Capitalism & Democracy
Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” --- those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II --- currently comprise 5.49% of our national population. That means our society is comprised of Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964 -20.58%), Gen X (1965-1980 -19.61%), Millennials (1981-1995 – 21.67%), Gen Z (1996-2012-20.88%) and Generation Alpha (2013-2024) --- a post-World War II population (Based on Statista - https://www.statista.com/statistics/296974/us-population-share-by-generation/). The importance of this fact cannot be underestimated in analyzing whether capitalism and democracy have reached a fork in the road. To put all this into context, we must look at U.S. history from 1946 to the present and, particularly, at three inflection points that I believe created our current challenges.
To examine “The Big Picture” from 1946 to 2024 we need to specifically look at how the concept of “democracy” and the development of our economy evolved over those years. In the immediate post-war period, the United States was (we were taught/told) the guardian of democracy, standing toe-to-toe with the oppressive totalitarian Communist monolith led by the U.S.S.R. There was a sense that we were the “good guys” in an international battle for hearts and minds. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States became an economic behemoth. As the only nation not physically devastated by the War, the United States thrived, at home and abroad. Between 1946 and the early 1960’s corporations, automakers, farmers, and millions of other working Americans provided for the world (and our own nation), and a unionized middle class with its growing suburban population became invested in our democratic way of life. And that’s when we hit our first inflection point – the Sixties.
Two momentous events challenged bedrock beliefs in our democracy while exposing issues about the economy. The Civil rights movement and the Vietnam War divided the United States --- providing the first tremor in what would later become tectonic shifts in our culture and economy. While much of the U.S. population was benefitting from the post-war economy, age-old institutionalized racism was clearly keeping African Americans (and other minorities) from enjoying the benefits of America’s largesse. Starting during the Kennedy administration, Civil Rights became a prominent issue for the nation. That much of the U.S. was able to see Nightly News, the extreme violence against peaceful protesters in the Southern United States accelerated the Civil Rights movement as the Sixties progressed. Even after the trauma of the Kennedy assassination, Dr. King and Civil Rights workers continued to work for freedom and equality --- and much of the Baby Boomer generation supported their cause. With the ascension of Lyndon Johnson to the Presidency, the Civil Rights movement found an ally and legislation quickly followed, polarizing much of the nation between those who supported the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and LBJ’s War on Poverty, and those who wanted more “gradual” change (if any). The polarization was increased, of course, by Johnson’s escalation of the War in Vietnam. Many citizens, particularly from the Baby Boom generation, saw the Vietnam was as less a “protection of democracy” (South Vietnam’s corrupt leaders were chosen in sham “elections”) --- as much as a protection of imperial U.S. economic interests in its “Domino Theory” war against encroaching Communism. Indeed, the parallel between the US/Vietnam and Great Britain/North American colonies was not lost on a generation coming of Age --- with many of those Boomers now on college campuses around the nation.
Beyond the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the Sixties, the nation experienced a surge in “liberation” movements --- women’s rights and gay rights, for example --- as well as Earth Day and the beginning of the environmental movement. Many of the controversies in our current political arena --- BLM, abortion, Climate --- were born in those Sixties movements a half-century ago. But the division of our world was not concentrated in political parties, the way it is today, until we hit our second inflection point: the election and Presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, a B-movie actor who had transformed from The Actor’s Union President (and a Democrat) to a “small government” Conservative Republican, oversaw many of the shifts in our economy and attitudes toward democracy that are pervasive in today’s polarized society. In one of his first actions as President, Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers Union, illustrating his disdain for organized labor. In his inaugural address, of course, he had declared, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And, while he claimed to be for limiting government and supporting “individual freedom” his administration reflected a different story. Government debt skyrocketed and income inequality soared. Social safety net programs were slashed (while Reagan railed against fictitious “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs) and, by the end of the 1980’s, the “supply side” economy crashed. However, his rhetoric and defense spending did (whether intentionally or not) lead to the collapse (bankrupting?) of the Soviet Union --- a victory for “democracy,” as the former Soviet Union inched toward capitalism and democracy before reverting to a totalitarian kleptocracy. For our purposes, Reagan’s importance is that he was popular and his uber-patriotism, his tax and social program slashing, and his “tough stance” toward Communism created a mythology for the Republican Party which ultimately morphed into the Maga-verse.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush became our first “Boomer” Presidents --- the first Presidents who had been college-age during the turbulent Sixties. My Arkansas friends warned me about “Slick Willy” and, indeed, Clinton lived up to some of that reputation. During his administration we saw him balance the budget, reduce the National Debt, and move the Democratic Party closer to the political spectrum’s center, putting it on much cozier terms with businessmen and capitalists. It was also during the Clinton years that we saw Europe descend into the Bosnian War, observed some deleterious actions in Somalia, and lived through a first attack on the World Trade Center in New York. There was also a failed attempt at a broad healthcare program (led by the First Lady, Hillary Clinton), the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule for gays in the military, the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as the appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.
