THE GREAT AMERICAN REVIVAL TENT
How feel-good politics stunted the course of lasting change in America
by Eric M. Leitzen
I heard, not too long ago, a pundit speaking about how much of a disaster the Democratic nomination of George McGovern was in 1972. According to this pundit, said nomination destroyed the Democratic party for the next twenty years. Now, far be it from me to impugn on the veracity of Fox News contributors, but I feel I must call into light two points of order:
2)The 1972 elections were the elections that brought us Watergate, the election where a Republican incumbent thought it necessary to spy on his Democratic challenger in a useless plot for what would turn out to be a landslide election for the incumbent.
And, I suppose if we ignore the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980, we could say that in Presidential politics, the Democrats did suffer. In fact, one could say that the reasoned, intellectual, issues-driven and fact-based campaigns of serious Democrats like McGovern, Carter and Mondale is what caused the Democrats to endure some difficulty in Presidential politics all the way until 1992, where a “New Democratic Party” was ushered into the White House under one William Jefferson Clinton, who managed to, in his term, repeal the act that held back a tidal wave of irresponsible banking that crashed the economy in 2007 much like it had done in 1929.
Somehow, I don’t think FDR would have approved.
But how did we get here? How did the Democrats have to cozy up to these new ideas brought on by Clinton or Gore? How did the old guard like Carter and Mondale get unceremoniously shown the door on the heels of Watergate, one of the biggest scandals to hit the Presidency? If anything, the Democrats should have run roughshod over the Republicans for those twenty years and beyond, but they didn’t. So, what happened?
Ronald Reagan happened. And he brought the Great American Revival Tent with him.
In the current climate of intense polarization that is plaguing Washington and has been doing so in some form or another since the early 1980s, it has become more and more apparent just how important the Watergate affair truly was. Before Watergate, Richard Nixon was considered a savior for the Republican party: his tactics and strategies were thought to have dispelled the spectres of Hoover or Harding from the hearts and minds of the American people while simultaneously putting to bed the moderate policies of Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who had himself named a Vice President named Richard Nixon in the 1950s. It was thought that the Democrats went too far left in the 1968 election, and in response Nixon went hard right, implementing the successful, if suspect “Southern Strategy,” turning once solid Democratic Southerners into lifelong Republicans on the heels of sweeping Democratic reforms, mostly in the areas of racial equality. The Republican party was back on track where it belonged, and no one could convince them otherwise. The Democrats, meanwhile, still clung to their own platform of standing up for the little guy, and intellectual, if often far too abstract, esoteric causes for nebulous things like “the greater good.” In short, the Democrats had won since the Depression of the 30s by becoming a policy of issues: hard issues, issues that mattered when times were tough.
Then Watergate happened.
It is difficult to understand now, in our culture of constant exposure to corruption and government misdoing, a culture that simply takes it for granted that the government is out for itself and for deep-pocketed donors instead of the little guy, but the revelation of the Watergate crimes shocked America to its core. The President of the United States, the pinnacle of American pride and decency, was caught with his hand in the metaphorical cookie jar. How could this have happened? Spying, wiretapping, break-ins… this is not the way American government should behave! The country, feeling cheated and betrayed, sunk as a whole into a depression that is indicative of the feelings felt by a cheated spouse or a recent divorcee. “What was the point?” we were left asking, “and what does it all mean? How can we go on being like we were when everything has changed so completely? Government was supposed to be watching out for us, and now… now we just don’t know what to do anymore.”
Now, there are two ways to combat depression, both for a country at large or for an individual. One method is to force oneself, or be coached by another, into setting the world straight in your own mind, coming to terms with the perceived wrongdoings and frustrations, and effectively gathering up one’s bootstraps and soldiering on. “You may have knocked me down,” the depressed person might say “but God damn you, you won’t knock me out! I’ll keep fighting, no matter what it takes, because there is too much to do and to be done, life is too precious to waste like this!” The other method is to subscribe to hucksters and charlatans, who soothe your fragile self and coo softly in your ear that it isn’t your fault, and there’s nothing you did wrong, and that you don’t have to look those troubles in the face, you can go on pretending like nothing is wrong. Your life is too precious to worry about anything else but your happiness!”
