Keep Scrolling for continue reading for more stories

The Great Reaction (1968-2024)

The Great Reaction (1968-2024)

Understanding the present is often more manageable when viewed through the lens of future historians. This retrospective approach allows us to objectively analyze the past 50+ years, answering the question: how did we get here?

The Great Reaction (1968-2024)

The Great Reaction (1968-2024) represents a pivotal era in American history, marked by political repression, economic inequality, and heightened racial tensions.

This period saw the rise of white-reactionary authoritarianism, fueled by strategic political maneuvering, economic policies favoring the wealthy, and technological advancements that both connected and divided society.

Key figures like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, along with the shift towards an imperial presidency, played significant roles in this transformation, leading to frayed social bonds, increased political violence, and the erosion of democratic principles.

The Historical Context of American Ideals

From its inception, the United States has struggled to live up to its declared ideals of equality as stated in the Declaration of Independence. While the nation boasted democratic elements like voting and an independent judiciary, it also harbored slavery, de jure institutional racism until 1968, and the systematic destruction of Native American cultures.

The American ideal of individualism, emphasizing self-made success, overshadowed the necessity for collective action and pragmatic governance focused on the average citizen’s welfare.

Post-slavery, a brief period of African American self-determination ended with the Compromise of 1877, abandoning African Americans to an apartheid regime in the South. Until the 1960s, Black Americans legally remained second-class citizens. The civil rights victories of the 1960s, although significant, were quickly followed by a backlash, marking the beginning of the Great Reaction.

The Birth of the Great Reaction

The late 1960s saw marginalized groups achieving fundamental rights, culminating in landmark victories like the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which aimed to end discrimination in housing.

These successes triggered a significant backlash. Republicans initiated policies to hinder these advancements, marking the birth of the Great Reaction. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” targeted disaffected Southern white voters, capitalizing on the racial tensions spurred by the civil rights movement.

Race and Racism: Potent Political Forces

Race and racism have always been potent forces in American political life, serving as reminders of the nation’s failure to live up to its foundational ideals. From the 1930s to the early 2000s, the American South transitioned from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican base, driven by the GOP’s strategic use of racial grievances.

Republicans employed euphemisms and coded language to appeal to white voters resistant to desegregation and civil rights. Terms like “busing” and “limited government” masked overtly racist policies, making them more acceptable in a changing social climate.

Despite efforts by Democrats to distance themselves from their racist past, racism remained a powerful political tool. Leaders like Nixon and Reagan subtly incorporated racially charged messages into their campaigns, avoiding explicit racism but using code words and dog whistles to signal opposition to civil rights reforms.

Lyndon Johnson succinctly captured this dynamic: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Lee Atwater, a key GOP strategist, explained the strategy: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘n-word, n-word, n-word.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n-word’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

The War on Drugs as a Tool of Repression

The war on drugs, launched in reaction to the civil rights movements of 1968, aimed to legally incarcerate minorities and hippies. In 1994, Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser John Ehrlichman revealed the true motivations: disrupting the antiwar left and black communities by associating them with drugs and criminalizing them.

“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” This cynical strategy set the country on a punitive path, with billions wasted, lives destroyed, and communities ravaged by violence and incarceration.

The Hollowing Out of the American Middle Class

Starting in 1973, the decoupling of wages and productivity laid the groundwork for economic inequality. By 2024, productivity had vastly outpaced wages, with the minimum wage stuck at $7.25 instead of an inflation-adjusted $21.50. Supply-side economics allowed the wealthy to entrench their status through favorable tax policies, exacerbating inequality and undermining democracy.

Technological advancements and globalization further decimated the middle class.

Automation and offshoring eliminated manufacturing jobs, while policies weakening organized labor reduced worker bargaining power. Tax cuts, intended to stimulate growth, fueled a cycle of deregulation and further tax reductions, eroding government revenue and increasing national debt. Consequently, the government struggled to finance essential services, threatening the standard of living.

The rise of the internet in the early 1990s, while fostering global communities, also siloed Americans into echo chambers. These information bubbles, reinforced by misinformation, eroded trust in experts and institutions. Coupled with attacks on public education, this environment paved the way for demagoguery, exemplified by Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump exploited these divisions, further polarizing the nation.

The Post-Truth Era

Post-9/11, under Bush’s leadership, the U.S. grew insular and distrustful of science, a trend that peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 1.1 million Americans died, exacerbated by misinformation and weakened public health infrastructure. Economic gains disproportionately benefited the wealthy, leaving the majority with stagnant wages and inadequate social support.

The super-wealthy used their platforms to propagate a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, feeding white resentment with misinformation. This did little to improve white working-class lives but provided a scapegoat for systemic issues. The resulting demagoguery increased polarization and partisanship, posing unprecedented threats to American democracy.

The Delegitimization of the Democratic Party and Emergence of Populist Authoritarianism

Beginning with the Republican Revolution of 1994 and Newt Gingrich’s speakership, the GOP grew increasingly authoritarian and skeptical of democracy. Instead of reforming their message to appeal to a broader electorate, the GOP made it harder for Democrats to vote, using tactics like gerrymandering. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965, leading to restrictive voting laws.

Starting in 1995, with Gingrich’s revolution and the advent of Fox News, Democrats were painted not as political opponents but as enemies of the Constitution. Their electoral victories were depicted as illegitimate, starting with Clinton’s impeachment over a sexual affair and continuing with baseless claims that Obama was illegitimate and Biden rigged the 2020 election. This delegitimization increased political instability, culminating in a surge of political violence during Trump’s era.