As far as events which proved distinct precursors to our present world, there were four touchstones: Waco, Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Clinton’s impeachment, and the Oklahoma City bombing. The 51-day standoff in Waco, following the previous year’s confrontation at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, put in high relief the resistance of armed citizens (at Ruby Ridge, a White Separatist; in Waco, a self-styled & heavily armed “evangelical Messiah”) --- citizens who believed the Federal government was more than the “problem” Ronald Reagan had characterized it as. Ruby Ridge and Waco were the tip of an iceberg we have now seen emerge in much greater detail.
Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was an extremely effective piece of political sleight-of-hand which promised a great deal (much of it echoing Reagan oratory) and, ultimately, delivered very little. But it worked in terms of gaining majorities in the House and Senate for the Republicans. While Gingrich was a master of “sound and fury” --- creating the model the Republicans morphed into their MAGA party --- he was able to deliver very little legislatively. While the “Contract” withered away, the always resourceful Gingrich found another way to keep his Party(and himself) in the spotlight --- Clinton’s impeachment. Not unlike our current situation (the Biden “impeachment?”) the Republicans remained the center of attention by attacking Clinton (not without cause, btw) and created enough ammunition to tar the next Democratic nominee, Al Gore, with the Clinton brush.
The most dramatic through line to our current landscape (think January 6th) was the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred Murrah building, killing 168 people, and injuring 680. Timothy McVeigh, an Iraq War veteran, wanted revenge against the government for Ruby Ridge and Waco. While not articulating dissatisfaction with a “deep state,” all the elements of today’s extreme conspiracy “patriots” reside in McVeigh and his actions --- as well as the uptick in local (white, pro-gun) “militias” in the years following. Armed protestors at the Michigan legislature, the Charlottesville white supremacists, and the January 6th insurrectionists are all descendants of Timothy McVeigh, Ruby Ridge, and Waco.
One important development that emerged during the Clinton years that demands noting, of course, was the rise of the World Wide Web, the internet, and the Dot.Com Bubble and Bust. By the time Clinton left office, much of the United States was connected to the internet -- exchanging emails and waiting for “the next big thing” to come from Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and, later, Mark Zuckerberg. Its significance to our current world is that it became a site for quickly spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. Without any guardrails, information (and misinformation) on the internet from the emerging sites --- like Wikipedia --- became popular, but not extremely reliable, as sources of information. It was, without a doubt, the Pandora’s Box of the 21st Century.
The election of George W. Bush in 2000 --- thanks to a Supreme Court decision that Al Gore acceded to --- brought the second Boomer to the Oval Office and contributed to the downward spiral (regarding American democracy) Reagan’s administration had introduced. The W. Bush administration helped increase the momentum of the anti-democracy tide through a series of blunders and horrendous policy choices. The lack of preparedness for 9/11 followed by the premature “Mission Accomplished” and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan --- foisted on the pubic through untrue claims about “weapons of mass destruction” --- contributed to the continued erosion of faith in the federal government that started with Reagan’s inaugural address. Add to that the incompetence in the handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, with the final blow delivered by the unregulated housing mortgage industry crashing the economy in 2008 and the table was set.
By the time the McCain-Obama election was underway, W’s term in office (with the growing omnipresence of the internet) had spawned conspiracies about 9/11 as “an inside job,” while increasing distrust about the federal government’s competence and trustworthiness, sowing the seeds for today’s “deep state” mindset. As CEO salaries skyrocketed and the average Americans’ salary flat-lined, the stage was being set for more outlandish conspiracies and exploitation of an “us vs. them” scenario. And the election of Barack Obama was the final push to send the country reeling toward a destiny that would polarize the citizenry in a way unexperienced since the Civil War.
The third inflection point: Obama's election and beyond --- Part Three