Will America Ever be “Great Again”?

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan is “Make American Great Again,” a resurrection of Ronald Reagan’s original 1980 campaign pitch.  Like all great hucksters, Trump knows never to define what “great” means; let the would-be buyer imagine it’s meaning in his/her own terms and Trump will close the deal.

Little acknowledgement is made that Reagan knew way back then – along with the millions who voted for him – that the U.S. was no longer “great.”  In the nearly four decades separating the two campaign slogans, the nine administrations that followed – Reagan (2 terms), Bush I (1 term), Clinton (2 terms), Bush II (2 terms) and Obama (2 terms) – failed to address the reasons for the nation’s loss of “greatness.”  More troubling, they’ve each contributed to this loss.

The sad truth is that each of the 2016 presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat, share the fiction that America can be made “great again.”  They use this fiction to, in the words of Pres. Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan, ”keep hope alive.”  No politician could run — let alone hope to win — without promoting a phantasy that tomorrow will be better than today, that American children will live better lives than their parents.  But does anyone still believe this fantasy?

Wouldn’t Americans be better served if a politician – say Bernie Sanders – spoke truth to fiction and admitted that the nation’s “great” days are over?  He comes closest to stating this truth by repeating two simply insights about 21st century American life: (i) the tyranny of the 1 percent is intensifying and (ii) the growing inequality is squeezing the life out of ordinary people.  This shadow hovers over the 2016 campaign.

No politician dares speak this truth: the short-lived American Century is over.  The period from 1945 to 1975, the era of the “American Dream,” was a remarkable era in U.S. history.  It propelled the nation into not simply being a military superpower, but the ideological model of modern democracy.  Sadly, the period became, like Roaring ‘20s Prohibition, deformed as mythology.

Politicians invoke this widely shared – if unstated – myth of American post-WW-II “greatness” either explicitly (e.g., Trump) or implicitly (e.g., Clinton).  Most reveling, they never name it.  They all seem to refer to the postwar period as a social assumption, but never specify it as their image or model of “greatness” they refer to.  Equally troubling, none define the term “great.”

One could well ask if politicians have in mind other periods of the U.S. of old when they refer to it’s supposed “greatness”?  Is it the first colonial settlements in Jamestown or Plymouth?; the South’s cotton plantations and the glories of slavery?; the conquest of the West and subjugation of the Native peoples?; the Era of Good Feeling between 1815-1825?; the slaughters of the Civil War?; the plunder of the fin de siècle Robber Barons?; the Roaring ‘20s?; or the turbulent 1960s?  Sadly, promoting a campaign to “make America great again” serves only to declare that the U.S. is not “great” now.

Americans, especially politicians, need to bite the bullet and admit that the capitalist world order has been transformed since the postwar glory days.

Unprecedented domestic promise and opportunity were matched by unmatched military prowess and international hegemony.  Not unlike the crises faced by the British and French empires following WW-II, the U.S. is now facing a crisis of the new world order. The world economy is globalizing and military power is realigning.  The American Century is over, but what is to be done in the face of today’s period of historical transformation?

* * *

Dwight Eisenhower took office as the 34th president on January 20, 1953.  He is the only U.S. general to be elected president in the 20th century; the last previous general was Ulysses Grant (1869-1877).  “Ike” formally ended two decades of Democratic rule, replacing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal with a new era of postwar prosperity and relative peace that transformed American life.  During the period from 1945 to 1975, the nation’s population increased by 54 percent, to 216 million from 140 million; but the gross national product (GNP) nearly tripled to $5.5 trillion from $2.2. trillion.  This was the era of America’s modern “greatness.”

The postwar era is known as a period of “reconversion,” a period in which American society – its major industries and 9 million demobilized military personnel – shifted from a war economy to a civilian economy.  Many conservatives feared that the U.S. would face an enormous spike in unemployment, unable to absorb the millions of men returning home.  They worried that the drop in federal spending as a proportion of GDP — to 17.9 percent (1946) from 41.8 percent (1945) – would only compound the problem.

There were a couple of hick-ups during the late-‘40s thru mid-‘50s, but a spike in unemployment did not occur.  Maintaining a broad Keynesian outlook, much of the continued economic growth during the ‘50s was spurred by federal spending, especially the construction of the interstate highway system, the use of veterans’ benefits to underwrite higher education and housing and the establishment of what Ike would sorrowfully come to call in his famous 1960 Farewell Address, “the military-industrial complex.”

Ordinary Americans – mostly white — benefited from the era’s unmatched economic growth.  The highway system facilitated the great population relocation from the east to the west and from the city to the suburbs; the GI Bill helped underwrite the mortgages that financed the suburban dream house.  The anchor purchase was the new home, especially by first-time buyers.  Between 1945 and 1960, 12 million houses were constructed across the country.

William J. Levitt, the creator of “Levittown” sold houses for as little as $7,000 and more up-market ranch-style house sold for about $10,000; down payments were low and financing was only 2 to 3 percent.  [$7,000 in 1950 is equivalent to $69,000 in 2015 dollars.] The Levittown development on eastern Long Island, NY, consisted of 17,400 houses, some sporting three bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen and bathroom, and a living room with a panorama window.  The development was home to more then 80,000 – all white! — residents. Racism was as alive in the North as in the South.

