A Strong Sense of Déjà Vu

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Many of us remember the Kingston Trio’s rendition, back in the late 50s, of “Merry Minuet,” whose lyrics began, “They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain; there’s hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain.” Who can read or hear those words today without a strong sense of déja vu? The locations may have changed, but nothing else seems different.

My wife and I lived a whole cycle of life – marriage, children, work, retirement, and death – between the introduction of that song and now, and during that time, life for millions of people has grown only worse. We still exist with the threat of nuclear annihilation, but added to it is what appears to be a growing divide between the affluent and the poverty-stricken, as well as between the government and about half of the governed. This cannot bode well for our future.

We live in a bubble here in Vermont, exempt to a large extent from the expressions of outrage and discontent that seem to be roiling much of the rest of our country. We do have occasional demonstrations on our State House lawn – recently some grumpy bully-boys with inadequate impulse control pushed and surrounded a young woman and harassed a reporter – but, thankfully, they don’t hold a candle to what we’ve seen in Minneapolis, Olympia, or Kenosha. Reminds me a little of the story of the young man who, back in Vermont’s solidly Republican days, had a job in the Roosevelt White House. When a reporter asked him what his neighbors back in Vermont had to say about it, he replied, “Oh, they don’t say nothin’. They just laugh.”

But bubbles aren’t all bad. Thanks to quick reporting and equally quick official responses, the state has managed to keep its infestation pretty much under control. We can’t go any where without quarantining upon our return (not as strict as Iceland: Any Icelandic horse that leaves the island can never return). But being stuck here is about as good as it gets.

This rosy little assessment ignores the plight of thousands of our fellow Americans who are suffering the loss of income, experiencing insecurity of food, facing imminent eviction, and fearing falling ill. They are in no way responsible for their pain; their government has failed them. The disconnect between their situations and the current bickering in Congress over their fate is literally incomprehensible. Imagine how it feels, knowing your benefits will expire on Christmas, to hear Congresspeople expressing the fear that they may not be able to fly home for Christmas.

We all need somebody or something to blame. Like all but a few of you (and Will Rogers), everything I know I read in the papers (or magazines, or news programs, or social media). But I’ve been at it longer than most of you; I cut my teeth on Drew Pearson, Westbrook Pegler, and Walter Winchell. And I blame Ronald Reagan. Handsome lifeguard, movie actor, conservative radio host, television host; politician with a gift for warm, fuzzy stories; and, finally, useful idiot of the rich.

His administration gave us trickle-down economics, whose patron saint is Lucy van Pelt, the girl who holds the football for Charlie Brown. It began taxing Social Security benefits. It continued the United States’ knee-jerk reaction to the rise of leftist governments in Latin America, most notoriously in the so-called Iran-Contra Affair, whose goal was to aid the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua. Most importantly, to my way of thinking, was the jolly storyteller’s effect on the working class of Americans; as a corporate stooge, he dealt a major blow to the power of labor unions and their fight for wage equity. As Will Rogers had pointed out decades earlier, money invariably trickles upward, rather than down. The Reagan tax cuts simply accelerated the flow.

It’s hard to escape the impression that most tax policy and business decisions since then have further hollowed out the working and middle classes. The power of lobbies to maintain the status quo in health care coverage, wages, and pharmaceuticals, to name only three, has left those folks vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the economy. Is it any wonder that demonstrations increase in volume and violence? Yet the demonstrators, driven by fear and whipped up by demagogues, seem to be angry less with the corporations that control their lives, and now the election campaigns, as with the bogeyman that Reagan turned loose with one sentence: The government can’t solve the problem; it is the problem. Having sowed the wind, he departed, and left us to reap the whirlwind.