“Reagan doesn’t have that presidential look” — United Artists Executive Rejecting Reagan for Lead Role in The Best Man (1964)
Ronald & Nancy Reagan, 1964
Liberalism’s wave started with FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, crested with LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s, and ran out of steam by the mid-1970s. Conservative Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election by arguing that “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The Departments of Energy (1977-) and Education (1979-) expanded federal bureaucracy some, but the public mood was shifting back toward smaller government at all levels. Ralph Nader’s idea of creating a bureaucracy for consumer protection went nowhere. The Civil Aeronautics Board went away in 1985 and the Interstate Commerce Commission (railroads and trucking) in 1995, their safety enforcements transferred to other agencies. To repurpose for liberalism what Winston Churchill said about World War II’s Battle of El-Alamein: “this was not the end. It was not even the beginning of the end. But it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Does America really have a “big government?” Proportional to the size of its country, America’s government as of 2015 was fairly small by international standards, spending around 14.5% of national GDP output compared to Australia (18%), Germany (19%), Russia (19%), the United Kingdom (19%), and Canada (21%). These World Bank figures are lower than Office of Management & Budget figures (right) that usually hover ~20%. The U.S. leads the world in total expenditures, though, spending ~$3.8 trillion in 2016 while collecting $3.3 trillion in revenue. America spends more on its military than its next eight competitors and twice that of China and Russia combined (SIPRI), but doesn’t provide health insurance for those under 65, except for Medicaid at the state level. Of course, spending and military power aren’t the only measures of a government’s size or reach; there’s also its legal/regulatory system.
Federal Spending as % of GDP
Domestically, there’s a lot of noise about “tyranny” but, collectively, U.S. laws don’t stand out as being overly oppressive in comparison to other nations. Look at the chart on the right and think of how steadily the drumbeat has grown over the last decades about the government getting bigger and bigger. Some of that noise originates among those profiting from beating the drum, selling airtime on radio and cable. Some of the noise originates from quarters unfamiliar with real tyranny or suspicious of a deep state within intelligence agencies operating outside the public or even regular government’s purview. Conspiracy theories are more entertaining and profitable than real knowledge or perspective. Still, many laws originate in agencies run by non-elected bureaucrats and housed under the executive branch such as the IRS, FDA, OSHA, FCC, EPA, etc., and it’s not surprising that citizens resist or resent these laws when bureaucrats don’t communicate well with them as to why they’re enacted or they’re administered with a heavy hand. Governments grow because voting citizens across the political spectrum demand things, because agencies grow to police other agencies, because big companies lobby (i.e. bribe) politicians to pass regulations that small companies can’t afford to comply with, and because bureaucracies have a natural tendency to grow like fungi regardless of the first three reasons.
By the 1970s and 80’s, the Great Society era launched by Lyndon Johnson was waning, and the public was ready to send the pendulum back in the other direction, despite still wanting the services and protection government provided. You could trace one turning point in liberalism’s demise to New York City’s near bankruptcy, when they ran out of money to pay public employees and had to look overseas to sell municipal bonds. While New York was the first city to tighten its budgetary belt, California was the first state, though in their case they cut taxes more than they cut spending. California passed Proposition 13 in 1978, a law banning increases in property taxes (beyond inflation) unless authorized by a two-thirds majority. The brewing conservative resurgence wasn’t just about cutting taxes, but also reducing government intervention in the economy and reinjecting religion into politics. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the conservative revolution launched under Barry Goldwater in 1964 led to a fundamental changing of the guard in Washington and in many states.
Stagflation & Energy Crisis
By the 1976 election, the public wanted the most anti-Nixon, anti-Vietnam, anti-Watergate type candidate they could find. They found it in Democrat Jimmy Carter, a Born-Again peanut-farming governor from Georgia untarnished by Washington politics. Watergate began a trend toward outsider candidates, resulting in state governors Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush the Younger all winning the presidency. After defeating Gerald Ford in a tight 1976 election, Carter came to Washington with what some congressmen perceived to be a holier-than-thou attitude and didn’t work well with what he perceived to be corrupt Washington insiders. Like Richard Nixon, he had a fortress mentality in the White House, not initiating relations with congressmen on Capitol Hill. He alienated conservatives by creating the Department of Energy to try to wean the country off Arab oil (the GOP didn’t want more bureaucracy, and oil companies feared breakthroughs on alternative energy), and he alienated Great Society Democrats by overseeing deregulation and insisting on a balanced budget. In that way, Carter was more of an independent and fiscal (budgetary) conservative than a party-line Democrat. As a fiscal conservative, Carter alienated Democrats by refusing to go further into debt and Republicans by refusing to cut taxes. His main, seemingly intractable, problem was stagflation.
Herblock Stagflation Cartoon, 1974, LOC
Normally prices don’t rise during a recession but, by the mid-1970s, the U.S. was mired in stagflation: the unlikely combination of inflation and high unemployment. LBJ’s Great Society and the lengthy Vietnam War raised the federal deficit, contributing to inflation. So, too, did President Nixon decoupling American currency from the Gold Standard in 1971, due to too many trade surplus nations swapping greenbacks for a dwindling gold supply; American dollars were convertible to gold dating back to the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. Going off the Gold Standard created confidence, or fiat, currency instead. Greenbacks from then on were worth whatever people thought they were worth, based on their confidence in America’s solvency and survival. As for coins, they cost more to mint than the amount of copper or nickel on the coin is worth. Caught in between its two mandates — curbing inflation and supporting job growth — the Federal Reserve didn’t raise interest rates to stem inflation because they feared that would further weaken the job market.
As we saw in the previous chapter, OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) embargoed oil in 1973 to show the West how dependent they’d become. Then they raised prices and within a few short years, oil climbed from $3 to $12/barrel. The Iranian Revolution that we’ll cover later in this chapter caused another big spike in oil prices in 1978-79. This coincided with increased dependence on foreign oil. Oil hit $1 gallon for the first time in American history, even adjusted for inflation far higher than the 5¢ it cost in the 1950s.
Trans-Alaska Pipeline System
To offset high prices and Peak Oil, the U.S. built the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from the North Slope, which was iced in much of the year, to the Port of Valdez, where tankers could ferry it to the Lower 48. That still wasn’t enough to offset the price hike. Many Americans overreacted by trying to hoard oil, not realizing that global price and local supply aren’t always linked. There was often no actual shortage in the pipeline. Either way, prices remained high, and oil is so important to industrialized societies that it can drive up inflation even during a recession, thus the stagflation. European countries tax oil enough to deliberately make it expensive and then use the taxes to pay for mass transit, encouraging people to conserve. The United States has historically devoted more to its military budget instead, partly to ensure the flow of cheap oil.
