The Five Borough Report


Five Borough Report   June 2003


Rolling Back the 20th Century


William Greider

George W. Bush, properly understood, represents the third and most powerful wave in the right's assault on the governing order created by twentieth-century liberalism. The first wave was Ronald Reagan, whose election allowed movement conservatives finally to attain governing power, though he accomplished very little reordering of government. The second was Newt Gingrich who, despite some victories, flamed out quickly, a zealous revolutionary ineffective as legislative leader.

Bush II may be as shallow as he appears, but his presidency represents a far more formidable challenge than either Reagan or Gingrich. Bush's governing strength is anchored in the hard-driving movement of the right that now owns all three branches of the federal government.

The movement's grand ambition is to roll back the twentieth century. That is, defenestrate the federal government and reduce its scale and powers to a level well below what it was before the New Deal's centralization. With that accomplished, movement conservatives envision a restored society in which the prevailing values and power relationships resemble the America that existed around 1900, when William McKinley was President. Governing authority and resources will be dispersed from Washington, returned to local levels and to individuals and, most notably, corporations and religious organizations. The primacy of private property rights will be re-established over shared public priorities. Above all, private wealth will be insulated from the progressive claims of the graduated income tax.

Constructing an effective response requires a politics that goes directly at the ideology, lays out the implications for society, and argues unabashedly for a more positive, forward-looking vision. The Democratic Party, alas, is accustomed to playing defense and now sees its role as managerial rather than big reform. If a new understanding of progressive purpose is to get formed, the vision will not originate in Washington but among those who are struggling now to change things on the ground.

My own conviction is that a lot of Americans are ready to take up these questions and many others. When conscientious people find ideas and remedies that resonate with the real experiences of Americans, then they will have their vision, and perhaps the true answer to the right wing.

     -- Excerpted from The Nation, May 12, 2003


June 2003

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