America is experiencing a crisis. How did we get here?
Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that “we become what we think about all day long.” It’s as true of nations as it is of individuals.
As recently as 25 years ago, most of us valued patriotism and religion first and foremost, 70 and 62 percent respectively. Today only 38 percent of Americans cite patriotism as a core value and religion has collapsed to 39 percent.
According to a new Wall Street Journal poll (that they’ve been compiling since 1998), what’s replaced love of nation and spirit, tragically, is the desire for money.
It shouldn’t surprise us. Patriotism and religion are essentially luxuries. When you can’t pay the rent or feed your family, when you’re pestered daily by bill collectors and can’t afford your medications, it’s hard to think of anything other than money.
Every decade since 1980, the Reagan Revolution has bit deeper and deeper into the lives of average working people, throwing at least 15 percent of Americans out of the middle class and into poverty while increasing economic insecurity for everybody except the morbidly rich, who have taken $50 trillion from the working class since 1980 to further fill their bulging money bins.
Reagan (and Republican presidents since) gutted aid to education, so student debt — which pretty much didn’t even exist when he came into office in 1981 — is a towering $1.8 trillion, trapping millions of young people in a lifetime of servitude to the banks.
Reagan (and Republican governors since) fought government aid programs and stopped enforcing our antitrust laws so the pharma, insurance, and hospital sectors became essentially monopolies, draining cash from working people while making industry executives into billionaires. Medical debt is now a crisis for working class people on par with student debt.
But the Reagan Revolution didn’t just reorder our economy, according to the Journal’s survey. It reset our values away from loving our nation and each other and toward loving — and needing — money. Almost half of Americans put money at the top of their pyramid of values today, as opposed to fewer than a third almost three decades ago.
Michael Douglas summarized the mantra of the Reagan Revolution in his 1987 movie Wall Street: “Greed is good!”
And greed, of course, is satisfied by jumping into the corporate marketplace, not by getting a job in government service. As Reagan told us in his first inaugural, government was not the solution to our problems, but instead was the problem itself.
He ridiculed the formerly noble idea of service to one’s country and joked that there are really no good people left in government because if they were smart or competent they’d be working in the private sector for a lot more money.
He told us that the nine most frightening words in the English language were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, billionaires associated with the Republicans built a massive infrastructure of think tanks and media outlets to promote and amplify this message.
It so completely altered the values system of America that by the 1990s even President Bill Clinton was saying things like, “The era of big government is over,” and “This is the end of welfare as we know it.”
The logical endpoint was electing a flashy gold-plated grifter billionaire as president: the obsession with wealth Reagan planted in the American psyche became a parody of itself with the Trump presidency.
It’s easy to glibly argue that people should just reject Reagan’s values and embrace patriotism and the compassionate and loving values of religion, but for most Americans today that’s now a luxury. Particularly in states run by Republicans.
Hustling for money has literally become a life-and-death issue for many of us. Life expectancy has collapsed in Red states, as you can see from this map, and even in Blue states debt is at record levels.
At first glance, this looks like a voting map. But it’s a life expectancy map. pic.twitter.com/qFket9Izem
— Mueller, She Wrote (@MuellerSheWrote) April 2, 2023
Finland, the nation ranked the happiest in the world for six years in a row (the latest rankings by the UN came out last week), gives its citizens the space necessary to explore the values Emerson and his Transcendentalists spoke of back in the day.
Both healthcare and education are essentially free there (students are actually paid to go to college). Housing and public transportation are subsidized. Three-quarters of all Finnish workers are represented by a union and thus earn a solid wage.
And they don’t have the problem of morbidly rich billionaires buying politicians and rigging the economy because 5 Republicans on their Supreme Court never legalized political bribery. As a result, the rich actually pay their taxes and that money is used to support the Finnish middle class.
Astonishingly, America stands almost alone among developed countries in having adopted Reagan’s value system (the UK was infected at the same time with Thatcherism, but at least they still have a national health service and affordable state colleges).
By the 1970s, we were on course to join the rest of the developed world when it came to providing a decent life to most working people. A third of workers had a union, and college was free or nearly free in most of America. Healthcare and insurance were affordable.
And then Richard Nixon, after stealing the 1968 election by sabotaging LBJ’s Vietnam peace negotiations, put Lewis Powell on the Supreme Court in 1972.
The year before, Powell had written his infamous “Powell Memo” to the US Chamber of Commerce, laying out a detailed plan for the morbidly rich to take over every aspect of American life and politics, including universities and the courts.
To speed the process along, he voted in 1976 to legalize political bribery by billionaires (Buckley v Valeo) and in 1978 he wrote the decision itself that recognized corporations as persons and gave them the supposed First Amendment right to pour cash down the throats of our politicians (First National Bank v Bellotti).
Thus, a wave of billionaire and corporate cash floated Reagan into the White House with the 1980 election, aided by his traitorous deal with the Ayatollah to hold the American hostages until the day he was sworn into office on January 20, 1981.
As I lay out in my new book, The Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America, this cancer of political control by the morbidly rich that Reagan engineered has devastated our nation.
Billionaires fund politicians and judges who’ll promote their value system of greed while cutting their taxes and pitting average Americans against each other, so we won’t see the real source of our crises.
If America is to regain our moral compass, to return to the values of patriotism, family, and spirit, we must root out the poison of money in our political system. To do that, we must elect officials like members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who are not beholden to wealthy or corporate interests and refuse corporate PAC money.
Otherwise, the billionaire class will continue to grow while the collapse of the middle class continues apace, as billionaire-funded Republicans tell us who to fear and hate. And happiness, like other non-greed values, continues to escape us as a nation.
A better America is possible: it just requires we all get politically active. Tag, you’re it!