crowd back in with their parents; trained workers settle for low-paying jobs or are unemployed; families skip vacations and other simple pleasures of life.

Beyond the unfairness, there is the macro-economic problem which comes from massive income disparity. A strong economy is one in which the vast majority people can buy products, which can then be manufactured more cheaply, creating a positive cycle of profits and prosperity.

Instead, Mitt Romney - and even his Republican rivals who criticize his personal business methods - are intent to press ahead down the dark road of Reaganism toward some nightmarish Pottersville. Instead of a vibrant debate about whether this is the right way to go, Romney instructs the masses to keep their mouths shut with the only permitted conversations about the nation's future restricted to "quiet rooms."

For more on related topics, see Robert Parry's "Lost History," "Secrecy & Privilege" and "Neck Deep," now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, "Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush," was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, "Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq" and "Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'" are also available there. your social media marketing partner


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+44 # michelle 2012-01-17 18:24
Pottersville? More likely the streets of Paris, 1789.
+22 # ericlipps 2012-01-18 08:29
It's worth remembering that the conservative Golden Age of the 1920s culminated in the Crash of 1929, which was made possible in large part by lax regulation of the financial industry.

Moreover, the Depression which followed was worsened by the same laxness, which allowed banks to use depositors' money to gamble in the stock market, buying stocks "on margin" at 10 cents on the dollar in the expectation that by the time thesellers called for the rest the stocks would have risen enough to let the banks sell them, pay what they owed and still make a bundle. When stock prices dove for the cellar instead, these banks were wiped out--and so were the peoplle who'd put their money in them.

The FDR-era Glass-Steagall Act made that sort of thing illegal. Unfortunately, in the 1990s President Bill Clinton bowed to Republican demands and signed into law a repeal of Glass-Steagall. So if conservatives succeed in fully reincarnating the 1920s, you'd be safer keeping your money under your mattress than trusting that it will be safe in your local bank.
+8 # John Locke 2012-01-18 12:12
ericlipps: You should also give Credit to the Fed for their roll in causing the depression... The Fed concerned about inflation from the first world war began removing currency from circulation and between 1919 and 1929 had removed nerely 40% of the money supply causing the depression...
+14 # PhilO 2012-01-18 10:12
The 'Dick Cheney example' underscores a comment I made yesterday in response to Robert Reich's article [http://readers upportednews.or g/opinion2/279- 82/9481-free-en terprise-on-tri al]. It bears repeating since the existence of a 'social safety net' is what allowed Dick Cheney to expand his horizon's (for better, or for worst):

"However, one aspect of risk-taking that RR doesn't address are the 'societal safety nets'. It has been repeatedly shown that people will take risks if they can be reasonably assured that the 'costs of failure' are not debilitating. For rich folks, this means that they can fall back on their families and/or personal wealth. For everyone else this means having health insurance, unemployment coverage, etc., to cover them during the recovery times.

So, if Mittens and his ilk were serious about encouraging risk-taking and growth, they would be talking about building safety nets (other than Wall Street bailouts!), not about dismantling them!

The behaviors they support will be the behaviors they encourage."
+11 # maveet 2012-01-18 16:20
portiz, Maybe you've hit on the underlying reason for the refusal for universal health care. In Australia, with Medicare for all and non-punitive unemployment benefits, there is job mobility and taking risks is not life-threatenin g. When health care is at the whim and expense of your insurance company, it is easy to become an indentured servant, unable to change, especially if there's an 'underlying condition.'
+27 # Willman 2012-01-17 20:29
A vibrant and monied middle class are able to out purchase any of the 1% in consumer goods. Hence buying more of the 1% business output.
I would think they would figure that out.Isn't that why Henry Ford went to a 40hr work week? So the workers would have time to spend their money.
+19 # Ralph Averill 2012-01-18 03:26
Henry Ford fought unions, (and the 40 hr work week,) tooth and nail. Ford workers occupying the Ford River Rouge plant, (or was it the Deerborn plant?) forced Henry Ford to accept the unionization of Ford workers, and the benefits that followed.
+11 # John Locke 2012-01-18 12:14
Henry Ford also set up factories in Germany which were used to make the Nazi Tanks, and he was on the Board of IG Farben,
+6 # Doubter 2012-01-18 13:17
As I've mentioned before, I remember marching (route step) by an intact Ford tank plant in WWII Germany.
I understand the property of joint Allied/German capital was largely respected during the wartime bombings.
I believe Anaconda Copper was another joint German American venture during the war.

to John Locke
86 yrs "young"
+5 # John Locke 2012-01-18 16:49
Doubter: Yes we did selective bombing in Germany not touching joint capital property...if you were in the second world war you must be somewhere around 80 years young...I hope you stay young and healthy... How do you feel knowing Rockefeller and the Bush family financed Hitler, and the war!
-64 # Jmac 2012-01-18 00:18
More like socialist democrats are turning us into a Pottersville by diluting everything down to make everyone happy at the cost of the middle class. maybe we should just give everyone a free check "just for trying"
+31 # humanmancalvin 2012-01-18 09:10
Jmac..Back away from Fox News & its absurd soundbites like the one you just parroted. Education is a wonderful quest, I suggest you undertake that travel.
+27 # Caballero69 2012-01-18 09:35
So many use the term socialist who clearly do not know the meaning of the term. In a nation where so many people boast of their Christian piety, I find it intriguing that there is such agreement with the murder Cain's contention that he is not his brother's keeper.

