As the House of Representatives continues its investigation into the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building, I find myself returning to my earliest days as a voter for evidence of how we got to this awful juncture. You see, I cast my first presidential ballot in 1980, the year of the Reagan Revolution. For years I have been touting that election—what political scientists call a realignment election—as marking a fundamental rightward turn that has profoundly shaped our politics and policy to this day. None other than Pat Buchanan has proclaimed Donald Trump as the “direct descendant and rightful heir to Ronald Reagan.”
Indeed, I think it is fair to claim that the social, economic, and political forces unleashed by the 1980 election led us to the Capitol steps on January 6. Those of us who came of age during the decade of Reagan have spent our entire adult lives in this civic space. To the extent that my own political journey and reflections on that era may give some perspective on our current situation, I share them here.
It’s Just a Jump to the Left
During the late 1970s, it appeared that America’s shift to the right might be compatible with my own worldview, at least to the extent I possessed a coherent one. Born and raised in northwest Indiana, I attended college at Valparaiso University, located on the outskirts of that region. Reaching age 18 and starting at Valparaiso in 1977, I was a registered Republican during most of my college years. Although I tended to split my ticket when voting, my beliefs leaned towards conservatism.
However, influenced by fellow collegians whose beliefs did not comport with the prevailing campus norm, I was gradually becoming more liberal in my political outlook. My transition would loosely mirror that of a one-time conservative GOP Congressman from Illinois, John B. Anderson. Upon entering the House in 1961, Anderson’s own political path started firmly on the right and then gravitated to the left, especially in response to the Vietnam War. Despite holding a leadership position in the GOP House caucus, he found himself increasingly at odds with his party’s positions. In 1979, he announced that he would seek the Republican nomination, with intentions of running on the party’s left flank. (Yes, the GOP had a left flank back then.)
Anderson did well in the early 1980 primaries, but his ceiling soon became evident as the increasingly conservative Republican Party gravitated toward Reagan. In the spring, he would leave the party to run as an independent on a “National Unity Campaign” ticket, with former Wisconsin governor J. Patrick Lucey, a Democrat, as his running mate. After posting strong polling numbers over the summer, his support faded, and he finished with 7 percent of the national vote. Although Anderson’s break from the GOP is regarded as something of a political footnote today, I believe that his departure was a major canary in the coal mine moment, an early signaling that the party no longer had much room for moderate and liberal voices.
As a collegian, I was quickly drawn to Anderson’s primary candidacy and volunteered to help organize ballot access efforts in Indiana. I then signed on for his independent run, serving as coordinator for northwest Indiana, while juggling senior year courses and activities at Valparaiso. On Election Night, I was stunned by Reagan’s decisive win over Jimmy Carter and the defeat of dozens of progressive Democrats in the Congress. In Indiana, staunch Democrat Birch Bayh lost his Senate seat to one Dan Quayle. Liberal stalwart John Brademas lost his South Bend district House seat to a little-known conservative challenger, John Hiler. I knew that evening that whatever my political affiliation happened to be, it was no longer with the Republican Party.
The Reagan Revolution and Domestic Policy
Fueled by a resurgent conservative movement, the Reagan Administration powered sharp changes in America’s domestic policy. For those who were around to witness these developments, the memories may be quite fresh. But it’s worth recounting the major ones, if only to remind us of how relevant they are to the current political environment.
The Moral Majority, a conservative political organization led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr., served notice that social issues would be significant during the 1980 campaign and beyond. In the name of traditional family values, its social policy agenda opposed a woman’s right to choose, feminism, and gay and lesbian rights, while favoring prayer in public schools. The Moral Majority was strongly aligned with the Reagan Administration. Although the organization disappeared in the late 1980s, before its demise it helped to build a conservative social policy movement for the longer haul.
In the run-up to the 1980 election, a neoliberal economic orthodoxy was gaining momentum. By sharply cutting taxes paid by the wealthy, capital would be freed to work its way down the ladder, to the benefit of all—or so the argument went. This theory would become known as trickle-down economics. The Reagan Administration pushed through a series of large tax and spending cuts that would disproportionately benefit the wealthy, starting with 1982 legislation that, among other things, reduced the top personal income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent. Thus began a relentless push for lower taxes on America’s most fortunate that has shaped our economic policy for decades, while failing to provide the supposed trickle-down benefits to the unwealthy.
Attack on Labor
In 1981, Reagan ordered the mass firing of over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981 – all union members — and banned them for life from federal service. This remains a signature event in the history of American labor. Although the action occurred in a public employee context, it signaled to private employers that aggressive anti-labor stances would find support from within the White House. As if this message needed reinforcement, Reagan’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, which presides over labor-management disputes governed by federal labor laws, were strongly anti-union.
Funding Higher Education
The 1980s marked a massive shift in the funding of higher education. Overall, between 1980 and 1985, federal spending on higher education was cut approximately 25 percent. High-interest student loans supplanted grants and scholarships as primary forms of financial aid, which, when combined with hefty annual tuition increases at schools across the country, created significant increases in student debt loads. The student debt crisis of today traces its roots squarely back to the Reagan era.
Dog Whistling and Silence
In addition to generally opposing women’s rights, Reagan engaged in racial dog-whistling and remained silent for years about a deadly virus wreaking havoc on the gay community. During the years preceding his election, he routinely opposed civil rights initiatives and defended states’ rights. In his classic “aw shucks” fashion, he promoted the image of the Black “welfare queen” who uses public assistance monies to make extravagant purchases. Although AIDS was identified in 1981 and HIV was discovered as its cause in 1982, Reagan waited for years to even acknowledge this as a public health crisis.
