In 1968, the year I was born, Ronald Reagan was considered too extreme to be the Republican nominee for the presidency. Richard Nixon was the nominee and served a term and a half before resigning under threat of impeachment.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidency and subsequently became a god in conservative circles, even though his policies mostly didn’t match the rhetoric. I imagine that if Republican politicians with Reagan’s history ran for national office today, they wouldn’t make it to the Iowa caucus, much less into office. The moderate Republican with a national following seems to be extinct today. That doesn’t stop every national Republican from doing obeisance at the altar of St. Ronnie of Reagan–indeed, such a pilgrimage is a necessary part of any journey to Republican acceptability.
In 2010, the Tea Party, made up mostly of culture-warrior Republicans, stands poised to pick up seats in the House of Representatives and give control to the Republican party as a whole. In their rhetoric, they are more extreme than the 1964 version of Ronald Reagan. They and the Republican House leadership promise that there will be no compromise with the Democratic party, and they make claims that their freedoms are under attack, although they never provide specific examples of how this is happening.
Looked at this way, the saying I alluded to in the title of this post might seem to hold true. “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is a statement of pessimism about human nature, and there’s a hint of truth to it, I think. But it’s also too reductive to be truly useful. Here’s another way of looking at the last 42-46 years.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won one of the most lopsided presidential elections in this nation’s history, campaigning on the promises of his Great Society program and Civil Rights legislation. The Great Society programs cut the poverty level from 22.2% when Johnson took office in 1963 to 12.6% in 1970, which is about where it has hovered until this day.
In the early 1970s, we treated the environment like this in the US, and while we still do tremendous damage to it, we have unquestionably improved things.
The same is true for nearly every measure, whether we’re talking about race relations, sexism, homophobia, energy efficiency, crime and violence, you name it. The one place we’ve gotten worse is in income inequality, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon, unfortunately.
But my point is that in a lot of ways, the more things change, the more they stay changed. My parents’ generation is, for the most part, far more racist and homophobic than my generation, and mine is worse than my daughter’s. The casual racism that many people engaged in when I was in high school 25 years ago is mostly disguised now because of the social price the users pay for it. Gay-bashing which was condoned and even rewarded 25 years ago is now roundly condemned in all but the most fundamentalist parts of the country.
And there’s no indication of retreat on any of these fronts. Polls suggest that my daughter’s generation cares a lot less about racial differences and sexual orientation than their elders do, that they’re very much concerned about the environment and social justice, and that they are, to the extent they’re affected by it, concerned about the rise in income inequality.
The world is, in my opinion, getting better because people and things don’t stay the same. We become better people. We, the human race, are not as racist as we used to be. We’re not as sexist as we used to be. We’re not as cruel to animals as we used to be. We’re not as brutal to each other as we used to be.
We have lots of room for improvement, mind you, and we can get so caught up in our desire for that progress that we despair, that we imagine a dystopia inevitably awaits us. I’m there myself lately. I keep myself sane by remembering where we’ve been and the progress we’ve made in just my lifetime.