The Unwitting Father of the American Progressive Movement? Ronald Reagan

During his presidential campaign, American politician (and future US President) Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) smiles from behin
During his presidential campaign, American politician (and future US President) Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) smiles from behind a pair of microphones, Florida, June 1980. (Photo Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)

The seeds of the modern American progressive movement were arguably first sown over 50 years ago by two events which shook American's trust in their government -- the disastrous Vietnam War and the subsequent Watergate scandal.

The lies told to Americans by their government regarding the Vietnam War cost the nation its sense of inevitability and its belief that our government at least in wartime, was invincible -- a stunning reversal for generations of Americans whose sense of American military prowess was carved by American military triumphs in two World Wars. And for people who still doubted America's failure in Vietnam, there were 58,000 reminders of that failure whose families resided in virtually every town, in every state in the nation.

The Watergate scandal cost America its president, which in and of itself was a stunner in a nation which had come to revere its political leaders, but arguably more importantly, it shattered our perception that whether you always agreed with its policies, at its core, our government was basically good. No more.

By the late 1970s, these two events had planted the seeds for the modern progressive movement, but they did not guarantee its rebirth. More likely, these events confused and frightened Americans as much as anything and they unnerved them as the events tested their longstanding beliefs about the invincibility of American Democracy.

At this critical point in our nation's history, a true political leader could have pulled America back on course. A true political leader could have made things right again by returning to what had worked in the '50s, '60s and '70s. So, by 1980, what America needed was another Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy who believed in not just the power, but in the need for a people powered representative democracy.

Instead we got Ronald Reagan.

Reagan had a horribly cynical view of government. He championed a pull yourself up by your bootstraps assault on programs for middle and poor America while his Imelda Marcos-esque programs offered unlimited free shoes, if you will, to the rich and corporate America in the form of regulatory cuts and bare bones tax policy and loopholes for them. He also embraced the divisive and polarizing social policies of groups like the not-so-Moral Majority. All of this effectively killed and ended America's previous progressive successes while it reversed course rather dramatically. But in doing so, it was Reagan himself who nurtured the seeds for American Progressivism 2.0 which is just now beginning to bear fruit.

This is the sum of Ronald Reagan's imprint on our government which fertilized the seeds of the progressive movement we are witnessing today:

-- Reagan gave Americans an unhealthy and even deadly cynicism toward government. He was the first president in modern times to campaign on a theme that taught Americans to virtually hate their government and give up on it because, even though it had played the most pivotal role in making America the envy of the world, he, without justification, said it did not work and was not the solution to our problems -- it was the problem. (Remember Reagan's 1988 campaign mantra, "government is not the solution to the problem, it is the problem.") It should not be lost on Americans today that just twenty short years before Reagan, when America was the envy of the world in all things economic, educational, humanitarian, technological and just about every other category of strength, John F. Kennedy was elected President largely on a mantra which said government does work and is a good force -- in fact, Kennedy argued, together with the American people, our government could do virtually anything. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" was Kennedy's reminder to Americans that their government is only as good as they demand it to be. Or to put it another way, in a truly representative democracy, the people are the government and working together nothing is out of reach.

And to show you the power of the voice of political leaders, in 1961, right after Kennedy was elected President -- on that platform that American's government was good and indeed was a reflection of the American people -- 75 percent of respondents in a Newsweek poll said that America's government was a good force in their lives. Fast forward 20 years to January 1981 right after Reagan was elected President -- on that platform that said government was not the solution to the problem, but was the problem -- Newsweek took the same exact poll and now found that 75 percent of respondents in it said government was a bad force in their lives.

In a true representative system, Kennedy was obviously right -- for government to work in a system such as ours, the people have to participate and demand and indeed dictate how their government works for everyone. Reagan was obviously wrong -- if people no longer believe that government works, in a system such as ours, the government, without the watchdog eyes of a participating constituency, is ripe for abuse.

-- Reagan also gave Americans a misguided assault on and ultimate obliteration of much needed governmental regulations on single (read "profit") minded corporations. And when big profit and competitively driven corporations are not mandated to perform responsibly, too often they don't. These flawed decisions then manifested into a litany of damning trends for America not the least of which was the financial crisis of 2008, an ongoing and unprecedented outsourcing of jobs, our unparalleled income inequality, an explosion of corporate lobbying entities and deep pocketed marionette puppets controlled by gilded special interests who have pulled these puppet strings making our political figures into parodies of their sold out selves, a woeful and alarming underinvestment in infrastructure, research and development, education and health care, along with soaring food insecurity and an inadequate and bank-friendly housing policy. And it is directly responsible for the massive environmental disaster that is our planet in 2016, including such immediate and personal disasters such as is Flint, Michigan.

