The times they are a’changing! Maybe it’s just turning 40, but I really do think US politics and society are undergoing a bit of a sea change. Nobody can argue that the past three years have been fun. On the other hand, I think that, so far, this period of transition is infinitely less bruising than the one the country went through in the 1970s and 1980s. In today’s video I try to knit the New Deal and Reagan eras into a single narrative of progress and change. It is punctuated with Joker level chaos of course.
I really do believe that 2020 presents an opportunity to help the country move on to its next cycle of growth and progress. I have no idea who would best represent and shape that change. But I do know that whoever gets elected in November, even if it’s Donald Trump, will have that opportunity. I’d really rather it wasn’t Donald Trump. Today’s video sets out my general attitude to US history and the 2020 election. It’s useful viewing if you want to know my biases before this year of election madness.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Ronald Reagan, the US President from 1981-1989, was a big deal. Fairly or not, he is seen by many as the guy who won the cold war, and he’s basically seen as a secular saint by the US conservative movement. I would argue he’s even more important than that. Ronald Reagan, for better and for worse, defined his era, and the three decades that followed it. As far as 20th century presidents go, probably only FDR was more influential. And arguably, thanks to the end of the cold war, Reagan’s ideas have gone a lot farther than FDR’s ever did.
As we start to look at the 2020 US election, Ronald Reagan’s legacy is very important to think about. This channel will eventually fall into the same horse race election nonsense you will get everywhere else, but before we do that I want to take a step back and look at the historical context. Today I am going to lay out my theory of US history, where we are as a country and where we may be going. Basically I am setting out my biases here, which will help you judge what I have to say for the rest of the year.
The US has indisputably been the most powerful country in the world for 75 years now. This period can be divided into two eras, the era of FDR, and the era of Reagan. This is obviously an absurd oversimplification, nobody responsible would make things out to be this straightforward, etc. etc. But I think a lot of historians would agree with me on the broad strokes here. The era of FDR lasted about 48 years, and the era of Reagan has lasted 40. Measuring history according to presidential terms is a dumb oversimplification as well, but It works surprisingly well in this very big picture case.
FDR came to power during the Great Depression, at a time when capitalism was seen by many as having failed. FDR saved capitalism from communism and fascism by massively increasing government involvement. The balance he created between the public and private sectors has been characterized as managerial capitalism, focused on mass production and government fine tuning of the relationship between capital and labor. During this period Government produced marvels like interstate highways and the trip to the moon. The experts, public and private, were creating an affluent society, and we were all supposed to do our part and enjoy it. Reagan defined himself in opposition to all that. He wanted free trade and free markets. Reagan heralded the return of the entrepreneur, and the mass disruption of big government, and even some big businesses. Capital had to be free, and government had to get out of the way of the job creators. Creative destruction was the order of the day and things like labor unions and national borders were inconvenient obstacles to be crushed.
A tremendous amount of energy has been expended on arguing about which of these approaches is right or wrong. At my advanced age I have come to the realization that they were both right. And they were both wrong. FDR and Reagan both presented a set of ideological and legal solutions to the problems that beset their eras. Both sets of solutions worked really well for a period of time. You can measure the success of these mental models by how impossible to avoid they were.
At every US election the two parties always claim to be very different animals. Democrats and Republicans in different eras advocate slightly different mixes of policies, but they don’t really dissent from the overall mood of the times. Dwight Eisenhower, the first post FDR Republican, worked for the government for most of his career, and created the interstate highway system, one of the biggest government projects ever. Nixon talked a good anti-establishment game, but he was an enthusiastic user of the tools of government, founding the environmental protection agency and going so far as to fix prices and wages economy wide in 1971. Republicans are going to hate hearing this but the Clintons were both Reaganites. Welfare reform, financial deregulation, balanced budgets, you name it, if it was in the GOP platform, the Clintons tried it. Like Nixon Obama talked a very different game, but he followed Reagan just as much as Nixon followed FDR. Obama care, his supposedly socialist healthcare program, was a product of the very right wing Heritage foundation think tank. The stocks of most major healthcare companies are up by 4 to 500 percent since Obamacare was passed.
This is what I mean when I say that FDR and Reagan were the most influential presidents of the 20th century. Even their supposed political enemies were forced to operate in the world of the possible that they had created. These ideological models were so powerful that they couldn’t really be beaten, they could only fail. And that’s what happened to FDR’s model.
