FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

From Reagan to Bernie Sanders: My Political Odyssey

I cast my first vote in a presidential election for Ronald Reagan. This fall I’m campaigning for Bernie Sanders.

Voting for Reagan made sense. I was a white, male adolescent (from the Minneapolis suburbs) ratifying a worldview that was white, male, and adolescent. I was young enough to not have faced much of the world’s complexity yet. A faith in individual effort combined with a determination to confront the Soviets felt like a perfect antidote to the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years. Carter was for the weak, and I was strong. In my own life, personal initiative almost always produced great results. My family, teachers, Lutheran church and community gave me lots of affirmation and encouragement. Life seemed fair, and it seemed proper that the world would belong to those of us who displayed discipline and who worked to achieve great things. Reagan, avuncular and sunny, promised a country in which someone like me could thrive.

But then began a long personal political evolution. Moving from the warm embrace of progressive Minnesota, I enrolled in New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, where the reactionary Dartmouth Review (sponsored by William F. Buckley, Jr.) poisoned the campus climate by demonizing minorities and gays, and by seeming to stand up for apartheid in South Africa. The egalitarian and tolerant ethos I’d grown up in was replaced by one that disparaged those who were different and heaped privilege on those who already were privileged. The majority of my classmates were wealthier (many much, much wealthier) than me, and scores of them had been given a break in the admissions process because their fathers (and maybe their grandfathers, too) had attended Dartmouth. I remember being snubbed in one informal dorm room conversation after it came to light that my high school was a public one. The pure meritocracy that I’d imagined the USA represented (and that Reagan promised) didn’t exist here. There were social stratifications and divisive customs that I had never encountered during my previous years spent out on the edge of the prairie.

Soon enough, the Iran-Contra affair came to light and appalled me. How could public servants think to subvert Constitutional government, which should be sacrosanct? Suddenly, Reagan and his team seemed less than honorable. I felt like my trust in the administration and belief in its rhetoric had been gravely misplaced.

It was also during this time that I went to study in Mexico, which was in the throes of its debt crisis. The middle class was being pummeled. The poor on the outskirts of Mexico City lived in calamitous conditions. Smog from the country’s cars and factories blotted out the sun and choked the populace. Capitalism and industrialization, which I had credited with producing Minnesota’s sky-high standard of living, were shown to have serious drawbacks. The world’s economic system, I saw, ultimately made no guarantees to anyone.

In addition, there was the matter of the gargantuan national debt. Reagan, the avowed fiscal conservative, had created deficits that were absolutely alarming and threatened to swamp my generation’s ability to live decently. Indeed, my college class’s commencement speaker averred that we would be the first downwardly-mobile generation in American history. That was a sobering way to be launched into young adulthood.

So, I had moved beyond Reagan. And at the same time I learned facts about my beloved Minnesota that were ugly: for example, infant mortality among whites in my state was just about the lowest in the nation, while for African-Americans it was practically the highest. In Minneapolis, I saw black men my age being harassed by the police in ways that I never had to endure. Contrary to what I had been encouraged to believe growing up, not everyone in my home state had access to its material bounty and opportunities for advancement. I began to see socioeconomic polarization not only as unfair but also as a threat to the viability of the nation. It was impossible to have a meritocracy in these conditions.

Of course, over the last two decades, this polarization has only worsened, to the point where it is now grotesque. The bulk of the US population enjoys a standard of living today that is no higher than in 1980. Indeed, some strata of the country now actually face a life expectancy that is in decline! Meanwhile, the ultra-rich have opened up a chasm between themselves and the merely rich – the 1% – who themselves have catapulted ahead of everyone else. In my suburban Washington, DC neighborhood a big Porsche dealership sits just a few blocks from a massive Goodwill store. A modest home now costs half a million dollars. And a simple liberal arts degree from Dartmouth now costs over a quarter of a million dollars. Professional training beyond that basic qualification often costs at least that much again. In the current economy only the wealthy are able to equip their kids for success; that is a recipe for social sclerosis. Moreover, many of those doing the best in this environment engage in rent-seeking activities or – paradoxically – spend their time trading in the market for public debt, which (due to prior tax cuts for the wealthy) once again has grown massive.

It is surreal. It is clear that nowadays Americans serve capital, not vice versa. We used to have a country that prided itself, especially between 1945 and 1973, on rising living standards and more disposable income for all. Our leaders assured us that while the Soviet system was a dead end, ours would continue to deliver the goods. But for most the American system has become a dead end, too. Social mobility here is lower than in Scandinavia. Our economy continues to bleed millions of manufacturing jobs. Many white collar professions, such as working as an individual attorney, pay less than ever. Wal-Mart and now Amazon continue to hollow out local economies. There is a lot of creative destruction going on, but unfortunately millions of Americans experience only the destruction part.

