Evil Geniuses | Kurt Andersen

Summary of: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
By: Kurt Andersen

Introduction

Welcome to the summary of ‘Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History’ by Kurt Andersen. In this book, Andersen explores the path that led America to its current state of nostalgia and stagnation, where progress seems to have come to a halt. He examines the decline that started toward the end of the twentieth century and exposes how the right-wing elite engineered an economic counter-revolution, seizing the opportunity provided by the growing nostalgia for an idealized past. The author also discusses the impacts of this shift on society and the need to reform and move forward to safeguard a prosperous future.

Stuck In Nostalgia’s Grip

America, the land of progress, has seen a decline in innovation and modernity since the end of the twentieth century. While adopting a penchant for nostalgia, the country has become stagnant in music, fashion, and design, also leading to a crippling effect on economic and political growth. For America to tackle the challenges it faces today, it must break free from the paralyzing grip of nostalgia and once again, look forward.

For much of its history, America symbolized a land of new beginnings, casting off the old world to embrace the future. With the birth of innovative religious movements, groundbreaking inventions, and enterprising ventures, America stood at the forefront of progress. As the twentieth century unfolded, the country continued evolving, fostering space exploration, the civil rights movement, and the rock and roll revolution.

However, the relentless drive towards modernity seemed to have screeched to a halt as the twentieth century drew to a close. Author Kurt Andersen first observved this change in 2007 while examining a photograph from two decades prior. Surprisingly, he saw little difference between the 1987 fashion and trends and those of 2007. A deeper dive into aspects such as automobiles, music, and design revealed a distinct stagnation, with the exception of advancements in mobile phones and computers.

This marked departure from the innovative spirit of the twentieth century can be attributed to America’s growing fondness for nostalgia. As early as the 1970s, the public began to crave the simplicity and stability of an imagined past. Films and TV series like Grease, American Graffiti, and Happy Days painted idealized versions of the 1950s and early ’60s, catalyzing widespread nostalgia for that era.

Today, this retro fixation continues, as fashion, music, and design consistently revive and recycle styles from various points in the twentieth century. But why is this trend important? The nationwide dalliance with nostalgia represents more than a cultural idiosyncrasy—it points to an economic and political standstill. America, ensnared in a time warp, struggles to confront the pressing issues of our age, such as climate change and social inequality.

For America to overcome its challenges and thrive once again, it must break free from nostalgia’s grasp and restore its focus on the future. It is only through this renewed drive towards progress that the nation can successfully delve into the uncharted territory of the twenty-first century and beyond.

Nostalgia’s Role in Economic Shift

America was transformed into a modern, center-left country following the introduction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1932, which provided security and relief to citizens. The subsequent liberal reforms during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency seemed to push the economic right into irrelevance. However, the economic right cleverly utilized nostalgia to revive and infiltrate mainstream politics. Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign strategy hinted at this tactic of utilizing memories of a simpler past, but it was Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign that successfully harnessed the power of nostalgia. As a result, Reagan’s victory opened the door to conservative economic policies favored by the right-wing elites.

The United States emerged as a modern, center-left nation after FDR’s New Deal policies provided economic relief and stability to millions of Americans. By LBJ’s time in office, a wave of liberal reforms took hold, and the economic right seemed to be fading. Those who advocated for cutting taxes for big businesses or reducing welfare programs were relegated to the fringes.

However, the right saw an opportunity to stage a comeback, using nostalgia to sway public opinion. Right-wing elites, fearing they would lose their privileges during the social turmoil of the 1960s, observed the public’s desire for a simpler past. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign subtly utilized nostalgic imagery, but his loss to LBJ kept this tactic from being fully realized.

Ronald Reagan managed to masterfully harness the power of nostalgia during his 1980 presidential campaign. Instead of elaborating on his right-wing economic policies, which were unpopular amongst the majority of Americans, he painted a picture of an idealized past. As a former Hollywood star, Reagan himself embodied this idyllic vision of America, which strongly resonated with voters.

Reagan’s strategy played on the warm, nostalgic memories of white-picket-fence America, characterized by sprawling lawns, quaint homes, and neighborhood newspaper boys. This appealed to voters’ emotions and ultimately overshadowed their disagreement with his economic views. Consequently, Reagan won the 1980 election, paving the way for the implementation of the conservative economic policies that right-wing elites had eagerly awaited. It was the power of nostalgia that opened the door to the economic right, changing America’s political landscape.

Pioneers of the Economic Right

Milton Friedman and Lewis Powell were two pivotal characters in the resurgence of the economic right during the 1970s, shaping the course of American politics and economics for the next several decades. Friedman’s provocative essay advocating for profit as the sole responsibility of business resonated with wealthy businesspeople, while Powell’s blueprint for a well-funded right-wing lobbying machine helped establish the dominant form of political campaigning in the United States.

During the 1970s, two men stood out as instrumental to the resurgence of the economic right: Milton Friedman, a University of Chicago economist, and Lewis Powell, a prominent lawyer from Virginia. Their distinct yet powerful contributions brought forth a new era of political and economic development in America.

