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writing for godot

How Did We Get Here? Part II

Written by Carl Peterson   
Thursday, 08 June 2017 22:07

How Did We Get Here? Part II


You see, even at that time, but not to the extreme degree that we see now, many professional Republicans knew that their primary goal was to ensure that the wealthy received the lion's share of wealth allotted in the initial distribution of wealth, and if there was any kind of redistribution, as few dollars as possible relocated from the pockets of the wealthy to the pockets of the non-wealthy.  Ideally, any new plan for redistribution would pull back on an elastic string what had previously moved from the pockets of the wealthy to the pockets of the clamoring non-wealthy.  For professional Republicans it was an article of faith that the initial distribution of wealth was the--as it were--just, divinely-ordained, distribution; any subsequent redistribution from wealthy to non-wealthy was the unjust work of mortals clamoring to steal from their betters.

Now, as the years passed more and more professional Democrats took up the same sort of easy and profitable work--catering to the interests of the wealthy--that had long been the purview of professional Republicans.  But though the professional Republicans--to the degree that some of them did not really believe that the initial distribution of wealth necessarily showed the direct handiwork of a just God, were always somewhat cynical--particularly since much of their work was against the economic interests of most of their own voters--the professional Democrats who furtively assisted the wealthy at the expense of their own voters cornered the market on cynicism.  Beginning during the Reagan years there was a greater and greater disjuncture between what professional Democrats proudly and incessantly claimed to believe and what they actually did without their voters taking sufficient notice.

Professional Republicans, because they had a narrow, conservative view of human nature and were not sanguine about that nature, believed that anyone who was not wealthy must wish that they were wealthy, and be envious of the wealthy.  And since everyone wanted to be wealthy, but not everyone was, that must mean that those who were not wealthy had failed to achieve their goal of becoming wealthy, and that in turn must mean that those who were better had beat them in a competition for wealth.  For in such a competition, luck, random chance, or circumstance of birth, played no significant role in the outcome of the competition for wealth.  Talent will out.  Quality will out.  Worth will out.

They also believed that anyone who felt bad when they saw someone who was hungry, homeless, or poor, or in poor health, or otherwise obviously in need of some kind of help, must feel that way out of a sense of guilt.  It might be that professional Republicans believed this because many of them were on some level--almost certainly subconsciously--and in a peculiar way, in touch with their feelings of guilt about those of their fellow Americans who needed help, but who, although residing in the richest country in the history of the world, could not get the help they needed.  These professionals were generally well-positioned to deal with guilt, because guilt calls one to run away from, not to something.  And because they had made assisting the strong their life's work, they were not fit for courageous work, but were good at running away, and running cost nothing, at least not in money.  Feelings of guilt, for those who have them, cause one to run--either from committing the deed that will make one feel guilty, or to successfully run from, or, having failed that, suffer the feeling of guilt after one has committed, or believes one has committed, the guilty deed.  For a professional Republican to consciously run from (suppress) or unconsciously run from (repress)  a feeling of guilt would cost the wealthy nothing, and at the same time allow the professional to do the job that needed to be done.  Then--but perhaps not to the extreme degree we see now--professional Republicans had little personal experience with another possible motive for feeling bad about the suffering of another-- compassion.  This is not to say that at that time professional Republicans by definition did not have compassion, but compassion, for professional Republicans, could be dangerous for them in a way that guilt was not.  Guilt they could deal with.  Often, religious ideas had prepared them for guilt, even drew them unconsciously to it as a comforting touchstone.

But compassion is different, an emotion that in contradistinction to guilt calls on one to move to, not away, from something.  It was too dangerous for a professional Republican to feel compassion, even then, more than three decades ago, during the Ronald Reagan years.  Moving toward something, moving positively toward those in need--that would cost money.  That would cost everyone, but most important for the professional Republicans, that would cost the wealthy. could not feel compassion for very long, or one would have to change professions.  But here conservative ideology offered help for the professionals, with its belief that human nature is irredeemably suspect, to see that those who needed help were to blame for their own suffering and therefore not worthy of help.  No, even more than that, helping those who claimed to need help, or appeared to need help, was wrong, because it deprived them of the motivation to better themselves, it weakened them further by rewarding their weakness, and rewarding weakness weakened America.  Obviously, it was real patriotism to refuse to help those in need.  Hence, the professional Republican adopted a feeling that compassion was a weakness, and why they often denigrated Democrats as bleeding-hearts.

