Sunday, July 31st, 2016

By Reed Galen

Quote by a Smart Person: “The era of big government is over.” President Bill Clinton, 1996 State of the Union Address

Welcome to the American Singularity.

During the last two weeks we saw dramatic shifts in the major American political parties, what they stand for and who carries their banners. The Republican Cleveland conclave saw Donald Trump take the GOP on a fear-fueled acid trip designed to encourage older, white, disaffected voters to pull the lever for a time in America that no longer exists, if it ever did. Long gone were the heady days of Reaganite optimism or Bushesque compassionate conservatism. The social conservatives, hawks, small government libertarians and RINOs all left the Quicken Loans Center empty-handed.

The Democrats by contrast, moved decidedly and determinedly to the left on domestic policy while sprinkling in enough hawkish rhetoric to try and bring some Republicans and independents across the line in November. Seeming as distant as they could be from Bill Clinton’s working hand-in-hand with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, Democratic policy became decidedly even more progressive than it was when Senator Barack Obama won his first term almost eight years ago. The last of the Blue Dogs were put to sleep in Philadelphia.

Both parties’ speakers and leaders full-throatedly advocated for more control out of Washington. The era of big government may have begun in earnest under President Obama, but under either President Trump or President Clinton (#2) this growth will continue, likely unabated. How, where and why Federal reach will grow is drastically different depending on the party in power.

How did we come to this place? We need to go back to not September 11th, 2001, what I have previously described as the beginning of the American Uncertainty, but likely back in time another decade to the end of the Cold War. Prior to the 1990–1991 fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communist Bloc and ultimate the Soviet Union, the United States had an overarching mission and enemy. The Red Army and its thousands of nuclear warheads were always poised to start World War III.

For the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers and most of Generation X, the Cold War was the reality of life. This global mold held in place many beliefs, on both sides of the aisle, and from coast to coast. The tectonic global political shift untethered us from 50 years of largely unified belief in what the world was about; who was good and who was bad.

The post-World War II industrial economy was in its last throes as Americans had known it for 50 years. We weren’t making many televisions, microwaves or much big stuff anymore. Union membership was falling precipitously. The world that so many had fought to create, and in which so many more had come of age, was coming to a dramatic end.

President George H. W. Bush, a World War II veteran himself, lost his 1992 reelection bid as the Great Transition continued and a boyish, charming southern Baby Boomer named Bill Clinton took office. Johnny Carson, the voice who spoke nightly for generations of Americans, retired and the gentle, but noticeable calling out of higher authority (of any stripe) went with him.

For Clinton’s eight years in office, “Pax Americana” ruled as many of our long-standing military formations were brought home, no longer needed to defend the Fulda Gap. Technology was starting to make an increasing mark on our lives as the Internet truly came of age in the mid-90s and allowed a fast flow of information and data than anyone could have possibly imagined. Almost overnight the Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes that lined the stacks of my high school library was just so much more paper destined for the recycling bin.

The Fulda Gap. Courtesy

We also saw the rise of Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio. In 1996, both Fox News and MSNBC made their debut, ending the reality that you could only get your news at 6 am, noon, 6pm and 11 pm. Newspapers began posting their stories online. Millions of previously voiceless Americans began banging out “weblogs” — espousing their opinions on everything from politics to the NFL playoffs.

The technological and generational revolution took place much faster than anyone could have expected or certainly predicted. Rather than sitting in front the one television in our house and getting our news from Walter and our jokes from Johnny, we were suddenly able to go to the places that gave us the news, opinions and perspectives we wanted, on our timeline with myriad other like-minded people. And so began the striation and ultimately our resorting not as Americans first and always but with identifiers built-in, letting us know to whom we should speak, with whom we would agree and to whom we should listen.

By the end of the decade, though, the Tech Bubble burst and as we began a new century, 9/11 broke our psyche and further drove our economy south. The country struggled to understand our new reality — one in which someone could die at the hands of terrorists just by going to work in the morning. Watching the Twin Towers and the resulting war on terror further untethered us from the belief that we were truly safe within our own borders.

The Patriot Act, designed to increase intelligence and surveillance capabilities, sailed through Congress and was signed by President Bush. The beginning of Americans’ reliance, indeed willingness, to accept over-arching Federal power and authority, had begun.

A short seven years later, with the country mired in two wars, the hammer-blow of the Great Recession further broke down our ability to believe that we as Americans, are actually in control of much of anything. Washington doled out billions upon billions to banks who’d made bad bets, leaving homeowners to deal with their mortgages on their own. President Obama spent another billion dollars on a stimulus program that created few, if any, real jobs. He pushed through Obamacare as a party-line vote, further splitting the country’s political populace down the middle and giving rise to the Tea Party. The hangover from that party is with us today.

As the current White House occupant prepares to take his leave, Republicans have traded self-reliance and capitalism for cronyism and the chimera of security. Democrats have reverted to a magnified version of their modus operandi: we’re really going to give you everything and do it all for you. Both conservative and liberal Americans believe that the system, whatever it is, is broken and doesn’t look out for them.

If a politician promises them cheaper healthcare, do they really mind that it comes from the government? Not if what they have today leaves them bankrupt and sick. Younger Americans were promised, as so many of us were, that if you went to college and got your degree, the American economy would take you in with open arms. That is no longer the case. So why should we have to pay for college, or pay off our student debt if “they” didn’t hold up their side of the bargain? If someone tells you that we can avoid ISIS attacking us at home by shutting out Muslims, or tagging them, you might be willing to agree to that if it means your son can go to a nightclub and come home safely.

While the Democrats may have revived the drumbeat of “hope and change” in Philadelphia, many Americans, black, white, Latino, gay or straight, are less optimistic about our direction. Many Republicans are sure we’re headed to hell in a hand basket and that our American house, as currently built, is infested and the only remedy is to burn the place to the ground and start over. In whose image? They haven’t gotten that far yet. Regardless of who wins the White House in November, the new President will be looking for more things for the Feds to take care of, solve or protect us from. We’re a long way from 1996.

AuthorReed Galen