Throughout American history, the presidents have been both liberal and conservative. However, liberal and conservative presidents have mostly held to a common agenda: protecting “property and enterprise,” and cooperating with the most powerful people in the country to ensure the continuation of their status as elites. In the years following the Watergate Scandal, a series of American presidents entered the White House promising both liberal and conservative solutions for society’s problems. However, all of these presidents remained loyal to a vision of “property and enterprise.”
In his book, Zinn has argued that the most powerful, wealthy, and educated people in the country tend to cooperate with one another far more than they cooperate with the common man. There have been many exceptions for this rule in American history. However, in the last thirty years, Zinn argues, Republicans and Democrats have largely stayed on the same side, protecting the property of the wealthy while pretending to be deeply committed to the needs of the American people.
The presidency of Jimmy Carter seemed, at first, like an attempt to reach out to the disenfranchised and the downtrodden. But Carter’s gestures to blacks, women, and the poor tended toward the symbolic. He appointed black women to some important cabinet positions, but “his most crucial appointments” were classic Establishment figures: Cold War intellectuals, former supporters of the Vietnam War, advocates of a high defense budget, etc. Almost all of Carter’s appointees had strong corporate connections. Carter conducted a foreign policy that mixed human rights protections with capitalist self-interest. For example, he spoke out against apartheid (racial segregation and discrimination) in South Africa, but, in private, made it clear that the U.S. had an incentive to promote peace in South Africa in order to protect its corporate investments there. Meanwhile, multinational corporations were active “on a scale never seen before.” Corporations invested heavily in the Third World and reaped huge profits. Furthermore, the military budget continued to grow. Carter supported tax reforms and reductions that benefitted large corporations.
Zinn’s first case study for the “bipartisan consensus” is Jimmy Carter. Carter was elected in large part because the electorate believed that he could be a dynamic, transformative president who would honor the needs of the American people. However, as Zinn shows, Carter’s policies were, by and large, traditional and economically conservative, while his gestures of goodwill toward minorities were largely symbolic. Zinn questions Carter’s motives for opposing apartheid in South Africa, suggesting that Carter spoke out against apartheid mostly because apartheid threatened American business interests, not because he was morally opposed to the practice. Carter’s administration is often seen as being weak and disorganized, but Zinn seems to imply that Carter knew exactly what he was doing: he allowed business to prosper while largely ignoring populist political causes.
In many ways, Carter’s foreign policy continued the policies of Nixon and Johnson. He lobbied Congress to fund repressive regimes in Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Iran. In 1979, the dictatorial Shah of Iran, an American ally, was forced to flee the country because his people were demonstrating against him. Carter provided the Shah with shelter and medical treatment in the U.S. In Iran, demonstrators took over the American embassy and took American hostages, demanding that the Shah be returned to Iran immediately. In response, Carter ordered the deportation from the U.S. of hundreds of Iranian immigrants who lacked valid visas.
Carter’s foreign policy is sometimes praised for representing a return to America’s status as a “moral leader.” However, Zinn argues that, in fact, Carter supported many corrupt, human rights-violating regimes, continuing the traditional Cold War strategies of his predecessors, Johnson and Nixon. However, Carter’s decision to provide medical treatment for the Shah of Iran seems far more morally acceptable than the foreign policy decisions of Nixon and Johnson, suggesting that Carter’s “support” for repressive regimes was more peaceful than his predecessors’ support.
In the 1980 presidential elections, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, and just before Reagan was inaugurated, the Iranian hostages were released, apparently unharmed. For the next twelve years, the right wing of the American Establishment was in charge, “erasing even the faint liberalism of the Carter presidency.” During this era, Reagan and his successor as president, George H. W. Bush, transformed the federal judiciary, by appointing right-wing judges. The Supreme Court brought back the death penalty and declared that education was not a “fundamental right.” After the retirement of the liberal justice Thurgood Marshall, George H. W. Bush nominated a conservative black judge, Clarence Thomas. Thomas was confirmed by the Senate, in spite of testimony from a law professor, Anita Hill, that Thomas had sexually harassed her. Corporate America benefitted enormously from the Reagan-Bush years: these presidents’ deregulatory policies made it harder for workers to sue their companies.
During the Reagan-Bush years, the two back-to-back Republican presidents were able to institute a series of conservative policies and fill the court systems with conservative justices, ensuring the conservatism of the American court system for years to come (to this day, some of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court were appointed by Reagan and Bush). Bush’s decision to appoint Clarence Thomas, an African-American man who disagreed with almost all the liberal policies of his predecessor on the Court, Thurgood Marshall, suggests that Bush was more interested in symbolic gestures toward minorities (i.e., appointing a black man to a high office) than in genuinely helping the black community.
Between 1981 and 1993, Bush and Reagan avoided passing many environmental regulations. Reagan stated many times that businesses should be able to take a “voluntary approach” to environmental policy, and, although Bush signed into law the Clean Air Act of 1990, he also allowed manufacturers to increase pollution. At the same time that, around the world, governments and environmental groups were coming together in recognition of the impending ecological crisis, the U.S. government remained oblivious.
