The more I read about the great economic divide in America, the more its origins seem set in the 1980s. In his recent memo, “Which Side of the Barricade Are You On?”, former Clinton confidant Doug Sosnik traces “Americans’ alienation from our political system and its leaders” to “long-term domestic economic trends dating back to the early 1980s.” What are some of those trends? The concentration of income in the hands of the very rich and the corresponding stagnation of the middle class. (Last year one percent of Americans received 19% of all income, creating a gap not seen since 1928.) A 50% decline in unionized workers. A median household income unchanged since 1979. A “decoupling” of economic productivity from middle-class prosperity.
“It’s morning again in America,” announced Ronald Reagan in 1984, as he asked for another four years to dismantle the country’s safety nets and blow holes in the belief that we were all in this together. Beneath the soothing pronouncement that America was “prouder, stronger, better”, the Reagan presidency accentuated class and racial divisions (“there is a welfare queen from Chicago’s South Side”), debunked environmental efforts (“trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”), and set us on an unprecedented path to indebtedness (the deficit more than doubled during Reagan’s eight years in office, and the national debt tripled – rates unrivaled before or since).
This side of Reaganism, which was evident in the 1980s, has disappeared in the soothing glow of historical revisionism. We have paid a heavy price for our amnesia.