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Chapter 6 MORE AND LESS EQUAL SINCE THE 1970S “You can call me anything you want, but do not call me a racist.” President George W. Bush was responding to accusations that the failure of the federal government to respond swiftly to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was partially due to the hardest-hit New Orleans residents being primarily poor and working-class African Americans—and likely Democratic voters, to boot. Bush’s reply captured a fundamental truth about American public life in the new millennium. No label was more damaging to a public figure than being identified as racist. Even this conservative Texas Republican, whose party since 1964 had been associated with those white voters least sympathetic to black people, wanted nothing to do with it. He meant it. Bush’s closest foreign policy adviser—and an intimate family friend—was Condolezza Rice, a black woman. His first secretary of state was Colin Powell, an African American. His sister-in-law, Columba Bush, was from Mexico. No simple good ol’ boy from the patriarchal South, Bush was also comfortable with powerful women, including Rice and his influential domestic adviser, Karen Hughes.1 In 2008, American voters elected Barack Obama by a solid majority, putting the first African American in the White House. It did not mean that racial discrimination and prejudice had disappeared. It certainly did not mean that black economic disadvantage had ended. But the election did mark a level of white acceptance of blacks in positions of authority that would have seemed nearly unimaginable a generation earlier. Voters were also demonstrating a cultural inclusiveness, choosing this son of a Kenyan father and white American mother, a man who had grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and who carried an Islamic MORE AND LESS EQUAL 279 middle name—Hussein—that was the very name of the tyrant in Iraq—Saddam Hussein—against whom the United States had just been at war. After the election, Americans of differing political stripes took comfort in the outcome. Obama’s supporters were obviously pleased, as was most of the rest of the world. But even conservatives who voted against Obama pointed to the result as evidence of a striking degree of equality in American public life and opportunities. Observers in other countries rued the unlikelihood of electing a member of an ethno-racial minority to the top political office in their nations. Comedy writers for late-night television shows were perhaps less happy, at least professionally , finding little suitable target for satire in the new president. “Anything that has even a whiff of being racist, no one is going to laugh,” explained Rob Burnett, an executive producer for the David Letterman show.“The audience is not going to allow anyone to do that.”2 While American public life grew generally more inclusive and egalitarian after the 1970s, attitudes toward government regulation and taxation continued to slide further into negative territory. “You had an intellectual conviction that you did not need much regulation—that the market could take care of itself ,” recalled Paul Volcker, the chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987, as he later came to regret his own partial acceptance of that view after the economic crisis of 2008. Reagan ’s two terms in office and his dominance of the American political landscape in the 1980s elevated market values, while discrediting the role of the federal government as it had developed since the New Deal fifty years earlier. “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases,” he explained in 1986. “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” Reagan’s contrarian view of government epitomized mainstream American politics after 1980. This vision helped Republicans under the smallgovernment leadership of Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia seize control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in four decades. The only non-Republican president elected between 1980 and 2008 was the self-proclaimed “New Demo- 280 CHAPTER 6 crat” Bill Clinton, “new” for distancing himself from the New Deal tradition, who still wound up spending most of his eight years in the White House (1993–2001) in a defensive posture toward a Republican-dominated Congress. Steep tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 were emblems of the George W. Bush administration ’s pro-market, anti-regulatory stance. Partisan gridlock in Congress—from the 1995 shutdown of government services...


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