The American Century emerged out of the ashes of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and reached its nadir in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. Looking back, the attacks of 9/11 seems to signal an end to a “century” of America’s ever-increasing domestic renewal and ever-expanding global hegemony. As we approach the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the unasked question that haunts the national political debate is whether the so-called “American Century” is over?
In a now famous editorial in “Life” magazine of February 17, 1941, Henry Luce, founder of Time Inc., called upon America to abandon its deep-seated fear of international entanglements and support Britain through lend-lease during the early days of World War II. The son of Christian missionaries spreading the gospel in China, Luce was infused by an abiding belief in the “white man’s burden.” The American Century sought to fulfill this promise internationally as well as domestically.
Luce saw the defeat of fascism as essential not only for the preservation of American Christian democracy, but also for the future of Euro-American notions of freedom. While not anticipating Pearl Harbor, Luce’s vision of a muscular America offered a worldview that sustained a long and bloody world war and an even longer Cold War recovery that pitted Christian capitalists against atheistic state-socialists.
Luce offered a grand concept of a new America:
… our vision of America as a world power includes a passionate devotion to great American ideals … a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also of cooperation … we are the inheritors of great traditions of Western civilization – above all Justice, the love of Truth, the ideal of charity. … It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist call a little lower than the angels. [American Century, pp. 38-39]
This vision links the rise of America’s international hegemony to the engine of domestic economic prosperity that would both fuel the nation’s global military reach and assure popular allegiance.
The current “great recession” is not the Great Depression, but may signal a far deeper social crisis than occurred during the 1930s. The formation of the American Century created the economic opportunity for the U.S. to absorb more and more Americans into the “middle class,” integrate the labor movement (until it was systematically destroyed) and accommodate the aspirations of racial minorities and women. The American Century made America America.
The price required to sustain this expanded middle class was increased corporate consolidation, a permanent military-industrial complex and ever-greater wealth inequality. For most Americans, this was a price they didn’t know they were paying (deception is the corporate media’s principal function) and, if they did know, they felt it was a price worth paying.
Now, as we come to the ninth anniversary of 9/11, a growing unspoken awareness is spreading throughout the country. It silently asked whether the post-WWII “miracle” has sputtered out and, most disturbing, will likely never recur again. The Tea Party phenomenon is a symptom of the growing perception that the era of middle-class economic opportunity has come to an end; it voices a desperate sense that the white-skin privilege that helped sustain the middle-class for more than a half-century is no longer a guarantor of opportunity.
As the popular sense of opportunity shrivels, a call for a “new normal” has begun to spread through conservative talking-heads on Wall Street, academia and the media. They are calling upon Americans to tighten their belts: accept wage cuts, a declining standard of living and higher levels of unemployment. Sadly, the Obama administration has offered only feeble efforts to band-aid over the symptoms of crisis and has failed to address the structural issues that bespeak the end of the American Century.
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Luce’s ideological concept of the American Century sustained the nation for the last 70 years. The U.S. was stymied by the long drawn-out Depression and only due to the enormous amount of public debt-financed spending following the Pearl Harbor attack was the nation able to regain its economic footing. This set the stage for the post-war consumer revolution that became the American Century. As Paul Krugman recently pointed out:
From an economic point of view World War II was, above all, a burst of deficit-financed government spending, on a scale that would never have been approved otherwise. Over the course of the war the federal government borrowed an amount equal to roughly twice the value of G.D.P. in 1940 — the equivalent of roughly $30 trillion today. [NY Times, September 6, 2010]
For Krugman and other liberal economists, only a pump-priming effort comparable to the federal financing of WWII will be sufficient to not simply pull the U.S. out of its current recession but provide the impetus needed to renew a 21st century middle-class revolution. As he and others are well aware, such a federal stimulus program is unlikely.
Over the last seven decades, the American economy flourished, flattened and now sputters. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real GDP (in 2005/$) has steadily increased since 1940 with only a few years of stalled growth. Such periods occurred in 1950, 1958, 1982, 1991 and in 2008 (the last year covered) either as a part of or shortly following a recession.
The Economic Policy Institute’s recent report, “State of Working America,” details America’s post-war ephemeral growth. It soberly details how, in the face of significant productivity gains, median household income remained stagnant. Most disturbing, it shows that wealth has increasingly gone to the top 5 percent (and especially the top 1%) of Americans; as of 2004, the top 20 percent controlled 85 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Ordinary Americans are suffering. EPI warns, “Today’s economic crisis finds America’s working families in an ever harder place. … [R]ecent developments are compounding a broader economic failure that has been not months or years, but decades in the making.”
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The most disturbing graph in the EPI report is one that shows that in 2006, the top 1 percent controlled 23 percent of all income. What makes this so disturbing in that the super-rich have regained the position they held just prior to the 1929 stock market crash when they controlled 24 percent of all income. In the light of the current great recession, one can anticipate that the share controlled by the top 1 percent will have only increased. America has come full circle to a point when the American Century was not even a notion in Luce’s dreams. Have the forces of reaction set the stage for another Depression, a "new normal"?
For many, the great turning point in the erosion of the American Century came with the Reagan revolution. In the wake of the 1982 recession, which featured the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression, Reagan championed a recovery characterized by de-industrialization, union busting and trickle-down economics. While some 12 million new jobs were added during Reagan’s presidency, the bulk of them were in the service sectors of FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate), health care and retail as well as the construction sectors. High-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs were a thing of the past.
More telling, achieving the American Century was predicated on a progressive or equitable income tax system. Between 1963 and 2003, the top bracket saw their tax rate decline to 35 percent from 91 percent. Reagan championed a further reduction in the income tax rate for the rich and super-rich; in 1988 and 1989 the rate for the rich fell to 28 percent.
Today, the U.S. economy is in free fall. Republicans and conservatives are calling upon Americans to tighten their belts and accept wage cuts, higher levels of unemployment and a declining standard of living. They have labeled this the “new normal.” It is a “normal” we should resist.
Calls for such an insidious “new normal” come at a time when America’s rich and super-rich, like pigs at the trough, simply can’t get enough. It is a time when all Americans but the wealthy are worse off then a decade ago. As all-too-many know all-too-well, the wages of 90 percent of American families have been essentially flat since the 1970s.
Yet, as wages shrink, the military budget increase. The increase is a testament to the power of lobbyist over public policy, a blindman’s effort to impose an incoherent foreign policy on the world. Its purpose is to protect the extraction industries and facilitate fictitious nation-building efforts. Nevertheless, de-industrialization and out-sourcing continued without even a blush of shame on the part of corporate opportunists.
Sadly, America is returning to the worst of Gilded Age obscenities. Glamour and greed define not only the over-indulgences of the wealthy but also the mass-market fictions hyped by the corporate media. Politics is a pay-to-play sport in which all involved are happily on the take; deals are cut to benefit those with the most at the expense of those with the least. Sign on or lose the next gladiator’s tournament.
America is stumbling to a day of reckoning when the vengeance of the masses of poor, working class and middle class people, who have been royally screwed, will wreck havoc on the rich and their political and media stooges. In the mean time, we are left to suffer with a smile to the mantra of Obama and Democratic apologists.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.