It started a long time ago and intensified with Reagan and trickle down economics. We alternately rolled our eyes and marveled at this actor-turned-politician's ability to sway the electorate. By the end of his tenure, we were taken aback at the collective apathy that the trickle hadn't reached the ones that needed the most uplifting.
Reagan conservatives didn't give two hoots about economic benefits reaching the lowest rungs. It was all about swinging the labor vote to the right with a promise: trust us to improve your lot in ways that the Democrats will never do for you, so come vote for us.
It was no accident that this message dovetailed with labor's consequential transition during Reagan's ascendency.
After becoming a massive economic force through the early and middle parts of the 20th century, labor was unexpectedly impacted by globalization when Reagan was elected. The rise of Japan's automotive prowess, South Korea's emerging dominance in the electronics supply chain and the early days of Chinese manufacturing permanently altered the economic equation for America. The power of unions began to dilute and the cozy relationship between the liberals and labor began to fray at the seams.
The manufacturing heartland lost jobs faster than anybody expected. Local governments missed the writing on the wall and did nothing to up-skill the workforce. The voting public watched helplessly as jobs shifted offshore. Reaganites made fantastic use of the resulting sentiment and sucked right-leaning independents into their fold. Then came Y2K and the influx of cost-effective IT workforce from outside the west to deal with a silly problem that was poised to turn off our planet at the dawn of the new millenium. After the world woke up to smooth sailing on January 1 of 2000 we warmed to the fact that international techies can deliver 24x7 productivity at a fraction of the cost.
Wall Street rejoiced while American labor entered hospice. The Republicans reveled in the I-told-you-so wave and gave us whiplash from the free-market conservatives calling for protectionism.
In 2023, inflation continues to be high, the heartland isn't any better since the last national election, interest rates prevent people from buying homes and tech stocks have taken a lashing. In the background, the right is roaring to come back into power with intense messaging on the country's demise on all fronts - political, economic, immigration, fiscal and cultural.
The million-dollar question is whether the electorate will energize itself again and turn out in droves to keep the ultra-right out of office in 2024. With the liberals not delivering sensible fiscal discipline and sustainable economic outcomes, I am anxious. Take student loan forgiveness. Great idea for the moment but does nothing to lower student and national debt in the future nor prevent fraud in education. Medical costs, premiums and deductibles are astronomically high and increasing faster than inflation. Nothing substantive is being done to up-skill the workforce to the next generation of manufacturing techniques which is here to stay. Legal immigration from high volume countries is at a standstill while illegal channels are paralyzing law enforcement and the judiciary. Seen any upgraded roads or bridges lately? Me neither!
The transition from national to global, analog to digital, social media to artificial intelligence, hand-on assembly lines to robots requires foresight - a trait sorely lacking in our current political actors. Despite the lack of talent on both sides of the aisle, the right is smart to focus on the economy because it works when inflation is running amuck and jobs are hard to find.
The right is also using this advantage on the social front by embedding the larger economic message in a cocoon of pro-gun, anti-LGBTQ, and pro-life stances because that excites the base to whom going back to life in a previous century looks like far less work than moving forward and adjusting to a complex and digitally-intricate world. The boorish Roger Ailes' reflection on this was spot on: “The people who Fox is for live in 1965... before the Voting Rights Act.”
The Democrats are playing the long game by focusing on climate change and bringing the socially marginalized into the fold. Both are existential issues, but neither puts money in the wallet now.
As we get closer to the next presidential election, it is apparent that center-right and center-left are on life support. The only cure is if the Democrat leadership would focus on the marginalized and the economy, immigration, crime, debt, and climate, but I am afraid that multi-tasking may be missing from the liberal DNA.
We will continue to be stuck between conservative conspiracies and liberal paralysis in the foreseeable future. No surprise that we will "run away from" instead of "run toward" until politicians come together to find creative solutions to reposition America in the forefront of innovation and manufacturing. Until then, the lurch to the right is upon us like a squatter.