Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (8 page)

Goldwater was trounced before fantasies about the old days became a craze and then a national cultural default. As he prepared to announce his presidential candidacy, the Arizona department store heir appeared on the cover of
magazine—circulation 8 million, 1960s America’s single most respectably glamorous mass media pedestal—wearing a cowboy hat, work shirt, and blue jeans, cuddling his horse. But like his OMG-decadence-black-people-chaos film, that too was ahead of its time in 1963—more than a decade before the post-1960s nostalgic counterreaction made a majority of Americans ready to fall hard for a prospective Old West president in a Marlboro Man getup.

By 1971, however, nostalgia was seriously cross-fertilizing with grassroots political attitudes. That’s when the comedy
All in the Family
went on the air and became for six years the most popular American television show. The premise was Archie Bunker’s perpetual politicized anger at post-1960s America, but the show’s theme song, sung by the Bunker character and his wife, was a piece of cutting-edge nostalgia combining resentment
fondness about politics

Didn’t need no welfare state…

Girls were girls and men were men

Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again…

I don’t know just what went wrong

Those were the days

Richard Nixon won the presidency twice, in 1968 and 1972, but both times mainly due to Archie Bunkerism, to reaction against the 1960s’ cultural tumult and new civil rights policies,
out of any popular cry for freer markets. In 1968, Nixon and his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, received essentially identical fractions of the vote, but sociologically it wasn’t close: the combined vote of Nixon and George Wallace, the white-supremacist third-party candidate, was 57 percent, an anti-hippie-anti-Negro-anti-crime landslide. In 1972 Nixon won in an actual landslide over his Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern—61 percent of the vote, forty-nine states, still the third-biggest margin in U.S. presidential election history—because hippies were still proliferating and antiwar protests and bombings by New Left fugitives were still happening.

The nightmare of the new that had been depicted in 1964 in that Goldwater film had been more than realized in just eight years—LSD! free love! Woodstock! blasphemy! women’s lib! gay rights! anti-Americanism! riots! bombings!—and was now at the center of the conservative political pitch. Some of those visceral negative reflexes in the late 1960s—confusion, disgust, anger—had started to congeal, become fixed. Many of the people who’d had strong spontaneous reactions in 1967 had by 1972 turned into full-on cultural reactionaries, actively encouraged by the organized political right.

The sloganeering had improved. “A spirit of national masochism prevails,” Nixon’s vice president famously said, “encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” In the spring of 1972, during the primaries, a liberal Democratic senator was anonymously quoted in an article warning that “the people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot.” The Nixonians condensed that into an effective alliterative caricature of McGovernism—Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.

Paradoxically, the other big reason President Nixon got reelected by such an enormous margin in 1972 was because on policy he did not swim against the lingering, dominant leftward ideological tide. Unlike Goldwater, he wasn’t committed to a superaggressive global anti-Communist crusade but instead oversaw the slow-motion U.S. surrender in Vietnam (“peace with honor”) and the remarkable U.S. diplomatic opening to Communist China and détente with the Soviet Union. Unlike the Goldwater right (as I’ll discuss in the next chapter), he definitely did not try to roll back Johnson’s Great Society social welfare programs, let alone FDR’s New Deal. His administration actually built upon them. He wasn’t a liberal, just a canny, stone-cold cynic going with the liberal flow.

Economic equality, as a result of all those countervailing forces I talked about, was at its peak in the mid-1970s. It was the same in the United States then as it is in Scandinavian countries today, the share of the nation’s wealth owned by nonwealthy Americans larger than it had been since measurements began. The system was working pretty well, and the national consensus about fairness endured. People took for granted all the progress we’d achieved. It really seemed irreversible.

Norman Mailer was a bit older, thirty-six as the decade began, but Tom Wolfe turned thirty in 1960, Joan Didion in 1964, and Hunter Thompson in 1967.

Which is why starting in the 1970s, for instance, the humorist and illustrator Bruce McCall could have a career painting panoramas of fantastical flying machines and infrastructure for the
National Lampoon
and then
The New Yorker,
grand futures as if depicted by overoptimists of the past, what he called “retro-futurism.”

Between 1964 and 1969, university architecture schools began teaching preservation; the first old American factory was turned into a warren of upscale shops (in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco); the Manhattan neighborhood where artists had started moving into old industrial lofts was named SoHo, and New York City created a commission that could prevent developers from demolishing historic buildings and neighborhoods; Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act; and Seattle created the Pioneer Square Historic District.

And the anti-civil-rights backlash was still erupting: George Wallace ran in 1972 in the
primaries and won six states, including Michigan and Maryland, and got almost as many votes in all as McGovern.

In fact, McGovern supported marijuana decriminalization, not legalization; blanket amnesty for draft resisters but not military deserters; and each state continuing to decide its own abortion laws. And the Democratic senator who so effectively slagged him behind his back, Thomas Eagleton, became his vice-presidential nominee.