-- Reagan also gave Americans a confused embracement of the bizarre notion of trickle-down economics which abandoned 50 years of successful governmental investment in people and indeed had created the largest middle class the world had ever seen and further established the 20th Century as clearly, "the American century." Instead, Reagan initiated the largest welfare and income redistribution program in the history of our nation -- albeit welfare and income redistribution handed to the richest Americans and to the richest corporations through giveaway tax loopholes and streamlined "rent seeker" policies for the wealthy which literally handed them hundreds of billions of tax dollars with no strings attached, and included regulation manipulation and abandonment. The belief was that with this relief, corporations would have new revenue streams to invest in America. They didn't. Instead they took their government giveaways along with American jobs and sheltered them overseas or across the US border with Mexico. This turned out to be a double dose of economic destruction for our government and for our workers.

Imagine had Reagan the vision and sense of history to embrace Lincoln's call to listen to the "mystic chords of memory" and directed America to come together and build our government and our system back to a time when we invested in our people instead of dividing Americans and tearing down our government which had done so much to elevate our nation for the previous 35 years. Reagan may have called his America "a shining city on a hill" but history now shows us that city has turned out to be a gated community where only the select wealthiest are allowed to live while the rest of America toils harder and harder for less and less of the American Dream.

-- Reagan's cynicism regarding government indeed took root. With his blessing and even encouragement, Americans started abdicating their responsibility to watchdog Washington by not participating in the voting process much less anything else when it came to governance. In short, they believed Reagan that government was bad -- so why participate in it? Fast forward to today and that cynical and shortsighted vision has resulted in only one out of two eligible voters even bothering to register to vote while only one out of two registered voters votes in most elections in the United States. That means three out of four eligible voters in America are not participating in our elections today. Talk about letting the inmates run the asylum.

And the inmates are indeed running roughshod over the American household. In just the past six years, in today's America, two dozen ideologue governors have pushed through legislation to make it even harder for voters to participate by claiming nonexistent voter fraud - and for the most part the beaten and cynical American voters seem not to notice. In today's America, the United States Senate is refusing to even hold a hearing on a U.S. Supreme Court nominee arguing Constitutional mandate where none exists -- well, except the one that says they must hold a hearing and the one that says presidents are elected for four year terms not three year terms -- but no matter, the inmates are now the guards of the asylum.

And as Americans began checking out and not participating in government, demanding that it work for them, government largely quit participating and working in the lives of the vast majority of Americans in other ways as well.

Wages in America have been shockingly flat. The U.S. minimum wage sits at an embarrassing $7.25 an hour. Had the people been participating and demanding government work for them, in this case mandating that the minimum wage at least keep up with inflation, it would be over $25 an hour today.

Corporate profits skyrocketed as did CEO pay and today a CEO makes 350 times more than the income of his or her average worker.

Today the wealthiest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 160 million Americans -- over half of the entire population of the country.

The Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, alone have more wealth than 40 percent of all Americans combined -- yet the U.S. taxpayer bails out Walmart to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in subsidies each year to pay for the health are costs of their uncovered or under-covered employees.

Today in America, a greater percentage of people hold multiple jobs in an attempt to make ends meet than at any other time in U.S. history.

One in two minimum wage making fast food workers in America needs government assistance just to help them survive and pay their bills.

But remember that America's "safety net" was largely shredded over the past 30 years beginning with Reagan's assault on social programs that built the foundation for economic hope and opened doors to opportunity for millions of Americans.

During the Great Recession of the late 2000s for instance, with unemployment skyrocketing into the low teens, only 38 percent of the unemployed received unemployment benefits of any kind from the government, and 44 percent never received any.

When people don't have jobs and the government abandons them instead of being a partner with them for the good of both, people do what they have to do. Unfortunately, too many people turned to crime or bounced checks to pay their bills. And today in part as a consequence of bad government policy, nearly 2.5 million people are in prison in the U.S. -- the highest incarceration rate in the world - ten times that of most of our European counterparts. Today in the US we spend $45,000 to build a prison cell and $40,000 a year to incarcerate a person in it. By contrast, we invest only about $15,000 a year to educate our school children in our best pro-education states. (In my home state of South Dakota, we spend less than $5,000 a year, the worst in America to educate a child.)

Equally as bad, one out of every six Americans today live in poverty, including almost one in four of our children.

Why are Americans making so little money while the corporate heads are robbing government blind?

In part, it is the collapse of the image and power of unions in America. And here too, Ronald Reagan played a big role. Reagan is justly credited with convincing Americans that union membership was bad, a belief that manifested with his breaking up the air traffic controllers union but also with a frightening decline in union membership that cost American workers significantly in wages, benefits and dignity.

To give perspective, in the 1960s when America was leading the world in most things economic, 35 percent of the American workforce was unionized. Today the figure is under six percent of nongovernment workers. This has contributed to America losing its longstanding claim of having the largest percentage of its people in the middle class. That distinction is now Canada's which surpassed America two years ago and where 34 percent of its workforce is unionized.

It galls me to hear analysts say, "Americans won't work for $6 an hour jobs." That is a copout -- it puts the blame on the American worker when the real blame needs to go to greedy corporate EOs and to our government and their pro-corporate and anti-worker policies. These same analysts might as well chime, "Americans just won't work for six cents an hour jobs" because the real point is that Americans cannot live on $6 an hour jobs so the real issue is: Why aren't corporations who are making record profits paying their workers more and why when corporations are stretched in their ability to pay is the government not there to be a partner in making policy that works for both sides?

