And so, we are at the end of a year that has brought a presidential impeachment trial, a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 338,000 of us, a huge social movement for racial justice, a presidential election, and a president who has refused to accept the results of that election and is now trying to split his own political party.
It’s been quite a year.
But I had a chance to talk with history podcaster Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers yesterday, and he asked a more interesting question. He pointed out that we are now twenty years into this century, and asked what I thought were the key changes of those twenty years. I chewed on this question for awhile and also asked readers what they thought. Pulling everything together, here is where I’ve come out.
In America, the twenty years since 2000 have seen the end game of the Reagan Revolution, begun in 1980.
In that era, political leaders on the right turned against the principles that had guided the country since the 1930s, when Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided the nation out of the Great Depression by using the government to stabilize the economy. During the Depression and World War Two, Americans of all parties had come to believe the government had a role to play in regulating the economy, providing a basic social safety net and promoting infrastructure.
But reactionary businessmen hated regulations and the taxes that leveled the playing field between employers and workers. They called for a return to the pro-business government of the 1920s, but got no traction until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when the Supreme Court, under the former Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, unanimously declared racial segregation unconstitutional. That decision, and others that promoted civil rights, enabled opponents of the New Deal government to attract supporters by insisting that the country’s postwar government was simply redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to people of color.
That argument echoed the political language of the Reconstruction years, when white southerners insisted that federal efforts to enable formerly enslaved men to participate in the economy on terms equal to white men were simply a redistribution of wealth, because the agents and policies required to achieve equality would cost tax dollars and, after the Civil War, most people with property were white. This, they insisted, was “socialism.”
To oppose the socialism they insisted was taking over the East, opponents of black rights looked to the American West. They called themselves Movement Conservatives, and they celebrated the cowboy who, in their inaccurate vision, was a hardworking white man who wanted nothing of the government but to be left alone to work out his own future. In this myth, the cowboys lived in a male-dominated world, where women were either wives and mothers or sexual playthings, and people of color were savage or subordinate.
With his cowboy hat and western ranch, Reagan deliberately tapped into this mythology, as well as the racism and sexism in it, when he promised to slash taxes and regulations to free individuals from a grasping government. He promised that cutting taxes and regulations would expand the economy. As wealthy people—the “supply side” of the economy– regained control of their capital, they would invest in their businesses and provide more jobs. Everyone would make more money.
From the start, though, his economic system didn’t work. Money moved upward, dramatically, and voters began to think the cutting was going too far. To keep control of the government, Movement Conservatives at the end of the twentieth century ramped up their celebration of the individualist white American man, insisting that America was sliding into socialism even as they cut more and more domestic programs, insisting that the people of color and women who wanted the government to address inequities in the country simply wanted “free stuff.” They courted social conservatives and evangelicals, promising to stop the “secularization” they saw as a partner to communism.
After the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, talk radio spread the message that Black and Brown Americans and “feminazis” were trying to usher in socialism. In 1996, that narrative got a television channel that personified the idea of the strong man with subordinate women. The Fox News Channel told a story that reinforced the Movement Conservative narrative daily until it took over the Republican Party entirely.
The idea that people of color and women were trying to undermine society was enough of a rationale to justify keeping them from the vote, especially after Democrats passed the Motor Voter law in 1993, making it easier for poor people to register to vote. In 1997, Florida began the process of purging voter rolls of Black voters.
And so, 2000 came.