Authors: Kurt Andersen
more deeply about the economics and politics. That’s what I’d mainly studied in college, but since then I’d mostly just read the news, skimmed along day to day and month to month like anybody whose job never required knowing a lot about deregulation, antitrust, tax codes, pensions, the healthcare industry, the legal fraternity, constitutional law, organized labor, executive compensation, lobbying, billionaires’ networks, the right wing, the dynamics of economic growth, stock buybacks, the financial industry and all its innovations—so many subjects of which I was mostly ignorant.
My immersion was revelatory. Reading hundreds of books and scholarly papers and articles and having conversations with experts made me more or less fluent in those subjects and, more, taught me many small things and one important big thing: what happened around 1980 and afterward was larger and uglier and more multifaceted than I’d known.
is the buzzword, mainly because that’s so simple and quantifiable: in forty years, the share of wealth owned by our richest 1 percent has doubled, the collective net worth of the bottom half has dropped almost to zero, the median weekly pay for a full-time worker has increased by just 0.1 percent a year,
the incomes of the top 10 percent have grown in sync with the economy, and so on. Americans’ boats stopped rising together; most of the boats stopped rising at all. But along with economic
reverting to the levels of a century ago and earlier, so has economic
as well as the corrupting political power of big business and the rich,
is almost certainly worse than it’s ever been.
Before I started my research, I’d understood the changes in the 1970s and ’80s hadn’t all just
spontaneously. But I didn’t know how long and concerted and strategic the project by the political right and the rich and big business had been. One of my subjects in
is how conspiracy-theorizing became an American bad habit, a way our chronic mixing of fiction and reality got the best of us. Of course there are secretive cabals of powerful people who work to make big bad things happen, actual conspiracies, but the proliferation of conspiracy
since the 1960s, so many so preposterous, had the unfortunate effect of making reasonable people ignore real plots in plain sight. Likewise, the good reflex to search for and focus on the complexities and nuances of any story, on grays rather than simple whites and blacks, can tend to blind us to some plain dark truths.
I still insist on a preponderance of evidence before I draw conclusions. I still resist reducing messy political and economic reality to catchphrases like “vast right-wing conspiracy” and “the system is rigged,” but I discovered that in this case the blunt shorthand is essentially correct. It looks more like arson than a purely accidental fire, more like poisoning than a completely natural illness, more like a cheating of the many by the few. After all, as the god of the economic right himself, Adam Smith, wrote in capitalism’s 1776 bible,
The Wealth of Nations:
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
is the book I wish had existed a dozen years ago to help clarify and organize and deepen and focus my thinking and understanding and anger and blame. Like most people over the past decade, I’d noticed this fact here or that infographic there about inequality or insecurity or malign corporate power, but quickly moved on, flittered off to the next headline. But then I decided to go deep into the weeds in order to understand, then come out of the weeds to explain what I’d learned as clearly as I could. I wanted to distill and gather and connect the important facts and explanations in one compact package, to make a coherent picture out of all the puzzle pieces. There are lots of facts and figures in here, but not much jargon at all. By chronicling CEOs and billionaires and intellectuals and zealots and operators planning and strategizing for years, together and apart, networking and plotting, even memorializing some plots in memos—so many jaw-dropping
I’ve tried to tell a compelling story as well as make a persuasive argument about what’s become of us.
So how did big business and the very rich and their political allies and enablers manage to convince enough Americans in the 1970s and ’80s that the comfortable economic rules and expectations we’d had in place for half of the twentieth century were obsolete and should be replaced by an older set of assumptions and protocols?
Most people at the time didn’t realize just how immense and pervasive the changes were and certainly not where they’d lead. Reagan’s election and landslide reelection were plainly big deals,
sort of national mandate, but at the time the 1980s seemed more like a post-1960s reversion to the historically typical, not really its own moment of wrenching transformation. Whereas during the 1960s, everyone was aware we were experiencing a great turning point in culture and politics, with almost everything changing in obvious ways—like how in the ’30s people were aware in real time that the Depression and New Deal were transformative, the beginning of a new America. The specific policy changes in the 1980s were profound in the aggregate, but beyond the nostalgic Reaganite Morning in America and freer-free-markets messaging, most of the changes were complicated and esoteric and seemed small, so they had a stealth quality. It didn’t feel quite like a paradigm shift because it was mainly carried out by means of a thousand wonky adjustments to government rules and laws, and obscure financial inventions, and big companies one by one changing how they operated and getting away with it—all of it with impacts that emerged gradually, over decades. Social Security and Medicare benefits were not cut, the EPA wasn’t abolished, labor unions weren’t banned. As it turned out, the 1980s were the ’30s but in reverse: instead of a fast-acting New Deal, a time-release Raw Deal.
But the reengineering was helped along because the masterminds of the economic right brilliantly used the madly proliferating nostalgia. By dressing up their mean new rich-get-richer system in old-time patriotic drag. By portraying low taxes on the rich and unregulated business and weak unions and a weak federal government as the only ways back to some kind of rugged, frontiersy, stronger,
America. And by choosing as their front man a winsome 1950s actor in a cowboy hat, the very embodiment of a certain flavor of American nostalgia.
