the regime that may be crumbling

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan would be pleased that Trump has signed a massive tax cut, presided over deregulation, and saved NAFTA by essentially reenacting it after running for president against it. Nevertheless, his worldview and his coalition are inconsistent with their legacy.

The regime that they founded has had the following characteristics:

  1. Political elites widely agree that government programs, especially redistributive welfare programs, are inefficient and counterproductive. It was Bill Clinton who announced “the era of big government is over” and ended the federal welfare guarantee. It was the Socialist President François Mitterand who led France into austerity (“la rigeur“) in 1983. What characterizes this period is not the electoral victory of pro-market parties, but the fact that the opposition also criticizes the welfare state.
  2. Progressive movements channel most of their energy into opening capitalist institutions to women, people of color, and sexual minorities, rather than overturning capitalist institutions. Progress means being able to be who you are at work or in school. That is a broadly libertarian impulse.
  3. Many huge countries liberalize and deregulate their economies, fully entering the competitive global economy. Whether as a result or by coincidence, they see rapid and sustained improvements in human development (education, health, longevity). Of the 135 countries with data, 132 have seen improvements in the Human Development Index since 1970, many to a startling degree.
  4. International flows of capital rapidly increase. So do rates of economic migration, albeit at a slower rate than capital. Developed nations become more diverse as a result of immigration.
  5. Developed nations deindustrialize, with the losses of manufacturing jobs concentrated in certain cities. For example, Detroit’s population falls by more than 50%.
  6. Unions practically vanish. Union density falls from more than 30% of US workers in 1955 to 10% now (6.7% in the private sector).
  7. Many countries get “tough on crime,” expanding the use of prisons.
  8. Some nations that are capitalist and authoritarian become magnets for capital. Of the world’s nine Alpha+ and Alpha++ Global Cities, five are located in authoritarian states: Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Dubai, and Shanghai.
  9. The US and NATO countries spend heavily on the military (with most of the money flowing to defense industries). They are especially prone to intervene in the Persian Gulf, where the oil comes from. We should also acknowledge that the chance of dying in a war during this period is the lowest in human history. One interpretation is that the US and its allies have locked things down in ways that really do reduce violence, albeit also to the advantage of multinational corporations. Terrorism is a feature of this period, but it kills an infinitesimal number of people compared to war.

I believe that most of the trends enumerated above were popular. I am familiar with the Martin Gilens/Benjamin Page argument that the US is an oligarchy–responsive to lobbies, not to ordinary voters. I think that explains why specific bills are blocked even though they are popular. It does not explain a much deeper and broader trend toward a certain kind of global corporate political-economy.

Reagan was elected in a country with a large White majority that was affluent by historical and global standards. A voting majority was suburban, Christian, and bourgeois. To a rough approximation, they got what they voted for. Every indication is that Chinese citizens appreciate the progress generated by their version of a neoliberal regime.

The questions now are: 1) Are people revolting against the current order? How many people? How effectively? 2) What is most likely to replace it? New versions of egalitarianism? Ethnonationalism and authoritarianism? Davos Man strikes back? And 3) How to move forward? It is generally a lot harder to build things up than tear them down, and we don’t just need new governmental policies; we also need new institutions in civil society.

(I see that I’ve addressed the same topic once before, offering a different list: what is the political economy that people are revolting against?)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.