Wednesday Oct 04

MONEY MATTERS - Those Were the Days, My Friends

The announcement came that a deal has been struck on the debt limit/spending cesspool that Washington has devolved into over the past month. And, despite myriad warnings that a failure to do this will lead to global economic disaster, there is no certainty that Speaker McCarthy can persuade his caucus to pass the tentative agreement. Almost surely, he’ll need Democratic votes to do so, and lord knows how that will be possible in this fractured political moment. By the time you read this, the matter will be settled. Somehow. Could be that the nihilistic Freedom Caucus of the GOP will scuttle the whole thing and we’ll be in the throes of the economic disaster experts predict. Or not.

But how have we landed in this bizarre moment when a small number of diehard conservatives could potentially cause near fatal damage to the American economy? For us in the ‘boomer generation, the inexorable downward spiral is confusing and disheartening, to say the least. We came of age when the government was governing and, while we rode the tide of change inspired by opposition to the Vietnam War, the social context was optimistic. What was not so apparent to us was the fragility of our national success. And, to be honest, we had little appreciation for how recent it all was.

It is useful to start back when the fundamental shift in the role of the federal government began during the tawdry years of the Hoover Administration following the collapse of the stock market in 1929 leading to the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover, America’s 31st president (1928-1932), tried many things to combat the downward spiraling economy – some of which were, oddly enough, precursors to Roosevelt’s “New Deal” – but his initial attempts to convince many businesses to voluntarily work with the government to slow the downturn failed miserably. Banks failed, and since the FDIC did not exist, savings of hardworking folk simply vanished. Homelessness grew rampantly with even vast areas of NYC’s Central and Riverside Parks sprouting shantytowns. By the election of 1932, Hoover was deeply unpopular and lost resoundingly to Roosevelt. By then, the economy was in such a tailspin that it created the possibility for the New Deal to experiment with a vastly stronger role for government than had ever been tried. Government WAS the solution, as it turned out, and this trend continued to be the case throughout the near century that followed. In a curious way, seeing a proactive government focused on helping people in the 1930s through jobs, housing, and public works programs created an openness to a strong federal profile so that when the US was finally drawn into WWII, the Isolationists retreated to the hills though pro-fascists continued their rants even after Pearl Harbor. [If you haven’t listened to Rachel Maddow’s “Ultra” multipart podcast on American fascism during this period, it is well worth the time.] 

The combination of the New Deal’s effective response to the Great Depression and America’s success after its entry into WWII, established a sort of foundation for the modern federal government. If we could deal with poverty and war, we could do remarkable things in the world. And we did, in no small part because the post-war US industrial base was left unscathed while the rest of the world struggled through the aftermath.

This is not to say that the anti-government sentiments went silent, but it is to say that functionally government stepped into almost every challenging aspect affecting a rapidly modernizing America. As problems arose, solutions evolved. Legislation addressing healthcare, transportation, education, clean air, clean water, research into diseases, space travel, and myriad other issues made it through Congress, and administrations of both parties embraced the construction of an effective Civil Service system to staff often newly created agencies. Paid for by wartime tax rates, sky high during the 40s and 50s, and inspired by Roosevelt, Kennedy and other leaders who called for the “best and the brightest” to join them in the enterprise of governing, the Federal government thrived.

It was, to be sure, not perfect. In the 1970s as Watergate stained our politics, Ralph Nader inspired a new generation of “the best and brightest” not to join government, but to hold government accountable. The famous “Nader’s Raiders” worked on a shoestring to expose failures of the regulatory apparatus, often captured by the very industries they were regulating. The basic sociopathic nature of corporate power was revealed as they turned their sights onto the regulators, often while withholding vital information that would cut their profits, as was shown starkly in the Big Tobacco cases. Sociopaths, of course, have no sense of shame or guilt. Ask Enron. Or virtually any of the big chemical companies. But for all their flaws, bureaucracies spawned in the mid- to late-20th century, were effective. Air and water are both profoundly cleaner 70 years later. The abuses of pre-Depression bankers have been largely curtailed. Design flaws in automobiles are now regularly identified and recalls mandated to fix them. We sent people to the Moon. Problems in the food sector are diagnosed and addressed long before massive problems occur. Eisenhower’s Interstate highway system thrives and underpins our highly mobile economy. Air transport safety in the US drives a remarkable set of standards largely embraced globally. And the FDA continues to monitor and ensure that the drugs we take are both effective and minimize risk. It’s not to be overlooked that the most underappreciated president, Lyndon Johnson, brought home both civil rights and Medicare in an era hostile to both, despite his record being overshadowed by the tragic Vietnam experience.

So, what has happened?? Why are we living through a period when the loudest voices seem to be those who want to either deconstruct federalism (e.g. the Dobbs decision) or use the courts to impose minority views on social issues on the rest of us. To the best of my understanding, we can credit the actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan, or at least one of his speech writers, for turning the thing on its head. In his view, government became the PROBLEM not the solution. 43 years after his first election, the GOP continues to double down on this premise.

