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Will the Next President Be America's Last President?
If an alliance of neoliberal billionaires & authoritarian Republican politicians succeed at blocking Biden’s progressive reforms or drag us into a recession - we are truly screwed
Mitch McConnell’s use of the debt ceiling, and two Democratic senators taking big bucks from billionaires and the fossil fuel industry to sabotage Democratic efforts, illustrate a major — and largely unacknowledged — crisis point in American politics.
Since the end of the 1800s, America has flipped back and forth between two poles that have typically been called “conservative” and “progressive.” The election of 2020 and President Biden’s efforts now with his Build Back Better bills, for example, signal a turn from the 1980 flip to “conservative” back toward today’s “progressive” politics dominating American discourse.
This swing from one pole to the other is generally driven by, literally, “swing voters”: people with weak party affiliations who, when fed up with one pole or the other, drive the change, reflecting a larger shift in society.
But this time there are huge warning flags that we’ve never seen before other than, possibly, of the Civil War era. They could mean make-or-break for our American democratic republic because a small group of rightwing billionaires and giant corporations are paying off politicians to prevent this normal transition.
If this persists, instead of our politics flipping to “conservative” or “progressive” we’ll flip into something altogether different from either one: something that could signal the end of democracy in America.
First, a bit of history: take a look at how these cycles have played out so far.
Progressive flip: In 1901 President William McKinley was assassinated and his vice president, progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt, became president. He put the nation on a progressive (for his era) course, inviting Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House (provoking howls of outrage from southern white supremacist conservatives), aggressively going after some of the nation’s largest monopolies (his nickname became “The Trust Buster”) including the railroads whose prices he began to regulate, and putting over 230 million acres of land into 150 National Forests, the nation’s first five national parks, and 18 new national monuments.
Conservative flip: The relatively progressive era came to an end with the election of conservative Republican Warren Harding in 1920. Harding campaigned on two major slogans: “A return to normalcy” and “More business in government, less government in business.” The “normalcy” slogan was a promise to drop Woodrow Wilson’s 91 percent top income tax bracket down to 25 percent, and the second slogan essentially meant “privatize and deregulate.” Harding did all three, causing (over his, Coolidge’s and Hoover’s Republican administrations between 1921-1932) an explosion in the stock market and “Roaring 20’s” piles of cash for the very, very rich while crushing unions and driving down working class wages.
Progressive flip: Harding’s conservative era ended abruptly when his deregulation of the banking and securities industries led straight to the stock market crash of 1929 and what was then called the Republican Great Depression. In 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, kicking off the country’s longest (48 years) progressive era bringing back high taxes on the rich, putting the right to unionize into law that then built the largest and wealthiest middle class in American history. Presidents of both parties during that era passed sweeping social safety net programs from Social Security to Unemployment Insurance to the Minimum Wage, created Medicare and Medicaid, and built massive government-funded infrastructure programs including the TVA, the Eisenhower Highway System, and the Hoover Dam.
Conservative flip: Roosevelt’s progressive era ended in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan who’d revisited Harding’s promise to lower taxes on the rich, gut unions and deregulate big business. We’ve been living in Reagan’s conservative era for about 40 years now, and the nation is set for another big shift back in a progressive direction.
But this time there’s a problem: an entirely new paradigm has taken hold of the right wing of American politics that goes way beyond the “conservative” models of Harding and Reagan.
Two tectonic forces on the American right, the first born out of a reaction to FDR’s progressive era and the second born out of a weird twist in Reagan’s conservative era, are converging to prevent the 2021 Great Turning from a conservative to a progressive era.
These two forces are neoliberalism and a Trumpy populist form of neofascism.
Neoliberalism was an idea and word invented by Ludwig von Mises, FA Hayek, and Milton Friedman at a meeting in Switzerland in 1947, and it encompassed a new way of looking at both government and the economy that went far beyond “normal conservative” doctrines of tax cuts and modest deregulation.
Without once mentioning its name, Reagan put it into practice and its doctrines were largely followed by Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama.
These five neoliberal presidents tore down the barriers to international trade put into place by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, throwing millions of American workers into the streets and closing over 60,000 factories across the nation in less than 40 years.