The human impulse to self preserve is strong enough to allow both of these options to work. However, only one of them will encourage a body to thrive. In the days following Watergate, America as a body chose the opposite of Richard Nixon (or the lame duck Gerald Ford) to represent them in the White House: an outsider, a self-made man who wasn’t afraid to tell America that yes, times are tough, but if we work together we can gut it out and thrive… but we have to work for it.
Then, Ronald Reagan happened.
America, still hurt and broken from the Watergate revelation, collapsed in its weakness and fell for the spell of the Huckster. He was a man who claimed to never attain a grade above a “C” in school, a man who, almost bored, claimed “A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?” This wasn’t the shady and conniving intelligence of Nixon, that man who broke our spirit… this is a kind, gentle idiot who we’re sure won’t trick us and, most importantly, will sound good all the while. While James Carter promised a better future tomorrow, Reagan promised an immediate soothing balm to make all the bad feelings go away. An actor, he spoke with a silver tongue and golden throat the sort of panacea that soothed America like a drug. But, as President Reagan himself would caution against in his time in the White House… drugs can be dangerous. No drug, no matter how powerful, will last forever, and soon you find yourself in the cycle of addiction: needing another hit, begging your dealer to set you up, wagering everything and anything for that quick feeling of self-satisfaction. “Please!” America cried, “Make us forget all about Watergate! Make the pain go away, Mr. Reagan! Tell us there’s nothing wrong with the American people, make us feel good again!”
Ronald Reagan set up The Great American Revival tent and took center stage two-bit charismatic preacher who stood outside the White House and promised salvation for only a nickel, then charged a dime. In the 1980 election, the most famous line was “There you go again,” which is often remembered as Reagan’s off-the-cuff, friendly nature to the sterile policy of Jimmy Carter. No one seems to remember, of course, that President Carter was talking about making sure families didn’t get bankrupted by medical bills… something we’re still struggling with decades later. Instead, we chose to put in our lot with President Catchphrase, Ronald Reagan, because he was a charming movie actor and made us feel good. His speeches were fraught with the sort of nonsense you might find in a self-help book, and he deluded enough people into thinking that if we just felt good enough about ourselves, all of the country’s problems would seem to go away. The corruption didn’t stop: in fact, in 1978 the Supreme Court struck down a ban on corporate election contributions, putting us on the ruinous path to what became Citizen’s United in 2010, but we were too busy feeling sorry for ourselves to let anyone tell us there was a problem. We knelt at the altar to Reagan and his new show, much like the old show, but refined and codified to not seem overtly racist or classist, to make it palatable to a wider audience. Reagan and his followers, like a young Newt Gingrich, instituted what became known as the Republican Revolution, an utter triumph of style over substances that saw emotion take center stage and saw the federal government completely shut down within one year of Republican House rule. Suddenly, raw emotion and religious fervor, something that had been so beneficially removed from governance, had taken center stage in the hopes of playing on the primal fear and worry of an America rocked back on its heels by scandal, willing to believe anything the man in the seersucker suit sold them. Ronald Reagan and others of his ilk took advantage of an America just coming off a very bad relationship, and played themselves up to be a kind and gentle suitor who wouldn’t ask anything of poor Columbia in her broken state… and then robbed her blind. They seduced her away with promises and false hopes, away from the sour-faced, but well-meaning Jimmy Carter who knew the only way out of this “malaise” was hard work and education… but old Ronnie just kept cooing in her ear: I’ll make it all better. Nothing is wrong. Everything is fine. I’ll make you feel good about yourself again.
