Reagan’s America is dead.
If not dead, it lies fallen on a US economy near ruin. The recent collapse of several financial giants and the extreme concentration of wealth in a few hands have reached levels unmatched since the 1930s Great Depression Era. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who witnessed firsthand the Great Depression, declared, “This is the worst economy I’ve ever seen.”
Like Oscar Wilde’s tragic protagonist Dorian Gray whose beauty gives way to his true ugliness once his portrait is destroyed, the inheritors of the Reagan mantle, McCain-Palin are revealed for what they are—pallbearers of a legacy best left to die and be buried.
We should be cheering at the funeral.
Historian Joseph A. Palermo described the last 30 years as “watching a slow-motion train wreck.” He attributes the current depressed state of the financial market to the failed policies of deregulating the economy in order for the market to work its “magic” and allow profits to “trickle-down” to the general populace. The same wealthy people who advocated the dismantling of the social safety net for working people and market regulations are now begging at the doors of Washington DC for help. The recent financial disasters have already costed taxpayers over $900 billion dollars. Palermo concludes, “It’s socialism for the rich and laissez-faire capitalism for everyone else.”
These failed policies largely gained currency with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president. His vision harkened to the America of the 1950s, when a large number of people entered the middle class. It inspired the everyday working person and tapped into the promise of America . It is the “ Gold Mountain” of 1800s Chinese immigrants lore. It penetrated so deeply into the national conscience that Bill Clinton and other Democrats could only operate within this dominant framework. (Clinton became the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower who had no choice but to expand Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt-influenced legislation. President Clinton signed the McCain-ally Phil Gramm’s deregulation bill that repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act which separated commercial and investment banks and made banking practices transparent.)
However, upon closer inspection, an untold narrative undergirds Reagan’s 1950s America. It is easy to forget it was similar speculative practices and greed of financial giants which led to the Great Depression that preceded the idyllic 1950s. It is easy to forget the role of FDR’s New Deal policies, the G.I. Bill, and the rapid growth of unions that lifted a large segment of the nation and created the first middle class in the US. It is easy to forget these advances coincided with the persistence of racial segregation and immigration laws, which specifically limited and, in some cases, excluded Asians. The real story of 1950s America was a white America that owed its prosperity to “big government” and unions but remained hostile to anyone on the outside.
The real story of Reagan’s legacy is that it was born of a movement influenced by the intellectual neoconservative opposition to the Anti-War and “Third World” Movements of the 1960s and 1970s and that exploited the conservative populist backlash to the progressive movements that attempted to address the racial gap. When Reagan announced his presidential candidacy at the site of three slain civil rights activists with a speech about “state rights,” he invoked the politics of division and fear. Only thing missing was Scarlet O’Hara of “Gone with The Wind” dancing in the background.
McCain’s own Cold War credentials and his selection of former small-town mayor and “soccer mom” Sarah Palin resurrect the mythic idyllic picture of 1950s white America with a 21st century twist. However, the current state of the economy exposes the bankruptcy of their policies and true ugliness behind their vision. Their “small government” for the general public is actually “activist government” for the elite few.
Interestingly, Barack Obama and his campaign clearly descends from the successes of the past movements that sought to expand democracy and build a larger and more inclusive national community. Obama is born of the “miscegenation” feared and derided in 1950’s America. He hails from the state of Hawai’i where its largely Asian American labor movement in the 1930’s addressed issues of race better than its mainland twin. His campaign’s reliance on grassroots community organizing principles does not just recall legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, who drew his ideas from the Labor Movement of the early 1900’s, but Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement, which embodied both a Civil Rights and a Labor Movement.
An Obama presidency potentially represents a step beyond FDR’s “activist government” to one based and dependent on the central operating principle of community organizing—change must come from us, not just the elected leader. (We shouldn’t forget FDR’s presidential campaign ran on vague notions of “change” and the details of the New Deal occurred after his election. These policy specifics responded to a vibrant labor movement and overall militant discontent from working people).
We now stand at the threshold of history and another story begs to be born—one which draws from the stories of progressive movements of the past. The current economic crisis disrupts the Reagan narrative and offers an opportunity for progressives to offer an alternative. It remains in our hands if we are truly witnessing the funeral of Wall Street Socialism or some really bad zombie film.
by John Delloro
Originally published by the Asian American Action Fund.
John Delloro is the Executive Director of the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute, LACCD and currently sits on the Legal Advisory Board of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) and the Board of Directors of the PWC. He was one of the co-founders of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California (PWC) and served as the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). For the past decade, he also worked as a regional manager/organizer for SEIU 1000, Union of California State Workers, a staff director/organizer for SEIU 399, the Healthcare Workers Union, and an organizer for AFSCME International and HERE 226, the hotel workers union in Las Vegas.