Lest you think that one of the points of this discussion is that professional Democrats should be understood as being somehow innately more compassionate than professional Republicans, that is not the point here.  But admittedly, it would be understandable if they were, since compassionate was one thing Democrats claimed to be.  Compassion was ostensibly part of their stock in trade, and it would be ever so much easier for a professional Democrat if he or she were actually compassionate, and therefore would agree deeply with the party's claimed goal of helping ordinary Americans, and not to have to pretend to care.  To be fair, it did seem then that professional Democrats were in general at least somewhat more genuinely compassionate than Republicans, although, to be fair, it is perhaps ironic that any professional Republicans who were actually compassionate would have had to hide that trait to keep from drawing suspicion on themselves from fellow professional Republicans, and, especially, from wealthy benefactors.  And, for converse reasons, professional Democrats who were not genuinely compassionate (for example, Bill Clinton) might have to pretend to have fellow-feeling, and feel compelled to go so far as to make explicit claims like, "I feel your pain."  And for politicians, of whatever brand, maintaining a loose relationship with the truth was, as usual, a job skill as necessary as for plumbers to know which way to turn the wrench.

The professional Republicans rightly believed that they had to try to keep their main goal hidden from those who were not wealthy, which naturally included many Republican voters, otherwise Republicans could not win many elections, which would become a threat to professional Republicans and to their wealthy benefactors.  For their part, professional Democrats, who also received infusions from mostly the same group of wealthy benefactors, though in general they were behind the Republicans in this regard, were under pressure to emphasize their compassion and sense of social justice, and hide their ties to the same wealthy ruling class that for many, many years had ruled the Republican party and to a somewhat lesser degree the Democratic party, and hence have ruled the country--more and more completely each year since Nixon was ejected from the presidency.  But professional Democrats, given their position on the political field, sometimes actually had to attempt to produce some beneficial economic results for their main political constituency--the mass of their non-wealthy voters--and this relieved some of the pressure that would have built up had they never done anything for their voters.

But it was difficult for professional Republicans, on the other hand, to produce real economic benefits for their claimed main constituency without displeasing their wealthy benefactors, who for years had strengthened in their belief that economic distribution is a zero sum game, with any economic gain for the non-wealthy tallying as a loss for themselves.  Accordingly, professional Republicans--even more than professional Democrats--were under constant pressure to misrepresent what they were up to, and this pressure had sharpened their skills in disingenuousness, distraction, misdirection, and many other forms of deceit across a continuum, up to and including bald-faced mendacity, so that they exceeded even the very able Democrats in the dark skills of hiding the truth from their voters.

But when Ronald Reagan became president, and professional Republicans realized that Americans, even many Democrats, embraced Ronald Reagan, and could not suspect him of a lack of compassion, and could not see in him any malice, and did not believe that he could possibly pose a threat to themselves, they, as noted above, let drop the burden they had carried for so long.  That is not to say that they no longer needed to hide from most of their voters the fact that the main concern of professional Republicans was to serve the economic interests of only a very small percentage of their voters, but Ronald Reagan had taken the pressure off them.  Ronald Reagan was the point man, the face of the Party, the president.  Professional Republicans across the country understood that their job was now suddenly easier.  Ronald Reagan would draw fire for any part of the Republican agenda that the public had a problem with, but for eight years Ronald Reagan never really drew fire, not the way other presidents had, and because he was the leader of the professional Republicans, they sheltered behind him, basking in his serendipitous protection.  They had never expected to find a Republican president whom the public just liked, no matter what; whom they could boast about and make references to, the way the Democrats had Kennedy.

However, polls showed a strange phenomenon.  Although people often did not agree with Ronald Reagan's policies, and sometimes did not find his job performance superlative, Ronald Reagan always found favor with them.  While the public's opinion of Reagan's job performance varied over the eight years of his presidency, sometimes sinking below 50%, the public's favorable personal opinion of Reagan was above 60% for most of his presidency, and reached 81% in 1986.[1]

Seven months after his inauguration Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers for striking illegally.  The 11,000 were federal employees and members of a trade union that Ronald Reagan had endorsed in the 1980 campaign and that had endorsed Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter.  Further, Ronald Reagan banned all of the fired strikers from ever again being employed by the federal government.  Had another president done the same thing, perhaps the public would have objected--so many breadwinners fired at the beginning of a major recession--and the vengeful cruelty of a lifetime ban from federal employment--but, establishing a pattern that would continue throughout Ronald Reagan's presidency, the public did not hold it against Reagan personally.

