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From “Morning in America” to the Nightmare on Main Street

Increasingly, the unthinkable emerges in American life as austerity measures are transformed into a specifically deadly way of exercising modes of sovereignty and government power.

Part of the Series

Ronald Reagan’s infamous “it’s morning in America” slogan, used as part of his 1984 presidential campaign, paved the way for a set of market-driven policies that historians faithful to the human record will be compelled to rename twilight in America to signal a historical crisis fueled less by a spirited hope for the future than by a shocking refusal to be held accountable to and for it. The policies that informed Reagan’s neoliberal agenda have given way to the intense assault now being waged by his more extremist governmental descendants on all vestiges of the democratic state. This brutal evisceration includes a rejection and devaluing of the welfare state, unions, public values, young people, public and higher education; and other political, social and economic institutions and forces in American life that provide a counterweight against the political power of mega-corporations, the rich and the powerful.

In order to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful corporations, the formative cultures, social formations and institutions necessary for a viable democracy are under a wide-ranging assault. The intensity and barbarism of such an attack is evident in the current right-wing attempts to dismantle crucial social safety nets, collective bargaining rights, unions and the regulatory constraints on powerful corporations. This conservative assault is not just about the enactment of reactionary government policies; it is also about the proliferation of a war at home, the collateral damage of which is harsh and brutalizing, especially for young people, the unemployed, the elderly, the poor, and a number of other individuals and groups now bearing the burden of the worst economic recession since the 1920s. But there is more at stake than an increase in the hard currency of human suffering; there are also disturbing signs that American society is moving toward an authoritarian state largely controlled by corporations and a financial elite.(1)

Political power is now up for sale just as government resources are increasingly being contracted out or sold off to the highest bidder. Like lemmings in heat, thousands of corporate lobbyists flock to Washington determined to corrupt the political process, while multibillionaires such as the Koch brothers use their $42 billion-dollar war chest to fund right-wing think tanks, the Tea Party, and other conservative groups in order to crush the labor movement and enact legislative policies designed to decimate the social state and hand over the levers of political and economic sovereignty to the rich. Commenting on the real agenda of the Koch brothers and the Republican Party, New York Times op-ed writer Frank Rich rightly argues, “[t]he real goal is to reward the G.O.P.’s wealthiest patrons by crippling what remains of organized labor, by wrecking the government agencies charged with regulating and policing corporations and, as always, by rewarding the wealthiest with more tax breaks.”(2)

As the public spaces for cultivating democratic values, critical citizens and compassionate social relations disappear, American society gives rise to an army of anti-public intellectuals, a powerful center-right media and cultural apparatus and a system of public and higher education, all of which largely function to undermine dialogue, dissent and critical thinking in American life. As politics is rewritten as a script to serve the rich and powerful, the democratic elements of social life are emptied out, along with an ongoing and well-financed conservative campaign to further sabotage those public spheres which enable a culture of questioning and modes of collective struggle to develop. This ideological and political assault is matched by the savagery of policies, which not only amplify a growing gap between the rich and poor, but also take a deadly toll on the most crucial of public services and those marginalized populations who bear the human cost of the disappearance of such services. Sen. Bernie Sanders highlights some of these cuts, while rightfully criticizing a federal budget that rewards millionaires and billionaires while cutting over $60 billion from programs that will have a deadly impact on many Americans. He enumerates some of the cuts as follows: “$1.1 billion form Head Start depriving services for 218,000 children; $1.3 billion for Social Security delaying benefits for 500,000 Americans; slash[ing] 1.3 billion from community health centers taking primary health care from 11 million patients; [cutting or eliminating] Pell Grants for 9.4 million low-income college students; [cutting] $403 million from Community Services Block Grants affect 20 million seniors, families with children and the disabled; [and ending] job training and other employment services for 8 million Americans.”(3) These figures are troubling and point to an exemplary register of casino politics that prides itself on toughness, the merits of individual responsibility and a mode of governance in which social problems are increasingly criminalized while those who experience such problems are left adrift to solve them on their own, regardless of whether they had any control over causing such problems in the first place.

Politics has now become an extension of war, and the call to austerity a metaphor for a politics of disposability. With the collapse of the social state, those citizens viewed as disposable are now subject to a form of necropolitics in which the social contract, however inadequate, is viewed as a drain on government resources, and any notion of social protection is viewed as a pathological form of dependence. Complaints by right-wing politicians and conservative pundits about the growing federal deficit and their call for a harsh politics of austerity are both hypocritical and disingenuous: Hypocritical, given their support for massive tax breaks for the rich that will cost $850 billion for the next two years – more than the entire 2009 government bailout – and disingenuous, given their blatantly transparent goal of implementing a market-based agenda that imposes the burdens of decreased government services and benefits on the backs of the poor, young people, the unemployed, the working class and middle-class individuals and families. In this transparent scenario, austerity measures apply to the poor, but not to the rich, who continue to thrive under polices that produce government bailouts, support deficit producing wars, tax breaks for the wealthy and deregulation policies that benefit powerful corporations. The conservative and right-wing politicians and policy wonks calling for shared sacrifices made in the name of balancing budgets have no interest in promoting justice, equality and the public good. Their policies maximize self-interest; support a culture of organized irresponsibility; and expand the pathologies of inequality, military spending and poverty. Clearly, there is much more at stake in the current war against democracy than the right-wing ideological assertion that shared sacrifices have to be made in the name of balancing budgets. In a socio-economic climate marked by deep economic and social inequalities, the call for shared sacrifices and responsibilities translates in the hallowing out of social services, public spheres and educational resources that are vital to a democracy. Austerity in this script translates into an agenda that combines punishing policies with the elimination of the formative cultures and safety nets that make a decent life and political culture possible. We get a glimpse of this in Bob Herbert’s rendering of the effects of such policies. He writes:

