Ronald Reagan Launched an Attack on the Middle Class. We Must Reverse It to Save Our Democracy

The destruction of the middle class also destroys democracies and paves the way for authoritarian rule.

by Thom Hartmann edited by O Society October 6, 2019

In 2016, Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk published a paper in the Journal of Democracy  called Democratic Disconnect, which shows how in the era since Reagan led America out of classical economic policy and into neoliberalism (aka “trickle-down” and “supply-side” economics), many Americans ceased to value democracy:

“In the United States among all age cohorts, the share of citizens who believe it would be better to have a ‘strong leader’ who does not have to ‘bother with parliament and elections’ rose over time: In 1995, 24 percent of respondents held this view; by 2011, this figure increased to 32 percent.”

By the time the paper came out in 2016, fully 49 percent of Americans thought elites should make decisions, rather than “government.”

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And the growing disillusionment with democracy as a way to protect the interests of average voters doesn’t just push them toward pseudo-solutions hatched by the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute; increasingly, Americans would consider even a military junta ruling America, something to shock its founders.

“In the past three decades,” Foa and Mounk write, “the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ thing for the ‘army to rule’—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree.”

And it’s not just in the United States; democracies across the world are falling to the power of right-wing strongman leaders. Just in the past few decades we’ve seen this happen in Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, India, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia and, most recently, Brazil. Arguably, it has happened here in the United States with the Electoral College’s selection of Donald Trump as president. Meanwhile, hard-right groups seeking such autocracy are rising fast across Europe, particularly in France, Italy, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

In a recent article for the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria notes this trend, along with Foa and Mounk’s research, and tries to analyze its cause.

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“Why is this?” Zakaria writes. “The best I can guess is we are living in times of great change — economic, technological, demographic, cultural — and in this swirl, people feel insecure and anxious.”

America and the world have been in the midst of “great change” many times before, including during and after two world wars, but this current trend toward authoritarianism is unique since the 1980s.

The decade saw the adoption of the radical economic and political ideologies of Thatcherism and Reaganism—neoliberalism—which have since swept the world’s democracies. Even the European Union (with the Maastricht Treaty in 1993) adopted neoliberal “reforms” to benefit wealthy elites and force austerity on its poorer member nations, inflicting massive pain and inciting right-wing movements in Greece, Spain, and Italy, among others.

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In the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher led the way in 1978. She rejected government ownership of parts of the commons like railways, busted unions, and later argued that, “There is no such thing as society… [only] individual men and women, and… families.”

Reagan came to power in 1980 with the help of vast amounts of money from corporations and the morbidly rich, made possible by the twin 1976 and 1978 Supreme Court decisions of Buckley v. Valeo and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, which said that billionaires and corporations owning politicians was “free speech.”

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With a nod to his oligarch funders, in his inaugural address, his first day on the job as president, Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

When Reagan flipped our economic system on its head, rejecting two generations of classical Adam Smith economics and replacing it with the Laffer Curve and “supply-side” economics, almost a third of Americans had union jobs and around 60 percent of American families lived in the economic “middle class.” But starting in 2015, as NPR noted, reporting on a Pew study, “middle-income households have become the minority.”

Since David Koch’s failed 1980 run for VP on the Libertarian ticket, American oligarchs have invested billions of dollars in the message that government is bad and can’t be trusted. The most obvious example was the faux-grassroots Tea Party “movement” funded by Koch front groups, causing thousands of Americans to protest “government-run” health care with slogans like, “Keep your goddamn government hands off my Medicare!”

Koch and his oligarch friends suggested, through their surrogates and think tanks, that instead of a functioning democracy we should have a government both owned and run by them and their billionaire buddies.

And that’s largely what we have now, with the Trump administration. As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently tweeted, “A corporate lawyer runs DOL, a pharma exec runs HHS, a coal lobbyist runs EPA, an oil lobbyist runs DOI, a Raytheon lobbyist runs DOD, a steel lobbyist is the US trade rep, and a banking exec runs USDT.” A former Verizon lawyer runs the FCC, and midlevel positions across the federal government are now filled with lobbyists and lawyers from industry.

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Prior to the Reagan Revolution, Americans usually got what they wanted from the government.

The successes of LBJ’s Great Society programs during the 1960s are a great example: Medicare, Medicaid, Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, cutting poverty in half, Head Start, the National Teacher Corps, hundreds of billions in student college aid, PBS and NPR, Air Quality Act, Water Quality Act, Wilderness Act, National Trails System Act, creating the Cabinet-level Department of Housing and Urban Development, Community Action Agencies, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Child Safety Act, mandating warning labels on cigarettes, the Immigration Act that ended race-based immigration quotas, food stamps, and massive investments in public schools and hospitals… among other things.

In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter followed up by creating the Department of Energy and passing energy programs that would have moved 20 percent of America’s electricity generation to solar by 2000 (it was ended by Reagan), establishing the Department of Education, massively expanding Head Start, passing major laws to regulate coal mining and make it safer, forcing polluters to clean up superfund sites, and doubling our public lands in Alaska. Not to mention winning the Nobel Prize for working out a peace deal between Egypt and Israel that holds to this day.

Before the 1980s, Western Europe and other democracies saw similar expansions of people-based government programs. But nearly all of it came to a screeching halt—and much was even reversed—with the neoliberal Thatcher and Reagan Revolutions.

Today’s standard-bearers for neoliberalism are corporate-owned and both Republican Democrat. As Americans figure out the probability today of legislation passing supported by the majority of Americans is today equivalent to random chance, they’re revolting.

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And the oligarch billionaires are waiting for just this moment, funding massive voter suppression, right-wing media, politicians who tell us up is down, and efforts to keep their colleague, billionaire Donald Trump, in office. While the outreach to “very fine people” in the neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements is a bit less visible, it’s there, too.

So long as the governments of America and other countries are captives of oligarchs and big corporations, and hang onto anti-worker, anti-middle-class neoliberal policies, citizens will continue to drift toward hard-right “populist” politicians.

Democracies will only begin to revive when we reverse the Reagan Revolution and return to the classical economic and political systems extant in the Western world before the neoliberal 1980s.

And if a reversal doesn’t happen soon, the trend toward autocratic oligarchy will continue to speed up. As Foa and Mounk note in the conclusion of their research paper, “What was once unthinkable no longer should be considered outside the realm of possibility.”

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The Rise of American Authoritarianism: Conservative Moral Hierarchy

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2 thoughts on “Ronald Reagan Launched an Attack on the Middle Class. We Must Reverse It to Save Our Democracy

  1. Liberals. Only a liberal could list the tremendously beneficial programs of the New Deal/Great Society while excluding the most essential — welfare aid. GA and AFDC. Job losses long surpassed job gains, and it’s strange that they can’t seem to figure out what happens to those left jobless. Obviously, it isn’t even possible to get to square one without some income.Those without a home address can’t even get a few dollars of food stamps to survive. If jobs come along, people can’t get one without a home address, phone, bus fare. And under any circumstances, no employer is going to hire someone who has no means of washing their clothes, and whose shoes are held together with scraps of fabric. I do understand that media have utterly ignore real poverty in this country for years, but a little common sense should enable you to figure out what happens to people with no incomes.

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