While it’s certainly true that Bush and Reagan passed many deregulatory laws that gave businesses a free reign to pollute and endanger the environment, one gets the sense that Zinn is misrepresenting the record somewhat to make Bush seem even more opposed to environmentalism than he really was. The fact remains that he signed the Clean Air Act, an important piece of environmental legislation.
Reagan and Bush supported a fiscal policy that consisted of growing the military budget while cutting welfare. Reagan insisted that by cutting taxes for the richest Americans, the country would benefit from new investment. Reagan’s tax cuts were shown to have no discernible impact on new investment; indeed, some studies have suggested that investment increases at times when corporate taxes are higher, not lower. By cutting social programs, Reagan contributed to higher unemployment, and guaranteed that some people with disabilities could no longer support themselves. Surprisingly, many Democrats joined Reagan in denouncing social programs. Indeed, many studies have found that, since World War Two, Democrats, more than Republicans, have been instrumental in lowering taxes for the wealthy. During the Carter administration, the Democratic Congress supported tax reforms that deducted greater amounts from low-income workers’ checks. As a result of tax reform, the gap between rich and poor heightened.
Perhaps Reagan and Bush’s most notable policies involved lowering taxes on the wealthiest Americans, on the basis that lower taxes for the wealthy would stimulate the economy as a whole. This theory of “trickle-down economics” has been hotly disputed by generations of economists. Furthermore, Zinn argues that Democrats have been even more aggressive in lowering taxes for the wealthy than Republicans. However, Zinn misrepresents the history of Johnson’s Great Society welfare programs (which he barely touched on in earlier chapters, probably because it flatly contradicts his argument about a bipartisan consensus) to suggest that Democrats lowered taxes on the wealthy to help the Establishment. In fact, they did so largely as a gesture of compromise with Republicans to ensure that Republicans would support expanding welfare.
By the late 1980s a third of African American families had fallen below the poverty line, and crime in black communities was on the rise. Often, advocates of the “free market” claimed that poor people were victims of their own laziness, though, as Zinn notes, “they did not ask why babies who were not old enough to show their work skills should be penalized—to the point of death—for growing up in a poor family.”
One of the worst aspects of the 1980s culture of success and prosperity was that poor people were blamed for their own poverty. Needless to say, such an idea obscured the structural inequalities in American society, which kept the poor in poverty.
The free market policies of Carter, Reagan, and Bush led to a major scandal. By the late eighties, many of the largest savings and loans banks in the country had drained their assets by betting on risky investments. The fragility of America’s banking system was never a major factor in an election, however, because both the Republican and Democratic parties were involved in “covering up the situation” in Congress.
Zinn doesn’t go into great detail when discussing the financial instability of the market in the late 1980s; however, he argues that both Democrats and Republicans were involved in covering it up, reinforcing his theory of a bipartisan consensus.
During the eighties, the federal government continued to lavish large sums on the military. While many government insiders privately confessed that they couldn’t see how it would be profitable for the Soviet Union to try to invade Western Europe, the government continued to tell its people that the world was in danger of a Russian invasion, and that defense buildup was the only way to prevent such a catastrophe. In 1984, “the CIA admitted that it had exaggerated Soviet military buildup.”
The federal government continued to exaggerate the danger posed by Soviet buildup in order to justify its own rampant defense spending—spending which the majority of Americans opposed.
During the Reagan-Bush years, the U.S. supported an active foreign policy. Under Reagan, the U.S. deployed troops to Nicaragua to quell the populist Sandinista movement against the Nicaraguan government (an ally of the U.S.). The government directed the CIA to train counterrevolutionaries, the “contras,” to fight the Sandinistas. Even after Congress passed a bill making it illegal for the U.S. to support military action in Nicaragua, Reagan persisted in supporting the contras. To fund the contras, the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran—a violation of the Constitution—in return for hostages that Iranian extremists were keeping in Lebanon. When news of the administration’s actions broke, the Reagan administration lied and claimed that the weapons hadn’t been traded for hostages at all. Later, when the administration’s lies were clear, Congress prosecuted Colonel Oliver North for overseeing the contra aid operation—Reagan himself was never indicted. Congress completely ignored the heart of the matter: “How were the president and his staff permitted to support a terrorist group in Central America to overthrow a government that, whatever its faults, is welcomed by its own people as a great improvement over the terrible governments the U.S. has supported there for years?”
During the 1980s, Reagan continued his predecessors’ style of foreign policy: in essence, supporting right-wing, repressive regimes in order to ensure the health of American business and the weakness of Socialism abroad. Colonel Oliver North is often considered to have been a “fall guy” for Reagan. In other words, North was a scapegoat whose only function was to draw attention away from Ronald Reagan himself, who, it’s quite likely, was personally involved in supporting the illegal sale of weapons in Iran. As Zinn sees it, the heart of the Iran-Contra Scandal was that Reagan was using federal funds to support a war on the Sandinistas, a widely supported group in Nicaragua, thereby challenging the Nicaraguans’ rights of popular sovereignty. Congressmen criticized Reagan’s personal behavior during the scandal, but didn’t attack the basic principle of violent foreign intervention, suggesting that they agreed with him in principle.
