While the last four years in America have certainly felt crazy and chaotic, the best-selling author of the recent book, “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History,” Kurt Andersen, contends that the insanity actually started much earlier, beginning back in the 1970s. Joined by rock-star Vanity Fair journalist, Joe Hagan, Kurt traces where America went wrong, what exactly happened and how we can get back to a more equitable, prosperous and ultimately more sane America.
Who are the evil geniuses and how did we get here?
Joe Hagan, who had previously interviewed Kurt for Vanity Fair, correctly notes that America seems particularly ‘unmade” in 2020.
As Kurt sees it, we are struggling with two sets of problems:
- Americans have an increasingly problematic relationship with empirical facts. Without a broad agreement on what’s real and what’s fake, civic discourse, democracy and well, the common good (I had to) all invariably suffer.
- The rigging of our economic system by big corporations, the courts and “hyper-capitalists,” exemplified by (to name a few) Milton Friedman, The Federalist Society, Business Roundtable, the Koch brothers and Citizens United. Collectively and gradually, these individuals and institutions created an economic and accompanying belief system that centered on maximizing profits at the expense of the public, the environment and our democracy. This strategic confederacy amounted to a repudiation of big government, shifting the paradigm from New Deal politics to rugged individualism and trickle down economics. Reagan personified this sentiment, but the seeds were planted well beforehand.
Corporate hedonism of the 1980s replaced the free-love, everything goes counterculture of the 1970s.
White Kurt certainly doesn’t hold back from scolding the GOP, he also blames Democrats (and himself) or “useful idiots” for perpetuating this rigged system and turning their backs on blue collar workers, who got pummeled by outsourcing, automation, and union-bashing (I would add rising healthcare and higher education costs).
- Democrats and Republicans merged, philosophically, on economics, leaving the GOP with an opening to exploit cultural wedge issues and lure many of these disillusioned Americans over to the GOP.
- Kurt uses Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers set a tone for how business could handle strikes and unions going forward. He also mentions the 1982 SEC decision that allowed publicly traded companies to buy their own stock to inflate their stock prices, which hadn’t been allowed since The Great Depression, as an illustrative moment.
Addressing this encroaching sense of loss, Republicans sold Americans this nostalgic tale of returning to an “It’s a Wonderful Life” version of America. The GOP used nostalgia to sell a bill of goods that ultimately didn’t work.
So in the face of all this, people, understandably, wanted to know what could be done.
Kurt said that Democrats needed to focus on the economy, but in a larger, more holistic sort of way. It’s not just about wages or employment numbers – the system is rigged and inequality is out of control. Dems have to meet the people where they are – look at the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s – and recognize the centrality of economic issues in peoples’ lives.
- Cultural and identity issues, while important, should play second fiddle in terms of messaging and priorities.
- He noted Elizabeth Warren’s brilliance and accuracy in diagnosing our ills; however, he conceded that she might not have been the right candidate.
Kurt also pointed to other advanced capitalist democracies as models. Dems shouldn’t kowtow to conservatives and scare easily when they proclaim socialism – look at free market countries in Scandinavia that combine robust capitalism with strong, effective social safety nets. The issues, because they were created, can be undone.
What we’re watching: Totally Under Control:Film-maker Alex Gibney scrutinises the US response to the pandemic. (Hulu, Amazon)
Watch video below:https://www.youtube.com/embed/3XbJBtTLaEE?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1
Kurt Andersen is a remarkable writer who is known for his work as the host of the erstwhile Peabody-winning public radio program Studio 360. He regularly appears as a commentator on MSNBC, and has delivered TED talks. He served as a summer guest Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, and still contributes regularly to the Times. He has also been also a regular columnist and critic for New York, The New Yorker and TIME.
As an editor, Kurt co-founded the transformative satirical magazine Spy and served as editor-in-chief of New York. He also co-founded Inside, a digital and print publication covering the media and entertainment industries, oversaw a relaunch of Colors magazine, co-founded the online newsletter Very Short List, and served as editor-at- large for Random House.
His writing have been praised with awards including forTurn of the Century which won the New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Heyday which won the Langum Prize for the best American historical fiction.
Moderated by Joe Hagan, special correspondent for Vanity Fair. He has written for New York, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. Hagan recently interviewed author, Kurt Andersen, where they unpack his newest book Evil Geniuses and unravels how the right helped create a wildly inequitable society—and how Americans could hold the government accountable for overlooking their economic interests.
His work includes long-form profiles and investigative exposés of some of the most significant figures and subjects of our time, including Beto O’Rourke, Hillary Clinton (her first post–secretary of state interview), Karl Rove, the Bush family, Henry Kissinger, Dan Rather, Goldman Sachs, The New York Times, and Twitter. In 2010, he discovered the diaries of singer Nina Simone and wrote about them for The Believer magazine. He lives with his family in Tivoli, New York.