Elkton, Maryland Gas Line, 1973
Detroit wasn’t well prepared to manufacture fuel-efficient cars in the 1970’s. For years leading up to then, bigger was better. That coincided with the overall rise of European and Japanese industry from the ashes of WWII, and they were better at making smaller cars that got good mileage. The U.S. rebuilt those countries as industrial powerhouses after the war and succeeded beyond their expectations. They were now fully rebuilt, which was good for the world economy, but also meant that the U.S. wasn’t the only kid on the block. Among other things, that meant American unions would steadily weaken from that point forward, and most working-class families would need both parents working to keep up.
Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, 2006, Photo by Stu Spivack, Flickr
American manufacturing was entering a long, slow period of decline, as factory after factory in the Rust Belt of the industrial Northeast and Midwest shut down. That trend continued into the late 20th and early 21st century if you look at manufacturing jobs. But if you measure by output, American manufacturing has done well in recent decades. In fact, the U.S. is producing far more than ever; it’s just producing more with automation and lowered-paid staff rather than union workers. And there is even an unmet need for semi-skilled workers in American manufacturing that can only be offset by immigration. As factory unions weakened, public unions suffered setbacks as well. Major cities like New York struggled with a combination of low taxes and well-pensioned public unions (policemen, firemen, sanitation workers, teachers, etc.).
Carter Visiting Three Mile Island
President Carter’s pleas for Americans to conserve energy out of a sense of patriotism mainly fell on deaf ears. Carter learned that, while most Americans are patriotic when it comes to wars, they’re less enthusiastic about turning down the AC in the summer or heat in the winter. Then a near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979 dampened the public’s enthusiasm to pursue atomic energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Carter had been a nuclear engineer himself, commanding a nuclear sub in the early Cold War, and visited the plant personally during the height of the crisis. Engineers staved off a meltdown of the inner core reactor, but the near miss spooked the public and few new reactors went into construction afterward. Had they not been able to cool the reactor it would’ve sunk into the Earth, radiating the soil and water around it before exploding when it contacted groundwater.
A popular movie called The China Syndrome, so-named because one scenario is that a reactor might melt through the Earth’s core “all the way to China,” prophesied the near-meltdown just prior to the actual emergency. Problems with waste disposal and much worse crises in the USSR in 1986 (Chernobyl) and Japan in 2011 (Fukushima Dai-Chi) dampened the industry’s prospects despite the fact that it’s mostly carbon-free. President Eisenhower’s dream of always being within site of one of the giant reactor chimneys as one drove across the country never happened and neither did mini-reactors in each home or smaller devices to propel vacuum cleaners and other appliances. Nuclear-powered coils that could melt driveway and sidewalk snow didn’t happen in the 1950s and they weren’t about to after Three Mile Island. Today, nuclear reactors supply ~ 20% of America’s electrical power.
When Carter talked about the economic malaise the country was in, he came across as ineffectual in fixing the situation or as telling Americans something they didn’t want to hear. His administration was struggling to keep the basic cost of living and energy from rising faster than wages. For many Americans, especially white-collar workers or union workers with automatic cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), the price-wage spiral allowed them to keep up (inflation requires wage spirals; otherwise no one would be able to afford the higher prices). However, the wage hikes were uneven. Some blue-collar workers lost ground, and retirees on fixed incomes saw their savings shrink at the rate of inflation — probably the cruelest effect of high inflation. Investors weren’t happy either; while stock prices rose in terms of nominal dollars, there was no real increase (adjusted for inflation) from 1965 to 1982.
In an inflationary environment, borrowing makes sense because the amount you’ll owe later is, in effect, less, so people that hang on to their jobs keep borrowing and spending, which drives inflation even more. In a desperate move to stop double-digit inflation, which stood at a staggering 13% by 1980, Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker raised interest rates dramatically, slowing the economy because fewer people could borrow, but at least reversing inflation’s rise. As the short-term borrowing rate between banks soared to 20%, the nation dipped into its worst recession since the 1930s, this one deliberately caused.
Some economists, led by Alan Blinder, argue that Volcker’s drastic actions were unnecessary because those prices would’ve subsided on their own, without government action. There were many causes of inflation in the 1970s besides low-interest rates, and those would’ve naturally taken care of themselves, according to this argument. Just as municipalities struggled to make ends meet, so to the federal budget sagged under the collective weight of the Vietnam War, entitlement programs, the energy crisis, and rising food costs.
Unemployment Rates from 1948 to ~2012
Slamming the brakes on the economy by raising rates also raised unemployment, which Volcker supporters like Milton Friedman claimed hovered naturally around 5% anyway. Unemployment shot up to nearly 11%, above. In truth, the country was in a bind that didn’t offer any easy solutions, and Carter sided with the conservative approach of Volcker and Friedman. America took its Volcker chemotherapy, killing inflation cells along with growth and employment cells. Things got worse before they got better and the economy didn’t bottom out until 1982.
Carter made some changes that helped the economy long-term besides initiating the painful process to slow inflation. After consulting with economists, he deregulated some industries that had been under the government’s control, including transportation (airlines, trucking, rail) and natural gas lines. In 1978, regional startups such as Southwest began to undersell big national airlines on an open market, challenging the original five-headed government-sanctioned monopoly of United, Eastern, Braniff, American, and Delta. Communications followed the same trend, triggered by a 1974 anti-trust lawsuit causing the breakup of Ma Bell in 1982-84 into the new “Baby Bells” of Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink, and others. That opened up telecom for competitive pricing just before the advent of cell phones. Also, credit card companies won the right to charge unlimited interest rates. Carter also signed off on legislation allowing for the creation of Business Development Companies (BDC’s) that gave small investors a tax-friendly way to invest in private businesses and riskier start-ups than those allowed in the SEC-regulated public stock markets. All this helped lay the foundation for economic recovery in the 1980s but wasn’t enough to help Carter at the time.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter had plenty of problems overseas to deal with. Building on Richard Nixon’s foundation, the U.S. officially normalized relations with China in 1979 but Nixon’s détente with the Soviets came unraveled under Carter. In Ethiopia, the Soviets gained influence in East Africa as a Marxist state killed hundreds of thousands in the Red Terror and various relocation schemes. The Soviets felt threatened by Carter’s emphasis on human rights and the arms race spiked dramatically because of better ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles) and multi-warhead MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) that, according to rumor at least, could be dosed with biological weapons. This LGM-118 “Peacekeeper” MIRV the U.S. tested over the Kwajalein Atoll divides into eight 300 kiloton warheads, each ~20x more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb if detonated.
