There once was a time, not too long ago, when conservatives dominated most of American daily life.
During this memorable period, three consecutive Republican presidents were elected — all by wide margins. Each of these presidents appointed pro-business cronies to high office who were given positions of power. Giant companies prospered due to laissez-faire attitudes combined with government’s abdication of responsibilities. People at the very top got really rich.
By contrast, liberals were widely viewed as political outcasts. Many of their ideas were classified as either “radical” or much worse — “Socialistic.” Politically powerless, many American liberals flocked instead to more welcoming professions such as the arts. Liberals became really good at making movies, wrote the most popular books of the day, and created a new form of popular music known as jazz.
Conservatives were determined to put “America First.” Back then, conservatives were viewed as nationalists, while liberals were thought of as globalists. Relations with other nations were widely thought to be inconsequential. America tore up previous trade agreements and even imposed strict tariffs on imports from foreign countries. The United States military withdrew from global alliances and abandoned its status as a world power. After years of international conflict, America stubbornly refused to join a new organization devoted to peaceful diplomacy called the League of Nations. Way too European.
When conservatives ruled over the land, immigration to the United States from other countries was curtailed. Tough new naturalization laws were imposed which denied entry to most people from other nations. Immigrants were even subject to a rigid quota system, based on national origin (race and religion). No one wanted to take refugees from countries in crisis. In particular, Leftists were singled out and were widely viewed with suspicion. Despite the rising scourge of Right-wing dictatorships all over the world at the time, the few immigrants who did make it to U.S. shores were asked only about “Communist” sympathies. Nothing about fascism.
Republicans held onto control of the White House for 12 years. Republicans also dominated both chambers of Congress, holding more than two-thirds of all seats in the legislature — the highest percentage ever in American history. Wall Street went absolutely bonkers. Republicans cut corporate and personal taxes, especially for the super wealthy. Banking and finance were deregulated. The stock market soared to record highs.
Ring a bell?
While conservatives may have indeed championed economic freedoms, individual freedoms were widely curtailed. Alcohol was banned nationwide in the form of a new Constitutional amendment known as Prohibition. The government’s first “War on Drugs” was openly declared, which made drug possession a serious criminal offense. Gambling was illegal in every U.S. state, including Nevada.
Inside conservative America, Christianity wasn’t just religion — but was the veritable law of the land. All communities everywhere were subject to a strict faith-based code of morals and ethics. Church attendance reached an all-time high. No coincidence, membership in the Ku Klux Klan also skyrocketed, becoming that largest fraternal organization inside the United States with more than four million active members. The Klan was so prominent all across America and so politically powerful that white-robed throngs all waving American flags marched down the streets of the nation’s capital, to the cheers of thousands.
The social order in America was as strict as it was clear. Abortion was illegal everywhere and punishable by imprisonment. Gay rights didn’t exist. Blacks and other minorities weren’t merely treated as second-class citizens. Rather, they were often confronted with violence and even murdered without any repercussion by angry mobs, and sometimes even by law enforcement. There was no such thing as a “hate crime,” back then. Minorities were dragged down the streets and hung from trees. For millions, segregation and discrimination were a way of daily life. The existing social order imposed mostly by White conservatives also made it far more difficult for minorities to vote in elections.
Remind you of anything?
Public education wasn’t so much a path to enlightenment as an indoctrination of traditional beliefs based on faith. Creationism, not evolution, was taught in schools — at least until a famous landmark case finally ruled in science’s favor. Conservatives in many parts of the country continue to fight this ruling, to this very day. In other words, we’re still entrenched in the attitudes of the past.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the period of American life when conservative ideology dominated the political, economic, and social landscape like no other time was — the 1920’s.
Yes, the Roaring Twenties.
To many, the fond memory of flag-waving patriots following a faith-based moral code is appealing. To many, the thought of reducing government’s role in our lives and allowing unregulated businesses to profit might seem an intriguing proposition. To many, the notion of building relationships with other countries just isn’t all that important. In short, except for far less white sheets and a lot more booze and casinos, the conservative American mindset isn’t that much different today from the way things were nearly a century ago.
However, let’s never forget what happened when the conservatism’s grand illusion all came crashing down. Recall the instant the light switch flicked on at America’s unprotected financial orgy of unregulated excess and the avaricious saw each other with their clothes off. Remember what occurred when capitalism was left to its own self-policing devices and the working class was utterly abandoned by the protections of government regulation and proper oversight.
October 29th, 1929 might not jog the memory, because it happened so long ago. That’s when the Great Depression officially began, which turned our national economy into a dust bowl and ruined millions of lives. Some historians even claim the global economic collapse fostered the rise of totalitarianism over the next decade, and eventually the start of World War II. Thanks, conservatives.
For those who may need a refresher course in history — incredibly, unbelievably, inexplicably — all this happened again a decade ago. Starting in 2001, a proud conservative was elected to the presidency. This new leader was widely admired as a Christian man, with deep personal faith. A cornerstone of his economic philosophy included the comprehensive deregulation of banking and finance sectors, resulting in a temporary stock market boom that all came violently crashing down on September 15, 2008. Just as before, when Republicans were allowed to run most of the show, the entire world ended up in crisis and chaos. [See Footnote]
On both previous occasions (1932 and 2008), progressive new leaders from the Left were elected to office to scrub the shit stains out of the rug left by conservatives. And they did. Franklin Roosevelt and his “New Deal” programs (including an overhaul of banking regulations) eventually restored the United States into a stable, even prosperous economy. Some seven decades later, President Barack Obama inherited just as huge an economic mess and — despite overwhelming opposition from conservatives every step of the way — still somehow managed to lead the American economy to a full recovery, on which the grotesquely-oblivious and historically-ignorant current President now rides coattails like a hopelessly spoiled child craving attention and praise.
Conservatism versus Liberalism isn’t a dull argument for academics. It’s a debate we all must engage in, here and now, given the stakes are so high and that we’ve been down this familiar path twice before, both times when conservatives dominated the political landscape and crashed the national psyche onto the rocks, abandoned the ship and left us all to sink.
This time, let’s remember our history and try to learn from it.
Footnote: On October 19th, 1987 a third economic collapse occurred, when stock markets crashed around the world. On “Black Monday,” the NYSE dropped 24 percent. The formula for this disaster was much the same. A Republican president with traditional values professing to be anti-government and pro-business was well into his second term. Conservative economic policies — including deregulation of banking and finance as well as massive tax cuts for the wealthy — were adopted. After a temporary boom period, the end result was disastrous.