This is the first of a 3 Part series on the dearth of progressive politics and activism within the Western World.
What a difference a century makes! Within the United States, the 20th century was noted for further gains of equality and moving towards fulfilling the promise of true Democracy. The end of the second decade finally established women as “persons” and thus the right to vote. Workers, who had for decades been subjected to bloody repression at the hands of Industrial magnates as well as State and Federal governments alike, won the right to organise themselves into trade unions and collective bargaining. By the mid 1950s, laws enforcing racial segregation in all spheres of society were beginning to be overthrown reaching their climax ten years later. The decade of the 1960s witnessed mass movements against war and compulsory military conscription. The end of the same decade gave birth to the Sexual Revolution . The 1970s ushered in the Second Wave of Feminism which resulted in the legal right for women to have abortions. 18 year olds obtained the right to vote. The military draft was abolished. Richard Nixon was the first and only American President to openly say he supportws of “Black Power “. Nixon signed into law the most comprehensive environmental protection laws. It was under Nixon that racial minorities and women obtained positions in universities as well as government or government funded institutions under special regulations which set a determined percentage of splaces for them. Apart from the tangible social and political gains, the 20th century produced some of the most advance politically conscious art. It was during the 1930s when films against the lynching of Blacks in the American South were screened. As the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, films and books accurately presented the hardships endured by most citizens. Notable figures such as the writer John Steinbeck and film maker/actor Orson Welles , just to name a couple, participated in the cultural milieu to raise consciousness about injustices of American society. Rock music was the spark which ignited the coming of the Sexual Revolution and helped to facilitate racial integration. By the late 1960s Motown served as the soundtrack to the Civil Rights battles raging across the country. By the mid 1970s, mostly as a result of the excesses of Nixon, Hollywood produced hundreds of anti-authority films and TV shows. The police were commonly depicted as corrupt, lazy and stupid. Starting with“Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) many heroes were the bank robbers and outlaws while the police and figures of authority were depicted as villains. Viewers always cheered for the outlaws and relished in the setbacks and defeats for the police. The film which exemplifies this trend most is “The Blues Brothers” (1980).
The most important point not to miss was the appetite and desire for social justice amongst the population itself. In the big metropolitan cities of the Northern and Western United States, many people identified themselves as “Liberals”. They supported Civil Rights and racial equality. The were opposed to the police state terror methods which were employed against civil rights and anti-war activists. Many supported the passage to the Equal Rights Amendment . In social settings, individuals would converse and argue about politics and the affairs of the day. The arguments were mostly over minor details of divergence but they were in general agreement within the frame of liberal politics.
Indeed, the last point cannot be overstated. American society, for most of the 20th century was social. Neighbours talked to one another from front porches. Families listened to the radio together and would often discuss what they heard. As the country went through convulsions of the upheavals in the latter half of the 1960s, people would discuss the issues and problems of the day with one another. In New York City , for example, thousands of people went to Central Park on the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination just to talk and console one another. TV programming had set aside many hours for community and public affairs broadcasts. TV news broadcasts more or less reported on the issues of the day. Protests and demonstrations were shown on TV screens. The horrors of the Vietnam War came directly into the living rooms of Americans. Talk shows were a different fare from the Trash TV presented today by Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake. Talk shows were serious and sober affairs where political activists, intellectuals and academics participated in panel discussions where debates and exchanges were civil.
Things changed dramatically begining in 1979. A right wing backlash against the political gains of the previous three decades began to manifest. Perhaps, the most dramatic was the anti-Disco movement which peaked during the summer of 1980. Tens of thousands of disco records were burned and blown up in rallies reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The Iranian Revolution and the take over of the US Embassy revived a jingoistic reactionary nationalism not seen since the 1950s. The Republican Party nominated Ronald Reagan as its Presidential candidate. Reagan began his campaign by visiting a white supremacist festival in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The first organisation to endorse Reagan was the Ku Kux Klan . Reagan capitalised on the resentments felt in many quarters of White Middle America,who felt their privileged to be in danger as a result of the gains of Black Americans. The anti-Disco movement was first and foremost a racist movement. Disco music was just a code word for Black music. Never mind the fact that there were just as many white Disco acts as Black, Disco was the cultural indicator that the country was turning Black. Reagan ran his campaign as if the year was 1948. He was elected by a landslide.
Still, despite the setback of the election of a far-right wing President, Liberalism was still alive. Both houses of the US Congress were controlled by Liberal Democrats. The midterm elections of 1982 resulted in the victories of Liberal politicians. Though, talk radio on the AM frequency presented more reactionary presenters, there were still many liberal personalities on the air,most notably Studs Terkel.Liberals weren’t happy with Reagan. There was still many critical voices against Reagan heard on TV and radio broadcasts as well as in print.
Something went horribly awry in 1984. Reagan was re-elected by an even larger landslide victory than in 1980. He won over many liberals and most shockingly, he received the support of tens of thousands of voters who had marched with Blacks in the South for civil rights. Many activists who had opposed the Vietnam War voted for Reagan. What was perhaps most shocking was the support Reagan received from Eldridge Cleaver, once the Minister of Information for theBlack Panthers. 1984 was the beginning of the irreversible decline of American Liberalism.
