I like to think of history in astronomical terms of spiraling orbits. In the same way the sun hurtles through space and our planets spiral along behind it, forever trying to catch up, history doesn’t move in cycles, it moves in spirals.
I’d like to offer the possibility that — with our most recent inauguration — we have completed a 40-year spiraling orbit that began with the inauguration of Ronald “the Gipper” Reagan and has ended with the inauguration of Joseph Biden as 46th President of the United States.
When the people elected Ronald Reagan, we Californians were incredulous. We had seen how this B-movie actor betrayed his colleagues in the Screen Actors Guild by naming names in front of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. We had seen how this Hollywood hack had conducted himself as Governor of California, particularly on issues of budget, social services, and protest during the Vietnam and civil rights era.
Our incredulity escalated to anticipatory dread during his inaugural speech when Ronnie Reagan spoke to the post-Vietnam economic malaise. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” And so the cycle began.
Conservative politicians resurrected an old Congressional carnival hustle — cut the money to government programs and then point to the results of starving governmental programs and say, “see? Government doesn’t work.” Nice.
Forty years passed. Who knew government was such a curse, so bloated, so troublesome to the people that it needed to be starved and butchered? Reagan fiscal zealots cut budgets and bureaucratic “fat” from social services with a carving knife. Homeless people popped up on the streets overnight. Wars came and went. AIDS came and didn’t go. Scandals — Iran Contra, Enron. Welfare queens disappeared under the watch of a corporate Democrat.
Halfway through the Reagan era, a pile of Republicans tumbled into Congress like a stir-crazy pack of football players piling off a bus. The Tea Party dogma of no retreat, no surrender turned Congressional discourse into an obsolete artifact. A bubble appeared with the moving inauguration of Obama but racist America never got over four years — and then four years more! — of a black man in the Presidency
The nightmare of the next administration began with an inaugural description of American carnage that no one recognized, replete with “…mothers and children trapped in poverty,” “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” “the crime and the gangs and the drugs” and a state of infrastructure in “disrepair and decay.” “The orange agent’s grim bummer of an inaugural speech was written by a white supremacist child of a holocaust survivor who ate dried paste off his arm in junior high school.
In four short years, the presiding orange agent split the already bone-thin governmental structures and processes into kindling and set them on fire. But out of the ashes, a new President rose on his knowledge and experience, learned what left of center might look like, was elected regardless of phony doubts and promised to close end the 40-year Reagan era of anorexic government and trickle-down economics that never dripped, never trickled.
Now, we have a President and administration that wants to use government to address the problems that government was designed to address in the first place. In his inaugural address, the newly minted 46th President said, “[w]e can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward work and rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice and we can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.”
All of that will require government to do the heavy lifting. The social contract, the agreement that the people will support the government and the government will serve the people, will return. And with all the good will, focused intent, and luck in the world, we just maybe might come full spiral and into launching a new New Deal for America. Amen.
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Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.