On November 1, 1985, in an effort to combat what was perceived as a worsening problem with leaks of classified information, Ronald Reagan signed a directive that subjected more than 180,000 federal employees to "random" polygraph testing in the largest proposed lie-detecting program in American history.  This seemed to be at odds with Reagan's repeated characterization of himself as a protector of "freedom."  For example, Reagan had opposed Medicare in 1961 saying, “If you don’t stop [Medicare]and I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”  It is not clear, exactly, how providing healthcare to the elderly infringes on American freedom, but apparently it had something to do with being too much like the universal healthcare then provided in the Soviet Union.  Remarkably, Ronald Reagan had not seemed to notice that a massive program of "random" polygraph surveillance of American citizens was far more totalitarian than providing healthcare to the elderly who would otherwise not be able to afford it, especially given that at that time most developed democratic countries already had universal health coverage or were moving toward it.  But even Reagan's bizarre (by traditional American standards) idea for large-scale polygraphing--and its implication, that you could not trust the mass of Americans, (which seemed to contradict Ronald Reagan's frequent praise of American virtues) did not draw the negative attention of the people.  They did not seem to remember that Ronald Reagan had long claimed to champion limited government interference in people's lives, yet he now proposed to subject nearly 200,000 Americans to "random" polygraphic surveillance, without any evidence that any of them might be guilty of espionage or of passing state secrets.  At the last minute, implementation of the program was canceled, probably because Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, George Schultz, threatened to resign if he was required to take a lie detector test.

Personal approval of Ronald Reagan seemed to leak over to the public's attitude toward his policies, even policies that the public believed were harmful to themselves.  Somehow, there was a disconnect in many voters' minds between their evaluation of Ronald Reagan as a person, and their evaluation of Ronald Reagan's policies.  They often did not like Ronald Reagan's policies, but because they always liked him, and they liked him almost hypnotically, they did not seem to notice that certain bad policies and tragic mistakes were attributable to Ronald Reagan.  They had a will to like him.  It was perhaps a part of their tacit covenant with Ronald Reagan that they made when they elected him president.  He would tell them simple, uplifting stories about America, and they would believe the stories.  They would believe that it was suddenly "Morning in America," even though the night before was dark and grim, because the simple stories crowded out complicated reality and made them feel better.  But a necessary part of the bargain was that to believe the stories and to get the good feeling from them, you had to believe in Ronald Reagan.  And to believe in Ronald Reagan you had to not connect the dots that sometimes his policies hurt you personally, and you had to sometimes not notice that Ronald Reagan made some very big, avoidable mistakes.

On October 23, 1983, in the deadliest terrorist attack on Americans prior to September 11, 2001, two Iranians drove two trucks onto a military compound in Beirut, Lebanon, crashed the trucks into two barracks, where the trucks blew up, killing, among many others, 241 American military personnel, mostly Marines.  Ronald Reagan had made the decision to place American military personnel in harm's way, without a clear mission other than "peace-keeping."  Also, rules of engagement (ROE), that Ronald Reagan was responsible for forbid the barracks guards from carrying loaded weapons, and the compound itself was only thinly protected by a concertina-wire fence and gate sentries who were forbidden by the ROE from having their weapons ready to fire.  In other words, rules that Ronald Reagan was responsible for as commander in chief prevented the guards from firing immediately at the truck drivers as they plowed into the compound.  It was just the sort of thing that Americans would have expected from ineffectual Jimmy Carter and for which they would have crucified him.  But something funny happened.  Americans did not notice that Ronald Reagan had done anything wrong.  They did not notice that the peace-keeping mission was misguided from the outset; they did not notice that the Marines, sailors and soldiers on the compound were sitting ducks, enticing targets in a small, violent patch of land, and that their president's decision had placed them there without any clear reason for why, and without any clear explanation for what they were supposed to do.  And worse, their president, the commander in chief, had deprived his personnel of sufficient means to protect themselves.  Of course, some of this was the military's responsibility, but so was Jimmy Carter's hostage rescue debacle at least partly the military's direct responsibility, but few mentioned that then.  And in Ronald Reagan's tragic failure to properly care for his military personnel in Beirut, the public did not seem to see, at all, their president's role in the failure.  There was no outrage and little mention of Ronald Reagan's responsibility for what had happened.  And this disconnect between the reality of Ronald Reagan and the public perception of Ronald Reagan held for nearly his entire presidency. He could get away with what presidents before him could not get away with.  But it was not just that.  They called him the "teflon president," but it was more.  Teflon implies that scandals, failures and bad policies don't stick to their author.  But with Ronald Reagan these things never got on him in the first place.  No one seemed to notice when he objectively messed up, or when his policies were clearly against the interests of most of the people who had elected him, or when there was anything about him that was incongruous with his image, or when it seemed that he might not be intellectually up to the job. [2]