FDR got the US through the Great Depression and World War II. His model probably had its greatest success in the 1950s and 1960s. The country was governed by a consensus that could often be deadening, but the prosperity was real and broad based. Eisenhower and Kennedy governed a country of endless promise. As little respect as the post war consensus had for women and minorities, it was in part post war prosperity that made the civil rights and women’s liberation movements possible. Things began to sour in the latter 60s with a series of missteps from the experts who ran things. The best and the brightest brought us the Vietnam war, and Corporate America proved to be not so dominant when Japan and Germany recovered from our bombers. The carefully controlled international economic system that had helped Europe recover disintegrated in the face of oil crises and a lost war. By the late 1970s the economy was dissolving into chaos and hyper inflation, our cities were falling into a maelstrom of drugs and crime, and post-Watergate nobody trusted the government to do anything.
FDR’s solutions worked very well, for decades. Then they spent well over a decade falling to pieces. Reagan offered a new set of solutions and a new philosophy that also worked very well, for decades. But I would argue, that those solutions, and that mental model have now fallen apart as well.
Financial deregulation, and a new cult of the entrepreneur served us well for a while. Led by the tech and finance industries, the US economy zoomed out ahead of European and Japanese rivals again. The 1980s and the 1990s were generally times of renewed prosperity. But then the troubles started. 9-11 was a horrible shock to the system. The US reaction was just as damaging as the actual attacks, managing to be both violent and imperial and kind of impotent. The 2008 financial crisis was probably the biggest indicator that the Reaganite models had run out of steam. We have had a long economic recovery since then, but it’s been pretty anemic, under both Obama and Trump, and it’s rightly seen as mostly just benefiting the rich.
For me, and for the comfortable majority of Americans who wisely suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome, the 2016 election is the true end of the Reagan era. Trump remains an icon of 1980s excess, and having this reality TV caricature of a businessman in the white house is a sign of complete moral and ideological bankruptcy. As smarter people than me have observed Living in 2020 often feels like a 1980s left wing punk band album cover. But there’s something else that convinces me the Reagan era is over. That Joker movie. Seriously.
As a tremendous comic book geek, I probably pay too much attention to this sort of thing. This is the fourth on screen Joker of the Reagan era, and I found the film to be quite disturbing viewing. The bare bones of the Joker v. Batman story are 80 years old now, but the shift in emphasis can tell us a lot. In the 1989 version Batman is a heroic individualist millionaire, who saves the US from the Joker, a corrupt criminal force for chaos. In the 2019 Joker, Batman is barely present, and we are basically invited to celebrate the murder of his parents. The Joker is depicted as crazy, sure, but he is very much the hero of the film, and the crazed anti-wealth riots that he creates at the end of the film are seen as cathartic, or even justified. I viscerally hated the film, but it’s a cultural phenomenon, inaugurating a new tourist destination in the Bronx, and earning 11 academy award nominations.
Now don’t get me wrong, this thing was carefully engineered by a bunch of Hollywood lefties to bring up exactly the feelings and questions it brought up in me. As the saying says, plenty of people have gone broke going woke, but the Joker filmmakers have not gone broke. What’s truly horrifying about the film is how successful it is. It’s nihilistic message resonates with mass audiences. Big time.
Joker lifted most of its production design and character arc from the classic Martin Scorcese film Taxi Driver, a movie loved by moody teenagers of all ages. Joker has the same downbeat message as Taxi Driver, but it’s a lot more popular. Taxi Driver took 40 years to make 100 million dollars, adjusted for inflation. Joker has made ten times that much money already. It’s making Fast and Furious money even though it had too downbeat a message to be released in China.
Joker was engineered to be a cynical cultural statement, but the fact that it has done as well as it has is mildly terrifying. To me it looks like one of the final nails in the coffin of the Reagan era. This read on history makes me more open to ambitious candidates who are promising a new era, and actively hostile to folks who are promising a return to the status quo. Things are in flux now. The next president has the chance to define US politics for the rest of my life. Trump certainly thinks of himself as a Reagan like figure. My hunch is that he’s more of a Jimmy Carter, a last gap for a dying world view, but we have got to beat him to make that true.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe. And come back next time for a scurrilous attack on Joe Biden.