In the 1970s, each side was testing submarine-based ballistic missiles (SLBM’s) and air-launched cruise missiles that could be loaded onto traditional bombers like America’s B-52’s. The U.S. placed medium-range cruise missiles similar in design to the Nazi’s old V-1 “flying bombs” in southern England, loaded onto mobile launch pads in the payloads of trucks parked in underground bunkers. These relatively cheap warheads, each costing only ~ ¼ of a jet fighter, had a 2k-mile range and could incinerate a small city and burn everyone to death in a ten-mile radius. In general, Soviets focused more on size whereas the U.S. focused on accuracy. Each side additionally worked on neutron bombs that could wipe out life without destroying property, though the U.S. shelved plans to arm NATO with the new weapons due to public pressure. Near the end of his presidency, Carter announced that both sides had more than 5x as many warheads as they had in the early 1970s. A round of SALT (strategic arms limitation talks) between Carter and the Soviets slowed the madness some, limiting each side to 2400 warheads and convincing the Soviets to halt production on new MIRVs that carried up to 38 separate warheads.
Middle East Turmoil
Unfortunately, six months after the SALT II talks in Vienna, in December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to support communist forces in a civil war there against the jihadist Mujahideen. In response, Carter embargoed agricultural trade, boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and issued a doctrine stating America’s intention to protect its oil interests in the Middle East. However, nothing could compel the Soviets to relent in their misguided quest to conquer Afghanistan, and arms reduction talks stalled.
Photo of Hostage Barry Rosen
West of Afghanistan, resentment had been building in Iran against the U.S. ever since 1953 when the CIA overthrew their socialist democracy and replaced it with a dictatorship (the Shah) that sold the West cheap oil. Unfortunately for Carter, he reaped what President Eisenhower and his successors sowed. The only accommodation the Shah had made to free speech was within mosques, so anti-Western sentiment fused with fundamentalist Islam there over the decades. When fundamentalist revolutionaries took over the country in 1978, the Shah escaped to Mexico, then sought cancer treatment in the U.S. Granting the Shah exile was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the new leaders seized the American embassy in Tehran, capturing diplomats and Marines in the process.
At first, Carter hoped the Iranian Hostage Crisis could divert Americans’ attention away from the domestic economy, but that backfired as the crisis wore on and ABC’s Nightline covered angry Iranians burning Uncle Sam in effigy on a nightly basis. For Americans still in a post-Vietnam funk, it was like getting salt poured in their wound. Finally, Carter ordered a military rescue, but a sandstorm compromised the mostly helicopter-based operation and a C-130 tanker aircraft crashed, killing eight. The fiasco only raised the prestige of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, imprisoned by the Shah in 1963.
Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat at Camp David, 1978
The one big feather in Carter’s foreign policy cap was negotiating peace between Israel and its most formidable rival, Egypt. Carter built on the Shuttle Diplomacy initiated by Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s, whereby the U.S. no longer supported Israel unconditionally but rather tried to broker peace between Israel and its neighbors. Building on an idea raised by CBS News’ Walter Cronkite in a split-screen interview with the leaders of Israel and Egypt, Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat, Carter invited both to Camp David, Maryland for a retreat. At first, he had to walk from one end of the compound to the other to relay messages, but he eventually got both men in the same room to talk through interpreters. In the Camp David Accords, Israel agreed to swap the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for Egypt’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist. The two have been at peace ever since, though the democratic revolution in Egypt in 2011 threatened the relationship. As for Sadat, his own army assassinated him during a parade for negotiating with Israel, underscoring the resistance to peaceful compromise that Middle Eastern leaders face among their own populations. A similar fate awaited Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin after he laid out a framework for peace with Palestinians within Israel in the 1993 Oslo Accords. He was killed by a right-wing Israeli opposed to peace.
For Carter, his success with Israel and Egypt wasn’t enough to offset setbacks in Iran and Afghanistan. In retrospect, Afghanistan was causing the Soviets more harm than the Soviets were causing the U.S., but Iran plagued Carter as he approached reelection in 1980. After months of negotiations to get their assets unfrozen in American banks, Iranians released the hostages within minutes of when Carter left office. As President Reagan took the oath, the hostages hit the airport tarmac.
Morning In America
It’s hard to say whether the Iranian Crisis cost Carter re-election or not. By 1980, the time was right for the Reagan Revolution as Americans were ready for a conservative change of pace. The Misery Index (stagflation) as economists came to call it, set the stage for Republican victory by Californian Ronald Reagan over Carter in 1980. The actor and former liberal Democrat had turned to the right in the early Cold War and become governor of California in 1966 after campaigning for Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964. With his telegenic charisma and jocular charm, “The Gipper” stole the show with a rousing speech at the 1976 GOP convention even as the party coronated Gerald Ford as their candidate.1980 was a watershed election, on par with 1932 in terms of swinging the American political pendulum back toward the right, just as ’32 had swung it to the left. For the first time since the 1930s, Republicans managed to pry away a significant chunk of blue-collar workers. Many of these Reagan Democrats wanted to restore military pride or, in the case of some Christians, opposed the Democrats’ pro-choice abortion platform. The Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973). In general, Reagan tapped into public skepticism about government agencies and programs launched under Johnson in the 1960s. As we read in Chapter 16, one commentator said that “Goldwater lost against the New Deal, but Reagan won against the Great Society.”
Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan @ Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day, 1981
Reagan’s first speech after his nomination was in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were killed in 1963. Why Philadelphia? Obviously, Reagan and his advisers weren’t just throwing darts at a map and picking random towns instead of larger cities. While not endorsing segregation or violence, he used the occasion to remind the townspeople of how much he’d always appreciated their commitment to states’ rights in the context of a talk on the innocuous subject of education. Reagan never criticized Blacks directly, though he disliked the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but he exploited the public’s resentment toward people who were taking unfair advantage of the welfare system. He asked working-class white audiences if they were tired of working hard for their paycheck then going to the grocery store and seeing a “strapping young buck” ahead of them in line with food stamps. Prior to the Civil War, “bucks” or “studs” referred to healthy male slaves that masters purportedly encouraged to reproduce with “wenches.” Reagan popularized the term welfare queen during his 1976 campaign for women who took advantage of the government’s well-intentioned idea of paying single unemployed moms more than married couples. The term derived from a Chicago woman named Linda Taylor who, in 1974, was caught defrauding the government with multiple identities and sentenced to 2-6 years in prison. Reagan’s audience understood who the strapping young buck and welfare queen were. He wasn’t going to beat people over the head with explicit racism (he wasn’t stupid), but neither was he going to leave the old southern Democratic voters and George Wallace supporters on the table (because, again, he wasn’t stupid). In an infamous 1981 interview (YouTube), South Carolina GOP strategist Lee Atwater explained how his party won over racists without sounding overtly racist.
Herblock Cartoon, LOC, 2000
Reagan was continuing with a variation on the GOP’s Southern Strategy, begun under Nixon to siphon off the racists left over from the Democrats’ endorsement of civil rights in the 1960s. The concern over welfare abuse transcended race, though. In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture In Crisis (2016), J.D. Vance recalls how working-class Whites in the Appalachia of his youth resented other lazy Whites that ate (and drank) better than they did by staying on the public dole permanently, spurring the workers to abandon the Democrat Party.
Republicans gained control of the South, fulfilling LBJ’s prophecy about the Civil Rights movement, partly through various Southern Strategies on race, partly through their general limited government philosophy (including cracking down on welfare abuse among all races), and partly through their new alliance with Christian Fundamentalists. Fundamentalism had been growing since the 1970s and abortion, legal since Roe v. Wade in 1973, gave Republicans an excellent wedge issue to galvanize their alliance around, along with Christian nationalism. Consequently, many Reagan Democrats, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, crossed the aisle and voted GOP for the first time, regardless of their economic class. Economically, they were either willing to sacrifice their interests on behalf of outlawing abortion and strengthening the military or were convinced that helping the wealthy would ultimately create working-class jobs through trickle-down economics (more below on Reaganomics).
Religion took on a revived role in American politics during the Carter-Reagan era. Carter was born-again and wanted to carry Christ’s message of peace into the real world. Reagan, too, was interested in the New Testament, especially its last chapter, the Book of Revelations, that he suspected might foreshadow an apocalyptic showdown between America and the USSR. He secured a lasting alliance between Christian Fundamentalists and the Republican Party. Today no candidate could run for office without fully explaining his or her faith. Mormons and Jews are more or less welcome to join the sweepstakes along with Christians; but it’s safe to say that Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, agnostics, and atheists need not apply.
Economics, though, was where the right-wing Reagan set himself apart the most from Democrats. Just as FDR wanted to jump-start the economy through government spending, Reagan’s supply-side economics reversed the concept of Keynesian stimuli, focusing not on government spending but on tax cuts, especially for the wealthy and corporations. Several major corporations were essentially on welfare throughout Reagan’s presidency because their tax rebates exceeded their tax bills. It’s difficult to tell how much the wealthy were actually paying on income taxes prior to 1980, but the top rates went from 70% when Reagan came into office down to 28% by 1988, so they were the biggest and most obvious beneficiaries of his election.
Ronald Reagan Televised Address from the Oval Office, Outlining his Plan for Tax Reduction Legislation, July 1981, White House Photo Office-Reagan Library
Was all this “Reagan-Hood” as his critics charged? In other words, did Reaganomics really steal from the poor and give to the rich, the opposite of Robin Hood? Yes and no. He helped the rich plenty, but his record was mixed on the poor. He cut food stamps, most forms of student aid (e.g. Pell Grants), and painkillers from disability coverage, leading to a black market in drugs like oxycodone. However, spending continued through Reagan’s presidency on most of the core New Deal entitlement programs and much of the welfare from the Great Society. Some tax burdens were shifted to the states but still came out of paychecks just the same. Really, Reaganomics kicked off an era when Americans continued to spend on core entitlements while voting themselves tax cuts. Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman (right), a follower of Austrian free-market economist Friedrich Hayek (Chapter 9), quickly learned the limits of what a full-blown Reagan economic revolution would entail. Stockman, the “father of Reaganomics,” realized that cutting most non-military spending would decimate “Social Security recipients, veterans, farmers, educators, state and local officials, [and] the housing industry…democracy had defeated the [free market] doctrine.”
Source: Forbes Magazine
The result of Reagan’s concession to core New Deal programs, when combined with increased military spending, was ballooning debt. Reagan candidly told American voters that he was willing to plunge the country into debt to win the Cold War if that’s what it took. Adjusted for inflation, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are the runaway leaders in growing the size and cost of the federal government because of the Civil War and World War II. But aside from them, what presidents oversaw the most growth in the size of the national government? Surprisingly, George W. Bush (87%) and Reagan (82%) in non-inflation-adjusted numbers (Source: USGovernmentSpending.com). This is as good a time as any to remind ourselves that, while presidents submit budget proposals under the Constitution, Congress not the president is in charge of the nation’s purse strings.
Reagan’s supporters often claim that the debt-to-GDP ratio actually shrank under Reagan, meaning that the economy grew more than the debt, and the ratio of federal spending to the overall economy fell, but that’s not the case. The Debt-to-GDP ratio grew from ~30% to 40% in the 1980s (at the top of the chapter we looked at annual spending vs. GDP rather than debt). According to the theory of supply-side economics, lower tax rates were supposed to stimulate growth sufficiently to increase overall tax revenues but that didn’t happen. George W. Bush’s VP Dick Cheney said Reagan proved that, in politics, “deficits don’t matter.” The economy took off on a long bull run, lasting through the late 1990s.
Did increased wealth “trickle down” to workers as supply-side advocates promised? Again, yes and no. There’s no doubt the economy grew over the next twenty years, and the booming stock market of the 1980s and 90’s helped workers tied to pensions and 401(k) retirement funds, along with stimulating overall growth. As the graph to the left shows, working classes didn’t suffer significant wage reductions on average between 1980 and 2007 (just before the Great Recession). The overall earning power of most workers stagnated, though, except for people in the upper 5-10%.