They privatized government functions so heavily that we had more contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than soldiers, and more than half the nation’s utilities are now run by for-profit corporations (leading to disasters like we saw last year in Texas and this year on the Gulf Coast).
Their core ideology is that government is a “beast” that must be “starved” because everything, they say, can be done better by the “free market” than by “government bureaucrats.” And by “free market” what they mean are giant corporate oligopolies and monopolies, along with the billionaires who run them.
The ground-level political blowback against the neoliberalism adopted by both parties in that 1980-2020 era was widespread and sometimes violent. From the Seattle anti-globalization anti-WTO protests at the turn of the 21st century, to the Occupy movement, to the rise of neofascist Trumpism, both parties were shaken by public fury at the gutting of our middle class and the 40-years of disintegration of the nation’s infrastructure under neoliberal austerity.
Trump rode the anti-neoliberal rage into office with his promises of raising taxes on the rich, ending “free trade” to rebuild America’s factories, and his promise to “drain the swamp” of the big money interests calling the shots in DC and state capitols across the country. But it was all a lie, a fantastic illusion.
Instead, Trump brought a group of Hungary-style neofascists, like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, into DC and they started America down a nationalist white-supremacist road while maintaining all the neoliberal policies of the previous 35 years.
White people who felt beaten-down and defeated by neoliberal policies they were now blaming on Clinton and Obama embraced Trump’s strongman rhetoric and call for a return to a mythic glory day when tough guys knocked heads in DC to get things done.
Not realizing that Trump’s policies were making things worse instead of better for working people, blue-collar whites rallied around his neofascist agenda and became a small but vocal and violent “Trump base” that today is instilling fear in public health officials, election volunteers and school boards as they flex their newfound muscle.
The billionaires who’d enthusiastically funded the early neoliberal movement from the 1960s forward, building think tanks, media, and on-the-ground political support networks, decided there were enough “useful idiots” in the Trumpy neofascist movement that they’d support and expand it to seize and hold political power, albeit mostly through politicians other than Trump.
The Republican rising stars they’re funding, including Rick Scott, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Ron DeSantis are slicker and smarter than Trump, who’s shown them how to manipulate the system and illegitimately seize power if they feel the need for a coup in 2024. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is their role model.
So we’re at a turning point.
If Biden can get his agenda passed in full, America will begin the swing back to the progressive era we exited in 1980 because that’s what a majority of Americans today want.
We’ll rebuild our country, put people back to work, and raise the standard of living of working people across the board while strengthening our nation’s social safety net. The nation will re-stabilize after decades of chaos. The militants on the right will fade back into the workplace as the economy is revitalized.
But if this alliance of neoliberal billionaires and neofascist Republican politicians succeed at blocking Biden’s progressive reforms — or even drag America back into recession by preventing the country from recovering from the Covid pandemic — then we are truly screwed.
That will reignite the cancer of political cynicism that has crept into American politics since the introduction of neoliberalism, and even more vigorously inflame Americans who are already so upset by several decades of political gridlock. It will create political explosions on both the left and the right.
And Mitch McConnell and the billionaires behind him are doing everything they can to make exactly that happen with filibusters of everything and their encouragement of political sabotage by Manchin and Sinema.
Over the next two elections the neoliberal billionaires will pour billions of advertising and PR dollars into convincing people to abandon the nation’s half-made turn back to a progressive outlook and, combined with the institutional advantages Republicans have in the Senate, could put the GOP back into the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives in three years.
Thwarted in their hopes of a return to middle class normalcy and disgusted by Democrats inability or unwillingness to go around McConnell’s obstructionism, large parts of America would then turn back to the newly reinvented Viktor Orbán style GOP and join those who’ve already embraced Trumpist neofascism.
Wild as it sounds, two Democratic senators and a handful of sold-out “Problem Solver” members of the House of Representatives are being openly funded by these same billionaires and corporations to make common cause with Republicans and bring down all this chaos to disrupt America’s normal political and economic cycles. Our next president, therefore, could be our last.
These are, as Thomas Paine so eloquently wrote, “the times that try men’s souls.”