At many other points during the Reagan-Bush years, the U.S. government broke the law by deploying troops abroad without consulting Congress first. Reagan deployed troops to the tiny island of Grenada, supposedly because a recent military coup was endangering American lives, but in reality because Grenada was a key American tax haven, which the Establishment had a vested interest in protecting. In Latin America more generally, the U.S. conducted a particularly “crass” foreign policy, in which the ties between military action and business interests were always very clear. The Carter and Reagan administrations funded the government in El Salvador, which was known to protect American corporate interests. Furthermore, it is very likely that, under the Carter administration, the CIA supported the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a prominent left-wing opponent of the government, by financing violent right-ring groups.
Carter, Reagan, and Bush conducted aggressive foreign policies in Latin America, ensuring that other countries in the Western hemisphere would protect American business interests. The U.S. government was, in all likelihood, involved in silencing vocal critics of American foreign policy, including a Catholic priest, Oscar Romero.
Early in the Bush presidency, it became clear that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse: there were mass demonstrations in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the government was weak and fragile. Conservative intellectuals claimed that Reagan’s hard-line policies and defense spending had weakened the Soviet Union. However, in many ways, the “hard line” was an obstacle to the end of the Cold War, since it encouraged both sides to spend more on the military.
While it’s still commonly asserted that Reagan’s nuclear buildup accelerated the process by which the Soviet Union bankrupted itself, Zinn argues that such an assertion completely misses the point: by building up the nuclear arsenal for fifty years, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. endangered their own people and prolonged the Cold War.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, America had a shining opportunity to rethink its military spending. However, instead of taking the opportunity to cut down on the military, the Establishment almost immediately launched new wars, one in Panama and one in Iraq, “as if to prove that the gigantic military establishment was still necessary.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, America did not seriously reconsider its foreign policy; it continued to deploy troops around the world to ensure American businesses’ continued prosperity.
In 1990, Saddam Hussein, the brutal dictator of Iraq, invaded the neighboring country of Kuwait. Bush, who needed “something to boost his popularity among American voters,” deployed forces to Kuwait, despite the fact that the United Nations had successfully established effective sanctions against Iraq. Many journalists speculated that Bush unnecessarily sent troops to Iraq to ensure his reelection. Others suggested that Bush sent troops to the Middle East to secure control over lucrative oil fields. Nevertheless, the media presented only one motive for the invasion: to liberate Kuwait. Few journalists pointed to the large number of other countries that had been invaded around the same time without any response from the U.S., let alone the countries that the U.S. itself had invaded.
It’s been suggested that George H. W. Bush deliberately started a war in Iraq in order make himself more popular with the American electorate. Even if this isn’t true, it’s plain that the first war in Iraq extended America’s Cold War foreign policy and gave U.S. oil companies access to Kuwait’s valuable oil reserves (although Hussein arranged for many oil fields to be burned before the American military could access them). As with other military conflicts in American history, the press was largely supportive of the war.
During the war in Kuwait, the Bush administration took care to publicize information about the sophistication of the military’s technology, greatly increasing support for the war. U.S. forces bombed Iraqi cities, killing thousands of civilians, despite the Pentagon’s insistence that there were almost no civilian casualties in Iraq. The media remained obsequiously loyal to the government during this time. Only much later did it become clear that the invasion of Iraq had caused starvation, disease, and the deaths of tens of thousands of children.
The government tried to downplay the number of civilian casualties in Iraq, probably because it knew that the American people would be less likely to support a war in which innocent Iraqi women and children died. While the Gulf War was highly popular at the time, it’s unlike that so many Americans would have supported it had they known that it would cause the deaths of tens of thousands of children.
Surprisingly, the War in Iraq did not end with the deposing of Saddam Hussein. Instead, the American military pulled out before marching to Baghdad, leaving Hussein power. It seems that the U.S. government’s goal was to weaken Hussein, while still leaving him as a stabilizing force against Iran. Indeed, the U.S. had previously sold weapons to both Iran and Iraq.
It’s not immediately clear why the American military didn’t attempt to depose Saddam Hussein, although it’s been suggested that the U.S. needed Hussein to stabilize the region (in the last ten years, it’s been pointed out that Hussein’s fall in the mid-2000s destabilized the Middle East and paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State). However, the fact that the military allowed Hussein to continue as dictator of Iraq suggests that it was never interested in intervening in Iraq for moral reasons.
In the U.S., the powerful elite regarded the invasion of Iraq as a triumph of technology and organization. Both Democrats and Republicans celebrated the war effort, and Bush declared, “The specter of Vietnam had been buried forever.” Throughout the country, journalists, politicians, and other elites saw Iraq as a “cure” for the public’s opposition to war in Vietnam. On the other hand, a black poet in California said of the war, “It’s a hit the same way that crack is, and it doesn’t last long.”
While the Gulf War was widely praised as a success, Zinn suggests that the American people would continue to be skeptical of American wars and military interventions. Thus, the Gulf War may have “seduced” the public into supporting war, but ultimately, it couldn’t hide the injustices of American foreign policy.