By Varghese K. George
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” — U.S. President Ronald Reagan, speaking in what was then West Berlin, June 12, 1987.
“There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow.” — Theme song to ‘Carousel of Progress’, the longest running stage show at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. The show started in 1964 and runs to date.
“Future ain’t what it used to be.” — Graffiti at a restaurant in the Ohio countryside.
“Build that wall.” — The most heard slogan at the rallies of Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.
It is not a coincidence that we get to repeatedly hear about “the last 30 years” in political rhetoric in many parts of the world. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who lost out on the Democratic presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton, are two prominent critics of America’s involvement in the trade-driven global capitalist system, and they frame all their arguments in the temporal framework of the last three decades. To cite an example closer home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly points out that this is first time in three decades that India has a single party with a parliamentary majority. The three decades in question roughly start with the Reagan speech quoted above and end with the last slogan — the journey of America, from yearning to “tear down that wall” to the war cry of “build that wall”. Understanding what has happened in America in these three decades is essential to understanding what has happened in India, and anticipating what may happen. Because, America remains and will remain in the foreseeable future the global centre of capital, technology and ideas that will influence the rest of the world.
Two Americas cheek by jowl
America under Reagan, seen from a critical Democratic perspective, was summarised in a soaring piece of political rhetoric by Mario Cuomo, then Governor of New York. At the 1984 Democratic National Convention, as Reagan was seeking re-election, Cuomo made the speech that became famous as the ‘tale of two cities’ speech. He said, referring to an equally famous Reagan speech: “President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn’t understand that fear. He said, ‘Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.’ And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill. But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendour and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.”
Three months after Reagan made his Berlin speech, on September 2, 1987, Mr. Trump — then a 41-year-old real estate tycoon — made his first move that could be called political. He took out an advertisement in the New York papers on the “stupidity” of American politicians and spoke to CNN’s Larry King in an interview. What he said proves that what has not changed in the last 30 years are Mr. Trump’s world view, words, and style.
He told Mr. King: “Looking at our own stupidity, other countries are laughing at us. This is a great country. But we have stupid leaders… The country is losing $200 billion a year [in trade deficit]… Japan, Saudi Arabia… these are countries that would be wiped off the face of the earth if it were not for the U.S.A. This country will go bust in a couple of years. Japan and all these countries must pay for protection.” He was asked whether America should protect its trade through protectionist policies or by making its businesses more competitive. “There is no free trade in the world, it is virtually impossible for an American company to go and do business in Japan or Saudi Arabia. In the meantime Japan is coming to this country and buying up all of Manhattan,” he said. He added: “Our farmers are dying, the homeless are all over the streets of our cities… We give so much money to the wealthiest countries of the world, but we can’t take care of our own people — the poor, the sick, homeless, the farmers, those people we are not helping.”
The establishment takes all
In the last three decades, post-Reagan, there have been two Republican presidents and two Democratic Presidents. It was a Bush who became President from the Republican side both the times; a third Bush was the favourite of the party establishment and U.S. corporations for this year. From the Democratic side, a Clinton was the President for eight years and another Clinton, who has been a Senator and then the Secretary of State, is running to be the next President. Meanwhile, different versions of the Cuomo speech got repeated in Democratic Party conventions over the years, even as the policies of both sides became increasingly indistinguishable. Also, among the next-generation Cuomos — the elder one, Andrew Cuomo is now New York governor and his younger brother Chris Cuomo is highly rated anchor on CNN. When Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders speak about “establishment”, people know who they mean.
Mr. Trump has his own version of what’s happened to the average American in the last thee decades, but let’s us turn to Elizabeth Warren, former Harvard academic, Democratic Senator, strongest of all Trump critics, and the most credible of all Hillary Clinton supporters. Speaking at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress recently, she summarised the change in the last three decades. “The average two-income family in America is far worse off than a one-income family in just a generation ago. One in three Americans with a credit file is dealing with a debt collector; 70 per cent of college students are in debt by the time they turn 18. Last year, 8,20,000 American families filed for bankruptcy,” she said. “The American economy may look great from the outside, but for the families living inside, this economy is very different. Why did they get so squeezed, so hard?”
She offered the answer: “What has changed is the policy. We went from being a country that strengthened its middle class to one that bets on its wealthiest.” Result? “From 1935 to 1980, 70 per cent of all the new wealth that was created went to the lower 90 per cent of the population and the top 10 per cent of the population took 30 per cent. From 1980 to 2016, the top 10 per cent took almost all of the new wealth created, and the 90 per cent got almost nothing.”
Big squeeze for average Americans
How has this affected the life of average Americans in the last 30 years? “They spend 13 per cent less on food, 46 per cent less on clothing, 48 per cent less on appliances (iPhones and all fancy gadgets included, after adjusting for inflation).” At the same time, fixed costs are going through the roof. Americans spend “11 per cent more on transportation, 57 per cent more on shelter, 104 per cent more on health insurance, 275 per cent more on college education, 953 per cent more on child care,” compared to 30 years earlier.
The change in U.S. politics over the same period, measured by a particular matrix, is also notable: in the early 1980s, interest groups spent $200 million for direct lobbying of American politicians; in 2002 they spent $1.8 billion and in 2012 they spent $3.3 billion. Adjusted for inflation, it is a seven-fold increase in 30 years.
When Barack Obama breezed into the scene with the promise of hope, ‘Yes, We Can’, eight years ago, average Americans of all backgrounds thought he would rescue them. He tried to tinker with the existing economic order without seeking to fundamentally change the system. For a man who promised hope and change, he spent considerable time in the last year trying to convince agitated supporters of Mr. Sanders and Black Lives Matter (a movement against systemic racism) that they should be patient, and change comes slowly and incrementally.
Why Trump’s pitch resonates
‘Carousel of Progress’ features the material progress that a typical American family makes year after year — new gadgets, comforts, leisure and fun. For the most part of the 20th century, that “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow” was true. That promise of tomorrow began to eclipse through the recent decades. Former Disney World employee Leo Perrero has experienced that untimely sunset in his life. In 2015, Mr. Perrero made national headlines when he broke down before a Congressional hearing while relating his story. Disney World contracted an Indian company the entire division in which Mr. Perrero used to work. He told The Hindu recently that he and most others who lost their jobs have not been able find a new IT job even a year later. He joined his family’s small business that pays him much less than what he used to earn. He has appeared with Mr. Trump on stage a few times. “It’s very hard to say what will happen if somebody gets into office,” he said, but believes that Mr. Trump will be better for American workers.
Mr. Trump said the same thing that he says today 30 years ago too — same words, same insults, same half-truths. Ms. Clinton is also making roughly the same speech that Cuomo made over three decades ago. “Tale of two cities” is today “an economy that works for all.” Thirty years ago nobody took Mr. Trump seriously. Today many people do. Because, in America, the future ain’t what it used to be.
The Hindu, November 3, 2016