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The slow death of Thatcherism

The famous William Faulkner quote about “the past not even being past” has staying power not only because it contests the idea that time is a one-dimensional line that moves “forward,” but also because it reveals how ancient decisions shape our lives even to the current second. Most people alive today weren’t even born when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the 1979 general election. She died years ago. But her ideas are very much alive.

Thatcher ended decades of postwar consensus that had seen the rise of social welfare systems across Europe and North America. Her zeal for high defense spending, low taxes, and less regulation kept Labour out of power for a generation while providing a blueprint for the ascendance of Ronald Reagan – who would take power less than two years later – across the Atlantic. 

Many of us have no recollection of a time when it wasn’t assumed that everything had to be run like a business, in a “competitive” environment in which everyone is on her own and “the government” is some dark entity that must be reduced, instead of the people and institutions that make life bearable. Sure, these ideas had long gestated among the economists of the morally bankrupt Chicago School (mainly Milton Friedman) but Thatcher turned their academic papers into reality, crushing the miner unions and setting off a prolonged run of privatization and deregulation. 

Even the distinctive brand of military adventurism that has fascinated Western governments and cable news channels since the Gulf War is derived from Thatcher’s decision to fight with Argentina over the Falklands. Almost all military campaigns since then – from Grenada to the Iraq War – have followed the same lead of confronting a clearly outmatched foe, to achieve morally and/or strategically dubious aims.

Although both the U.K. and the U.S. have had small-‘l’ liberal governments post-1979 – Blair and Brown in Britain, Clinton and Obama in America – the truth is that the Thatcher consensus has gone largely unchallenged. The centrism of Blair and the rebranding of Clinton’s party as “New Democrats” were signals of how they operated as much within the Thatcher/Reagan mold as Eisenhower had within the constraints of the then-dominant New Deal regime. Blair’s affinity for military adventures in the Balkans and Iraq and Clinton’s willingness to pursue “welfare” “reform” were both ripped straight from the small-‘c’ conservative playbook. It’s no accident that Thatcher herself identified “New Labour, with its scrubbed mentions of national ownership of industry in its party constitution, as her greatest achievement.

The two countries have followed similar paths for the last 40 years. Both Thatcher and Reagan decisively won all their general elections and then handed the reins to their competent but less charismatic successors, John Major and George H.W. Bush, respectively. Those two continued in a similar but slightly more moderate vein, only to lose in landslides in the 1990s to candidates (Blair and Clinton, respectively) from revamped center-left parties (i.e., Labour and the Democrats), institutions that would have been unrecognizable to party rank-and-file in the 1970s. 

While both Blair and Clinton were electoral juggernauts, they both had much less success than either Thatcher or Reagan in laying the groundwork for their successors. Blair resigned and helped the unpopular Gordon Brown become prime minister; he lasted not even 3 years, losing power to a Tory-LibDem coalition in 2010. Clinton’s efforts could not get his VP Al Gore or his wife Hillary Clinton over the finish line. Like Brown, they both lacked the political acumen or popularity to stop the reactionaries who narrowly defeated them (Cameron in the U.K., Bush 43 and Trump in the U.S.). The only point at which the two histories diverge is with Obama, but he largely governed within the standard Reagan model, with sprinkles of Clintonism, including many of Clinton’s own personnel. 

At a glance, Thatcherism and its numerous derivatives seem to be in strong health. Both the Conservatives in the U.K. and the GOP in the U.S. control the government. Both continue to pursue the same right-wing policies of the 1980s, arguably with even more aggression than their predecessors – just look at Theresa May’s fixation on a “hard Brexit” (that is, with maximal breaks from EU immigration rules and economic integration) and Trump’s almost comically plutocratic commitment to taking away people’s health insurance to finance tax cuts for billionaires.

“Comical” – there is something weirdly humorous about what the right-wing parties of the West have become, though, isn’t there? 

The Conservatives campaigned on a platform of “Strong and Stable” leadership, but their last two PMs – Cameron and May – have taken monumental gambles (the Brexit referendum and the 2017 snap elections) that spectacularly backfired. Having lost their parliamentary majority to a Labour surge led by one of the furthest left MPs in Britain – Jeremy Corbyn, whom they labeled a “terrorist sympathizer”- they must now form a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, a hard-right creationist party with deep ties to loyalist paramilitaries (a fancy term for white terrorists who kill Catholics).

Meanwhile, the GOP, the home of the heirs to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and nominally the party of strong national defense, is led by a former reality tv host who once went bankrupt running a casino (“you mean people just come in and give you their money in exchange for nothing? Sorry, I’m going to need a better business model” – no one ever, except possibly Donald Trump) and has been caught on tape confessing to routine sexual assault. Plus, party membership from top to bottom is deeply enmeshed with Russian spies and businesses.

And both parties have lost control of the issue of “terrorism,” once easily controlled by right-wing leaders like George W. Bush, to the point that May is literally negotiating with loyalists militias and the GOP has cheered an ISIS attack against Iranian civilians.

Whether these flaws matter to core right-wing partisans is debatable, but it is clear that the ubiquity of conservative policies and their demonstrable failure – visible not only in May being forced to align with terrorists and Trump with Russian autocrats, but also in the collapse of the global banking system after decades of Thatcherist deregulation – has energized the left in a way that had nearly passed out of living memory. 

Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America and ended up a few hundred delegates short of snagging the Democratic nomination and likely becoming president. Corbyn went even further and humiliated May, turning predictions of a massive Tory majority heading into Brexit negotiations into a hung parliament. Given the tenuous Tory-DUP coalition, it is probable and perhaps inevitable that Corbyn will eventually be PM. 

Both of these men are senior citizens who for most of their careers were dismissed as “unserious” leftists who would never enter the mainstream. Instead, they have a golden opportunity in their twilight years to finally eradicate Thatcherism root and branch by unseating two truly awful politicians. May and Trump are almost like the store brand versions of Thatcher and Reagan, far less compelling despite their surface resemblance (May as another “Iron Lady,” Trump as another celebrity GOP president and “Great Communicator”; in reality, they are the Tin Lady and the Great Convfefer).

The levels of media anger and disbelief at both Corbyn and Sanders deserves its own entry, but it is ultimately indicative of how much of both British and American society remains captured by Thatcherism and “centrism,” neither of which has been seriously challenged until now. New Labour, New Democrats, it’s all eroding and exposing the decrepit foundations of Thatcherism and Reaganism. The fact that the “terrorist” attacks in Britain did not hurt Labour but instead exposed the incompetence of Tory security policy (as Home Secretary, May literally cleared one of the London Bridge stabbed to go fight in Libya!) was a turning point in how I viewed the staying power of Western conservatism. It seems weak, its unpopular ideas barely propped up by cynical appeals and a dying electoral coalition. After almost 40 years, we’re finally seeing what Winston Churchill – that old Conservstive – might be comfortable labeling “the beginning of the end” of Thatcherism.

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