October 17, 2016

A historian’s notes on now (written sometime in the future)

From our overstocked archives

One good way to step away from the daily news and try to figure out what’s really going on is to imagine oneself as an historian returning to this time some decades hence. What might you see as having happened in the thirty years since Reagan’s inauguration?  Here are some possibilities:

Sam Smith, 2012 - America’s imperial era was over but its leaders didn’t want to recognize it and the media didn’t want to talk about it. The only wars that America could claim to have won since World War II had been penny ante invasions of tiny Latin American countries such as Grenada, Dominican Republic and Panama. Other wars had cost America the lives of over 100,000 of its soldiers and over $2 trillion, but such facts had little impact on policy, media reporting, or action.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the level of federal, state and local unconstitutional assaults on civil liberties was unprecedented,  except during the Civil War and the two subsequent world wars.

The Constitution was no longer a controlling document but rather one from which the adhocracy in charge of America picked or ignored at will. The elite, for example, greatly preferred the commerce clause to the Bill of Rights.

America had lost its moral clout around the world.  A 2007 survey in two dozen countries found only three in which a majority viewed America’s influence as positive.

In the decade since 9/11 America  did not take one significant step to ease tensions with the Middle East or the Muslim world. Instead it relied on failed invasions,  futile sanctions and fatuous rhetoric.

The Democratic Party became more conservative than at any time since before the New Deal – relying on a few social issues like abortion and gay marriage to suggest otherwise. The last liberal Democratic presidential candidate was Walter Mondale in 1984. Presidents Clinton and Obama were the most reactionary Democratic presidents of modern times. Liberalism became a social demographic rather than a political cause.

Unlike the New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society, the three decades after 1980 were (with a few exceptions such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family & Medical Leave Act) virtually devoid of significant legislation that helped significant numbers of Americans deal with their economic or social problems. There were, however, a number of measures passed that greatly limited the civil liberties of Americans such as the Patriot  and Defense of Marriage Acts.

The closest parallel to the corruption at the top of American society during this period was that of the Prohibition Era. The biggest differences between the two eras was that during Prohibition the police and FBI were far more likely to arrest the corrupt - and that the corruption was far more costly to the American people.

The war on drugs moved into its fourth futile decade serving largely as a means of imprisoning younger poor American males, especially blacks, for whom there weren’t any jobs.It was, in a sense, a preemptive strike against a possible class based rebellion.

While it is now clear that the biggest development of the era was ecological, the media of the time gave little attention to the looming problems. One study found only about 2% of media stories at the time dealt  with the environment.

There were some improvements such as:

- Serious crime dropped to its lowest level since the 1960s.
- Cancer death rates declined
- Traffic deaths fell to their lowest level since 1949.
- Capital punishment was at a 35 year low
- Risk of dying had dropped 60% over the previous 75 years
- Suicides, infant mortality, and fatal heat disease were at their lowest since the 1950s
- Indicators for women, gays, blacks and latinos, other than economic, were all significantly improved

On the other hand:
- For first time record, a majority of Americans had lower hopes for their children.

- In the 1980s, about two thirds of corporations included health care benefits with their pensions. By 2012, only about a quarter did.

- The Congressional Budget Office said the income gap in the United States had become the widest in 75 years.

- In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the news media in America. By 2002, six corporations did.

- The real income of poorest Americas  dropped to its lowest level since the 1970s.

-  A record number of Americans 55 and older were still working

- Credit card debt was eight times worse than it had been in the 1980s.

- Long time unemployment was the worst since the 1940s

- A record number of homeowners were behind on their mortgages.

- There were a record number of home foreclosures.

- The real wealth of the top 1% was up over 100% while that of the poorest 40% was down nearly two thirds.

- The initial decade of the 21st century saw the first decline in family net wealth since the 1950s.

- There are were a record number in poverty

- Child homelessness was at record levels. 

While wars and the Great Depression had brought major disruptions to American life, never before had the system simply disintegrated on its own to this degree for this long. While the elite, including its media, refused to recognize what was happening, there was growing awareness by ordinary Americans of the depth of the collapse and an increasing sense that perhaps it was time to try something different.

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