Many economists claim that it’s wrong to look at the economy like a pie and ask who is getting the biggest piece because the pie itself is growing. But regardless of the size of the pie, it is finite at any given moment, and the gap between rich and poor has widened between 1980 and the present, with most of the money trickling up. While the rich have gained more proportionally than the working and middle-classes, the ultra-rich (top 1%) have gained far more than the rich, middle, or poor. The top 1% lost ground in the Great Recession of 2008-09, but when the slow recovery kicked in around 2010, they increased their lead over the bottom 99%. Much of that wealth is in the hands of entrepreneurs who’ve created jobs and products for the rest, but much of it has gone to investment bankers and hedge-fund managers who stash their earnings in offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes. For them, deregulating Wall Street was a welcome part of Reaganomics — the trickle-down part not so much. They lobbied politicians to legislate tax loopholes for pennies-on-the-dollar. Tax shelters, combined with the fact that taxes are lower on investments than earned income, mean that most wealthy now pay a lower effective tax rate than the middle and upper-middle classes.
By 2012, the richest 400 people in the U.S. had more money than the bottom 50% of the population, and wages stood at an all-time low as a percentage of GDP. One of wealthiest, Warren Buffet, suggested that millionaires pay a 30% minimum tax rate regardless of whether their earnings are from work or investments (some already do). The majority of Americans favor the idea, but it’s difficult to see the Buffet Rule going anywhere given politicians’ need to win campaign donations from the very people (0.06% of the population) who would suffer under the heavy hand of “totalitarian government” in that scenario. Opponents argue that keeping taxes lower on investments than earned income spurs growth and that the revenue increase would be minor anyway.
Another key to the Reagan Revolution was deregulation. Reagan was adamant in his aforementioned philosophy that government is not the solution to our problem(s);governmentis the problem. The deregulatory trend started under Carter in the 1970s but gained momentum under Reagan. He rolled back environmental and workplace safety regulations and got rid of many rules governing banking and accounting. The financial changes, especially the evolution of Special Purpose Entities (SPE’s), contributed to problems like the Savings & Loan Crisis, Michael Milken’s junk bond-related fraud, and Enron in the late 1990s. The taxpayer bailout of corrupt Savings & Loans costs Americans 3-4% of GDP between 1986 and ’96. On the other hand, allowing accountants to “cook their books” may have stimulated the economy and Milken used some of the money he stole to help fund medical research. But, ideally, one purpose of accounting, other than to run a business responsibly for your own sake, is so that other people (employees, investors, IRS) can get a feel for what’s going on, not what’s not going on. Reagan also cut funding for the Small Business Administration (1953-) the only government agency aimed at helping small entrepreneurs, but one that could be spun as yet more bureaucracy and costing taxpayers because of some failed loans.
Mergers were another hallmark of Reaganomics, as courts were hesitant to prosecute monopoly cases. Remember all the hullabaloo about trust-busting in the Progressive Era? In 1986, an upstart football league called the USFL led by, among others, Donald Trump sued the NFL in an antitrust case. A lower court determined that the USFL was right — the NFL did have a monopoly on pro football — and awarded the USFL a grand total of $1. While that particular case wasn’t influential, it symbolized the era. The Reagan Revolution paved the way for a wave of mergers in the 1980s and 90’s. Unions didn’t do much better than trust-busters in the 1980s. Shortly into Reagan’s presidency, air traffic controllers went on strike. He had the FAA order them back to work and fired over 11k that refused.
Deregulation also impacted communications in 1986 when the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) removed their 1949 Fairness Doctrine requiring TV and radio broadcasts to be fair and “tell both sides of a story.” Such a rule was arguably a violation of the First Amendment, but its retraction fragmented news into what it is today, where most conservatives and liberals just listen to spins on their own tribe’s websites, networks or radio shows, with little center of gravity in the middle to rely on for “straight news.” Rush Limbaugh launched his radio show in 1988, two years after the deregulation, and almost everything now is what people used to refer to as op-ed, or opinions and editorials within each tribe’s echo chamber. If deregulation opened up television and radio, the advent of the Internet obliterated any hope of an agreed-upon reality. People can Tweet® or vent on blogs with like-minded people, or have profanity-laced exchanges with faceless adversaries in comment boxes that go nowhere. In addition to the basic responsibilities of citizenship, like voting and paying taxes, Americans now have to filter news to find out what’s going on. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t up to the task, with the result that we not only disagree — perfectly normal and healthy in a democracy — but that we aren’t even disagreeing based on agreed-upon facts. Since it’s human nature and easier to confirm preconceptions, most people just choose their “truths” from a virtual buffet table of options and at least some modern politicians are learning to take advantage of what commentators are calling the “post-truth” era, with Donald Trump launching his political career via the Birther Movement. The existing media business model doesn’t go far beyond maximizing “eyeballs” or “hits,” with little money to be made teaching reality or encouraging intelligent debate because most people find them boring. Instead, the wider the options (the more food to pick from off the buffet table), the greater the tendency to only read what one already agrees with.
Quality media is part of the buffet table, too, though, as argued by Spanish actor Vanessa Otero in the chart below. Here’s one person’s take on today’s Anglo-American media landscape, that you can feel free to dispute. The point here isn’t the accuracy of her diagram — with which presumably nearly anyone with a pulse would quibble (underscoring my point) — but rather that many Americans only feed off the edges of the buffet table then share posts on social media that friends and relatives either already agree with or ignore. There’s little constructive debate on the edges of the spectrum and more often cherry-picking, bogus misinformation or “fake news.”
Biased media is a return historically to the way journalism operated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when no one made any pretense toward objectivity, except that now it’s happening among a far broader, more diverse population. There’s an unseen benefit to all this if you have time and the fortitude to stomach it. If you expose yourself to a wide spectrum of media, at least higher-grade versions of it, you can be better informed today than someone who simply watched the “straight” nightly news forty or fifty years ago.