In 1970, amid the seemingly omnipresent progressive ideologies, Friedman published a potent essay in the New York Times Magazine titled “A Friedman doctrine – The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” This piece boldly argued that a business’s sole responsibility is to accumulate profit, dismissing any notions of social responsibility as a mask for anti-capitalist sentiments. This viewpoint offered a refreshing contrast to the prevalent progressive thought, garnering support from wealthy CEOs and businesspeople who were weary of the liberal ridicule.

Friedman’s essay spurred a significant shift in corporate boardroom strategies and went on to shape American economic policy for the next five decades. Notably, his ideas influenced future Republican President Ronald Reagan’s policies, further amplifying the impact of his work on the economic right’s revival.

Lewis Powell also played a pivotal role in the economic right’s reemergence, responding to the anti-capitalist mood of the 1960s by submitting a plan of action to the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971. Powell aimed to counter left-wing subversion by infiltrating and influencing academia, media, politics, and the legal system. He proposed unprecedented campaign budgets, calling for corporations to donate and fund think tanks, academics, and sympathetic journalists to promote right-wing economic ideology.

Powell’s plan marked the onset of well-funded lobbying campaigns, a staple in American politics throughout the following decades. His vision would not only redefine United States political campaigning but also solidify the economic right’s position in the American political landscape.

Both Friedman and Powell, through their respective yet complementary efforts, played vital roles in the march of the new economic right. Together, they fostered an ideological shift that continues to impact American politics and policy to this day.

Adopting Strategies for Power

When reflecting on the radical 1960s, it’s easy to imagine vibrant scenes of hippies at Woodstock or student activists protesting government actions. Interestingly, the conservatives who initially opposed these movements eventually adopted similar strategies and ideologies to gain power themselves. By embracing the ultra-individualism, government mistrust, and victim mentality of their opponents, the political right found new ways to connect with the masses and drive a libertarian agenda emphasizing personal freedoms and deregulation.

As the 1960s progressed, a growing number of young people began rejecting the conformity of post-war America in favor of radical self-expression. They sought their own truths and explored their unique identities, typically through psychedelic experiences and anti-establishment movements. Realizing the influence of these cultural trends, prominent right-wing figures like Milton Friedman encouraged their followers to embrace individualism as well. Friedman convinced them that pursuing wealth and profit without social responsibility was not only acceptable but commendable.

Like their anti-establishment counterparts, the rising political right appropriated another key sentiment of the 1960s – the widespread mistrust of government. Spurred by events like the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, public faith in authority figures and institutions rapidly declined. Instead of resisting this skepticism, conservative proponents capitalized on it to further their libertarian ideals. They pushed for minimal state intervention in citizens’ lives and urged widespread deregulation to enable businesses to operate freely.

Ronald Reagan famously summarized this view during his inaugural address, stating, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” By aligning with popular sentiments, conservatives created a strong connection with the disillusioned public. Lastly, figures like Lewis Powell, a Virginian lawyer, attempted to frame wealthy businessmen as victims. He wrote, “The American business executive is truly the forgotten man,” evoking the language used by those fighting for marginalized groups.

These tactics might have seemed cynical, but they proved remarkably effective in promoting the right’s agenda. By adopting the strategies of their political opponents, conservatives discovered powerful means of resonating with a wide audience, ultimately leading to their significant victories in the 1980s. This adroit adaptation not only highlights the importance of understanding your opponents but also underscores the game-changing potential of an open mind.

Liberal Complacency’s Consequences

The American right’s success can be traced to a period of liberal complacency during which the progressive side of politics unwittingly allowed nostalgic and conservative movements to gain ground. Consequently, this shift became widespread and significantly contributed to the eventual election of Ronald Reagan.

Once upon a time, American liberals had seemingly emerged victorious in most political arguments. The New Deal’s values of secure employment, robust labor unions, and assistance for the needy were deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Despite race, gender, and sexuality issues still needing to be addressed, progress was on the horizon.

However, after the 1960s, American liberals grew complacent, leaving a dangerous opening for the political right. Nostalgia seeped into society, drawing people from both ends of the political spectrum. The 1980s saw many individuals, including affluent liberals, adopt past fashions and customs as quirky revivals. Comfort food, reflecting traditional American home-cooking, became prevalent, masking an underlying longing for a steadier, less radical, and whiter past.

This nostalgic sentiment was epitomized by the popularity of The Official Preppy Handbook, a satirical yet influential portrayal of upper-class white college students. As liberals ironically embraced such traditions, it paved the way for right-wing leaders like Ronald Reagan to capitalize on that yearning for times gone by.

Unwavering support for labor unions waned, with some liberals disillusioned by their lack of progressiveness towards minorities and women. Viewing unions as bastions of outdated discrimination, many liberals did not defend these organizations from right-wing attacks during the 1980s. Consequently, another line of defense against corporate elites disappeared.

In an attempt to appear open-minded, several liberal outlets and institutions accommodated right-wing thinkers. The New York Times hired William Safire, Richard Nixon’s right-wing speechwriter; Harvard employed Robert Nozick and Martin Feldstein, two prominent new right-wing figures. Moreover, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, two champions of conservative economics, were awarded Nobel prizes. As a result, right-wing voices infiltrated the liberal mainstream.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president, the extent of this complacency became apparent. The absence of resistance to his radical reforms attested to the extent to which liberal complacency had allowed conservative ideologies to permeate society. The underlying lesson remains valid today: an unguarded moment in politics can lead to unintended consequences and shifts in power.

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