More Americans more intensely loathed President Nixon the whole time he was in office than they loathed any Republican president before Donald Trump. That was partly because Nixon was simply so unlikable. It was partly because of his policies, in particular continuing and widening the war in Southeast Asia. But they also hated him as a result of
he happened to be president. Liberals at that time couldn’t appreciate that Nixon wasn’t really governing much to the right of the three previous
presidents. He was a moderate conservative adapting to a very liberal era, so the liberals of that era gave him no special credit.

In addition to the diplomatic openings to the Communist powers, military budgets under Nixon decreased, despite the ongoing war in Vietnam. And he ended the military draft. But even more, his domestic and economic policies were not particularly friendly to business and the rich, or approved of by his party’s right wing. In 1969 he supported and signed a bill that abolished investment tax credits for business and, for the rich, he increased capital gains taxes and cut off loopholes by introducing a minimum tax. His administration created several whole new regulatory bureaucracies targeting business, between 1970 and 1972 alone establishing the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency—the last empowered by two expansive new laws that set strict standards on air and water pollution. After he signed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act to root out racial and gender discrimination, his administration quadrupled its staff and increased its enforcement power, almost tripled the budget for civil rights enforcement, and instituted the first affirmative action policies throughout government to hire more nonwhite workers.

“I am now a Keynesian in economics,” the president said in 1971, officially surrendering to the New Deal consensus, certifying his rejection of the Goldwater right. He proved it beyond doubt that summer by undertaking a radical intervention in the free market, ordering a three-month freeze of all U.S. prices and wages in order to slow inflation—a year after Milton Friedman himself had warned there was “nothing that could do more in a brief period to destroy a market system” than imposing “governmental control of wages and prices.” Afterward, even though our market system wasn’t destroyed, Friedman called Nixon’s action “deeply and inherently immoral.”

Nixon also significantly enlarged the U.S. welfare state, making cost-of-living increases in Social Security automatic, creating an entirely new benefit for disabled workers, and expanding the food stamp program. He often
and sincerely attacked federal programs for the poor—they engaged in “paternalism, social exploitation and waste” of a “seemingly inexhaustible flood” of money—but it was just lip service. During his five and a half years in office, federal spending on social services doubled. He would have gone even further if Congress had cooperated. Democrats controlled the House and Senate, but with smaller majorities than during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Nixon proposed a universal health insurance plan not unlike Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Republicans forty years later would call socialism. Still more remarkably, his administration pushed a grand welfare reform plan that would have provided a guaranteed basic family income equal to around $16,000, thereby tripling the number of Americans receiving public assistance and quadrupling federal social welfare spending altogether.

I’ve catalogued this despised Republican president’s leftish policies in the early 1970s to suggest how accustomed Americans had become over the previous forty years to their national government cushioning them from some of the sharpest insecurities and injustices of raw capitalism. During the more conservative 1950s, President Eisenhower, who fashioned himself a “modern Republican,” had said that “only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice” and “hold some vain and foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when organized labor was huddled, almost as a hapless mass.” During the 1960s the political historian Richard Hofstadter noted the inevitable complacency that liberal success had created. Earlier in the century, he wrote, “the United States had an antitrust movement without antitrust prosecutions,” whereas now it had “antitrust prosecutions without an antitrust movement.”

Problems like companies busting unions and having excessive market power seemed to have been more or less solved, or at least were properly policed. In the 1960s, IBM’s president and CEO until 1971, the son of the founder, published a book all about his earnest vision of virtuous capitalist stewardship. The company’s official “basic beliefs” were to treat individual employees respectfully, provide great customer service, and achieve “excellence”—plus to act in society’s general interest, all balanced with trying to make a reasonable profit. It wasn’t just PR. Americans took for granted their modern, softened, fairer free-market political economy. It had been moving in the direction of progress for most of a century—faster at the beginning of the 1900s, slower in the 1920s, very fast in response to the crash and Depression in the 1930s, a bit slower in the 1950s, fast again in the 1960s through the early 1970s. It seemed that while the forward progressive momentum occasionally slowed, it would never permanently stop or move

Over on the economic right, meanwhile, especially among people who owned or ran or advised big businesses, the flip side of that liberal triumphalism around 1970 was the opposite of complacency—it was alarm, dread, panic. The national consensus remained in favor of government acting on behalf of the public good, requiring business to operate fairly and cleanly and affluent people to pay high taxes, giving a hand to the poor. In 1964 and 1965 the Democrats had actually reduced the top personal income tax rates on the richest Americans from 91 to 70 percent—but after that everything was moving in the wrong direction. In the late 1960s antibusiness attitudes among the U.S. public spiraled out of control along with the general distrust of the Establishment. That default antipathy was now mainstream and not diminishing.

Respectable opinion seemed to have turned against big business so
and so
. An exposé of the dangers of synthetic pesticides, Rachel Carson’s
Silent Spring,
had become a number-one bestseller for months and introduced the idea of “the environment” to millions of Americans, which led directly to the creation of the EPA. There was young Ralph Nader, the tenacious lawyer-investigator-activist out of Harvard Law School, whose own damning exposé of corporate irresponsibility,
Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,
became a bestseller in 1966 and by the end of the year inspired a new federal regulatory bureaucracy to improve car safety. As the 1970s began, Nader was an immensely effective antibusiness celebrity expanding his purview and appeared on the cover of
for a story about “The Consumer Revolt.”
marveled that Ford’s CEO and chairman, Henry Ford II, was now “acknowledging the industry’s responsibility for polluting the air and asked—indeed, prodded—the Government to help correct the situation. The auto companies must develop, said Ford, ‘a virtually emission-free’ car, and soon.” By then Nader had assembled a team of even younger lawyer-investigator-activists who were making trouble for other big businesses. Only in private, meeting with auto executives, was the Republican president willing to vent, saying that these liberal activists “aren’t really one damn bit interested in safety or clean air, what they’re interested in is destroying the system, they’re enemies of the system.”

The survey firm Yankelovich, Skelly & White had started asking Americans every year whether they agreed with the statement that “business tries to strike a fair balance between profits and the interests of the public.” In 1968, 70 percent still agreed; in 1970, only 33 percent did. Capitalists were freaking out. So were true-believing free-market intellectuals, who were never very numerous and had lately felt pushed even further to the fringe. All those various “countervailing powers” that had been built up for a century on behalf of citizens and workers seemed to have become crazily supercharged.

The early 1970s still felt like the very late ’60s.
the revolutionary madness was peaking, but so far the grassroots reactionaries were reacting only against the rapidly changing
against the new policy of busing of black students to white schools, against acid, amnesty, and abortion, against empowered women. The national flip-flop concerning the Equal Rights Amendment tracks that cultural moment perfectly.

In the spring of 1972, the 535 members of Congress passed the ERA with only thirty-two nay votes. Just a week later the legislature of Republican Nebraska, where I still lived, became the second state to ratify that amendment to the Constitution—unanimously, 38–0—and by summer it had been ratified by another nineteen, including Idaho, Texas, Kansas, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Hard-core cultural conservatives, who hadn’t been much of an organized national political force, were suddenly galvanized to stop this new abomination. And so less than a year after rushing to approve the explicit guarantee that “equality of rights shall not be denied on account of sex,” Nebraska was a bellwether again, becoming the first state to
its ratification. At that very moment, at the beginning of 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court happened to decide by a vote of 7–2 that abortion was an implicit constitutional right. So with ERA ratification stopped in its tracks, the freshly mobilized cultural right now turned its attention to trying to recriminalize abortion.

But those kinds of backlash by the religious and the provincials weren’t directly doing besieged corporate America and the
right, the economic right, any good at all.
Silent Spring,
Unsafe at Any Speed—
and then in the fall of 1970, denouncing big business more existentially, Reich’s
Greening of America
. It appeared with every possible mainstream blue-chip imprimatur: Yale law professor, prestigious major publisher,
bestseller list for nine months—and a third of the book filled almost an entire issue of
The New Yorker,
so that tens of thousands of members of the business classes could have a savage countercultural attack on their oppressive and doomed capitalist system delivered directly to their doorsteps.

Reich told
New Yorker
subscribers that they and/or their well-compensated friends and neighbors were all prisoners of “an inhuman consciousness dominated by the machine-rationality of the Corporate State” that “literally cares about nothing else than profits” and that had added “to the injustices and exploitation of the nineteenth century” by the robber barons a new “de-personalization, meaninglessness and repression” that threatens “to destroy all meaning and all life.”

He specifically ridiculed the die-hard economic right-wingers,

the businessmen who were the most vocal in their opposition, [who] had a pathological hatred of the New Deal, a hatred so intense and personal as to defy analysis. Why this hatred, when the New Deal, in retrospect, seems to have saved the capitalist system? Perhaps because the New Deal intruded irrevocably upon their make-believe, problem-free world in which the pursuit of business gain and self-interest was imagined to be automatically beneficial to all of mankind, requiring of them no additional responsibility whatever. In any event, there was a large and politically powerful number of Americans who never accepted the New Deal even when it benefited them, and used their power whenever they could to cut it back.

It was a sign of those triumphalist liberal times that Reich referred to haters of the New Deal in the past tense, as if such weird old coots were extinct.

In fact, exactly two weeks before America’s most elite weekly published Reich’s astounding hurrah for revolution, and exactly two blocks west on Forty-third Street in Manhattan, America’s most elite daily published its antithesis, a manifesto telling businesspeople that they should literally care about nothing other than profits and that they had no additional responsibility to society whatever. The essay was as intemperate and self-righteous as
The Greening of America,
and in the end it had more consequence. According to the economist Mariana Mazzucato, it became the modern “founding text…in many ways, of corporate management.”

It was written by Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago libertarian economist, and published across five pages of
The New York Times Magazine
under the headline
. Friedman had become famous during the 1960s, as the decade of free speech and anything-goes outlandishness made his outlandish ideas seem worthier of consideration in respectable circles. The opening spread of the splashy
article is decorated with headshots of a few of the new breed of meddling crypto-socialists—an EPA official, a federal consumer protection bureaucrat, members of Nader’s legal team that was prodding GM to reduce car emissions and hire more black people.

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