In the real world, schools and libraries are being closed and other educational services are being curtailed. Police officers are being fired. Access to health services for poor families is being restricted. [As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us:] ‘At least 29 states and the District of Columbia are cutting medical, rehabilitative, home care, or other services needed by low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities, or are significantly increasing the cost of these services.’… At least 44 states and the District of Columbia have reduced overall wages paid to state workers by laying off workers, requiring them to take unpaid leave (furloughs), freezing new hires, or similar actions. State and local governments have eliminated 407,000 jobs since August 2008, federal data show.(4)

Increasingly, the unthinkable emerges in American life as the austerity measures are transformed into a specifically deadly way of exercising modes of sovereignty and government power. Budgets are cut, denying individuals life-saving organ transplants. Houses burn down and are guttered because fire protections are now provided only for those who have paid subscriptions; prisons are run by outsourced private corporations; thousands of people die because they cannot afford health insurance; and rights that public servants and workers have fought for over the course of many generations are erased with the banging of a legislative gravel. Democracy has become a ritual controlled by a small number of extremely wealthy individuals and corporate power mongers. And, yet, as the corporate and right-wing political stranglehold is tightened around the necks of the elderly, workers, young people and those marginalized by class and race, coalitions and the seeds of new social movements are taking shape in states across America and beginning to fight back. Workers, the elderly and young people are demonstrating in large numbers in Ohio, Wisconsin, Georgia, Montana, Tennessee, and other states against the assaults being waged on unions, public servants and the social state in the name of concentrated corporate and political power.(5) Shared bodies are now interacting with new technologies to produce new spaces for organized struggles. Increasingly citizens are producing counternarratives and counterpublic spheres to offset the tidal wave of propaganda that informs both the liberal and right-wing media industries. The discourse of decline and cynicism has taken a hit as protest movements are emerging that are taking a cue from the drive for democracy waged by young people and workers in Egypt, Libya, Western Europe, and other countries that are fighting the barbarism of casino capitalism with its disdain for civic discourse, public values and democratic ideals and social relations.

Public service workers, young people, educators, and others who now occupy the liminal space of political resistance are once again struggling to make official power visible, especially in terms of the toll it takes on those who are viewed as excess, unworthy of government supports and often excluded from the benefits of a good life. At the same time, protesters organizing in Wisconsin and other cities are making clear the necessity to recognize that power is not entirely subsumed within a politics of domination, and that there is a growing and increasingly collective resistance to the assaults being waged on those marginalized by class, race, age and ethnicity. What is being learned from these struggles is that if democracy is to be reclaimed as a radical idea – “the idea that people can control the functioning of society [and that] people should make decisions about all the issues that affect them” – it is crucial for progressives and others to struggle to create those formative cultures that enable people to translate private injustices into social and systemic problems.(6) At stake here is a notion of democracy that refuses to be reduced to the dictates of a market society. Such a view is crucial for those emergent social movements and struggles that suggest that democracy is once again being viewed as the “sharing of an existence that makes the political possible.”(7)

The current upsurge in collective resistance against the corporate state will succeed if it speaks to and connects with a broader crisis of public values, the eclipse of a democratic public spheres and the disappearance the social state. If the principles of democracy are not to be turned against themselves in order to further the savage assaults waged on the American people by advocates of casino capitalism, it is crucial that emerging social movements emphasize what the late Tony Judt called the raising of social questions through a language that stresses the importance of public goods, shared responsibilities and a language that connects private troubles with social considerations.(8) Hopefully, what we will see from those fighting the nightmare in America is both a narrative of critique and possibility, one that attempts to recast the public conversation about memory as a condition for learning, higher education as a crucial public good, academics as public intellectuals, critical agency as a basis for social responsibility and democracy as the radical frame through which meaningful political struggle becomes possible once again. We don’t need delusional appeals to Reagan’s invocation of “morning in America” from those politicians who have become lackeys for the rich and corporate elite. On the contrary, we need justice in America, and that demands more than crowd-pleasing slogans. And that requires the kind of struggles that we see in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states where the very principles, social relations and institutions that make for a viable democracy are under siege.


1. There are too many books on this issue to cite. Some of the more notable are Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Henry A. Giroux, “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); Chris Hedges, “Death of the Liberal Class” (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2010); and Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, “Winner-Take-All Politics” (New York; Simon and Schuster, 2010).

2. Frank Rich, “Why Wouldn’t the Tea Party Shut It Down?,” The New York Times, (February 24, 2011) p. WK8. See Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: the Billionaire Brothers Who are Waging a War Against Obama,” The New Yorker (August 30, 2010). Online here.

3. Bernie Sanders cited in Editorial, “Bernie Sanders: Don’t Balance the Budget on the Backs of the Middle Class,” (March 2, 2011).

4. Bob Herbert, “A Terrible Divide,” The New York Times, (February 7, 2011), p. A27.

5. Zaid Jilani, “Main Street Movement Erupts as Thousands Across Country Protest War on the Middle Class,” Think Progress Report (February 24, 2011).

6. Ian Angus, “Emergent Publics: An Essay on Social Movements and Democracy” (Winnipeg, Massachusetts: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2001) p. 34.

7. Pacale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, “Translator’s Note,” in Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Truth of Democracy” (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), p. xi.

8. Tony Judt, “Ill Fares the Land,” (New York, New York: The Penguin Press, 2010).