Making America Great Again: Progressive Values and Action in a Regressive Era

Making America Great Again: Progressive Values and Action in a Regressive Era

Dan C. Shoemaker (Independent Researcher, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2177-9.ch014
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An interdisciplinary overview of more than 100 years of anti-democratic sentiment calls into question the regressive meaning of the political slogan “Make America Great Again.” The chapter is organized into four sections: (1) a review of political and economic history since the 1870s, (2) a review of media theory and history since the last third of the 20th century, (3) a theoretical excursion into social media's impact on public discourse and democracy, and (4) a theoretical proposition for employing the construct of regard as a way to negotiate the wish for both diversity and consensus, to facilitate community amid diversity, and to build democratic coalitions for progressive action in a regressive era.
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Nostalgia is often viewed as mere sentimentality, or as a necessarily reactionary and regressive political tendency. However, Nostalgia (as a felt experience) can be seen as a natural result of creatures with memory living in a world that changes over time and is an affective component of the process for evaluating the value and consequences of those changes (Shoemaker, 2002).

In 2016, the slogan for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was “Make America Great Again.” The slogan begs two questions: (1) What is greatness? (2) When was America great? The use of “again” suggests a fall from some former state of greatness. Accordingly, some review of American history is prudent. Since democratic politics involve winning the hearts, minds, and consent of the electorate, due attention will also be paid to the cultural and communication landscapes of the preceding 100 years.

In economic terms, the United States experienced its longest economic boom in the Postwar period from 1945-1973. That period was characterized by an abundance of well-paying union jobs, and high taxes to support the Keynesian economic approach of the federal government’s investments in education, suburbia, and the Cold War (American Social History Project, 1992). This period was also characterized by changes in American culture and society, which included the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, Black Power, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, and the Ecology movement (in the terminology of the period). The economic boom ended in 1973 with the first Oil Shock/Energy Crisis and subsequent stagflation, a crisis in the economy comprised by sustained inflation, high unemployment, and sluggish economic growth. Meanwhile, the social revolution met with a conservative backlash and the rise of Evangelical Christianity, while the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 ushered in the new economic regime of Neoliberalism (ASHP, 1992).

If contemporary Conservatives are pining for the Golden Years of the Postwar economic boom, they have embraced the wrong economic policies to secure that manner of greatness. Likewise, Conservatives have not embraced the expansion of rights that are descended from the 1960s, especially women’s reproductive rights and greater visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ communities. If Conservatives are not defining greatness as either our longest economic boom or the expansion of an egalitarian democracy, what kind of greatness are they harkening back to, exactly? In the words of folk/pop singer Jill Sobule, “When they say we want our America back, well, what the f*ck do they mean?” (Sobule, 2018).

The radical idea underpinning American democracy is the Enlightenment notion that humankind can use reason to govern itself. The North American continent was colonized by European nations ruled by monarchs, whose rule was justified by the doctrine of Divine Right. The Enlightenment thinkers rejected the belief that some humans were ordained by God to a higher station than others, and instead posited that all humanity was created equal (Russell, 1945). In the current political context, egalitarian agents of social change must understand how the democratic ideal of equality has been undermined for more than a century by elitists who are hostile to democracy.

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