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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reagan Ended the Conversation

Over at Salon, Thomas Frank interviews Rick Perlstein on the occasion of the publication of his book The Invisible Bridge, the third of his generally fine examinations of postwar Movement Conservatism (so far, he has focused on Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan). Frank and Perlstein are longtime friends and I had a feeling that they got more out of their conversation than I could: there were too many underelaborated claims that stalled out or swerved away before making complete sense for me -- especially lots of split-second readings of pop culture references I remember a little differently from my own seventies upbringing, and some sweeping even swooping analogies from the Carter years to the Obama years that demanded much more detail. All this was probably due to the fact that they were taking up conversational threads from other times and places we weren't eavesdropping on that made them make sense for Frank and Perlstein themselves. Be all that as it may, I did stick around through to the end of the dialogue and I'm glad I did, because in the very last exchange of the (published) interview Perlstein said very clearly something I must have thought loosely, morosely a million times, and which I agree has been a terribly tragic thing for America:
Thomas Frank: Is anyone nostalgic for the ’70s?

Rick Perlstein: I am. And for the following reason: If you read my preface, I explain that Americans at the level of popular culture, at the level of grassroots politics, were thinking very hard about what it would mean to have a country they didn’t believe was God’s chosen nation. What would it mean to not be the world’s policeman? What would it mean to conserve our resources? What would it mean to not treat our presidents as if they were kings? That was happening! And the tragedy of Ronald Reagan most profoundly wasn’t policy -- although that was tragic enough -- but it was robbing America of that conversation. Every time a politician stands before a microphone and utters this useless, pathetic cliche that America is the greatest country ever to exist, he’s basically wiping away the possibility that we can really think critically about our problems and our prospects. And to me, that’s tragic.


Lorraine said...

My comment woudn't fit here, so I posted it here.

Dale Carrico said...

Great comment, enjoyable read.

You are definitely right that the stagflation rap on the 70s is a mischracterization of a whole decade by the crisis at its end -- the 70s as a whole were one of the least wealth concentrated periods in US history (all the more amazing given the horrific extent of racist/sexist stratifications), and the consequent comparative equity created the conditions of the vibrant cultural expressivity and questioning of the period.

Much of the stagnation and instability attributed to the period reflects the vestigial concerns of white reactionaries who still owned and controlled so much of the media that otherwise profited from the ferment they so feared.

I think what happened in the 70s is that the plutocrats finally fully realized the New Deal and New Society were going to beat them without a Revolution. And so they overcame their default complacent conservatism and organized a revolutionary movement conservatism instead, politicizing white-racist and heteronormative fears via the religious right and re-directing always-raced class-resentment via the Southern Strategy (especially to dismantle organized labor) to save their elite-incumbency by out-organizing the democratic left which at the same time was stalling from the corruptions of its long ascendancy and from the internal contradictions of a class politics under-attentive to the relative autonomy of race, sex/gender, cultural capital as anti-democratizing forces.

Or something like that.