For those who were not part of Ronald Reagan's covenant with the American people, and who therefore were not part of the new public reality created by the covenant, it sometimes felt like the country had been hypnotized, not just into seeing things that were not there, but also, into not seeing things that were there.  For those outside the covenant, it was disorienting at times, and lonely sometimes, but it did heighten one's sense of the absurd.

But for our story of that long trip down the trail into the perilous, bone-strewn, heat and CO2 choked Valley of the Plutocrats, what relevance has all this talk of Ronald Reagan?  What does it matter even if this old man from almost 40 years ago was not a good president, or if he was even a bad president?  We've had bad presidents before, we have one now, and we'll have more--provided our future extends out far enough.  That's the way of the world.  Mention before was made of something pivotal, but if something was pivotal, that suggests it was a break with the past.  How did Ronald Reagan's time as president represent a break with the past?  So, he fooled a lot of middle class Americans into believing he was working in their best interests?  Big deal.  Politicians fool people all the time, always have, always will.  But it was different that time, for perhaps too many Americans willfully went with their president on a vacation from reality.  It was understandable perhaps, after the pain of the 60s and the Nixon and Carter presidencies, for people to want to go with this actor to a happy place, a place that was more like the movies, a place where, if you got together with enough people, millions and millions of people, and you wanted to believe in it enough, and you believed in it enough, you could actually make it real.  You could create your own truth.

And of course together they did create a new reality, in fact two new realities, one inside the other.  One reality was the one they shared with the president.  It was real that relatively suddenly millions of Americans had very similar ideas about America's political landscape, and these were ideas evoked or spelled-out by Ronald Reagan.  These ideas taken together constituted a story, a narrative.  Now, the story probably did not correspond very well to anything that existed outside the story, but it was a real story, believed by real people, and it therefore had real existence and power in what is, as of this writing, still lovingly referred to as the real world.  Outside this first reality was the second reality, engendered by the first reality and experienced by those who from the outside perceived the formation of the first new reality.  For those outside the first new reality, it appeared that millions of Americans had suddenly begun to take Ronald Reagan's political slogans at face value, not merely as ads or pitches.  Ronald Reagan used the campaign slogan, "Let's Make America Great Again," in 1980 and those who experienced the second new reality, that is, who from the outside looked disbelievingly on the first new reality, saw millions of Americans begin to believe and by the end of Ronald Reagan's first term fully believe that in the space of less than four years Ronald Reagan had made America great again.  For some it took much less than four years, and perhaps America had become great again the moment Ronald Reagan was elected.

But with the creation of two separate new realities both inhabited only by Americans, the country was divided, you could say, between the believers and the non-believers.  And although it was the last thing that Ronald Reagan intended--to divide the country--he did.  But this division had little of the rancor we suffer in our day, and maybe that is why it was and is so little noted.  Ronald Reagan had an amiable and strangely passive persona, that seemed to take the fight out of even those who believed he was an Emperor with no clothes, and besides, many poll-reading professional Democrats abandoned their posts as the loyal opposition and would not criticize this well-liked president, even though there were many objective policy grounds for doing so.  Too, the division was so unequal--often during Reagan's eight years two thirds of Americans lived inside the first Reagan-created reality--while a lonely and bemused third loitered outside, wondering how this had happened and when it would end.

