I’ve pined thirty-years for something like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thank God — I’m an atheist! — it’s here. I’ve waited that long because it’s been a little more than thirty years since the 1981 Washington, DC Solidarity Day March. The AFL-CIO organized and paid for it. (I was collecting unemployment but took a union sponsored bus to DC.) Estimates of the march’s size range from 100,000 to 500,000 (I’m drawing upon my memory here). Whatever the precise numerical count might have been, the March was large. I’d say its purpose was clear to the participants and to its adversaries. It expressed a popular disgust with the Reagan Administration, which had recently concluded the PATCO strike by firing the striking air traffic controllers. The PATCO strike was a seminal event in American history. It clearly revealed the weakness of organized labor in America and the willingness of the Reagan administration to demolish a politically conservative union filled with labor aristocrats who had supported Reagan in the 1980 election. I thought then that the March would be the initial event of an on-going popular response to the Reagan Presidency. Surely many if not most Americans would see Reagan and his policies for what they were and what they promised. Surely they would push back.
In 1984, ironic as that date may seem to America’s critics, the Reagan reelection campaign gave us the now famous Morning in America advertisement, a trope which became the theme of the 1984 Republican National Convention, America’s kleine Reichsparteitag. This staged event frightened me when I watched it, more so when I realized the spectacle was generally well-received; likewise the Reagan-Mondale debates, during which one could see Reagan’s dementia for what it was. As we know, a demented and ideologically driven Reagan easily won the election. His victory allegedly and likely did signal the death of the New Deal Coalition, Mondale being a figure associated with that kind of politics and Reagan having a political project opposed to the New Deal and its legacy. Americans could have repudiated Reagan and Reaganism in that election. But they did not.
Today, Americans must try to master the consequences produced by their past political mistakes. Among these mistakes we would want to include our tolerating or even applauding policies which produced a declining standard-of-living and our accepting a party politics meant to insulate the political elite from the electorate. To be sure, our current and future standard-of-living along with the democracy deficit of the legacy parties provide just two of the many motives that have elicited the Occupy Wall Street movement. And these ‘problems’ were foreseeable outcomes specific to the so-called Reagan Revolution, which we today should characterize as a political project which consolidated neoliberalism and imperialism in American politics. We are living in the Reagan Revolution’s long shadow, and it is this history which we must master in order to address the difficult problems of our present.
I wish to conclude by pointing out that it seems to have taken the many failures and betrayals of the Obama administration to convince some — many? — Americans that the legacy parties do not represent their interests. Perhaps, America needed to elect a black man president in order to learn that the political project created by rich white men only results in disasters for so many of them. They could recently learn this while they watched the one-time community organizer selling what they considered their birthright to Wall Street and America’s imperial apparatus. In any case, whether my speculative point about Obama’s historical significance is at all sound, it is unfortunate that Americans needed thirty discouraging years before they could begin to face the truth about their leaders and their country. Let us hope that it is not too late to pull hard on the brake handle, to push back.