The antecedents of Reagan’s famous line, “…government IS the problem,” can best be traced to a memorandum commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce and authored by Lewis Powell prior to accepting Nixon’s appointment to the Supreme Court. In response to Ralph Nader’s seminal indictment of the auto industry (Unsafe at Any Speed), Powell saw public interest groups pursuing a nefarious form of socialism by having public agencies regulate harmful practices of businesses. He raised the alarm that corporate interests needed to support a countervailing force to oppose regulation of the private sector in a strident case that galvanized big business. The echoes from this critique reverberate today in the well-funded institutions formed in the aftermath: The Heritage Foundation, Business Roundtable, and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) among many others. ALEC, of course, provides drafts of most state-level legislation promoting conservative, pro-business, and anti-union policies with many red state statutes virtually verbatim copies of ALEC positions. This well-funded cabal of rightwing “think tanks” has fueled an erosion of trust in government and the mid-20th Century belief in a shared national experience binding us all across political divides. In its place, and aided by many emergent technologies and changes in our social fabric, we are witnessing an intentional power-building effort to deepen fear and paint political opposition as “other” or enemy or “unchristian” or leftists or, in a catchword I don’t fully understand, “woke.” (I think “woke” means awake, so if that is bad as the Right contends, is it better to be asleep?) If one views the other side as any or all of those things, they don’t deserve to vote or, in the eyes of some, even live. I wonder if Lewis Powell were alive today what he would make of the MAGA movement or its predecessor, the Tea Party.

Both the Tea Party and MAGA tenets begin with the idea that government is the enemy attempting to control lives using government and public education to skew our minds and limit our ability to achieve success. As one who came of age involved in the Anti-War and Civil Rights movements, the idea now popular in rightwing circles that the FBI hates conservatives is simply beyond belief. In those movements, the FBI was often suspected (and often later proven) to be agent provocateurs and generally perceived to oppose change and progress. Now, it would seem, we’ve come full circle so that everyone from the former guy to the new Chair of the House Judiciary Committee seems to be convinced that the FBI is out to get THEM. Truly a remarkable flip flop.

The other great flip from those halcyon days of the 70s began in 1982 with the founding of the Federalist Society intended to be a response to what was perceived as the liberal bias of the legal profession. During the ascension of conservatives in the 80s, the great critique of the law was that “activist judges” legislated from the bench. This was the segregationist view of the mid-50s monumental decision in Brown v. Board of Education that overturned Jim Crow policies in southern states fostering “separate but equal” racial segregation in public schools. The idea seems so absurd now, but then it was viewed as near dictatorial by “states’ rights” advocates of which there were many. And this view that lawyers were activists with a liberal bent prevailed until only recently. In the recent Trump years, the Federalist Society replaced the largely nonpartisan American Bar Association as the gatekeeper for judiciary nominations, cementing a conservative chock-hold on our legal system. Now, of course, the “activist” strategies so frowned upon in the past have become the norm. With Federalist Society judges, some of whom were deemed by the ABA as “unfit” for office, finding a rationale – any rationale – to overturn precedent is a core strategy, even to the point of a judge in Texas ruling that a FDA approved drug was deemed improperly safe for use after 23 years of approval. That the drug is used in medication abortion, and the judge had a history of strident anti-abortion advocacy, this was not a case of “legislating from the bench.” Such attacks on science-based policy decisions are hardly new – the Oil and Gas Industry has been railing against environmentalists for years. But the extremely well-heeled Federalist Society, bolstered recently by the largest single gift to a political nonprofit, the previously unknown Marble Freedom Trust let by the very well-known Leonard Leo, longtime chair of the Federalist Society, looks like it is clear sailing for rightwing legal activism. The $1.6 BILLION stock gift did not provide the donor, one Barre Said of Chicago, a tax deduction. But the sale of the stock immediately thereafter by the Trust avoided capital gains taxes on the sale. A very clever job, you’d have to agree.

So where are we now headed? It seems clear that the role of government in the US is besieged with many opposing forces. From Christian Nationalists to anti-governmental rightists, and corporate “free marketeers” to dark money billionaires, it is not an even playing field. After the strange circumstance that let Trump appoint 3 Federalist Society approved Justices to the Supreme Court, that constraint on severe shifts from conventional policy seems gone, at least until serious reform is enacted if the politics of Washington ever ripen to the challenge. Between now and then, there will be many more, like Matthew Kacsmaryk the Federal Judge in Amarillo who just overturned the FDA’s approval of Mifepristone, who will use the judiciary to impose religious views, constraints on government, and activist revisions of long-standing precedents. Let’s hope the wait is not too long.

DRUMMOND PIKE, a frequent Organizers’ Forum participant and contributor to these pages, was the founder and CEO of Tides in San Francisco, and continues to be involved in philanthropy and social change.