Let's say that the government decided it should double the minimum wage to $15 an hour for example. Should that happen in America, the costs to Americans for every dollar spend on goods and services would be a mere penny per dollar. So, for example, instead of paying $5 for a Big Mac, consumers would have to pay a mere $5.05 for the McDonalds sandwich. For virtually every American, that little amount would not even be noticed. But for the millions of Americans working at minimum wage or below, it would mean putting nearly $15,000 a year in their pockets! And what will they do with that $15,000? They will spend it. They will buy long needed shoes, clothing, food, appliances, and other goods and services. And what will that do? It will open factories and employ more Americans. It is a dirty little myth that raising the minimum wage will hurt business -- it would in truth energize it. And what about the smallest businesses who might be burdened? Well, first off, if everyone were required to pay the increased wage and if every company passed on the costs to their consumers -- there would be no burden at all.

Yet, it wasn't just strong unions that helped Americans secure good wages. It was a strong education system considered second to none. And government's commitment to fund education began its fateful decline during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. With Reagan's corporate loving tax programs, government revenues fell and there was less federal money headed to the states and when that happened, education became one of the first and easiest targets for states to cut.

As a consequence today, after 30 years of shrunken budgets, overcrowded classrooms, underfunding of vital services including that of providing a diversified class curriculum to students in elementary and secondary education, America's education system from early childhood education to higher education has taken a southern turn and today is embarrassing for a nation which once stood as the model for the world.

To begin, of the 50 U.S. states, only 11 have government funded "birth to three" and "pre-kindergarten" programs for our youngest children -- even though all empirical evidence indicates this early education is fundamental to future success -- and that it returns upwards of $7 dollars for every dollar invested in these programs.

At the elementary and secondary level, overloaded teachers and classrooms, coupled with program and support assistance cuts has resulted today in our 15-year-olds not able to crack the global top 20 in reading, math or science.

In mathematics, 29 nations of the 65 nations tested in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams outperformed US school children "by a statistically significant margin" according to PISA records for 2012. In science, students from 22 nations tested better than did U.S. students, and in reading students from 19 nations scored higher than did U.S. students -- up from just nine nations in 2009. All three of these scores are benchmark indicators for future economic and personal prowess.

In addition, America's highly respected higher education system has effectively priced most American students out of the ability to participate in it. Since 1978, tuition at American colleges and universities has risen 1,800 percent. The result is that today only one out of four high school graduates will graduate from college in America.

We are now a net exporter of PhD graduates for the first time in our nation's history -- unthinkable for this country which for generations was the destination for the world's best and brightest to learn, live and produce. Those best minds will now be producing the next generation breakthroughs in medicine, electronics, technology, science and pharmaceuticals for some other nation to reap the benefits.

What are other great nations doing to compete with the higher education system in the US? In Germany, for instance, all higher education for German students is free. In fact, the Germans learned so much from the US how an affordable and indeed even free education could benefit their nation (They watched as did the rest of the world how after the US educated 3.2 million returning World War II vets for free, the U.S. soon led the world in everything.) that they are now replicating it for all their young people -- actually they are replicating it for all of our young people as well. You see, Germany offers free higher education not just to any German student, but to any American student who desires one as well. And because they know America has not put an emphasis on the need for fluency in a second language, they offer courses taught in English to American students who do not speak German.

The truth is that since Ronald Reagan began the assault on America's public education system, the numbers have crumbled so dramatically that this generation of American school children will be the first in US history that is less educated than their parents.

I could go on of course. America's health care system is still not working as it should -- remember Reagan said government programs do not work -- even though the U.S. Medicare program is a model of success and fiscal management -- so his Republican offspring watered down Obamacare and continue to assault it. On top of that, income inequality in America has exploded, a third of America's roads and bridges are in disrepair. Our tax system is so riddled with wealth friendly loopholes that 43 percent of US corporations paid zero dollars in taxes last year while the "effective" tax rate on corporations is under 20 percent -- the second lowest in the world - not the highest as corporate propaganda would have you believe. The same can be said for the tax rate on America's wealthy individuals -- it is not 35 percent but closer to 20 percent after loopholes are taken into consideration. Finally, the US Supreme Court effectively codified the inequities in America's economy through a series of decisions that today allow a handful of the very wealthiest Americans to essentially buy our elections -- virtually assuring that the voices of the very rich are the only ones heard in Washington.

The consequences of all of this is that tens of millions of Americans, including millions of next generation Americans are turning to progressive ideals, principles and values. And while it is still too early for us to know yet what it all means, it would appear that the fruit of the seeds of progressivism sown by the ills of Watergate and Vietnam but nurtured through the fertilizer of the programs of Ronald Reagan, are about to be harvested by this generation of Americans.

Ronald Reagan, the father of modern progressivism. Who knew.