It turns out that it did end, probably late in Ronald Reagan's second term, when maybe even many of those inside the first reality seemed to tire of Ronald Reagan, and were agreeable to the idea that he would soon no longer be president.  It seemed that no one said, "Hey, too bad we can't elect him a third time!"  No, it was probably more like waking after a long night of drinking, and knowing through the head pain that the fun was over, and it was time to move on, and that guest on the floor, it was definitely time for him to go.  But to the end Ronald Reagan never generated much antipathy toward himself.  It was just...time for him to go.  So, he was gone, and in his honor the country had handed the presidency to his vice-president.

And the two separate realities had gone, or at least seemed to be gone.  And the division inherent in the mutually exclusive realities didn't seem to exist anymore, and people seemed to be back on an old page together, where they just disagreed about things, but didn't go so far as to inhabit separate realities.  But in America there are always some people...

But let us consider the health of the Democracy during the Reagan presidency.  First, what does it mean for democracy if the people are not focused on the facts directly bearing on their own economic and physical well-being?  And instead are charmed by the metaphor, "Morning in America," about a country that somehow overnight became "great again."

One view of democracy expects that for it to succeed, the sovereign people must keep a clear eye on the own best interests, otherwise there will be plenty of courtiers to tell the people what the people's best interests are, and trade the courtiers' abstract, metaphysical and ideological goods for the cash so highly prized by the courtiers' wealthy benefactors.  It is perhaps not often enough noted in America that the most important element in the Democracy is the people, not just as the recipient of the Democracy's goods, or as an object of manipulation, but as an active, intelligent guarantor of the Democracy itself.  There are other theorists of democracy who will tell you that there can be too much democracy, and that sometimes it is better if there is always a significant, passive element of the citizenry, serving as a ballast to prevent excessive destabilizing conflict.  Perhaps.  But if so, then the prize of stability may turn out to be at odds with the Democracy itself.

The question is: is it still a Democracy if the people are not keeping a clear eye on their own best interests?  What if, even temporarily, the people are not adequately playing the sovereign's role in the Democracy?  What if, even temporarily, the people, the sovereign, is passive, or giddy, or inattentive, or stupid, or love-struck, or deceived, or deluded, or distracted, or angry, or fidgety, or wracked by any of the mental and psychological weaknesses that anti-democrats since Plato have claimed make the masses unfit to rule?  Do the people then become, through their own frailties, an enemy of the Democracy?  The Reagan presidency raised that question to the top of the list, but most people didn't notice.

Continuing with our theme of healthcare as an indicator of the Democracy's strength let us note that during the Reagan years there were no proposals from the Reagan administration for reform to expand healthcare coverage.  Reagan had long feared that "socialized medicine" would lead to an entirely "socialized" America where people had forfeit all their freedom to the state.  Reagan indicated that he would have preferred that all Americans have healthcare, but evidently, he valued more the freedom that he imagined would be lost if the government helped too much to ensure that more people got healthcare .  In the last year of his administration Reagan did push through Medicare expansion, but, because it was funded solely by Medicare beneficiaries, and limited in its benefits, it was unpopular with the elderly.  Just a year and a half after its enactment most of Reagan's Medicare expansion was repealed under the George H.W. Bush administration.  By the measure of healthcare, then, and assuming that the sovereign people would not willingly deprive themselves of adequate healthcare, the Reagan years were, for the Democracy, a step backward from the Nixon and Carter years, when at least the possibility of healthcare expansion was given serious discussion.


End Part II


[1] Ronald Reagan from the People's Perspective: A Gallup Poll Review, June 7, 2004


[2]Search: Illegally trading weapons for hostages; Star Wars (Strategic Defense Initiative) infeasible; Reagan schedule set by Nancy Reagan's astrologer; Reagan confusing what happened in his movies with what happened in his life; Supply-side economics/ trickle-down economics; Voodoo economics; Reagan policies make rich richer; Reagan policies make poor poorer; Under Reagan, "Greed is good"; National debt large increase under Reagan; Reagan joking at the microphone just prior to recording of an interview with public radio: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.  We begin bombing in five minutes.";  Early public sign of dementia:  Reagan performance in first debate (1984) with Walter Mondale; Reagan considered by White House staff to be possibly mentally incapacitated for office following Iran-Contra affair;  ; This list could go on for quite a while longer. your social media marketing partner

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