“History repeats itself,” wrote Karl Marx in 1852, “first as tragedy, second as farce.”He was referring to Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon. One hundred and sixty-four years later, my subject is Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
People talk about “the Sixties” as a heyday of activism in the U.S., and they’re not wrong. I feel so grateful to have come up in a time when social imagination was encouraged, when social experimentation was rampant, when the desire to expand human liberty and human rights pervaded so many communities.
But the Sixties lasted more than a decade.Well into the Seventies, social action for justice and equity was going strong. It took a long time for the movement against the Vietnam War to succeed in stopping the war – or at least in exhausting the American people’s belief in the wisdom of our war leaders – but finally, the draft effectively ended in 1973 in response to massive protest and civil disobedience, and when Saigon fell in 1975, the war effectively ended too. There was a sizable People’s Bicentennial to counter the triumphalist official celebrations in 1976. Through the late Seventies, quite a bit of public money was still being invested in community development, including public service jobs that supported artists working in community to the tune of $200 million a year. It was by no means heaven on earth, but the enormous civil and human rights protests of the Sixties and early Seventies had made an indelible impression, creating the fervent hope and tentative expectation that justice would grow.
Back then, I lived in a world of the like-minded: San Francisco in the Seventies had not yet succumbed to the extreme gentrification brought on by high-tech corporate occupiers, and there were legions of organizers working from the micro – block-by-block politics – to the macropolitics of incipient globalization (a term that only began to take hold in the Seventies).
Here are two of the things that were widely believed in my circles at the time:
Social progress, in the form of the expansion of human rights and increasing equity, would continue. The force of history was unstoppable.
It didn’t make much difference who was elected President; we didn’t feel represented by either major party, and neither acted at all accountable to our values.
To say this was naive is drastic understatement.Within a startlingly short time following his election, Reagan had enacted a program that had been carefully planned in collaboration with the far-Right Heritage Foundation, abolishing public service employment and most community development funding, and going on to break unions, cut budgets for every type of social good, and reward his friends and supporters with tax-breaks and sweetheart deals.