Finally, drawing and re-drawing congressional district boundaries took on greater importance in American politics in the late 20th century, though this has a longer history and transcends the conservative resurgence. Gerrymandering, named after Revolutionary-era Massachusetts politician Elbridge Gerry’s salamander-shaped district (right), is as old as American politics and stems from the problem of how to divide up a state’s congressional districts. Senators don’t present this problem because each state gets two drawn from all the state’s voters. However, with the House of Representatives, there is no perfect or fair way to map districts given the irregular shape of most states and the shifting population within them. Even in a square state like Wyoming, dividing into four even squares wouldn’t be even in terms of population distribution, although Wyoming’s population is so low that it’s not a problem anyway because they have only one representative in the House; the whole state is one district. Gerrymandering maximizes one party’s capacity to win votes by herding opponents’ voters into as few districts as possible, or by spreading and diluting those votes across districts. This diagram, if a bit hyperbolic in using “steal” in its title and misleading because it should use elections plural to refer to several within a state, shows two simplified versions with right angles:
We could discuss Gerrymandering at any point in the course but, by the late 20th century, computers enhanced the efficiency of redistricting. Also, like the media deregulation mentioned in the previous section, enhanced Gerrymandering has increased partisanship. Both phenomena divide and sort us. Per the Voting Rights Act of 1965, courts have generally struck down Gerrymanders aimed at racial discrimination but sanctioned those aimed at partisan discrimination. Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between racial and partisan discrimination since minorities have tended to vote Democrat since 1964. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on purely partisan Gerrymandering since 2004 but will rule on a Wisconsin case in 2018. Allowing the party in power to draw up their own redistricting lines, as 38 states currently do, exacerbates the problem, creating a situation where “politicians pick voters” nearly as much as voters pick politicians.
In Democrat-controlled Ilinois, their 4th Congressional District as of 2017 barely met the requirement that districts must be contiguous.
Texas, one of the 38 yellow states above, is another notorious example. Democrats once drew up the lines to favor themselves and, since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, Republicans have done likewise. Austin, for instance, is the “bluest” (most liberal) city in Texas and one of the most liberal in the country — a “blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup” as comedian Jon Stewart called it. Under former Congressman Tom Delay (R), the GOP created the 25th District, aka the “Fajita Strip,” to condense Democratic voters into one district — writing that district off but limiting Democrats’ overall impact.
“Fajita Strip” District, Texas
When courts shot down the Fajita Strip, the GOP created a map whereby five of Austin’s six Congressional representatives were Republican. The two basic ways to Gerrymander are “packing and cracking” and the GOP has used both on Austin. To pack is to herd like-minded constituents into one district such as the Fajita Strip, to minimize their impact. A second way is to divide a city like Austin by cracking it into the tips of multiple wedges that fan out into large enough conservative districts that the end result is a liberal city like Austin represented by mostly conservative congressman (see Districts #10 & #17 below).
When packed rather than cracked, Gerrymanders result in clear red and blue districts whose voters don’t elect centrist candidates. In the Lower House of Representatives, that results in a diverse collection of staunch partisans who are elected for the very purpose of doing battle with the opposing party, not compromising. Many conservative voters/constituents see compromise as a sign of weakness and force their candidates to pledge that they won’t, just as many Barack Obama supporters — and perhaps, subconsciously, even his opponents — saw the former president’s willingness to compromise as a weakness. Gerrymandering also increases the motivation to either cheat or rig the system in those few swing counties that aren’t red or blue. If voters themselves aren’t more divided than they were in the past, they’re at least better sorted. They choose their own sets of experts and facts from the media buffet table, vote for candidates from districts deliberately made as partisan as possible, and have increasingly come to self-segregate by moving to “red and blue” areas to be around like-minded people. Consequently, congressional districts with “swing voters” have shrunk steadily over the last thirty-five years. In Texas, only District #23 above, stretching from the western suburbs of San Antonio all the way to El Paso, is currently up for grabs. This mostly Hispanic district is currently led by ex-CIA, African-American Republican and outspoken Trump critic Will Hurd. Hurd was student body president at Texas A&M during the bonfire tragedy of 1999.
The post-Reagan era kicked off with what seemed then like a depressing campaign — one that served mainly to underscore the superficiality of media coverage and tendency in democracies for campaigners to manipulate voters by appealing to their worst instincts. That wasn’t because either of the candidates was bad. The 1988 race pitted Reagan’s VP, George H.W. Bush against Democrat Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Since New England is generally more liberal than the rest of the country, the Democrats balanced the ticket with Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, hoping to recapture the Austin-Boston magic of the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson ticket. Dukakis led midway through the summer, but Bush’s media consultant Roger Ailes (Chapter 16, future head of FOX News) and campaign manager, the forenamed Lee Atwater, came up with an ad attacking Dukakis’ weakest point besides his unfortunate photo-op in a tank.
As governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis oversaw a prison furlough program that allowed prisoners out on temporary weekend probations. One of the convicts, Willie Horton, broke into a home and raped a woman. Horton was black and a group called Bush for Americans flooded the airwaves with his mug shot (left), asking viewers if they wanted someone soft on crime. Atwater said the ad would “strip the bark off the little bastard” [Dukakis] and “make Horton Dukakis’ running mate” [for VP]. Dukakis made the soft-on-crime spin worse by answering no to a tough debate question from CNN’s Bernard Shaw over whether he’d favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife. While his answer was clear and he backed it up by arguing that studies showed the death penalty was not a deterrent, viewers were put off that the question hadn’t stirred deeper emotions.
Bush campaigners also made up stories that Dukakis burned American flags to protest the Vietnam War and that his wife was mentally ill, though Bush distanced himself from the smears. When Atwater was diagnosed with brain cancer a couple of years later, he converted to Catholicism and issued an apology to Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of the 1988 campaign. At the time, though, it was enough to pull his client ahead in the race and Bush won the election, with no real help from his old boss Reagan, whom he broke with. The Horton ads, along with the Rodney King arrest and riots in 1991-92 and the O.J. Simpson murder trial of 1994-95 that we read about in the Civil Rights chapter, served as unpleasant reminders of America’s ongoing racial conflicts and undertones. In political campaigns, though, even thinly veiled racism tapered off for the most part between the 1990s and 2016, at least among the politicians themselves.
Crime & Punishment
Since such shenanigans are typical of political campaigns, none of this would normally be worth mentioning. However, like the 1964 campaign during the escalation of the Vietnam War, the 1988 campaign had a lasting impact that transcended just deciding the next president. Fellow Democrats learned from Dukakis’ Willie Horton fiasco and vowed to be tougher on crime. In a case of bipartisan agreement, they “crossed the aisle” and by and large supported Republican policies of tougher sentencing (Democrats had always supported increased funding for staffing more police). Consequently, American prisons filled with small-time offenders through
Published in Resurgence magazine November-December 2013
I want to discuss the relationship between green politics and the left. My thesis is that left and green politics belong together. Neither can do the job that each wishes to do on its own; and though the short term tactics and the political programmes of the parties associated with the two traditions will differ, we now need a synthesis of them. Moreover, and more interestingly, I believe this is now beginning to happen.
