Let’s start with the fact Netflix’s Derry Girls is bloody brilliant. Following a group of adolescent girls growing up during the 1990s Northern Ireland Troubles, in some ways the show is an Irish Catholic version of Mean Girls. From top class cursing to the merciless ridicule of James, the show taps all of my dark humor happy places. But we’ll come back to Derry Girls in a bit. Because in between the sarcasm and teenage angst are real-life decisions.
It is nice to be back in California. My wife of Jersey roots is enjoying the lack of snow and ice. And I love being back near a real ocean. (The Atlantic is called “the pond” for a reason.)
A new reality, though, is my hour-long commute. On California highways, between tech bros who think they are F1 drivers and the region’s asinine level of rubbernecking, the drive can be an adventure. So, in order to stay alert I toggle between hip-hop albums and an assortment of podcasts.
A couple weeks ago, taking a break from parenting pods, I found my way to How to Save a Country, co-hosted by Felicia Wong.
In a recent episode, the hosts of The New Republic’s Politics is Everything interview journalist Aaron Timms about his new article, “We’re Haunted by the Economy of the 1970’s,” a critique of the politics and policies of the decade.
Timms is unflinching as he lays out in great detail the dynamics that led to the Volcker Shock, “which saw short-term interest rates climb to almost 20 percent by 1981, plunging the United States into recession.”
Of the factors that led to this policy, Timms found, was a 1975 report, co-written by political scientist Samuel Huntington, The Crisis of Democracy. As cited by Timms, Huntington wrote that democracies have “always had a marginal population, of greater or lesser size, which has not actively participated in politics” which “enabled democracy to function effectively.”
Timms unpacked Huntington’s argument as such:
In the years since World War II, however, “marginal social groups” that had previously been “passive or unorganized”—women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, etc.—became enfranchised as full political subjects. This democratic surge represented a boon for representation but a challenge for “governability,” as previously marginalized social groups began to overload the state with “demands that extend its functions and undermine its authority.”
According to Huntington, things were fine until people who weren’t white dudes started asking for stuff.
While his analysis is mostly economic and political, Timms cultural touchpoints for the decade are Taxi Driver and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, memorializing the decade as, “an era of heroin, disco, dirt, and excess.” Which isn’t the whole story.
In Rock Me On The Water, Ron Brownstein traces how 1974 Los Angeles transformed culture and politics. The impact of Norman Lear on television in the ‘70s alone – everything from All in the Family to Sanford and Sons to The Jeffersons –is enough to reshape, or at least challenge, a culture. These were shows that spoke to the aspirations of those coming to influence American society.
Of course, less than a decade earlier, the Civil Rights Act empowered Black voters. And, on the heels of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, nearly five million immigrants arrived in the United States during the 1970s, the greatest influx of people to America since the 1920s.
I illustrated the impact of the Volcker Shock in Crossing Borders through the experiences of rural Iowa: The nation’s 1984 farm debt was double what it had been in 1978, there was a 17 percent decline in Iowa’s farm operators and approximately 283,000 people left the state over the 1980s. Replacing them in an agricultural industry that was dominated by large corporate interests, were Vietnamese and Laotian refugees, along with Latino immigrants.
Reagan’s communication skills aside, the ability to bind America and Americans together was enormously difficult in this cauldron of change. So, in reaction to demographic and cultural shifts, not necessarily the economic policies that put ownership and wealth out of reach of so many, the 1990s were dominated by tough-on-crime laws, California’s Proposition 187, and Clinton’s massive immigration enforcement crackdown. And, don’t forget, Patrick Buchanan exploited all of the above to launch his political movement at the same time.
These days, as I drive to work, dodging tech bros and brake lights, I think about the Federalist Papers No. 10 where James Madison wrote, “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” Our factions are now our information ecosystems.
We laugh at Trump hawking NFTs, but his loyal followers buy them up; Inflation hits working class Americans hardest, but we puzzle over what a tight labor market means for the world’s biggest tech companies while they lay off thousands; Democrats are thrilled they escaped a red wave, but quick to forget they lost the House popular vote and that as recent as April of this year, 13 out of the 15 most popular governors in the country were Republicans; Millennial voters (35% of the US workforce) favored Biden by 20 points in the 2020 election, but Trump gained 8 points among this cohort; and, as Musk shatters what was left of a relatively sane social media discourse, we are pushed further and further into the echo chambers of our choice.
Which brings me back to the Derry Girls.
The amazing final episodes of the show revolve around the Good Friday Agreement. The political violence, the negotiations, the loss of life, lurk just beneath the surface. What I watched in those last scenes was how these young women grappled with the decision in front of them. Prior to this first opportunity to vote, as Catholics, as young people, they were a marginal social group. So, they voted like their lives depended on it. Because, well, their lives did.
These days, the communities Huntington disdained as “marginal social groups” are fully franchised via the cultural, economic and political power they wield. Which means every election, every governing institution, is an opportunity to take another step towards a multiethnic democracy.
It remains to be seen whether or not we are up to this challenge.
Will Americans organize themselves into democratic coalitions that push both parties to govern for the all? Or, will “factious tempers” prevail in their pursuit of autocratic power?
We are not in the clear yet.
Dreamers and Farmworkers
It is infuriating to see how the Senate failed to advance legislation to protect Dreamers and farmworkers. While the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent is correct to lay blame at the feet of Minority Leader McConnell, there is no political price for GOP leadership to pay because the President Biden invests zero capital in finding a solution. Consequently, the far-right defines the issue and reaps the political benefits of a never-ending debate. Meanwhile, Dreamers, farmworkers and millions of other immigrants – documented or not – continue to live their lives in limbo hoping the culture does not turn the politics against them. (Again.)
Stuff to Read
The good people of More in Common wrapped up a year-long project looking at the culture wars hammering school boards across the country. In their new report, “Defusing the History Wars,” they come to define the “‘Perception Gap’ — the gap between what we imagine an opposing group believes and what that group actually believes.”
And, Simon Cottee, in a piece for The Atlantic “It’s Not Filter Bubbles That Are Driving Us Apart” wrote about a new paper by Petter Tornberg, “How digital media drive affective polarization through partisan sorting.” Tornberg makes the case that “it is not isolation from opposing views that drives polarization but precisely the fact that digital media bring us to interact outside our local bubble.”
There is a link to be drawn here. I’ll save that for a separate insufferably long piece.