And he did, but America paid the price. We wagered away our children’s future by cutting school budgets, even for children’s food, we wagered away our own security by deregulating businesses, and we wagered away our own livelihoods when Reagan broke the unions. But he made us feel good about ourselves, didn’t he? And later Presidents would rely on this same strategy, from Clinton’s “I feel your pain” to Obama’s “Hope and Change,” we have been lead down a primrose path with blinders on our eyes as the world rotted around us, as America careened toward the crisis from 2007 that is still being felt today. Much like how Nixon played on the soothing fear of anti-black hysteria in the south to gain votes in 1968, men like Reagan, Bush, Gingrich and even Clinton and Obama have learned the new Soothing Strategy, the strategy that killed the old, competent Democratic party and replaced both sides of the debate with mindless pablum. Politics doesn’t matter anymore, it’s the issues and, more importantly, how we feel about them.
It’s all about you, and how you feel, because America is exceptional… because we told you so. And when we tell you so, you feel good about it… and you stop asking questions. Questions like why the minimum wage hasn’t gone up as a share of household income in twenty years, or why we can afford to spend more than the next thirteen countries combined on bombs and guns, but can’t spend a penny more to keep people healthy in this country. Why do we constantly preach the values of the Christ, while at the same time hold sacred the tenets of Rand, when one preached giving to the poor and the other taught utter selfishness? Why do the rich now have as many times as much wealth as they did during the heyday of the Gilded Age? These questions don’t get asked, because America has simply plugged its ears and repeated over and over that it’s not OUR problem, there’s nothing wrong with US… that nice Mr. Reagan told us so… so how come it’s only getting worse?
Change will come, whether we want it to or not. The divide between rich and poor is only growing bigger, and although the unemployment lines may be shrinking, the lines for public assistance are not. We are working harder, for less money, at more different jobs, for less benefit. We have failed our children by risking it all in specious markets, only to see it tumble down and take gainful employment from our country’s children, along with their own sense of purpose. We have been so focused on how we feel as a country, while simultaneously making sure not to feel for anyone else, that we have let the important issues, the “boring” issues, become the place of corrupt and morally bankrupt individuals. We turned out backs on the New Deal Coalition’s ideas of hard issues, intellect, and determination for a drug addiction of feelings whose expiration date has finally been reached. There needs to come a Roosevelt Revolution in this country to counteract the Reagan Revolution, where common sense and common decency trump our own personal feelings, beliefs, or revulsions. We need to put aside the Southern Strategies, the Soothing Strategies, and we need to pack up that revival tent and pull the plug on that worn out old Hammond Organ, because their message is only starving those who come to the service. We must now do what President Carter told us to do so many years ago, and what men like McGovern and Humphrey and Mondale lost trying to make clear: times are tough, and we must grit our teeth and put our nose to the grindstone to make this country great again. We didn’t pull ourselves out of the Great Depression by feeling better about ourselves, we worked for it. The CCC didn’t say “We don’t want to!” they said, “We can take it!” Ask not what your country can do for you, because it’s time for you to bite down hard and do what you can for your country… because it’s up to us now.
It’s thirty years too late for us to realize that we have to gut this out. It won’t be easy, it probably won’t be fun. I won’t lie to you: we’ll have to work long and hard to beat back the shadows that have corrupted our government while our politicians pranced about singing of milk and honey, but we can do it. We did it when Teddy Roosevelt swung his big stick and regulated industry, we did it when Franklin Roosevelt did everything he could to put Americans back to work and built the bridges, roads and schools we still use today, and it worked when Lyndon Johnson twisted every arm in Washington in an effort to make sure no child grew up as heartwrenchingly destitute as he did in rural Texas. The time has come for courage and honesty in American politics, and a return to a Mondalian model of a candidate who will do what is right despite and perceived political danger. We can no longer afford damaging feel-good politics to further sap the strength of our country, a strength that lies primarily in a strong, and well-informed, middle class.