I am not saying that the green and left traditions are somehow the same. Green politics, what Andy Dobson has called ‘ecologism’, is a distinctive philosophical tradition in its own right. I think we can identify six ideas which constitute the core of green political philosophy, and these are patently not the same as those which define the left.
The first and most fundamental is a belief in the intrinsic value and primacy of nature, and the essential embeddedness of humanity within the natural world. Second is an expanded idea of what it means to live a flourishing human life: that the meeting of human needs and achievement of wellbeing cannot be reduced to material consumption. Third, green politics (drawing on a long anarchist tradition as well as the writings of Schumacher and others) emphasises the value of the small scale and the local, of self-sufficient, self-organising, cooperative forms of social organisation. Fourth is an emphasis on the value of ‘good work’ (Schumacher again): on the ability of work to fulfil human purposes, to make us better people and to generate beauty and craft. Fifth, green politics emphasises non-violence: not just a rejection of war as a means to achieve social goals but a fundamentally peaceful and tolerant stance towards others. And last, green politics is (eco-) feminist, not just in terms of equal rights but in the sense of wanting society to attach much stronger value to those aspects of human life – notably caring and nurturing – which women have traditionally performed.
Picking out these core philosophical values does not mean that greens do not believe other things: many of them for example would emphasise their commitment to social justice and to democratic principles. But these are not, I would argue, distinctively green: these values come from older left and liberal traditions. They show indeed that ecologism is already partly a synthesis with other political philosophies.
And what are the core values of the left? I think there are three which mark socialist politics out from other traditions. The first is equality as the basis of social justice. The fundamental belief of those on the left is that people have equal worth, and that human beings and societies flourish only when power, wealth and income are fairly shared and the gaps between the top and bottom of society are not too large. In practice, in the real world, this makes socialists stand up for those at the bottom, for the poor and the powerless.
Second, people on the left value collective action. When people come together in mutual support and solidarity with one another - whether through trade unions, voluntary organisations, co-operatives or the state (which is a form of collective action) – they can not only achieve social outcomes which individual action cannot, but they manifest a fundamental and valued aspect of human nature, social co-operation.
Third, socialists believe that capitalism, as a system of economic and social organisation, tends if left to itself to produce socially undesirable outcomes in a whole variety of ways, and therefore needs to be regulated and managed (in some form) to ensure that the economy serves the common good of society, not just the interests of those with economic power. Different leftist traditions have different views on how capitalism should be regulated: many of them in the past (and some still in the present) have argued that capitalism needs to be replaced by a different system of economic organisation altogether, though as we know few such alternatives have been successful in practice, and some have been monstrous.
This brief account should already show where there are convergences between green and left politics – and where, of course, there are major divergences.
Let’s start with the latter. It is absolutely undeniable that most of the left has not, in its history and in its practice, been green. The dominant left philosophies, both socialist and social democratic, have been productivist and modernist in form. They have celebrated the liberation from traditional forms of society – and traditional forms of poverty – which the industrial process, and the transformation of culture which accompanies it, have achieved. They have been deeply careless of the natural environment, equating progress with industrialisation, based on a rationalist and instrumental approach to our relationship to nature and often to one another. In their pursuit of greater material wellbeing for the poor, they have tended to ignore and under-value many of the non-material components of wellbeing. The left has largely identified with the capitalist notion that what makes us better off is consuming more.
Yet let’s acknowledge what this tradition achieved in the 150 years up to the end of the 20th century in the now developed world, and is still achieving in China: an unimaginable improvement in the lives of the poor and the working class, their liberation from the economic and cultural shackles which had formerly enslaved them, and a material quality of life which was previously available only to a tiny ruling elite.
At the same time, it left a natural environment desecrated almost beyond repair, and millions more people on the global peripheries of the economy systematically excluded from the wealth it created.
But the state socialist and Fabian social democratic traditions were never the only forms of leftism. From the mid-17th century, from the Diggers and the Levellers onwards, there was always present another kind of revolt against capitalism. This deplored its destruction of the things which markets could not value: the value residing in nature and created by the traditions and communities that were destroyed in the process of industrialisation. This was a left which looked forward to a Utopian society in which nature was respected and people lived together in self-sufficient and self-regulating, cooperatively-based communities: the socialism of Robert Owen, John Ruskin, William Morris and Kropotkin; and in our own time of Murray Bookchin and Colin Ward. It was what Paul Hirst called ‘associational socialism’, which emphasised that collective action – the coming together of people to achieve the common good – should not be equated to the capture of the state, but can also be achieved through the voluntary association of people acting together in communities, civic societies and co-operatives. These much gentler traditions on the left were largely buried in the 20th century under the power of the dominant forms of state-led socialism, but they have always been there. If you go to a local Labour Party meeting, you will always find at least one person who speaks this language.
And now a third movement is beginning to emerge on the left. It’s taken much too long, but, as the environmental crisis revealed by climate change has become more apparent and more pressing, it has gained a central place at the social democratic table. This movement seeks to use the state as an instrument for environmental protection: to regulate capitalism not just to achieve social justice, but in pursuit of environmental sustainability.
This is an important development, because it extends the social democratic tradition in a critical new direction. Social democracy sought to capture the state through electoral means. It then sought to use the powers of the state to regulate capitalist market forces, with the aim of producing a more equal distribution of income and wealth, limiting the exploitation of labour and consumers, and funding the welfare state. The Marxian way of thinking about this is that social democracy effectively saved capitalism from itself. Capitalism’s problem is that its internal contradictions end up undermining its own basis. The classic Marxian analysis was that capitalism immiserated the working class, which then meant it had neither the healthy and educated workers, nor the material consumers, it needed to sustain its own expansion. So the regulation of the labour market and the creation of the welfare state rescued capitalism from its own contradictions.
But capitalism not only depends on the reproduction of the workforce. It also rests on the biophysical throughput of natural resources and assimilation of wastes, and the earth’s associated ecological services. Capitalism’s expansionary dynamic is also undermining these. So the ‘green social democratic’ project, the new task of social democracy, is not just to regulate capitalism for the sake of people, but also to regulate it for the sake of nature.