And if one had a new home in the suburbs, one needed not only a car to get to work or shop or drop the kids at school, but also all the households amenities – modern, high-tech devices — required to run it.  Between 1945 and 1949, Americans purchased more then 20 million cars – as well as 20 million refrigerators, 5.5 million stoves and 5 million television sets a year.  This does not include the untold number of refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and toasters, essential conveniences of modern life.  The consumer revolution was launched … and drags on to today.

The postwar era witnessed a second “reconversion,” this one involving domestic life.  With millions of military personnel (mostly men) demobilizing, domestic life changed.  Many women who had served in the war effort, whether in the military as nurses or in civilian jobs in factories, were displaced, forced to return to traditional domestic life.  By the ‘50s, a new trend was emerging.  Couples were marrying younger, women at 20.5 years and men at 22.5 years, and they were having more children (3.2 on the average).  But something was not right in American.  In it’s June 26, 1950, issue, Time ran a disturbing article entitled, “Medicine: The Cold Women.”  It noted:  “Some doctors suspect that about three in every four U.S. women are frigid, i.e., get no sexual satisfaction.”   This was the era of American “greatness.”

But the era of American “greatness” was scared by a two-pronged campaign to preserve traditional values.  One front involved an effort to battle “communism,” whether the Soviet Union for global dominance or against domestic subversives over alleged loyalty.   The U.S. House’s Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led the charge from 1938 to 1975, with more vindictive campaigns waged in states and cities throughout the country.  The second front involved a “culture war” that targeted homosexuals, pornography, comic books and birth control.  Oh, yes, between 1945-1968, America’s “greatness” witnessed 26 lynchings and innumerable “police lynchings” in cities South and North.

* * *

The American Century ended in the mid-1970s, a consequence of two interlinked developments.  Domestically, wage stagnation ended the era of prosperity; internationally, the Vietnam War set the limits of U.S. military power.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “between 1979 and 2013, the hourly wages of middle-wage workers (median-wage workers who earned more than half the workforce but less than the other half) were stagnant, rising just 6 percent—less than 0.2 percent per year.”  While a modest wage growth occurred in the late-‘90s, both middle- and low-income workers suffered.  The EPI notes, “the wages of middle-wage workers were totally flat or in decline over the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s …. The wages of low-wage workers fared even worse, falling 5 percent from 1979 to 2013. In contrast, the hourly wages of high-wage workers rose 41 percent.”  Wages of ordinary American workers have been stagnant for four decades while the wealth of the 1 percent has grown exponentially.

The Korean conflict stymied the U.S. military, thus ending the “greatness” it demonstrated in WW-I and WW-II.  The Vietnam War dragged on for two decades, from 1955 to 1975, with the U.S. finally withdrawing in ’73 following Henry Kissinger’s “secret” Paris peace deal.  This military misadventure involved the deployment of 540,000 soldiers leading to the death of 58,200 personnel and the wounding of 300,000 U.S. men and women.  As of 2011, an estimated 150,000 Vietnam vets had committed suicide.  The number of killed and wounded Vietnamese – along with Cambodians, Laotians and others – is incalculable.

Since Vietnam, the U.S. has only suffered one failure – or false victory — after another, from the Cuba invasion, to Gulf War I to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.  The SU collapsed in 1991, leaving the U.S. the sole global military superpower.  The attacks of 9/11 saved the military-industrial complex that now annually sucks up about $600 billion (about 54%) of the federal budget.

So, given the challenges facing the nation, can America be made “great again”?  A meaningful approach could involve a reinstitution of post-WW-II “reconversion.”  First, it could include the adoption of comparable tax rates. In 1946, the rate for the top bracket was 86.5 percent; in 1952, it was raised to 94 percent and in ’62, it was 91 percent.  In ’64, the tax structure began to be reconfigured with the rate for the top bracket cut to 77 percent.  In 2014, the rate for the top income group had dropped to 39.6 percent and, in all likelihood, will continue to fall.  This will only further intensify the tax burden of middle- and lower-income Americans.

Second, the U.S. could make comparable cuts in military spending that took place in the postwar era.  When WW-II ended in 1945, military spending was at 42 percent of GDP, but by ’48 it had been cut to 7.2 percent.  It rose to 15 percent in ’53 to fund the Korean War.  In 2010, military spend was at 5.7 percent of GDP and, in 2010, was at 4.5 percent of GDP.  But what if the U.S. stopped being the world’s police force and military spending was cut by half to, say, 2.5 percent – or less — of GNP?

What if the increased taxes from the top brackets and monies saved from the bottomless pit of the military-industrial complex were used to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure?  The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the U.S. needs a $3.1 trillion investment by 2020 for infrastructure repairs to halt the decline of the nation’s “greatness.”  This would cover the rebuilding of the nation’s failing bridges, inland waterways, aviation, ports, rails, roads, mass transit, schools, hazard waste, drinking water and telecommunications systems.  Such a campaign could fuel higher-paying jobs and rebuild the nation for the challenges of the 21st century, thus helping to “make America great again.”

Unfortunately, such an effort will not likely take place.  America’s “greatness” is over.  A new, postmodern feudalism is setting in and the great squeeze is on.  The tyranny of the 1 percent is restructuring society; their dictates are being implement by political agents, whether Republican or Democrat, and the military-police-media apparatus that enforces its will.  The suffering of the vast majority of Americans will only intensify.

In 1935, Langston Hughes published a poem that resonates today, “Let America Be America Again.”  It reads in part:

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

Sadly, eight decade later, it may never be that for most of us ever again.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.