BY KURT ANDERSEN
RANDOM HOUSE, 2020
If you like conspiracy theories, Kurt Andersen has a good one for you.
Once upon a time there was a well-functioning democratic society that valued fairness, opportunity, and public integrity. Big business and the executive class accepted, for the most part, a social contract requiring them to treat everyday people with decency and to pay their fair share of taxes. Whether born rich, middle income, or poor, whether endowed with a fancy education or high school at best, every (white) person had a good chance to build, and live, a good life and set up their offspring for better.
But then, through the creation and meticulous, decades-long execution of a nefarious plot, a group of rich-but-determined-to-get-richer evildoers ruined it all and became obscenely wealthy in the process. What was even more far-fetched (and you might have a hard time buying the plausibility if it were fiction) was that the conspirators somehow got their victims to go along with it—to help even!—by drugging them with emotionally gratifying misdirection: nostalgia for a mythical bygone day and seething contempt for the liberalism that supposedly took it away.
A gripping story—but one with a lot of competition. Conspiracy theories are too numerous to keep up with in American culture, past and present, warning of everything from planned pandemics and autism-inducing vaccinations to the moon landing being staged in a studio and 9/11 being an inside job. One of the most audacious happens to be of recent vintage: QAnon, which would have us believe that a cabal of Satan-worshipping liberal elites is engaging in pedophilia and thwarting the wonderful man in the White House as he seeks to do God’s work.
But there’s a crucial difference between Andersen’s conspiracy story and all the rest. His is true. And thoroughly documented.
In Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, Andersen uses his sharp journalistic skills and keen storytelling ability to show and explain how this “unmaking” happened and who did it.
“The paradigm shift of the 1980s really was equivalent in scale and scope to those of the 1960s and the 1930s,” Andersen writes.
Key intellectual foundations of our legal system were changed. Our long-standing consensus about acceptable and unacceptable conduct by big business was changed. Ideas about selfishness and fairness were changed. The financial industry simultaneously became reckless and more powerful than ever. The liberal establishment began habitually apologizing for and distancing itself from much of what had defined liberal progress. What made America great for centuries, a taste and knack for the culturally new, started to atrophy. Plus much more. And all of what happened in the 1980s definitely didn’t stay in the 1980s.
This conservative momentum—the Reagan revolution, as you might know it—kept charging ahead through the ’90s, ’00s, and teens. Andersen provides a meticulous and surprisingly readable examination of the seemingly eye-glazing changes in business and financial regulations that gave the oligarchs their victory and its spoils, while leaving the vast majority of Americans in a state of ever-increasing economic insecurity, stranded on the wrong side of a canyon of income inequality not seen since the Gilded Age.
The villainous masterminds of Andersen’s story—people including the Kochs, Richard Mellon Scaife, Joseph Coors, and Robert Bork, and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation—were not conspiring in secret, exactly. Their rhetoric and white papers circulated publicly, and the surprisingly docile media often covered them in accepting if not positive terms.
But nor did Andersen’s evil geniuses fully reveal the ultimate objective and consequence of their long-game strategy: freeing a select few to become insanely wealthy while gradually replacing FDR’s New Deal with what for poorer Americans amounted to a raw deal. They managed to give their scheme a veneer of philosophical and ethical worthiness, convincing much of the public that it would be best for everyone if business were less restrained.
In part, by manipulating the complicated and seemingly boring rules and regulations that protect the public from predatory capitalism, which most citizens have neither the time nor inclination to master. Antitrust mechanics, byzantine business regulations, under-the-hood changes in tax code—when you’re working angles like these, the esoteric subject matter alone protects you from unwanted citizen scrutiny.
In the meantime, the malevolent geniuses, in tandem with powerful changes in the culture, provided spoonful after spoonful of sugar to help the nasty medicine go down.
Part of that trick was commandeering a powerful, pre-existing cultural force: the spirit of extreme individualism and self-expression that took off in the 1960s. What started as a liberal thing was turned in a different direction to glamorize freedom for aspiring oligarchs—the freedom to be as ostentatiously greedy and rich as they always wanted to be. It’s almost as if the conservative business interests said, “OK, hippies and liberals, you win. From now on, it’s maximum freedom and individualism for all. You can have your sexual and artistic self-expression. You do your thing and we’ll do ours!”
