Kurt Andersen is 51% hopeful. With a global pandemic raging, businesses failing, unemployment stubbornly high, a divisive election looming, and racial reckoning calling, that qualifies him as downright giddy.
Andersen, author of the new bestseller Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, explained at From Day One’s September virtual conference how the quality of fairness in the U.S. economy unraveled over the course of the last four decades. The super-wealthy and corporate giants hijacked the levers of power to boost their own fortunes, while the middle class and poor collapsed into chronic economic insecurity, he said in conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. And yet … Andersen sees better days ahead.
But first, how did it get so dark?
Both in his book and in the chat, Andersen summoned up a portrait of American as it was in the 20th century: an engine of both prosperity and economic equality. From the New Deal and World War II, until well into the 1970s, government crafted laws, regulations, antitrust enforcement, and a progressive tax code to corral greed. “The rich got richer, and all economic boats rose together,” said Andersen. “It's extraordinary to look at the charts of productivity and growth during these three glorious economic decades after the war.”
But that upward surge halted, not just because of technology and globalization, Andersen said. “Every country faced those forces. Starting around 1970, the economic right in the form of organizations like the Business Roundtable and billionaires like the Koch brothers put together think tanks to shift public opinion on marketplace rules and profits.”
Over one generation, inequality increased. “You could always lose your job,” Andersen said. “But the fear of losing your job in layoffs simply to raise the share price of a company hadn’t been an obvious way to do business in America.” By the 1990s, employees quaked in the face of outrageous college tuitions, unaffordable health care, and the death of union power to protect them.
“There's a reason young people are more left on economics,” Andersen said, “not just because they're young. It’s because nobody under 40 has lived in the much fairer economy in which I grew up–in which if you play by the rules, went to college, did the work, you were probably going to do okay.”
So where were the watchdogs?
For their part, Democrats failed because of both good faith and political cynicism. The anti-business sentiment of the 1960s gave way to “magnanimous compromise,” in which liberals demurred that perhaps free markets weren’t all bad. “The upshot was there was no longer an economic left anywhere in the vicinity of power,” said Andersen.
The urban elite at first fared well. Maybe the Pittsburgh steel industry or Detroit auto industry were suffering, but not them. Goldberg pointed out how being so open-minded, which opened the door to the evil geniuses, inspires fury in millennials and those who follow them.
The anti-war movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s left a lingering fissure between say, yuppies, and the “people who really work for a living and get dirty,” as Andersen said. In the South, the evil geniuses set out to turn white Southerners from Democrats into Republicans. Then came step two. “Let's turn white racists elsewhere into Republicans, and they did that pretty successfully,” says Andersen. Meanwhile, Democrats embraced cultural issues–racial equity, feminism and environmentalism.
Now we’ve got problems. Andersen believes Republicans are waking up to how their greed and ruthlessness has started to strangle the golden goose by making too many people economically insecure.
He favors a Biden win to get things back on track. “Pollsters often ask about generic Democrats,” says Andersen. “Well, Biden is the embodiment of it. But where is his party now? A lot farther to the left on economics than 10 years or even five years ago.”
If Biden wins, he faces the same situation Obama did in 2009, saving the country—“in this case from a public-health crisis and the resulting economic crisis. That's going to put a damper on big projects.”
Both Andersen and Goldberg see hope in an increase in unionizing, including at media outlets. “More big strikes have been held than there had been in decades,” said Andersen. The $15 minimum wage, which once seemed extreme, has spread across the states. “There's no union of McDonald's workers, but it happened.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is supporting some Democrats in this election cycle, he noted. “That to me is an indication that they’ve seen the light.”
And even if Trump didn’t follow through on his promises to help the working class, his campaign team understood the anxiety. “The voiceover on his last ad in the 2016 campaign could be a Bernie Sanders voice,” Andersen said. “He was going to make your Medicare, your health care better. He was going to go against Wall Street and the banks. It's absurd. He made not even a gesture in that direction.” But at least that empty rhetoric showed a kind of consensus.
Government needs to prove its worth by creating a big ambitious program–and a true universal health-care system would be a good start, said Andersen. The pandemic crisis changed the landscape. “Last spring, everybody was all for spending trillions of dollars on social programs. Once you've done that, I don't think it necessarily is so freaky and radical to do it again.”
Andersen offers practical advice to employers negotiating the fray of partisan chaos, trying to keep employees unified and customers loyal: look at the polling numbers. “You won’t get everyone to agree, but you can see where bipartisan support lies. It's one thing for our politics to be over-affected by the squeaky wheel of the anti-abortion movement or the gun-rights movement. Politics is not rational. But corporations can be and are rational. I was heartened when so many companies after the Parkland massacre, just said, ‘No, NRA, we're not doing business with you guys anymore. We're not giving you discounts.’ ”
And ultimately, Democrats–or those simply worried about economic inequality–can take a page from their opponents. “If I learned anything from researching this book, it's that these successful evil geniuses played a long game, keeping their eye on their prizes just extraordinarily well. Maybe it's doable in reverse.”
Elizabeth Mitchell is a journalist and author whose new book, Lincoln's Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street, and the White House, will be published next week.