How the heck did our politics get here? Chicago historian Rick Perlstein has the answer in his fourth book, ‘Reaganland.’ – “Tracing the rise of American conservatism is in the emotions, not the elections.”
If you’ve found yourself staring into space lately and wondering how the United States arrived at such an ominous, uncertain and unrecognizable moment, Perlstein provides the blueprint.
Before him, our somewhat agreed-upon story went something like this: The oppressive, conformist 1950s led to the freethinking, free-loving 1960s; which led to Republicans losing badly with a hawkish Barry Goldwater, thereby forcing conservatives to redouble their efforts with the working class; all of which paid off when the liberalness of the ’60s was overrun by nihilism of the 1970s and those formerly idealistic armies of campus protestors got jobs, sold out and bought stock.
Perlstein focused instead on the roots of the New Right, which evolved into modern conservatism — one aligned with religion, skilled at networking and churning out best-selling manifestos that few liberals even noticed. Actually, by the early ’90s, remarkably, conservatism remained relatively fresh ground for historians. “For years, after Goldwater was crushed (in the 1964 election), there was a sense among historians he’d been too extremist for Republicans, that his was not a viable future,” said Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, the leading professional organization for historians. “But Rick saw (Goldwater) was on to something, that someone like Phyllis Schlafly (the conservative Illinois activist who helped doom the Equal Rights Amendment) would not be easy to dismiss. Which, if you leap ahead, is how you arrive at a figure like (conservative architect) Newt Gingrich, which brings us to a Mitch McConnell.”
“My books are about reverse engineering the outcome of the inevitable,” Perlstein said. “We know who won. We know the issues. But how did they get important? There’s nothing obvious there. You know what happened, but you don’t know the possibilities.”
That said, I told Perlstein if anyone might have anticipated the tribal divisiveness of 2020, I would have bet it would be himself, clued into undercurrents of culture. He smiled and brought me to a bookshelf in the back of his home stuffed with materials you might not expect to see in a historian’s home — memoirs about open marriage, Time/Life histories, rants, tracts, trash. He found a pamphlet from Jerry Falwell, on the end of the world, on his wish for imminent conflict.[1,2]
Rick Perlstein: ‘If you’re not writing about the berserk, you’re not writing about America’ – “A man of the left, Perlstein agrees his books are as much about the failures of liberalism and the media as the success of the right.”
“My shorthand is history is process, not parallels. There really can’t be a historical parallel. You can’t step in the same river twice or even once because the thing that happened in 1968 happened and we were responding to what happened. Even if there are similarities.
“It’s kind of a paradox. It’s really important to understand history in order to be a better citizen in the present but sometimes history can take you further away from understanding, instead of closer.”
- @interfluidity: “at some level, the world can be divided into those who think there is too much suffering in the world, and those who believe, in the service of some alleged greater good, that there is too little.”
- @sousibrown: “Or perhaps it can be divided into people who believe that most should toil for the benefit of a few elite and everyone else.”
- @caraesten: “damn it’s almost like the idea of existential precarity being necessary to motivate work was a lie sold to us by capitalists with a vested interest in the exploitation of our labor!”
- @doctorow: “Our societal narratives are invisible by dint of their ubiquity, but they are far more important in stabilizing the status quo that all the cops and jails and domestic surveillance agencies put together. Take inequality: when a few have much, and the many have little, the primary means of preventing the many from seizing the wealth of the few isn’t burglar alarms – it’s legitimacy…”[5,6]
Living in own ideology – “Ideologies we live are like the air we breathe. We take them as obvious. We are not aware of them, as I was not aware of my own in 1975. Or as my friends were not aware of the ideology that pervaded the World Bank and the IMF in the last two decades of the 20th century. Neoliberalism (which did not use that name then) was so obvious, its lessons and recommendations so clear and common-sensical that it fulfilled the requirements of the best possible ideology: the one that a person defends and implements without ever realizing he is doing so. But it too is now falling apart.”[7,8]