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A new year is about to begin, one that will find Donald Trump taking over the Oval Office. His election appears to symbolically end nearly a half-century of what is known as the “American Century.” The consensus politics of the two-party duopoly of power appears to have not simply failed, but exhausted the social fiction that the nation’s best days are yet ahead.
Voters know that the good-life has stalled and they were willing to give a conman huckster one more (last?) chance to right the floundering ship of state. They seem willing to collectively hold their breath as Trump – as his troop of military-corporate-financial operators – attempt to fulfill his numerous campaign promises.
Trump’s grandest promise — to “Make America Great Again” — is a resurrection of Ronald Reagan’s original 1980 campaign slogan and, remarkably, it worked yet again nearly four decades later. Little acknowledged, Reagan – along with the millions who voted for him – knew back then that the U.S. was no longer “great.” In the years separating the Reagan and Trump campaigns, the nine intervening administrations – 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, each contributed to ending this alleged greatness.
Trump won the election promising to break with the old – and failed – domestic and international policies of the inside-the-Beltway establishment symbolized by Hillary Clinton. His Cabinet picks suggest he plans to take the nation — and its people — in a new direction, one based on shortsightedness and self-serving opportunism. The nation faces enormous and radical challenges; Trump can be expected to significantly falter after an initial period of spectacular misdirection.
In the face of the nation’s deepening disillusionment, it’s a good moment to ask whether America’s post-World War II period – the era of U.S. “greatness” — could have played out differently?
U.S. “greatness” was distinguished by two complementary dimensions, one domestic, the other international. Domestically, it signified the “American Dream” that existed for a brief historical moment, from 1945 to 1975, and was a reward for the enormous sacrifices working people endured surviving the Great Depression and world war. It was fulfilled in the improved quality of life enjoyed by an unprecedented number of ordinary people.
Americans were historically better off due to increased household income; improved living standards; decline in infant mortality rate; a rise in life expectancy; a jump in educational attainment; increase in home ownership; spread of suburbia; and the endless growth of American consumerism – accompanied by a slide into ever-deeper debt.
Internationally, what the Monroe Doctrine was for 19th century U.S. expansionism throughout the Americas, Henry Luce’s 1941 call — “the 20th century is the American Century” — was for the post-WW-II era. It signified U.S. exceptionalism and, with both allied and enemy countries devastated, the nation emerged as the center of the new world order. The U.S. exercised a new form of imperialism by launching key institutions (e.g., the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and NATO) that simultaneously furthered its military ambition as well as global capitalism. It supported efforts that led to the break-up of Soviet Union; it waged failed efforts to contain China (e.g., Korean War, Vietnam War); and it orchestrated numerous coup d’états in Latin America (e.g., Guatemala, Chile), Middle East (e.g., Iran) and Africa (e.g., Congo). All to ensure global capitalist hegemony.
Ordinary Americans paid dearly for the unprecedented improvement in the quality of life that followed WW-II. They were required to adhere to a new value system based on political loyalty, workplace acquiescence and consumer purchasing – and they gladly did so! Together, these new values defined civil society and what was understood as being “normal.” Perhaps most important, they framed the substance of personal “fictions” — the beliefs or fantasies — that make the travails of daily life endurable. That value system is now bankrupt – and people know it.
Loyalty was demanded during the postwar “communist” witch-hunts spearheaded by HUAC and Sen. McCarthy. Since Pres. Truman, loyalty has served as the domestic corollary to a growing number of failed military campaigns — from the stalemate in Korean and the defeat in Vietnam to repeated failures in Cuba and throughout Latin America. Today, the call for loyalty is faltering as more and more Americans acknowledge the failure of the U.S. military confronting the anti-modernist, anti-secular quagmire spreading throughout the Middle East/North Africa.
The U.S. – through the CIA — helped give birth to this growing social and military crisis. In the 1970′s, it used the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a Cold War foil in its campaign against the Soviet Union. A decade later, it supported Mujahideen groups in the Afghanistan battle with the Soviets that ultimately contributed to the SU’s collapse. In 2003, it invaded Iraq and turned an isolated camp fire into raging forest blaze. America’s misadventure over the last half-century recall the Homeric tale in which Odysseus blinds Polyphemus, the one-eyed cyclopes. Will Trump play out the mythical role of the blinded one-eyed cyclopes?
The American Dream also required loyalty in terms of making a living, of one’s life in the nation’s most undemocratic social institution, the workplace. The principle agent of class struggle, the union movement, was decimated between 1948 and 2010, with membership falling from 32 percent to 12 percent and unions consisting of an increasing proportion of government workers. In place of a militant workplace culture, where employees have a say in the labor process, today’s contingency workers are part of the hapless new proletariat struggling to assert its rage.
Perhaps most important, the American marketplace required the acceptance of the great consumer fiction – that one’s life is made better by spending money. Americans have been culturally educated so that they work to live — and live to consume. Once a person’s profession or livelihood defined him/her (e.g., doctor or mechanic, teacher or housewife); today, professional identity matters but so does how and what one purchases, how one represents oneself as an expression of the commodity spectacle.
The post-WW-II era of American “greatness” began to falter in the mid-1970s with consequences for both dimensions of national life. Domestically, working people witnessed an end of real wage growth and an accompanying decline in the standing-of-living; internationally, the U.S. witnessed the end of the gold standard and failure of innumerable military interventions. For much of the post-WW-II-era, U.S. imperialistic military interests and the demands of globalizing capitalism were in sync, legitimizing both. However, since the ‘70s, these twin features of national “greatness” underwent a steady decline culminating in a growing divergence. Today, U.S. military hegemony and global capitalism no longer share the same historical trajectory. This growing split fashions the social crisis that culminated in Trump’s victory.
This pessimistic assessment raises the question: What if the post-WW-II recovery had played out differently than it did? Netflix is running an apparently popular series, “The Man in the High Castle,” based on Philip K. Dick’s provocative alt-history novel which imagines that the U.S. was defeated in the war and was taken over by the Japanese on the West Coast and the Germans the East Coast.
But what about another roll of the historical dice? Immediately after WW-II ended, long pent-up worker accommodations to sacrifice and expectations of a better life fueled what is known as “the great strike wave of 1946.” Lasting through 1945-’46, it involved more than 5 million workers from the automobile, oil, electrical, meatpacking, steel, coal and other labor sectors as well as public employees. In response, Congress intervened and passed the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) restricting the powers and activities of labor unions.
What would it have meant if the workers had won the strike wave and the anti-communist hysteria not gripped the nation? Would the U.S. have become more like the social-democratic Scandinavian countries? Would we be living a different – better! – life today?
What if the new postwar value system was based not on political loyalty, workplace acquiescence and consumer purchasing – and the Republican-Democratic establishment along with the tyranny of big oil, big banks and the military-industrial complex – but on three very different values? What if free political expression and association, strong worker rights and organizations, and the maximization of leisure time (with no debt) and public spending (e.g., health care, higher education, transportation) had been the postwar era’s guiding premises? What if furthering imperialism and global capitalism had been replaced by support for anti-colonialist struggles and true nation-building from the bottom up and based on participatory democracy?
Such an ethos might have freed both the U.S. and the rest-of-the-world from ever-intensifying inequality and the tyranny of 1 percent, from the plunder of natural resources, the enslavement and displacement of people through the world, and from the worsening global warming so that we can continue to survive as a species.
But in the postwar era, such an imaginative, transformative ethos was historically impossible. Ah, it’s the New Year and one can dream. Hopefully, dreams of a more egalitarian America – and of what is impossible — will guide progressive politics during the next four long years.