There are many possible reasons for the support that self-described Liberals Reagan received. By the mid 1980s, the US seemed to enjoy a Golden Age. Though wages had stagnated since 1977, the purchasing power of Americans seemed to be greater than ever thanks mostly in part to the explosion of the use of credit cards. The 1980s witnessed the beginning of the IT age. Most children, even those from poor backgrounds, had their own video game consoles. Colour TVs, out of reach for most Americans just a decade before, was now found in the living rooms in millions of American households. The US was at peace or seemed to be. The country was not involved in any military adventures, even though the government was financing dirty secret proxy wars in Central America and Afghanistan . Most Americans had thought that the race problem had been sorted once and for all. By the end of the 1980s, nearly half of the cities had elected Black mayors. Black enrollment at universities and colleges was at the highest than any other time in American history. Affirmative Action elevated tens of thousands of Blacks into the white collar professions. Liberals saw race no longer as a problem. Rather, they considered the masses of Blacks living impoverished ghettos as an economic issue that had to be addressed. Liberals who were still in opposition to Reagan criticized his transfer of wealth from poor to rich would cite the plight of inner-city Blacks.
1988 entrenched the decay of Liberalism with the election of George H. Bush , the father of W. Bush. Bush, Sr was elected by opposing liberalism ideologically and by running ads implying if the Democrats won the presidency, Black men would rape and kill white women. (See Willie Horton Ad ). Michael Dukakis was one of the last liberal politician to run for President for the Democrats which paved the way to the rise of the anti-liberal wing of the Democrats led by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
By 1992, Liberalism was in retreat. After the New Hampshire Primary, Bill Clinton who was at the time the Governor of Arkansas personally oversaw the execution of a mentally disabled Black man named Ricky Ray Rector . Bill Clinton ran on a platform against welfare and other social safety net programs and supported capital punishment. That same year, Rudy Giuliani , who was narrowly defeated by then New York Mayor David Dinkins , organised a riot of 10,000 police against the Black mayor . The Liberals of the city were silent.
1993 was when the knife was stabbed into the heart of liberalism. Giuliani, who received not a word of criticism from the Liberal media for his role in the racist police riot the previous year, ran for Mayor on an openly racist platform. His margin of victory was provided by the white supremacist New York City Borough of Staten Island. Liberalism staggered on its dying legs around abortion rights. Despite of Bill Clinton”s right wing campaign promises which were the antithesis of everything Liberalism stood for, Liberals supported Clinton to preserve abortion rights.
1994 saw the death of liberalism. The OJ Simpson case sent American society in social convulsions. The media dropped all pretences of being objective and neutral and peddled in hysteria. Tabloid newspapers and local TV news broadcasts were filled only with sensationalist stories on crime. Despite the FBI crime stats indicating sharp decrease in the crime rate, most Americans perceived the country to be full of murders and rapists. The wall to wall and non-stop coverage of Simpson being charged for murdering his white wife was enough to propel Newt Gingrich and the far-right wing forces of the Republican Party into controlling both houses of the US Congress. Liberalism was eradicated from American national politics once and for all. The 1994 elections saw the defeat of Liberal icon Mario Cuomo in the New York State.gubernatorial race that year. George W. Bush was elected as governor of Texas.
In 1996, all liberal perspectives and opinions were banished from the established newspapers and transmission broadcasters. The 1996 Telecommunications Act , lifted restrictions and regulations concerning media. Now, Rupert Murdoch was allowed to own newspapers and tv channels in the same market which had been prohibited in the Communications Act of 1934. The main three television networks were taken over by conglomerates. Ted Turner and Disney had managed to consolidate their media enterprises. In this climate, only the views of the far-right and the corporations were heard. Liberal voices disappeared and if they did appear, they were subjected to abuse and ridicule.
Culturally, TV programs and films followed the turn to the right. Films like “Forrest Gump” (1994) and “True Lies” (1994) peddled idiocy and racist imperialist militarism for entertainment. With the exception of “Bad Lieutenant” (1992) and “Natural Born Killers” (1994), Hollywood stopped producing anti-authority films. Indeed, Hollywood began to churn out more and more police state films and TV shows such as “NYPD Blue” which glorified police brutality.
Liberalism was finally buried in 1997 with the re-election of Guiliani. In spite of sacking nearly half of the city’s Black Civil Servants, along with a 60% increase in police brutality underlined with a sharp increase of random executions and torture of Black men at the hands of the police Guiliani was re-elected with the majority support of Liberals. This in spite of inequality approaching Third World levels Guiliani won the approval of liberals. The first act of Guiliani was to abolish the New York City Human Rights Commission. Liberals stopped thinking critically, closed their eyes to reality and embraced fascism.
In 2008, many thought that Liberalism would resurrect from the dead in the shape of Barack Obama. Again, no one paid attention as he spelt out clearly that he would escalate and expand the Afghan War into Pakistan. Obama sounded like a liberal but paying close attention to his words revealed deeply entrenched conservatism. The last remaining Liberals are either disillusioned or self delusional. Barack Obama , more than anything else, represents the fall of American Liberalism.