How should we characterize these policy and political messaging shifts in the aggregate? What forces were driving them? In his insightful Preface to Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982 ed.), social scientist Bertram Gross identified two conflicting trends in American culture:
The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership…. The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others…. It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others, and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.
We know which trend cornered the market. It was stoked by a group identified by Gross as consolidating power and wealth in America. Again, his prescience was stunning:
I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.
Start Spreading the News
As the Reagan Revolution was getting underway, Donald Trump was modeling his own form of strong-armed behaviors in New York City. During the 1980s and 1990s, he would harass and intimidate tenants in his rental properties, refuse to pay vendors who did work for him, and engage in wild financial speculation under cover of bankruptcy laws. In 1989, after five young African American men were (wrongfully) accused of a brutal assault on a white female in Central Park, he ran a full-page newspaper ad calling for the restoration of the death penalty. He is even widely blamed for sinking the United States Football League, a rival of the more established NFL, via his bullying tactics as a team owner of its New York franchise.
With millions of others in New York, I was there to witness it. In 1982, a year after graduating from college, I decamped from Indiana and for law school at New York University, located in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. From this more liberal vantage point, I witnessed how a “greed is good” mantra, economic power and connections, divisive racial politics, and financial recklessness were shaping New York City of the late 20th century. Trump played the game as well as anyone and enjoyed rock-star treatment in the process. I distinctly recall conversations with folks who identified as Democrats or feminists, expressing their admiration for him.
I had a visceral dislike of Trump and his world back then, but I did not foresee how he would metastasize onto the national and global political stages decades later. Instead, I casually dismissed periodic speculation about his political prospects as overhyped enthusiasm connected to his celebrity status.
A New Dark Age?
By the turn of the century, hard right and plutocratic forces were rallying together, even if many of us were failing to grasp the longer-term implications. In Dark Age Ahead (2004), the late Jane Jacobs, whose writings and activism shaped our understanding of everyday city life, expressed fears that we are entering a new “Dark Age,” characterized by a deterioration in core societal institutions and values. She identified these key markers of our decline:
- Family and community — Consumption, consumerism, debt, and wealth supplanting the welfare of our families and communities;
- Higher education — Higher education becoming a tool for credentialing, rather than being a process for learning;
- Science — Denigrating hard science, along with elevating economics as the primary science shaping public policy;
- Government — Ending the notion of government for the common good, replaced by government acting on behalf of powerful interests; and,
- Ethics — A breakdown of ethics in learned professions.
Sound familiar? Most reviewers greeted Dark Age Ahead with polite acknowledgements of the author’s concerns, along with a nod to her overall reputation and body of work. But her book failed to sound many alarm bells. However, Jacobs was merely a decade or so ahead of her time. Her assessment was spot on, having anticipated our current milieu with scary accuracy.
The “New” Extremists
Given their remarkable ability to identify social and political trends, perhaps Bertram Gross or Jane Jacobs could’ve anticipated Donald Trump’s presidency. But here’s the kicker that might have escaped even their crystal balls: A lot of the folks who charged up the Capitol steps on January 6 were entering their adult years and the heart of American society when Gross and Jacobs were active authors. That’s right, middle-class, middle-aged Trump supporters helped to fuel the insurrection. This was a key finding from the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. In The Atlantic (Feb. 2021), Drs. Robert Pape and Keven Ruby, principal researchers with the Chicago Project, shared:
Because a number of the rioters prominently displayed symbols of right-wing militias, for instance, some experts called for a crackdown on such groups . . . . However, a closer look at the people suspected of taking part in the Capitol riot suggests a different and potentially far more dangerous problem: a new kind of violent mass movement in which more “normal” Trump supporters—middle-class and, in many cases, middle-aged people without obvious ties to the far right—joined with extremists in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.
Pape and Ruby added that the events of January 6 revealed “a broader mass political movement that has violence at its core and draws strength even from places where Trump supporters are in the minority.” Accordingly, “standard methods of countering violent extremism—such as promoting employment or waiting patiently for participants to mellow with age—probably won’t mollify middle-aged, middle-class insurrectionists.”
We Need Shining Lights
For reasons that I wish were not so, I believe that the work of philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt will be increasingly relevant toward understanding how individual behaviors impact broader concerns in today’s America.
Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in a civilized society.
Arendt’s work was deeply informed by events in Europe during the first half of the last century. In her Preface to Men in Dark Times (1968 ed.), an examination of how prominent European intellectuals, religious leaders, civic leaders, and activists responded to authoritarian threats of the era, she posited:
Even in the darkest of times, we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them on earth.
During the years to come, we’re going to need lots of people, “in their lives and works” (to borrow from Arendt), to shine a light on our society and to make life more humane, dignified, and inclusive. The forces unleashed by Donald Trump have taken on lives of their own and remain strongly in play. The pandemic has underscored the impact of our divisions. Looking only slightly ahead, one can only imagine the responses of some Americans when asked to engage in even mild sacrifice to minimize the ravages of climate change.
Thus, we don’t need more folks watching out only for themselves and their smaller circle. We don’t need more people running to the extremes and then digging in hard. We don’t need more bystanders who submit passively to malevolent forces swirling around us, while quietly hoping not to be among those swallowed up by them. Rather, this is a time for us to stand for something and be counted, as individuals of conscience and as members of a broader, caring community.
David Yamada is a Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, an editor of The American Commentator, and chair of the Americans for Democratic Education Fund. Some passages in this article have been drawn from his professional blog, Minding the Workplace.