It is not socialism to believe America should be governed in a way to secure liberty, equality, prosperity and justice for all.
+9 # bugbuster 2012-01-18 11:44
Would you give some specific examples of "diluting everything down to make everyone happy?"
+10 # Anarchist 23 2012-01-18 12:31
Quoting Jmac:
More like socialist democrats are turning us into a Pottersville by diluting everything down to make everyone happy at the cost of the middle class. maybe we should just give everyone a free check "just for trying"

I's clear you took the Blue Pill. the Titanic went down 100 years ago on the anniversary April 15, 1911. It is instructive to see with this recent ship disaster and the behavior of the people, what this society's values of greed and egotism has done. Barbarism writ large-and 100 years ago the Titanic was much the same only better dressed with the 1% of course mostly saved. 'Buckel your seat belt, it's going to be a bumpy ride' Oh but you took the Blue Pill.
+7 # michelle 2012-01-18 17:02
Speaking of the Titanic and the 1%, did you know the children of the 1% were defined as children up to the age of and including 18 years old while the poor children in steerage were defined as adults at the age of 12. Children were allowed on lifeboats first. Needless to say the poor children didn't have the same opportunity to live as the children of the 1%.
0 # elmont 2012-01-19 08:58
It's really neither here nor there, but the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking is coming up in April 2012. The big boat sank on April 15, 1912, not 1911.
+26 # Rick Levy 2012-01-18 02:54
How blind can anyone in the 99% be to support rethuglicans?
+5 # bugbuster 2012-01-18 11:47
Ideology. It's a drug that we depend on for a sense of security and belonging in a bewildering and threatening world. Not *they*. *We*. You, me, the Republicans, everybody. One reason that my fellow left-leaning ideologues are so mad at Obama is that he is probably the least ideological person in DC.
-4 # John Locke 2012-01-18 12:16
Rick Levy: Probably just as blind to vote for the lessor of the two evils Obama, there is no difference between the Republicans and the democrats...I think the Homeland defense bill says as much...
+8 # Caballero69 2012-01-18 13:03
"there is no difference between the Republicans and the democrats." The plague of false equivalence continues. It is true that Democrats are far from perfect, but Republicans are far from sanity and humanity. So when I vote for President Obama and other Democratic candidates, I vote for the good things they stand for and fight for. I for one refuse to vote for evil whether it be greater or lesser.
+29 # head out the window 2012-01-18 06:01
Great Article but it fails to recognize the contributions of the labor movement to creation of the middle class. the labor push more than encouraged FDR to the left and the creation of the new deal. the sitdown strike and other emerging tactics radicalized and led the lefts quest for economic security. after the war the comradrie of the returning working class solidfied the unity needed to continue union gains. union wages, vacation pay, the 40 hour week, pensions and healthcare are what made the middle class as much as the new deal.
+12 # Bruce Gruber 2012-01-18 06:47
Succinct! Sharp! Super!
+13 # T4D 2012-01-18 08:33
It has been obvious for some time that most Republicans want to repeal the entire 20th Century. The Roosevelt they hate worst is Teddy. However, one Republican, Rep. Ron Paul now wants to repeal much of the 19th Century.
+15 # Caballero69 2012-01-18 09:32
For many years now, Americans have lived almost exclusively in an "alternate reality of poor choices."

In this year's elections the citizenry must come out of the trance too many have been in and reject the reactionary siren song sung so loudly and proudly by virtually every Republican candidate and incumbent.
+9 # rabbitty 2012-01-18 22:55
I live in Kansas a very backward red state. Here the majority vote against their own self interests. They THink they belong in the same class as the 1%. They don't seen to realize that it's far more likely to slip down the ladder than to go up.
In not wanting to admit that they are no better than the mechanic, the clerk, the people who polish floors, THey are deluding themselves even if they are just Walmart greeters.
I don't see ow they can be so blind to reality.
+26 # hectormaria 2012-01-18 09:44
This article exemplifies the present-day Republican motto: I got mine, screw you.
+6 # reiverpacific 2012-01-19 11:54
I would posit that the Repug's want to take us back to Medieval England where the daily lives of the peasantry were at the absolute mercy of the overlord landowner (hereditary nobility) and they to the absolute monarch.
Think about it: taxes went to enrich the nobility and their territorial disputes or international adventurism and warring subjugation by the monarchy (wealth and arms).
No free speech, no push back, religion dictated and torture or "off with his head" to any dissenter.
Sound familiar?
+4 # Talleyrand 2012-01-20 06:34
"...but it turns out that the intended back-in-time-tr avel was to the 1920s, to an era of a few haves and many have-nots, not only before the Civil Rights Movement but before the Great American Middle-Class..."

That has been my contention for over 30 years. Wow.... In fact, it is a little before then, more like the 19th century. The rich in this country have always sought cheap l
0 # Schmoller 2012-06-30 08:10
It's actually worse than this: whether they know it or not they are working to transform the US into a dependent Latin American style natural resource based economy --- this is a much, much darker place than even Czarist Russia in 1910 or the Gilded Age United States. Today's GOP is incomparably worse than the GOP of the Gilded Age. For all its faults the GOP from 1861-1932 actually did a lot that was good. The US became a wealthy industrialized power largely as a consequence of the tariff protections, undervalued currency and export subsidies the 19th century Republicans championed. Today's GOP wants to take the US to a place it's never, ever been before, a place far worse than the USA of 1928 (don't think Pottersville, USA but Pottersville, Haiti).

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