What Our Country Has Done for Us

The high hopes of JFK’s day have mostly been dashed.

Susan J. Douglas

JFK promised to ‘get the country moving again,’ but since his death, in many ways it’s moved backward.

We are sure to be awash with remem­brances of John F. Kennedy as we pass the 50th anniver­sary of his assas­si­na­tion. There will be much hagiog­ra­phy, some of it deserved, some of it utter­ly blind­ered. But what is true is that back then, with Kennedy’s New Fron­tier” rhetoric about unfilled hopes … uncon­quered prob­lems of igno­rance and prej­u­dice, unan­swered ques­tions of pover­ty and sur­plus,” there was a sense of mov­ing for­ward, espe­cial­ly to address the per­sis­tent prob­lems of pover­ty and inequality.

Where’s our sense of progress, of being at the vanguard of history, now? It’s been thwarted; smothered.

So as we look back, why not take this moment to com­pare where we were then to where we are now? How much bet­ter and how much worse off are most of us, 50 years lat­er? Back then, on aver­age, women were mak­ing 59 cents to a man’s dol­lar, con­signed to a nar­row range of jobs — school­teacher, wait­ress, nurse — and vir­tu­al­ly barred from a host of oth­ers — doc­tor, elec­tri­cian, Newsweek reporter, you name it. The medi­an income for African-Amer­i­can and oth­er racial minor­i­ty fam­i­lies was 53 per­cent that of white fam­i­lies. And blacks were sub­ject­ed to poll tax­es, lit­er­a­cy tests and oth­er restric­tions on their right to vote. Con­necti­cut pro­hib­it­ed the use of con­tra­cep­tives. Gay peo­ple had to remain clos­et­ed in the face of deep and wide­spread bigotry.

We can of course see progress today: In 2013, we have our first mixed-race Pres­i­dent, women make rough­ly 77 cents to a white man’s dol­lar (though the gap is larg­er for African-Amer­i­can and Lati­na women), and gay peo­ple can legal­ly mar­ry in 13 states. But there has been a sea change for the worse in the com­mon sense” of the nation, thanks to a long-term war of posi­tion by conservatives.

Estab­lished dur­ing the New Deal and cement­ed dur­ing the Kennedy and John­son admin­is­tra­tions was the notion that the gov­ern­ment had a respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­tect peo­ple from the vagaries of cap­i­tal­ism and, with the rise of the civ­il rights move­ment, to try to pro­mote and ensure equal­i­ty. Let’s remem­ber, for instance, that in the sum­mer of 1963, Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, which abol­ished wage dis­crim­i­na­tion based on gen­der. Today, even after the finan­cial cri­sis, Repub­li­cans con­tin­ue to insist on a neolib­er­al mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism that strips the gov­ern­ment of any respon­si­bil­i­ty for people’s well-being or secu­ri­ty. And new polling data shows that among Repub­li­cans and inde­pen­dents, sup­port for gov­ern­ment solu­tions to pub­lic pol­i­cy prob­lems actu­al­ly decreased after 2008.

This leads us to anoth­er sharp con­trast between then and now: Back in 1963, the John Birch Soci­ety (a far-right rad­i­cal group) was so mar­gin­al­ized that even William F. Buck­ley, Jr., denounced its mem­bers as far removed from com­mon sense.” Now, right-wingers just as far removed from com­mon sense — the cli­mate change deniers, con­tra­cep­tion revok­ers and Afford­able Care Act scorchers — actu­al­ly con­trol large parts of Con­gress, a state of affairs unimag­in­able 50 years ago.

And here are the wages of that shift: Eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty in the U.S. has soared. The mid­dle class con­tin­ues to dis­in­te­grate as the fal­ter­ing eco­nom­ic recov­ery ben­e­fits the 1%; CEOs make 204 times the wages of reg­u­lar work­ers, com­pared to 20 times as much in the 1960s. In 1963, the high­est mar­gin­al tax rate on the rich (those mak­ing more than $400,000 a year) was 91 per­cent; today, even the super-rich pay no more than 39.6 per­cent, and they’re still moan­ing. And the wealth gaps between whites and minori­ties are at their widest in a quar­ter century.

In 1963, the pre­vail­ing dis­course of progress and moder­ni­ty, of equal­i­ty for increas­ing num­bers of Amer­i­cans, was gain­ing seri­ous moral pur­chase, how­ev­er vir­u­lent­ly the Birchers and oth­ers fought it. Today, the rad­i­cal Right assaults this dis­course and seeks to have every­day Amer­i­cans buy into its reac­tionary agen­da. It’s not that they’re total­ly win­ning, but they are obstruct­ing the coun­try in pro­found ways. Where’s our sense of progress, of being at the van­guard of his­to­ry, now? It’s been thwart­ed; smothered.

So as we look back at those black-and-white images, we can think how far we’ve come. But we also have no choice but to see how far we have fall­en back, and to see that we have a long bat­tle ahead to reclaim what counts as com­mon sense in America.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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