Values

Watching this country move through what feels like a lasting inflection point has brought me back to my college graduation in 1980 and the last major realignment in American politics. The calm spring weather that year stood in contrast to an elusive and uneasy sense that something turbulent was about to happen to the political order.

There was a presidential election ahead where the choices didn’t seem to fit the moment. The country had effectively given up on Jimmy Carter, but Republicans were about to nominate a second-rate movie actor and right wing pitchman to oppose him. Ronald Reagan was so far outside the mainstream of the previous half-century of political thought that his nomination gave rise to the independent candidacy of John Anderson, a nondescript Republican congressman from the Midwest who positioned himself as a sane alternative to Reagan and a moderate alternative to Carter. Like most independents and third party challengers, Anderson struggled to convince enough people he could win, so with Carter fumbling and Reagan unable to persuade a skeptical public until the very end, the outcome that spring was anything but clear.  

Still, there was a palpable sense that something important was shifting in what political reporters like to call the national mood. I couldn’t identify what was going on, but the speaker at my commencement could. I.F. Stone was a celebrated left wing journalist and observer of American society, and on a warm morning in the Broome County Arena he warned a packed house of graduates from a liberal New York State university that a sea change in values was underway. He anticipated Reagan’s rise to power that fall and spoke of the coming abandonment of community in favor of a politics of consumption that he feared would tear at the fabric of the country, aiming his remarks directly at some of the parents in attendance whose vocal restlessness with his protracted remarks reflected, in his view, a selfish attitude that was about to drive the country off the rails.

Selfish is the operative word here. My time in college dovetailed with the disco era, a moment of self-indulgence following the unrest of the 1960s, the tragedy of Vietnam and the trauma of Watergate. It was the surprisingly brief bridge between the era of hippies and the era of yuppies, between the youthful idealism of not trusting anyone under thirty to the self-absorbed ethic of not trusting anyone under thirty thousand in annual income. The speed of that transition was disturbing. How could a generation devoted to peace and egalitarianism when they were twenty-something so easily embrace the consumption culture when they were thirty-something?

Stone understood that the values undergirding a half-century of liberal governance were buckling under the weight of shifting public opinion, but in the spring of 1980 this seemed hard to believe and even harder to accept. Dramatic changes always make sense in hindsight, rarely as they are happening. 

Which brings me back to why this moment reminds me so much of that spring forty years ago. In the public response to today’s intertwined crises you can see the rejection of the values that were ascendant in 1980 on which two generations of governance were built. Republicans in their heyday considered themselves the party of individual rights and responsibilities. Over time, this value structure functioned to maintain the social order of white America and an economic order that promoted acquisition and the interests of those who did better with less government regulation and lower taxes at the expense of the programs that taxation could provide. Wrapped in the language of values, it placed consumption ahead of the commons and generated the extreme inequities in wealth and opportunity being exposed right now by pandemic and protest.

As events unfold this spring, there is again an elusive sense that something turbulent is stirring the political order, only this time it portends a return to community and a rejection of the heartlessness which has been at the center of our national life for so long. Republicans have no answer to the economic and health inequities exposed by the pandemic, no answer to the cries of justice for Black lives, because the call to address these problems is also a rejection of the values that have kept them in power for decades.

On the other side of the pandemic, the economic disaster and the protests is the promise of a politics built on a value structure that meets this moment. It will be at the heart of the political realignment that has been building for the past several years and promises to come to fruition this fall. While it will not end the divisiveness that defines our time it will shift the terms of debate and in the process open new possibilities that the fading value structure precluded. Like in 1980, there is something in the wind, a sense that the old answers no longer apply, old political alignments no longer work, and a political regime long in twilight and devoid of answers is passing away.