My 30-year high school reunion is this weekend, and the occasion has given me cause for reflection, in addition to the dieting. Although Reagan had been in office for two years, leading to a grinding recession that hit Oregon particularly hard, the horrors of our current political era had only barely manifested themselves at that moment of my misspent youth.
We had two Republican Senators, one of whom was famous for being anti-war and pro-environment; the other for being staunchly pro-choice and in favor of women’s rights generally. (Later we realized this was probably just a cynical strategy to get laid, but that’s another story for another day…) Republican Governor Tom McCall had championed the nation’s first bottle bill, prevented privatization of the ocean beaches, enacted strict laws against sprawl and overdevelopment, and we had cancelled one freeway in favor of light rail and removed another to make way for Waterfront Park, which now bears McCall’s name.
Marijuana had been decriminalized for several years, and the Vietnam Syndrome was still in effect; to my teenage eyes, the world seemed to be moving inexorably forward out of a fairly dark era. If anyone had told me that thirty years later, we would be a bankrupt, crumbling police state, lorded over by sociopathic billionaires and saddled with multiple ongoing and prospective wars, racism would be back and better than ever, and yet a near-majority of Americans would look around and somehow see “European Socialism,” I would have promptly taken the bong away from them.
But even with the worst case of pot-induced paranoia, I could not have envisioned the sci-fi dystopia we live in today; Reagan was a contemptible lightweight surrounded by conniving thieves and charlatans, but Alzheimers-ridden though he was, he was still against, say, torture. For all his jingoistic bluster, he only engaged in brief, winnable conflicts abroad, and small, mostly symbolic incursions at home. Though his policies favored the rich over everyone else, he nonetheless respected the sanctity of Social Security, the Estate Tax and taxes on capital gains. When his tax cuts and military spending sent the budget into deficits, he raised taxes as needed.
Me, waxing nostalgic about the Reagan era? That’s a bad, bad, sign. Now we have a nominally Democratic President who makes Reagan look like LBJ, and a Republican opponent who makes Teddy Roosevelt look like Karl Marx. Reagan made a big deal about wanting to put a teacher in space (too bad she ended up toast…), but today’s Republicans want to send them all there, and say so, proudly. Reagan famously decried the unfairness of a bus driver paying a higher tax rate than a wealthy investor; now the debate is whether we should have bus drivers at all, since all those fat, lazy, poor people would be better off walking.
The Reagan Administration prosecuted hundreds of crooked S&L executives and nationalized their sleazy operations; Obama wanted to Look Forward when the same thing happened for the same reasons, but on a much larger scale. Reagan engaged in union-busting early on, but never tried to get rid of them entirely, as Republicans today do with almost missionary zeal.
A lot of factors contributed to this dismal downward spiral, but chief among them is the degradation of the media and the monopolization of, well, everything, that Reagan set in motion all those years ago. A media with fewer and fewer voices turned journalists into insecure, power-fellating careerists even as the abandonment of antitrust laws turned once- vibrant American capitalism into something more closely resembling three-card monte. Historically low taxes and laughable hero-worship turned the parasitic rich, once the villains of 20th century folklore, into untouchable Masters of the Universe.
The years have undoubtedly taken their toll on me and the rest of the Class of 1982, but compared to our country, we look great, especially without our reading glasses. I’ll be leaving mine at home, and drinking heavily.