Another key form of sugar was nostalgia, which Andersen discusses at length and in fascinating ways. A major point in his analysis is that citizens’ forward-looking spirit was a huge part of America’s success as a country over its first two centuries. Sure, there was always a gauzy fondness for things gone by among some of the people, some of the time. But he sees it taking hold at a deeper level, and with an unprecedented durability, as the 1960s wound down and the ’70s began. And not by accident. Resurgent conservative interests manufactured nostalgia and fed it to a public ready for respite from the tumultuous ’60s.
If you want to play the conspiracy game and go back in time to find juicy clues as to what was coming, you can find one at Woodstock, of all places. As Andersen cleverly points out, the second-to-last performers on that stage were not remotely close in style or sensibility to the rock artists we associate with Woodstock: acts like Jimi Hendrix; the Who; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
No, the second-to-last act was Sha Na Na—a nostalgia act that glamorized a decade, the 1950s, that wasn’t even old yet!
“To the crowd and to the Woodstock movie audiences in 1970, this was spectacularly surprising and amusing. It was intense instant nostalgia,” Andersen writes.
Even at the event that remains a defining peak moment of a revolutionary new age that had only just gotten started—the phrase Woodstock Generation actually preceded baby boomers—Americans began turning backward for the reassuring, unchallenging gaze back at a past that wouldn’t change or surprise or shock.
Nostalgia was the charming sanctuary to which people retreated to feel better during their post-1960s hangover—and then never really left. They were encouraged by a culture industry that immediately created a wide-ranging nostalgia division of a kind that hadn’t existed before.
In discussing a paucity of cultural change over the decades that followed, Andersen goes too far at one point. He writes about a revelatory moment he had in 2007 while examining a photo of trend-setting New Yorkers from the mid-’80s and thinking their clothes and hair and make-up didn’t look dated. Cultural change, he realized, had slowed to a crawl—and he goes on to notice much the same in music, architecture, graphic design, and elsewhere.
Really? I cannot watch a movie from the ’90s without cringing at the men’s boxy suits, which, thank goodness, have given way to sleeker cuts. Didn’t skinny jeans happen? As for popular music, “dated” is exactly what I hear when I do any memory-lane listening to rock bands from the ’80s or ’90s.
But if Andersen’s eyesight and hearing fail him a little on this score, it can be easily forgiven. Because in most other ways, his book demonstrates a remarkable ability to see through to the truth of the politics and culture of recent decades, and to make sense of them in a way with crucial relevance to now.
Thankfully, once his “recent history” catches up to our scary and infuriating now, Andersen doesn’t stop. He leaves his readers with a thorough analysis of where we are and what we must do if we’re to reverse the “unmaking” of the country.
America, he writes, finds itself at a strategic inflection point both hastened and revealed by a coronavirus pandemic that has tested the country and found us wanting. Layer that crisis on top of a climate crisis going largely unaddressed, and on top of an extreme form of short-term-profit-obsessed capitalism that’s serving no one but the plutocrats, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious to critical masses of Americans that the current paradigm is played out. It’s time to rip the wool of nostalgia off our eyes and commit to the process of reform—create the new future—that past generations have done at their moments of crisis.
“We may or may not,” Andersen says, “be up to summoning the old-fashioned grit and gumption necessary to persevere and thrive in this new new world.” This moment, he adds, “could mean an opportunity to rise to new heights, or it could be the beginning of the end.”
Past generations rose to their occasions. Andersen’s evil geniuses seized their moment of crisis and opportunity nearly a half-century ago when inflation, energy shocks, Watergate, and Vietnam conspired with the post-’60s hangover to convince Americans that that status quo had to go. Like them, today’s Left and its allies must “use all available crises to increase their political power and thereby begin to restore the democratic sharing of economic power and wealth we once had and even improve on it,” Andersen writes.
If the evil geniuses could pull off their plot, lovers of democracy can do the same with ours, Andersen believes. We have the numbers. Powerful cultural tides are rolling in our favor. We have the better ideas and more are out there, waiting to be grasped and acted on. There’s just one thing to do, and Andersen nails it in the book’s closing line: “So let’s go, already.”