Politics and culture in the age of Reagan

Politics and culture in the age of Reagan

Some excerpts from Andrew Kopkind’s reporting for The Nation

GUILFORD — A new chill is in the air. The powerful producers of the plays of history have opened a sequel to their old cold war hit, and many of the cultural props that supported the first run are coming back into style. There's a retro look to the political landscape, the feel of the Dulles days. Rebellion, utopias, and tender-mindedness are out; conformity, realism, and hard-heartedness are in. Liberals - who always manage to mediate the terms of discourse - are out of high office and high fashion, and once more many of them have enlisted in a cold war, with their familiar postures and attacks....

At the core of the process is war - the militarization of American society, the obsession with national security, the preoccupation with loyalty, patriotism, and power. War, Orwell said, is the engine that drives society. It is certainly the motivation for neoconservatism, the New Right and, now, cold war liberalism.

The issue of war and peace has shaped every aspect of American policy in this century, from highway construction to education to economic strategies to the preservation of civil liberties. If the country moves toward war, the pressure will increase on all the forces in the land that seek to open institutions to popular participation, change, and equality. If we move toward peace, the space for freedom will begin to expand again.

-From “The Return of Cold War Liberalism,” April 3, 1983

* * *

What is the Reaganist project? It begins with the idea of rollback: not only in international affairs, where it is directed against revolution in the Third World and, finally, against Communist Eastern Europe, but also in domestic matters, where it aims to repeal the progressive developments of a century of liberal action.

If that seems farfetched, conjure a more radical fantasy: Turn-of-the-century America has a politically active military establishment directing a militarized economy in a Christian nation.

Civil rights and civil liberties are subject to circumscription by a Supreme Court whose members are vetted by religious leaders and ideological overseers. Foreign adventures arouse little opposition because the pool of potential protesters has shrunk with the degradation of democratic education and the repression of radical and liberal institutions. All but the most pliant labor unions are decertified.

The old middle class has vanished and a Reaganist class of service managers, franchise owners, and venture capitalists sits on a huge underclass of burger wrappers and security guards. The press is assiduously neutral, the airwaves are full of hymns and sermons, and libraries are divided into a section of dog stories and Gothic romances for the public and locked stacks of books with more controversial subjects for expert eyes only.

If that seems unlikely, as it certainly is, the reason is contained in the contradictions within Reaganism as well as in the opposition. The divisions between the fundamentalists and the corporatists, the ethnics and the yuppies, the blue-collar workers and the technocrats, the Northeasterners and the Southwesterners could be glossed over this year, while electoral triumph was in sight, but those conflicts of interest must sooner or later erode the strength of the movement. Although Reaganism is wider and deeper than Reagan himself, his presence and performance hold the abrasive elements together.

It is the dual nature of Reaganism's strength - its personal and ideological character - that offers the best opportunity for opposition from the outside. The political fight against the Reagan Administration, primarily but not exclusively in the electoral arena, can be transformed into the fight against the ideology. Just as the liberal and left attack on McCarthyism was waged largely against Joe McCarthy, so this battle must take advantage of the organizational symbol.

Beyond that, Reaganism's social and political system is bound to produce specific counterattacks. The conditions that produced revolution in the Third World, the black struggle at home, the women's movement and the demands for economic and social equity only a few years ago have not essentially changed.

Reaganism cannot work quickly or efficiently enough to alter the consciousness that developed then, nor can it effectively remove the conditions or erase the demands. It will have to rely on repression and neglect to maintain its forward motion and, finally, its stability.

And we all know what happens then. It's not too soon to start thinking about the heady days to come as the age of Reaganism begins to darken.

-From “The Age of Reaganism,” Nov. 3, 1984

* * *

The epic drama of South African liberation promises scenes of sweeping emotion, heavy with historic meaning: throngs filling the streets, tanks converging on the capital, colonialism shrinking from the continent, and the empire of the West in retreat.

One day, that play may run, but now the drama is only conceptual and the stirring scenes only fleetingly foreshadowed in raw moments of insurgency, displays of uncommon unity, and fantasies of power and justice long denied: miners marching from the pit, fists raised at too-frequent funerals, shots in the dark of the township night.

Between those flares of feeling, daily life in South Africa seems strangely flat. In the white cities, usual business and social relations are conducted with a deliberate aplomb that implicitly denies the looming upheaval. In the black townships, the collapse of civic structures and the interruption of ordinary activities have produced a numbing normality, while the nightly fire fights and a permanent military occupation define a new repressive routine that is still short of unbearable. Survival and rebellion contend for the loyalty of the land.

-From “Facing South Africa,” Nov. 22, 1986

* * *

What [Jesse] Jackson calls a “new feudalism” is settling over the rural heartland. Farmers default on their loans; banks and insurance companies (and sometimes government agencies) foreclose; sometimes they burn and bulldoze the lovely old white farmhouses, the barns, the silos, and the stands of trees that protected the homeland from the prairie winds.

Scorching the earth saves money by lowering property taxes. Families who simply cannot tear themselves from their birthplaces are sometimes allowed to stay on the land by the new management companies or megafarmers in return for work done. Those new tenants represent the saddest sector of a shift in productive relations that will amount to billions or perhaps trillions of dollars by the end of the century....

It's not hard to see how Jesse Jackson can make populist politics in a place like this, and the strategy seems to be working, at least in this early stage of the campaign. Farmers who have never seen a black person in their town, let alone in their kitchen, told me they'd vote for Jackson because, as one of them put it, “He's meeting the issues.”

Dick Butler, a farmer who moonlights as a coach at the school in Churdan, said he wouldn't vote for a Catholic [a reference to Joe Biden] - “the Vatican's got too much power as it is” - and he wouldn't vote for Pat Robertson “if my life depended on it,” but he thinks that Jackson “understands the farmer, the blue-collar man, the working man.”