Key Episodes of Presidential Lawlessness

The rise of authoritarianism in the U.S. was marked by an increasing acceptance of presidential lawlessness. This trend began with Nixon, who faced no punishment for undermining the 1968 peace talks for political gain.

Over time, the GOP embraced the “imperial presidency” and the unitary executive theory, which grants the President extensive, often unchecked authority, transforming the office into an elected emperor and diminishing constitutional checks and balances.

The unitary executive theory gained traction during the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, driven by Cold War exigencies and the belief in a powerful president for effective governance, especially in national security.

Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal and Bush’s post-9/11 policies, including warrantless wiretapping and enhanced interrogation, exemplified this expansive interpretation of presidential power. The GOP’s strategic embrace of this theory allowed for decisive policy implementation, bypassing legislative gridlock and judicial scrutiny, but at the expense of civil liberties and democratic norms.

As a result, the presidency became increasingly imperial, characterized by unilateral decision-making and a reduced role for Congress and the judiciary. This transformation set a dangerous precedent, contributing to the erosion of democratic principles and the rise of authoritarian tendencies.

Key Episodes

Nixon’s Sabotage of Vietnam Peace Talks: In 1968, Nixon undermined Vietnam peace talks to aid his campaign. H. R. Haldeman’s notes reveal Nixon directed Anna Chennault to delay negotiations. President Johnson considered this act treasonous but lacked evidence to condemn it publicly.

Reagan’s Alleged Sabotage of Carter’s Re-election Campaign: In 1980, John B. Connally Jr. allegedly sabotaged Carter’s efforts to resolve the Iran hostage crisis to boost Reagan’s campaign. Connally’s meetings with Middle Eastern leaders purportedly delayed the hostages’ release until after Reagan’s inauguration. Ben Barnes later revealed this mission, suggesting it influenced the election outcome.

Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair: In 1986, the Iran-Contra Affair involved secretly selling arms to Iran to fund Nicaraguan Contras, violating U.S. laws. Congressional hearings revealed covert operations. National Security Advisor Poindexter and Lt. Col. North were convicted but later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush, reinforcing presidential lawlessness.

Bush’s Iraq War Deception: President George W. Bush and top officials made 935 false statements to justify the Iraq War, claiming WMDs and Al Qaeda links. These falsehoods led to the invasion, causing up to 1.3 million Iraqi deaths and displacing millions. John Tirman of MIT highlighted the long-term impacts on Iraqi children, emphasizing the devastating consequences of the Bush administration’s deception.

Trump’s Legacy of Corruption and COVID-19 Mismanagement: President Donald Trump’s term was marked by over 3,700 conflicts of interest. Trump used his presidency to promote his properties, hosting officials and special interest groups at his hotels and golf courses. His response to COVID-19 was marked by negligence and misinformation. A Lancet commission estimated 40% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths could have been avoided with better policies. Trump’s regulatory rollbacks weakened public health infrastructure, exacerbating the pandemic’s toll.

Judicial Endorsement of Authoritarianism

The conservative shift of the Supreme Court, beginning in the late 20th century, entrenched authoritarian trends. The Court expanded gun rights, made executions easier, and upheld laws allowing continued incarceration of individuals proven innocent. This erosion of democracy was evident in the Bush v. Gore decision, which decided the 2000 presidential election in favor of George W. Bush.

The Court’s conservative majority continued to erode democratic principles and civil liberties. By the 2020s, the Supreme Court was set to review whether a coup attempt could be considered an official act of the presidency, reflecting the extreme judicial and political climate.


The Great Reaction (1968-2024) was marked by political repression, economic inequality, and heightened tension. Figures like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon significantly shaped this era, with their policies influencing domestic and foreign spheres. The persistent undercurrent of racism in American political culture continues to impact policy decisions and societal dynamics, highlighting the need for ongoing reflection and reform. Bibliography

Baker, Peter. “A Clandestine Trip and a Four-Decade Secret: An Untold Story Behind Jimmy Carter’s Defeat.” The New York Times. March 18, 2023.

Baum, Dan. “Legalize It All: How to Win the War on Drugs.” Harper’s Magazine, April 2016.

“Corruption: President Trump’s Legacy of Corruption, Four Years and 3,700 Conflicts of Interest Later.” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. January 15, 2021, Updated April 14, 2021.

Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act).

“Contract with America.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

“Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981.” Investopedia.

Holpuch, Amanda. “US Could Have Averted 40% of Covid Deaths, Says Panel Examining Trump’s Policies.” The Guardian. February 11, 2021.

“January 6 Capitol Riot.” The New York Times.

Naftali, Tim. “Ronald Reagan’s Long-Hidden Racist Conversation With Richard Nixon.” The Atlantic.

“Nixon and the 1960s Southern Strategy.” History.

“Nixon’s Scuttling of 1968 Peace Talks.” Smithsonian Magazine.

“Portraits in Oversight: The Iran-Contra Affair.” Levin Center.

Reading-Smith, Mark, Matthew Lewis, David Donald, and Mattie Quinn. “Search the 935 Iraq War False Statements.” Center for Public Integrity. June 24, 2014.

“Shelby County v. Holder.” Brennan Center for Justice.

“Surveillance Under the USA PATRIOT Act.” ACLU.

“Violence in the Iraq War.” By John Tirman, Executive Director, MIT Center for International Studies.

“War on Terror and Civil Liberties.” Brookings.

“Welfare Reform.” Wikipedia.