I’m writing in response to Brian Baker’s December 1 column, “How did we end up here?” which I found to be one of the strangest, most misguided pieces I’ve read in recent memory.
First, he starts by saying that we are in a deeply divided moment in U.S. history, just as we were during the Civil War. No doubt, but I disagree with his explanation.
In Baker’s telling, after World War II, the country was unified until the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, which heralded the rise of the counterculture. The leftist radicals who made up this demographic then proceeded to take over the Democratic Party, transforming it into an institution dominated by collectivist socialism.
And it is this development, Baker informs us, that has made our country so hopelessly divided. In other words, blame the Democrats.
Now let me just start with the problems in his central thesis, before describing all the important history he leaves out.
The notion that the Democratic Party has turned toward socialism in the past 50 years is contradicted by all available evidence. If anything, it became more conservative during this period, at least on economics. Since 1968, liberals have ditched previously cherished dreams like single-payer healthcare, a guaranteed income for the poor, revitalization of the urban ghettos, and reparations for African Americans.
Instead, over the years, they have embraced a modestly progressive program that seeks to reform, not upend, American society. Consider the record of the last three Democratic presidents. In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter’s main domestic programs were reorganizing the federal government and finding jobs for the unemployed, initiatives so boring they would put any socialist to sleep.
Two decades later, Bill Clinton fought poverty by expanding the earned income tax credit, reformed the welfare system, made mortgages more accessible to low-income families, and balanced the federal budget. All moderate policies.
More recently, when Barack Obama came to power, he did not jail the Wall Street financiers responsible for the recession, which would have been the socialist thing to do. Instead, he administered billions in loans to prop up their failing companies. And rather than lead a big-government renaissance during his two terms, Obama shrunk the deficit by two-thirds and presided over the slowest growth in government spending since President Dwight Eisenhower.
Furthermore, if you look at votes in Congress during this period, some of the most conservative policies—the 1996 Welfare Reform, Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, Wall Street deregulation, the “War on Drugs”—all received broad Democratic support.
In no sane world could this record be considered collectivist socialist or even radical. So Baker’s thesis can be thrown out the window.
Now the question is worth asking: if our country’s division was not caused by the Democrats’ lurch toward socialism, then how has it come about? The evidence points to the following three explanations.
First, in the last 50 years, we have had enormous demographic change. In 1965, the United States’ population was 84 percent white, 11 percent African American, and 5 percent composed of other races. Because of reforms to immigration law during the civil rights movement, those figures have been upended.
Today, our country is becoming ever browner, so much so that by 2042 whites will make up a minority of the population. This fact has caused a lot of discomfort for many. Folks don’t like seeing their communities transform so quickly.
That’s why in politics we see calls for building walls and deporting every undocumented immigrant and a deepening racial anxiety that recalls the charged climate of the civil rights movement.
Second, during the same time period we have endured rapid economic change. In the 1960s and 70s, one could earn a high school degree, find a decent job in manufacturing or another profitable sector, and live a middle-class life. That is not the case anymore.
Today, those with just a high school education have a brutal time in the job market, and if they are lucky enough to be employed, will likely earn meager wages.
A college degree is required in order to be competitive, but astoundingly, because of the low-wage nature of the economy, today’s college-educated millennials earn less than high school grads did in the 1970s.
A dynamic like that is bound to be a major source of tension in society, as folks who struggle to get by often look out at the world and their neighbors with a bitter heart.
The third and final variable that explains America’s division is simple: everyone today expects to be treated equally and with dignity. This belief in getting a fair shake—which began with the civil rights movement, then inspired the feminist revival and the fight for LGBT equality—has taken root within us all.
Consequently, when citizens experience mistreatment because of their skin color, sexual orientation, or gender, they are not going to keep silent the way they used to. They are going to stand up and fight, which causes great conflict, and that’s a damn good thing.
In sum, the Democratic Party is not responsible for the unfortunate tensions in America; our country’s tumultuous demographic, economic, and social dynamics are.
Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party.