My father’s generation lived through the Great Depression and served in World War II. That generation became the most Democratic in history because of their connection with FDR and the New Deal. They were also unabashed fans of government because of the New Deal and what they achieved in 4 years during WWII. Every assault on Medicare and Social Security was met by the outrage of that generation in particular. And now they’re almost gone. And with their passing we lose not the greatest generation, that hyperbole is silly, but we do lose the generation with the greatest connection to what good government can achieve with concerted effort.
Side note – when I hear about the “greatest generation” I am reminded of the Larry Miller joke “My parents came to this country speaking no English, they worked three jobs, went to school and learned English, and took care of a family. When I go to the dry cleaners and the post office in the same day I’m exhausted.”
I’ve been thinking about this lately and then I re-read a Josh Marshall piece from last July that explores along the same lines. It’s not just about trust in government, and the reasons for protections and the big social safety net programs of the New Deal and The Great Society (we already saw the disastrous financial reforms in the 90s that rolled back the New Deal protections the really smart people thought we didn’t need anymore). It’s also the horrors of autocracy, the witnesses to the holocaust, the extremes that countries can be so blithely led to by charismatic maniacs.
As John says, the horror of autocracy is diminishing as the living memory of World War II drifts into oblivion. But it’s not just autocracy. It’s the world of cycles of killing, ‘high fear’ rather than ‘high trust’ patterns of international relations and domestic accord that we take for granted as the natural order of things but most definitely are not.
Of course, government started it’s shrink backwards in the 80s as Reagan, who was an FDR fan and part of that generation, cynically used anti-governmental propaganda to create a political movement from the backlash to the excesses and also the human progress of the 60s and 70s. Civil Rights, Feminism, the beginnings of globalism, Vietnam War protesters with long hair, drugs, music – everything was changing and those that did not want it to change struck back angrily. Reagan represented the old order. The old law and order, in fact, an affable, lovable Nixon without the scowl. He was angry about change too and gave voice to that anger saying that he would make America great again.
Part of their attack was on government excess – but that meant and means different things to different people. That rhetoric was just an easy way to focus anger and create a mandate to remake government in the conservative image. It didn’t get smaller, it got in fact much larger with a massive military build up that was completely unnecessary, but Reagan had learned the lesson that nobody ever lost by promising more defense. He tripled the deficit as he derided deficits and his childish conservative mythologizers forgive it like those with daddy fixations always look up to those fathers and forget their faults.
Reagan was not a libertarian. As corporatist and pro-business as he was he would never have thought to privatize Social Security. He was part of the generation that lived and coped before FDR lifted 50% of the elderly out of poverty through Social Security. Reagan derided Medicare as socialism in 1961, four years before it was enacted; however, as president 20 years later he never went along with privatization of Medicare language. If nothing else he was a smart enough demagogue to know those were losing arguments for his own generation. But now that generation is almost gone and the Reagan’s GOP is almost unrecognizable. This isn’t Reagan’s GOP, but The Koch Brothers’.
Will enough people from this generation be alarmed enough to stop it?