By Claude Tate
In my BLS class, “Self, Society, and Salvation” we devote a unit to problems of society. In that unit we look at three different approaches to organizing society. Each approach is designed to promote what it believes to be the best society. The focus of aristocratic theory is to create an orderly society. We next look at liberalism, which seeks to create a society as free as possible. Our final lesson is on socialism, which strives to create a society that is fair and just. In each discussion we examine how those three approaches are manifested in America. In our lessons on liberalism and socialism in particular, I try to emphasize how we have struggled from the start over how to create a society that is not only as free as possible, but also fair and just. I also try to emphasize how we see that struggle played out in the news every day. This post concerns that struggle; a struggle that will only grow more intense in the coming months as the 2012 elections near. And that intensity will be due in large part to the resurgence of the American Right.
In 2008 our economy suffered, for want of a better term, a melt-down that impacted every area of the economy. The specifics of what caused the “Great Recession” will be argued over for years to come much like the specifics of what brought on the Great Depression. But it is safe to say that the cause of the 2008 collapse was ideologically driven. The drive for lower taxes and less regulation of business, which began to gain traction in the ‘70s and steadily gained ground through the ‘80s and ‘90s, dominated policy under the administration of George W. Bush. Taxes were reduced. Regulations that could be eliminated were, areas where new regulations were needed were ignored, and people were put in charge of our regulatory agencies that had spent much of their careers fighting the very agencies they now lead. Our yearly budget surplus was quickly turned into a yearly deficit as revenues coming into the government failed to keep up with our spending. And businesses from Main Street to Wall Street were allowed to conduct business as they saw fit. The gap between the rich and the middle class which had begun decades earlier widened at an increasing rate. And both the government and individual citizens were going deeper into debt. But the stock market was soaring. All was well. And if we had any doubts, President Bush and the Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson assured us the economy’s fundamentals were strong. In retrospect their statements sounded much like the statements the leaders of business were making in September and October of 1929, weeks before the crash that signaled the beginning of the Great Depression.
But just as with 1929, statements of reassurance could not stop what happened to the economy in the fall of 2008. Capitalism depends on a sound banking system, and our major banks were failing. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed the government had to help them survive. The economy as a whole was beginning to go into a tailspin; a tailspin that was feared would end in another Depression if the banks failed. Thus TARP was passed under President Bush. Taxpayer money flowed to the major banks to save them from a catastrophe of their own making. And it should be noted that our actions were not unique. Other Western nations took similar actions. The American public did not rise up in protest. In fact, Democrats dominated the election of 2008 as they not only won the Presidency, but also increased their majority in the House, and clearly took control of the Senate. Prior to the election Democrats had relied upon two independents with whom they caucused to control the Senate by a 51 to 49 margin. Virtually everyone agreed, the American Right was dead. But the banking situation had not stabilized when President Obama took office in January of 2009, so he continued TARP. And within weeks the Right started to show signs of life. The defibrillator was the policies enacted to help the nation recover. TARP led the way. We began to hear of banks that were being given taxpayer money to survive handing our large bonuses to many top executives. Their justification was that they needed to hold onto their talent. This was the same talent that had almost destroyed them. The American public began to grow restless. A movement was born, the Tea Party, which embraced the very ideology that had caused the collapse. Anger that one would think should have directed at Wall Street and to the business practices that caused the collapse instead was being redirected at the government. A stimulus bill, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was passed, but due to Republican opposition, the final bill was too small to have a substantial impact on recovery. It mitigated the impact of the economic downturn and saved many jobs, but it was not enough to pull us out. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, designed to tighten regulations on banks and cover loopholes that had allowed for dangerous speculation passed, but with opposition and resentment. And to save the automobile industry, the government loaned money to General Motors and Chrysler. What in the past would have been hailed as necessary now was condemned as government interference in the private sector. Both are paying their loans back and GM is once again number one in sales. Thousands of jobs were saved and both are hiring back workers. (But still, Mitt Romney maintains we should have let them fail.) And finally, The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, an act very similar to a Republican proposal from the 1990’s, was vehemently opposed by Republicans and derided by the Tea Party and others as a government takeover of healthcare. Misinformation was rampant. The government was not going to kill granny. (I loved a sign I saw a woman holding up at one of the “town meetings” which said, “Government, keep your hands off of my Medicare”.)
The anger against the government accelerated in the fall of 2010 leading to a Republican victory in the mid-term elections with Republicans not only taking over the House of Representatives, but many governorships and state legislatures. And many of those newly elected Republican officials vowed to reinstitute the policies that led to the collapse. And that move to the right in the Republican Party has continued. Today we are even hearing of Social Security as we know it being dismantled, Medicare fundamentally altered, funding for our public schools and universities being cut, and our universities called places where the “liberal elite” indoctrinate our young. (I refer to our indoctrination methods as “guerilla teaching”, but evidently the right has seen through us.) And that is the tip of the iceberg. How did this happen? How did an economic collapse that one would think should have opened a window of opportunity for the left instead lead to a resurgence of the right?
On January 9th my wife and I were coming home from the mountains, and as we normally do we were listening to NPR (otherwise known a propaganda tool for the liberal elite that should not be supported by taxpayers). The guest on “The Diane Rehm Show” that day was Thomas Frank. Mr. Frank, writer and former opinion columnist for “The Wall Street Journal”, had just published a new book, “Pity the Billionaire”, in which he explored the birth of the Tea Party phenomenon. I purchased the book at soon as we got home and read it immediately. His is not the final word on the Tea Party and the rise of the Right, but the book does provide insight and in my view, is well worth reading.
From the bestselling author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a wonderfully insightful and sardonic look at why the worst economy since the 1930s has brought about the revival of conservatism
–From book description on Amazon.com
Economic catastrophe usually brings social protest and demands for change—or at least it’s supposed to. But when Thomas Frank set out in 2009 to look for expressions of American discontent, all he could find were loud demands that the economic system be made even harsher on the recession’s victims and that society’s traditional winners receive even grander prizes. The American Right, which had seemed moribund after the election of 2008, was strangely reinvigorated by the arrival of hard times. The Tea Party movement demanded not that we question the failed system but that we reaffirm our commitment to it. Republicans in Congress embarked on a bold strategy of total opposition to the liberal state. And TV phenom Glenn Beck demonstrated the commercial potential of heroic paranoia and the purest libertarian economics.
In Pity the Billionaire, Frank, the great chronicler of American paradox, examines the peculiar mechanism by which dire economic circumstances have delivered wildly unexpected political results. Using firsthand reporting, a deep knowledge of the American Right, and a wicked sense of humor, he gives us the first full diagnosis of the cultural malady that has transformed collapse into profit, reconceived the Founding Fathers as heroes from an Ayn Rand novel, and enlisted the powerless in a fan club for the prosperous. The understanding Frank reaches is at once startling, original, and profound.
–Click here to listen to the interview of Mr. Frank my wife and I listened to from The Diane Rehm Show