Even I have to admit, the “Make America Great Again” election slogan that Trump has carried with him into office was light years better than Hillary’s “Stronger Together.” As we also saw, the Brexit campaign’s “Take Back Control” slogan was far beyond Remain’s “Stronger In.” I’m not sure why the left struggled this season with its brand, but I can make some guesses as to why Trump’s slogan did better.
Part of it is the vision of America that the #MAGA slogan evokes. Trump didn’t create the slogan himself of course, he co-opted and intensified the slogan from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election campaign. How far are we, #MAGA asks, from this mythical past America? I ask: why are looking to the past to recover it, instead of forging the future into a fresh—and contemporary—vision of peace and prosperity?
It’s the post-war period of the baby boomers that comes to mind when we begin to pine for a time when America was “winning,” when America made “good deals,” when people had jobs and material goods and so on. We can visualize this vividly thanks to a plethora of optimistic, manic even, propaganda of the period from posters to TV shows like Leave It To Beaver depicting perfect families calmly confronting life’s problems.
I want to set aside the social thrust of this media for today—that so-called “great America” is white, heterosexual, hierarchical, gender-roled, and so on—so I can focus instead on something else. Question: What happened to the forward-thinking mindset of progress that characterized this period? Another way: When did we decide that we would rather recreate the world of yesterday instead of continuing to forge the world of tomorrow?
I’m talking about the futuristic thinking and rhetoric that inspired the sense of innovation and discovery that we associate with an era that left human footprints on the surface of the moon (1969). We catch it in nostalgic glimpses in Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland (“Where the future is today!”), his Carousel of Progress attraction that premiered at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, or his unfinished EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) concept which was after his death converted into a resort where an amusement park based on the idea was opened in 1982.
Disney understood that the great impetus of optimistic futurism was imagination, famously calling his designers “imagineers.” We see this kind of imaginative development represented in the artistic movement of retrofuturism: art that depicts imaginative developments of science and technology as they would have been anticipated by people living in the 50s and 60s. We also see it in leftover short documentary-style films from the period like these two, Young Man’s Fancy (1952) and Century 21 Calling… (1962). I’ve linked the Mystery Science Theater 3000 versions to make them more… palatable.
These films subtly betray the source of this sense of innovation, discovery, and progress. Though some of it was beholden to the fear of technological and scientific competition with Russia and the space race, most of it had to do with the economic world of the 50s and 60s.
Under the auspices of depicting two perky teens enjoying a day at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, a long segment in the middle of Century 21 Calling… (1962) highlights advancements in telephone technology or, as the narrator calls it, “the telephone switching center of tomorrow.” Appropriately, the film was sponsored by Bell Telephone (now AT&T Inc.) Likewise under the auspices of telling a story of unrequited love between Judy and her brother’s pal Alexander Phipps, Young Man’s Fancy (1952) really serves to promote the benefit of electrical appliances in the suburban home of tomorrow. It was sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute.
A lot of booms are associated with the 50s and 60s but one of the biggest was consumer goods. New cars, new suburban homes, new appliances, it was all being manufactured more efficiently and in greater quantities than ever before. As we can see, the ethos of progress and discovery in this period was driven largely by consumerist propaganda sponsored by the corporations producing these goods and services. As a professor-character in the 1955 short documentary film America’s Distribution of Wealth says,
“Basically, an economic system must fulfill two social needs of the population which it serves: First an adequate production of goods, and second an equitable distribution of those goods.”
From the 50s through the 70s both of those needs were being well-met in the American populace. For the first time since 1917 the income of the bottom 90% of earners was growing more quickly than the top 10% (Unmasking Social Science Imperialism by Tatah Menten fig. 19 p. 330). Not only were there new houses, cars, and other goods for the purchasing, people had the capital to purchase them—and it remained that way until about 1980 when Ronald Reagan “made America great again” the first time.
According to America’s Distribution of Wealth (1955) 65% of the total national income of the previous 25 years went to wage and salary earners. The percent of total national income that went to that category of worker in 2006 was 51.6%.
It makes perfect sense for a disproportionately impoverished public be nostalgic for a time when they were proportionately better off, driving the production of new goods and innovations in comfortable suburban living through the spending of their capital. Unfortunately, wealth has flowed back to the top earners of the country and we’ve just elected Reagan 2.0 (but don’t be mistaken—he’s not the “new and improved” model.)
It’s not too late to recapture that sense of progress and innovation, but we must understand that it is intricately linked with the production and distribution of wealth and goods in our country. To make this plain think about George Jetson.
The Jetsons initially premiered in 1962 though it was revived in 1985. While The Flintstones depicts a world powered by birds and dinosaurs, the world of the Jetsons is powered by robots and other futuristic technology. The TV show is an artifact of retrofuturistic thinking and, though exaggerated, still presents some form of an ideal future for humanity. Again, let’s set aside the social concerns of a perfect family being portrayed as a stereotypical white nuclear family.
George Jetson is a working class man who can support his entire family comfortably on a salary that he earns working one hour a day, two days a week at the sprocket factory. He doesn’t make as much as some others in Orbit City, so he settles for an older model of robot maid, Rosie, but his family still lives very well. His wife doesn’t have to work, his children lead normal lives, and he pays for it with a job where he pushes one button.
What makes this kind of future possible?
Firstly, technological advancement. We’ve long believed that as automation improves and goods become cheaper, labor will become dispensable. Where the George Jetson of 2017 might still be watching sprockets come down the assembly line for 40 hours a week, the George Jetson of 2062 flips a switch for a few hours a week.
This future presupposes one thing: the developer of the automated sprocket factory doesn’t hoard all of the wealth that his invention creates. The time and money saved by the technology that makes Jetson’s job possible is clearly being redistributed to the employees of the company. Otherwise George Jetson would be a broke bum supporting his family on $30 a week.
Secondly then we expect that to make this future possible some form of wealth redistribution must be involved. Either the money saved by technological advance is redistributed through a Universal Basic Income (UBI), or employees are given a much larger share in the profits of a company as it saves a proportionate amount through automation. Either way, proper capitalists are destined to be upset while our beloved George Jetson is able to support his family.
Even Ronald Reagan still knew how to look forward, though he had one foot in the past. In a speech on the eve of the 1980 election he asked,
“A child born this year will begin his or her adult life in what will be the 21st century. What kind of country, what kind of legacy will we leave to these young men and women who will live out America’s third century as a nation?”
The legacy my generation was left is clear now, but if we return to our roots with the courage to pursue progressive solutions the future can become clear as well.
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