It is time to reverse these trends. And Bernie Sanders’ proposals offer an opportunity to do just that. Making the cost of attending a public university affordable again would mean that the children of the middle- and working-classes have a chance again to experience upward mobility. Raising the minimum wage would mean that even the most humble work again pays enough to make it worthwhile, and should help to shore up all middle class salaries as well. A program of investing billions of additional dollars in infrastructure would create jobs in a still-slack labor market, produce wonderful new public goods, and revitalize the entire national economy. Providing universal health insurance to all residents would improve the lives of millions of individuals, while also making for a healthier workforce and reducing asphyxiating red tape. Entrepreneurs and innovators would be free to pursue their projects without having to tether themselves to an organization merely because they need insurance; economic dynamism would increase. It is time that we Americans voted ourselves the nice things that we deserve.

But can the nation afford them? Yes. It is just a matter of priorities. A country able to spill three trillion dollars onto the sands of Iraq and into the valleys of Afghanistan is certainly wealthy. The money is there. It is just a matter of harnessing it for a useful common purpose. In a country where public funds are available to build palatial sports facilities, where a baseball catcher can be paid $23 million/year, where thousands travel on private jets, where billionaire hedge fund managers pay only 15% effective income tax, the resources exist. It is only a question of mobilizing them for useful ends. A country of such massive wealth ought to be delivering a better standard of living to all its citizens. It is high time that the national economy become a means to a better life and not an end in itself. We ought to have a meritocracy in which the young and energetic can participate, along with a strong social safety net for those who can’t.

It is my hope that Americans have had enough of the ethos – ushered in by Reagan – that glorifies the individual and his singular pursuit of lucre. I see the Porsches purchased at that aforementioned dealership all over Washington, DC, sitting in traffic that is gridlocked. Can their occupants really feel satisfied with their opulent purchases when the public realm is so dysfunctional? It is time for a common project, one where we all see the benefits of the great national wealth.

I am aware that many on the Left abjure Bernie Sanders, condemning the entire American political system as corrupt and participation in it as futile. But Sanders, for me, really is Reagan’s logical heir. He is the counterweight to so much that has gone awry in the USA over the last few decades. He represents a chance, at least, for the political system to repair itself without putting us all through further economic grotesqueries. Over the next few months, it is time for all of us to give Sanders our support. Then, after we see what happens, we can decide what to do next.

More articles by:

Christopher C. Schons holds an A.B. degree, received magna cum laude, from Dartmouth College. He can be reached at christopher_schons@yahoo.com.

November 20, 2018
John Davis
Geographies of Violence in Southern California
Anthony Pahnke
Abolishing ICE Means Defunding it
Maximilian Werner
Why (Mostly) Men Trophy Hunt: a Biocultural Explanation
Masturah Alatas
Undercutting Female Circumcision
Jack Rasmus
Global Oil Price Deflation 2018 and Beyond
Geoff Dutton
Why High Technology’s Double-Edged Sword is So Hard to Swallow
Binoy Kampmark
Charges Under Seal: US Prosecutors Get Busy With Julian Assange
Rev. William Alberts
America Fiddles While California Burns
Forrest Hylton, Aaron Tauss and Juan Felipe Duque Agudelo
Remaking the Common Good: the Crisis of Public Higher Education in Colombia
Patrick Cockburn
What Can We Learn From a Headmaster Who Refused to Allow His Students to Celebrate Armistice Day?
Clark T. Scott
Our Most Stalwart Company
Tom H. Hastings
Look to the Right for Corruption
Edward Hunt
With Nearly 400,000 Dead in South Sudan, Will the US Finally Change Its Policy?
Thomas Knapp
Hypocrisy Alert: Republicans Agreed with Ocasio-Cortez Until About One Minute Ago
November 19, 2018
David Rosen
Amazon Deal: New York Taxpayers Fund World Biggest Sex-Toy Retailer
Sheldon Richman
Art of the Smear: the Israel Lobby Busted
Chad Hanson
Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires
Dean Baker
Will Progressives Ever Think About How We Structure Markets, Instead of Accepting them as Given?
Robert Fisk
We Remember the Great War, While Palestinians Live It
Dave Lindorff
Pelosi’s Deceptive Plan: Blocking any Tax Rise Could Rule Out Medicare-for-All and Bolstering Social Security
Rick Baum
What Can We Expect From the Democrat “Alternative” Given Their Record in California?
Thomas Scott Tucker
Trump, World War I and the Lessons of Poetry
John W. Whitehead
Red Flag Gun Laws
Newton Finn
On Earth, as in Heaven: the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy
Robert Fantina
Shithole Countries: Made in the USA
René Voss
Have Your Say about Ranching in Our Point Reyes National Seashore
Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail