What will it take to wrench America back to the principles and ideals that seemed immutable in the mid-twentieth century? We believed in America the Beautiful because it really was, before the oil spilled, the great forests fell to loggers’ saws and strip miners decapitated the mountains. We believed in Justice and Freedom even as the South lived under the rule of Jim Crow, much of the North had de facto segregation and the Greatest Generation fought World War II in segregated units. Fifty years ago we were bloodied by the struggle for civil rights. In the following decade women fought for the privileges men had always enjoyed.
Was there ever a time when the rich were considerate of the poor and politicians weren’t corrupt? Were we ever less venal than other countries? Were we ever justified in feeling morally superior to the rest of the world? Despite the self-deception (or lack of self-awareness) that blinded us to the inequities all around us, we believed that American democracy would save us and show the way to the rest of the world. We strived to form a more perfect Union.
But even if certain aspects of our exceptionalism were mythical, the white majority was able to pull together, to recognize the wrongs it had inflicted upon fellow Americans—African-Americans, native Americans, chicanos, even other whites like the Irish, Italians and Jews—and it took steps to redress the injustice. By and large, the president and his office were respected and revered. Accusing the president of lying while he was delivering the State of the Union to a joint session of Congress was unthinkable.
In 1964 Lyndon Johnson envisioned a Great Society that
rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.
A consummate politician, Johnson wheeled and dealed to force through Congress the Civil Rights Act, ending segregation, and the Voting Rights Act, making illegal the practices used to deny suffrage to African-Americans. Johnson triumphed over his arch-conservative rival, Barry Goldwater, who opposed his War on Poverty. But today Goldwater’s heirs are waging a war on the poor, working mightily to destroy Johnson’s signature achievements like Medicare, the Jobs Corps, and other programs designed to eliminate poverty.
The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.
Head Start is a preschool program that prepares disadvantaged children for kindergarten.
[The Great Society] is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.
It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.
Johnson’s Wilderness Protection Act and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities have been gutted and defunded.
The most pernicious effect of the Great Society’s gradual demise is income inequality—the gap between the superrich and everybody else. Last November Nick Kristof wrote:
The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. As Timothy Noah of Slate noted in an excellent series on inequality, the United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana.
C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.
From today’s New York Times:
…until recently, Brazil was the most unequal country in the world.Today, however, Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country. Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.
Is this what we’ve become? A banana republic governed by the Party of No?