In fact the emergence of this kind of ‘green social democracy’ is not the only new development on the left. Over the last few years a different colour has been added to the red flag. The ‘Blue Labour’ movement, led in this country by Maurice Glasman and identified in particular with Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP who chairs the party’s Policy Review, emphasises the values of community and tradition, and the relationships and common goods which emerge from them. Echoing the decentralist socialists of earlier eras, Blue Labour seeks to protect and nurture what Ed Miliband has called ‘our common life’, those goods which do not arise from market exchange but from the practices of communities living together. These are the things – traditional cultures, civic and voluntary associations, green spaces, local distinctiveness, the arts, relationships of care and community – which give people a sense of identity and stability in the world, and which capitalism and materialism tend to under-value and undermine. Wishing to protect these things is a form of conservatism, but it is no less socialist for that, for it values the things that make us properly human.
For ‘left conservatives’ of these kinds point out that to protect such values is to stand against one of the most evident features of capitalism: its rapacious, locust-like tendency to destroy everything in its path which cannot be reduced to the exchange values of the market.
[[Amazingly, it was a feature of capitalism which Marx predicted. Ultimately, he foresaw, capitalism would take almost everything and turn it into a commodity, destroying all traditional and non-market values, and creating a moment when “all that is solid melts into air.” Everything that stands in the way of this process will ultimately be destroyed by it: the values that reside in nature, and in our ordinary life, the cultures we’ve grown up with, the homes and communities we live in. And it’s this recognition that has re-emerged in recent years in a rather surprising place, the top of the Labour Party. For the left – or parts of it – has understood that the really dangerous radicals today are the neoliberals of the right, whose free market capitalism threatens everything we should most cherish; and in this respect, to be on the left is actually to be a conservative.]]
I don’t want to claim that these new green and blue movements on the left are now dominant in the Labour Party in the UK or anywhere else. But they have a grip in places that matter, and they have an intellectual and practical answer to some of the most vital problems the left now faces in reshaping its historic mission to regulate and manage capitalism – perhaps even fundamentally to redefine our economic system. And of course both bring the left much closer to green thought.
But if the left is turning greenwards, do greens need the left? I would argue that they do, for three reasons.
First, because we cannot protect the global environment without the state. It is not fashionable, particularly in green circles, to defend the state, but defend it we must, because only the state has the power to regulate private enterprise and control the dynamics of markets. Yes, there are various mechanisms by which voluntary associations can defend particular local environments. And there are individual actions we can all take to help. But most environmental damage is now caused by huge global corporations, through the ways in which they extract resources, produce and distribute goods and services and promote consumption. Only the state has the coercive power to ensure that corporate behaviour is constrained in ways which offer even a chance of staying within our planet’s natural boundaries. Only states can tax environmental bads and spend the proceeds on environmental goods that no individual can buy alone. Only the state can direct research and development into technologies – renewable energy, resource efficiency and carbon capture and storage – that will enable us to avoid catastrophic climate change.
I know many greens would prefer the world somehow to stop consuming so much, and hope that simpler, less materialistic lifestyles might reduce the damage being done to the environment. But time is too short for that. If we wait for a mass conversion to voluntary simplicity we will find ourselves engulfed by environmental disaster long before we will notice, at global scale, any impact at all. The world’s population is too big, its aspirations to material wellbeing too unstoppable, the corporations which generate employment and profit too entrenched. Only state-enforced regulation of these corporations and the market forces they unleash has any chance of limiting the damage in the short time we still have available. Of course controlling the state is not a panacea: states fail and power corrupts in myriad ways. But without the state we cannot succeed.
Second, greens need the left because both of them wish to redistribute income, wealth and power to those who have less of it, and it will much easier to do this together than separately. Capitalism, particularly in its current form, is a huge generator of inequalities. Again, only the state can ensure a more just outcome through its powers of regulation, taxation and welfare spending – and the protection it can afford to trade unions and community organisations to negotiate directly for better working and living conditions.
Third, greens need the left because only the left has a realistic chance of winning power and so being able to direct the state to adopt pro-environmental and pro-social justice policy. Of course green parties may in time win more votes than they do now, but even in their most successful countries, such as Germany, they remain very much a minority. And time is what we don’t have. Waiting for green parties to come to power is not a strategy for winning the battle against climate change or wider environmental degradation.
So a collaboration between those who have a greater chance of reaching power and those who wish to pursue that power for environmental and green ends seems to me to be absolutely critical if progress is to be made in the real world. [[During my time as an adviser in the last Labour Government we introduced the Climate Change Act (which requires greenhouse gas emissions to be cut by a third from 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 80 per cent by 2050), set the UK on course to generating over 30 per cent of its power from renewables by 2020, insulated 6 million homes, saw the number of jobs in green sectors grow to around a million, increased overseas aid to hit the 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2013, introduced marine protection zones, made the entire English coastline publicly accessible and reversed the decline in most farmland indicator species. For doing this the Green Party and most environmental organisations used to criticise us hugely for not doing more. Fair enough: that’s their job, and such criticism sometimes (not always) pushed us to go further. But we now know what a Conservative-led government looks like on the environment, as well as on social justice. So greens should not be in any doubt about which would be better. This matters, because we’re not just talking about philosophy here. We are talking about the real world in which we have a responsibility to act now if are to protect the environment we cherish.]]
And the Labour Party needs the greens. We need the environmental movement to provide an alternative to the cultural hegemony of capitalism and neoliberalism which the Labour Party cannot properly now offer, because it must ensure that it maintains its electoral prospects in the face of constant media hostility. And Labour needs the greens because the battle for ideas and ideology in any party is always a tug of war between competing forces, and Labour needs as many people pulling on the green end of the rope as it can find.
I am not claiming that a Labour victory at the next election would usher in a green utopia. But I do believe that it offers the best chance of a British government which will seek to develop a more sustainable and socially just economy and society – and to work for that globally as well as at home.
So, in conclusion, I think there is a very interesting synthesis of political philosophies beginning to emerge. It draws on the environmentalism of the greens, the social justice commitments of the left, and the attachments of the conservative tradition to commonly held values and longstanding communities. It knows that we don’t gain meaning or identity in the world as floating individuals engaged in exchange relationships in a market, but from our relationships: with nature, with one another, with our past and with future generations. It recognises that we need to protect the spaces where those values can be expressed and nurtured. That protection will come partly from individual motivation, partly from voluntary association, but also from the protections which the state can offer from the dynamics of a capitalist market which will always try to destroy them. It offers a new kind of politics for a troubled world.
This is an edited version of a talk given to Green House's 2012 conference on The Future of Green Politics. www.greenhousethinktank.org
Michael Jacobs is a Visiting Professor in the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE and in the School of Public Policy at University College London, and a former Special Adviser at the Treasury and 10 Downing St.