“I don't think that the fact that he's black will hurt him here,” Butler's wife, Rona, added. “The presidency is so far away. Now, if he was going to marry my daughter, that might be a different story.”

-From “Jackson in Iowa: A Populist Message Hits Home,” July 18/25, 1987

* * *

If [George H. W.] Bush does get his quick victory, the wider war will still be far from finished.

The costs of victory are staggering, not only economically but in domestic and international political and moral costs. The restoration of a despised and degenerate emirate in Kuwait will not produce the stability the generals predict. The further militarization of America will not construct a stable society. Standards of living have been declining for 20 years; the structural flaws in the system have nothing to do with Saddam Hussein.

Part of the purpose of Bush's action was to destroy the “post-Vietnam syndrome,” to show Americans that war need not be costly, either in lives or treasure. The job of the peace movement now is to expose all the expenses of the military/imperial project: not only for ourselves but for billions of people struggling and suffering, in confused and imperfect ways, to get some control over their lives and destiny.

What we can call for now is talking, not bombing; disengagement, not confrontation; peacemaking rather than warmaking; and, above all, respect for those who would be truly independent of the great power with the most hardware.

-From “The Wider War,” February 4, 1991

* * *

War creates consent. The best wars - those that are fought decisively, are won quickly, and cost little - deliver so much approval to those who wage them it's a wonder strong leaders allow so much time to pass between campaigns. And in the case of the United States, they don't.

America has been in a state of war - cold, hot, and luke-warm - for as long as most citizens now living can remember. The epic struggles against fascism, communism, nationalism, and tin-pot tyranny have been used effectively to manufacture support for the nation's rulers and to eliminate or contain dissent among the ruled.

Now, after a half century of construction, the warrior state is so ingrained in American institutions, has so saturated everyday ideology, is so essential to prosperity - in short, is so totalitarian - that government is practically unthinkable without it. And from the look of things, that past may be merely prologue to a future dressed in khaki and marching in lockstep.

-From “The Warrior State: Imposing the New Order at Home,” April 8, 1991

* * *

Bernie Sanders is way out in left field. In Congress, where it's wrong to be independent, bad form to struggle over issues, and worse than gauche to perform ahead of the curve, Vermont's lone representative is almost out of his league.

That should be reason for pride rather than regret, for his league is, in large measure, composed of a lazy, self-serving, retrograde, and even corrupt bunch of team players. Still, Sanders, who was elected only six months ago after a tumultuous campaign in an extraordinary victory for progressive, grassroots political organizing, is committed to the game. Whether it's worth the effort will take a lot more time to decide.

-From “Bernie Sanders Does D.C.,” June 3, 1991

* * *

Bill Clinton offers no evidence that he can reverse the decline of politics in America that seems to have accompanied the decline of economics. Like [Michael] Dukakis, he has embarked on a campaign that will contract the electorate rather than expand it.

Reports from his pollsters and focus-group leaders recommend that he never speak of the poor, of blacks or Latinos, of women or gays, of labor unions, of cities, of the working class, of power. He is permitted to mention the unemployed only if it is clear that he is speaking of the temporarily unfortunate. Welfare is considered a problem, like AIDS for [George H. W.] Bush, to be solved by changing the behavior of the afflicted. Clinton projects a spurious idea of “unity,” “personal responsibility,” and “citizenship” that codifies middle-class manners and interests....

It is virtually impossible for the remaining progressives within the Democratic Party to have much influence on Clinton's political direction. They will console themselves along the way with arguments that he is “better than Bush,” which is certainly true when it comes to certain social and economic issues, although not necessarily the case in some foreign-policy spheres, particularly the Middle East.

But in terms of making any meaningful change in the way America works - from the delivery of health care to the redistribution of power - Clinton offers nothing of interest. The transformative moment that seemed at hand four years ago has passed. This is a status quo election. America is still a one-party state.

-From “Clinton Already?” Feb. 3, 1992

* * *

What has changed the climate in America is the long experience of gay struggle, the necessary means having been, first, coming out, and second, making a scene. Sometimes it is personal witness, other times political action, and overall it is the creation of a cultural community based on sexual identity....

The gay nineties is not only about civil rights, tolerance, and legitimacy. What started tumbling out of the closets at the time of Stonewall is profoundly altering the way we all live, form families, think about and act toward one another, manage our health and well-being, and understand the very meaning of identity.

All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation's past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people - at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis - have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it.

No one says the changes will come easily. But it's just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.

-From “The Gay Moment,” May 3, 1993

* * *

Although Stonewall came at the very end of a decade of convulsive change and was profoundly informed by the struggles of black Americans, women, radical students, and insurgent movements throughout the Third World, it was in many ways the purest cultural revolution of them all, and the precursor of the postmodern politics of identity that proliferated in the decades to follow.

Lesbians and gays are surely today's children of Stonewall, but many more are stepchildren or close cousins. That June night a quarter of a century ago now belongs to everyone....

Somewhere in the existential depths of that brawl of screaming transvestites were all the freedom rides, the antiwar marches, the sit-ins, the smoke-ins, the be-ins, the consciousness-raising, the bra-burning, the levitation of the Pentagon, the endless meetings and broken hearts.

Not only that, but the years of gay men and lesbians locking themselves inside windowless, unnamed bars; writing dangerous, anonymous novels and articles lying about their identity to their families, their bosses, the military; suffering silently when they were found out; hiding and seeking and winking at each other; or drinking and dying by themselves.

And sometimes, not often, braving it out and surviving. It's absolutely astonishing to think that on one early summer's night in New York that world ended, and a new one began.

-From “After Stonewall,” July 4, 1994

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