Americans are losing their grip on reality because it's become too hard to distinguish between propaganda and fact and between fable and history.
That is true because one of the two great political parties has a single unified theory about what has happened to the country the past three decades and is happening now, and that story is propelled by every officeholder, candidate or party leader and amplified by the biggest media, headed by the Murdoch empire. That, as you know, is the Republican Party.
The Democratic message is weak and fractured, the lone audible voice being that of President Obama, who was deeply unpopular across a huge swath of the country because of his race and heritage and now has lost credibility with much of the rest of the country because he said he would get us out of the economic mess the Bush administration created and he hasn't.
Here is the official Republican worldview, shared by a sizable part of the electorate: Ronald Reagan brought a revolution in U.S. politics and government. He took a meat axe to government and cut it down to size, slashed taxes and spending and instantly created a robust economy. Democrats returned to power and reversed all those trends, and now they're trying to undo it all again after the superb Republican hiatus of the last decade. They are engorging government, running up mammoth deficits, raising taxes and driving the economy into the ground.
Little of that has much to do with reality, but in times past there was an occasional Republican truth-teller who shattered the propaganda and dispelled the myths. If he was strategically placed, he could make a big difference. Today, there's not one.
If you're middle-aged, you remember David Stockman. He was the cerebral conservative congressman and supply-side economist who became Reagan's budget director and brain trust. He spearheaded the effort in 1981 that slightly reduced domestic budget growth and cut income taxes, mainly for the rich.
That winter he gave a series of interviews to William Greider, who published a mammoth article in The Atlantic Monthly, then headed by the legendary editor William Whitworth of Little Rock. The article, titled "The Education of David Stockman," was a bombshell. Stockman said the big tax act, which cut nearly everyone's taxes a little bit, was a Trojan horse to get what they really wanted, much lower taxes on the very rich. The popular theory, which they called "supply-side economics," was that if you cut the taxes of job creators, the economy would take off and create millions of jobs, the government would take in more money, not less, and the budget would be quickly balanced.
In The Atlantic interview, however, Stockman revealed that he, the president and his advisers had no clue about what they were doing.
"None of us really knows what's going on with all these numbers," he said famously. He had thought Reagan would really cut spending, but he actually increased it sizably with ballooning military expenditures. Far from eliminating deficits, the tax cuts instantly tripled them.
And, to Reagan's credit, he set about to try to set things right. In the next six years he raised taxes far more than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in World War II and the deficits began to recede slightly in his final years.
As for shrinking government, that had to wait for Democrats, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who actually reversed the trend of Reagan and Bush I by slimming the federal government by 365,000 employees, running four years of budget surpluses and creating 22 million jobs.
George W. Bush had his truth teller, too. His treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, a conservative industrialist and chairman of the Rand Corp., was fired when he did not tell the president and vice president what they wanted to hear — that their tax cuts for the rich and corporations would keep the budget balanced and ignite the economy and that the invasion of Iraq was necessary and wise.
O'Neill predicted the budget surplus they inherited from the Democrats would turn into deficits exceeding $500 billion a year (Bush's last budget deficit actually exceeded $1.4 trillion). Worse, in his memoir with Ron Suskind, he painted a picture of a president who paid little attention to the policies of government, demonstrated little curiosity and took his guidance from Vice President Cheney. When Cheney insisted in a cabinet meeting that rich people's taxes needed to be cut even more than in the 2001 act, Bush said he thought they had taken care of their rich friends in 2001 and, besides, shouldn't they be worried about the rising deficit? "Deficits don't matter," Cheney replied.
Amid all the propaganda, people did get a small dose of reality.
No more, unless you count the faint but still oracular voice of the aging boy wonder, David Stockman.
The Republican insistence that Congress extend the Bush tax cuts on high incomes and their declarations about abolishing the deficit by cutting government spending, he said recently, are "rank demagoguery."
"If these people were all put into a room on penalty of death to come up with how much they could cut, they couldn't come up with $50 billion, when the problem is $1.3 trillion. So, to stand before the public and rub raw this anti-tax sentiment, the Republican Party, as much as it pains me to say it, should be ashamed of themselves."
It would be refreshing, and hopeful, if even one of the Republican presidential candidates, one member of Congress or one candidate for any office would be so honest. Just one.