Of course, Ronald Reagan didn’t cheerfully
in 1980 that if Americans elected him, private profit and market values would override all other American values; that as the economy grew nobody but the well-to-do would share in the additional bounty; that many millions of middle-class jobs and careers would vanish, along with fixed private pensions and reliable healthcare; that a college degree would simultaneously become unaffordable and almost essential to earning a good income; that enforcement of antimonopoly laws would end; that meaningful control of political contributions by big business and the rich would be declared unconstitutional; that Washington lobbying would increase by 1,000 percent; that our revived and practically religious deference to business would enable a bizarre American denial of climate science and absolute refusal to treat the climate crisis as a crisis; that after doubling the share of the nation’s income that it took for itself, a deregulated Wall Street would nearly bring down the financial system, ravage the economy, and pay no price for its recklessness; and that the federal government he’d committed to discrediting and undermining would thus be especially ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic and its consequences.
Rather, when we were promised in 1980 the wonderful old-fashioned life of Bedford Falls, we didn’t pay close enough attention to the fine print and possible downsides, and forty years later here we are in Pottersville instead, living in the world actually realized by Reaganism, our political economy remade by big business and the wealthy to maximize the wealth and power of big business and the well-to-do at the expense of everyone else. We were hoodwinked,
we hoodwinked ourselves.
Our wholesale national plunge into nostalgia in the 1970s and afterward was an important part of how we got on the road toward extreme insecurity and inequality, to American economic life more like the era of plutocrats and robber barons of the 1870s. All our clocks got turned back—the political and economic ones by design, the cultural ones more or less spontaneously. Economic progress ended, and cultural innovation stagnated except in information technology, where unchecked new industrial giants arose—resembling those of that first Gilded Age. The morphing of the nostalgia addiction into cultural paralysis in the 1990s helped to keep us shackled in an unpleasant perpetual present ever since. That cultural stasis, almost everyone and everything looking and sounding more or less the way they did a generation ago, provided daily reinforcement of the sense that the status quo is permanent and unchangeable across the board—in other words, a kind of fatalistic hopelessness of the kind that was standard before democracy existed, before revolutions, before the Enlightenment. We’ve thus been discouraged by the culture as well as by much of politics from imagining that the economy might be radically redesigned and remade once
encouraged to think that fundamental change is either no longer possible or no longer desirable or both. If the present is more or less indistinguishable from the recent past, why won’t the future be pretty much the same as the present but with more robots? There are the gadgets and bits of fresh software, but otherwise we have become unaccustomed to the new, many of us skeptical and afraid of the new, confused about how to think of the past or cope with the future.
Unlike longing for a fairer economy of the kind we used to have, which would require a
decision to bring back, the itch of cultural and social nostalgia is easy for
to scratch and keep scratching. So for many Americans, who spent several decades losing their taste for the culturally new and/or getting screwed by a new political economy based on new technology, fantasies about restoring the past have turned pathological. Thus the angriest organized resistance to the new, the nostalgias driving the upsurge of racism and sexism and nativism—which gave us a president who seemed excitingly new because he asserted an impossible dream of restoring the nastily, brutishly old. The recent wave of politicized nostalgia is global, of course, taking over governments from Britain to Russia to India. But those countries at least have the excuse of being ancient.
“We respect the past,” President Obama said of Americans when I was just beginning work on this book, right before he was replaced by President Trump, “but we don’t
for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.” As was his wont, he was being aspirational, wishful, reminding us of our better angels. It was his gentle, upbeat way of saying hey, you know, folks, we really
been obsessively pining for the past and excessively fearing the future.
But he was correct about our history and founding national character:
openness to the
was a defining American trait
. From the start, four centuries ago, we were eager to try the untried and explore the uncharted, even or especially when it looked risky or terrifying. Americans’ innovative, novelty-seeking, risk-taking attitudes were key to most of the country’s exceptional successes. The United States was a self-consciously new species of nation, the first one invented from scratch and based on new conceptions of freedom and fairness and self-government and national identity. Our story at its best was a process of collectively, successfully imagining, embracing, and exemplifying the new—then gloating whenever the rest of the world followed our lead.
Of course, that process of perpetual reinvention and refreshment always involved tension between people pushing for the new and people resisting it, sometimes with existential ferocity: irreconcilable differences over status quos resulted first in the American Revolution and then in the Civil War and then the politics of the Depression. In our history so far, at the critical junctures, the forces of the new have eventually triumphed over the anciens régimes.
Almost a half-century ago, the country began a strange hiatus from its founding mission of inventing and reinventing itself in pursuit of the new and improved. Since then Americans have gotten variously confused and contentious and paralyzed concerning the old days, about which parts of the American past can or can’t and should or shouldn’t be restored. So the essential new national project I’m proposing here is paradoxical: a majority of us have got to rediscover and revive the old defining American predisposition to reject old certainties and familiar ways, plunge forward, experiment, imagine, and then try the untried.
It’s important to revisit and dissect and understand what happened when this rigging began and the swamp was filled, and not just to know who to blame for our present predicament. Rather, as we attempt to fix the terrible mess that an unbalanced, unhinged, decadent capitalism has made of America, the revamping of our political economy that started fifty years ago is also an essential case study for envisioning the next fifty. Because if you need proof that ideas have power and that radical change is possible, it’s there in the rearview mirror. Evil genius is genius nonetheless. In the early 1970s, at the zenith of liberal-left influence, an improbable, quixotic, out-of-power economic right—intellectuals, capitalists, politicians—launched their crusade and then kept at it tenaciously. The unthinkable became the inevitable in a single decade. They envisioned a new American trajectory, then popularized and arranged it with remarkable success. How was that fundamentally different American future—that is, our present—designed and enacted? And how might it happen again in the other direction? There are lessons to be learned: having big ideas and strong convictions, keeping your eye on the ball, playing a long game. There are also some relevant cautionary tales from the last few decades—it’d be nice if in success the left could avoid some of the viciousness, lying, cynicism, nihilism, and insanity that overtook the right after victory.