Lately, I have found myself haunted by a particular conversation I had with historian Howard Zinn some two decades ago. And I’ve been feeling the need to both revisit and share it because, oddly, it has become timely.
For over a half a century, Zinn, the author of more than 20 books including the influential A People’s History of the United States, was one of our nation’s most important and outspoken voices on American history and its importance to understanding modern events.
More than a historian, Zinn was also a social activist who understood how labor, the power of corporations and the gap between rich and poor have always had a major influence when it comes to our often-dysfunctional political system and our elected leaders.
Zinn died in 2010 at the age of 87, becoming a part of the history to which he had dedicated so much of his life.
I suspect my current desire to reminisce on this subject has been triggered by either the insanity of the current political season or the constant reports of racism and violence that invade my den each night dressed as “news.”
It seems impossible these days to separate politics, racism and violence as the media is constantly forcing all of it upon us in a mostly context-free and sensationalized clump.
We understand only that things are bad because rarely do we see intelligent analysis amidst the images of carnage and the who-tweeted-what reports. Few bother to explain why this is happening or what we can do about it.
The “news” has become a volley of despair shot at us through our mediated windows to the world. It doesn’t matter if our window is a computer or television; both falsely purport to show us more truth than the real view from our real windows into our real communities. It is, of course, a lie.
Research tells us that such mediated images and messages — the ones that have been filtered through a for-profit lens where shock value translates to increased profits — tend to leave us more fearful of our neighbors and more angry and scared of the political-other; think MSNBC’s version of Trump and Fox’s depiction of Clinton.
Pollsters are already telling us this could be the first presidential election in history where more people turn out to vote against the other party’s candidate than for their own party’s choice.
I found myself wishing I could know what Zinn would think of this 2016 meltdown. And then I got this gnawing feeling that maybe he had already told me, at least a little bit.
When I pulled my old notes from my 1996 conversation with Zinn, they brought back memories. The contents were enlightening, disturbing and more importantly, predictive of our current situation.
The reason that our 1996 conversation stands out from others we had over the years is because I had asked him to look into his crystal ball and predict how what was happening at the time might impact future events.
At first he bristled a bit, explaining that historians hate the idea of looking forward and predicting anything. But eventually he agreed to my request.
For context, in 1996 I was working on a book examining the economic influences I believed were responsible for much of the rise of the growing and increasingly violent antigovernment movement of the time. So I had sought out Zinn knowing there was no better brain to pick on such a subject.
What neither of us knew back then was that the antigovernment movement of the 1990s was simply an audition for things to come. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I didn’t know it.
Looking back at my notes with the aid of hindsight, I think it’s clear that Zinn had more than an inkling of what was coming.
He didn’t know back then our current situation would revolve around names like “Trump” and “Sanders” and “Hillary.” He might have guessed “Clinton.” He couldn’t have foreseen specifics such as 9/11, the rise of ISIS or the out-of-control greed of Wall Street that would lead to the Great Recession. But he clearly understood the potential for all of the above.
One thing he seemed pretty sure about in 1996 was that he was hearing the approaching footsteps of a populist movement that had the potential to turn into American fascism if the wrong leadership got its hands on the wheel. He also foresaw the rise of an overreaching federal security apparatus rooted in anti-immigrant fear.
It seems clear to me now that he had a solid understanding of the forces that were leading us to where we are today; the brink, the edge of democracy, the line marking either a new beginning or the point of no return.
This is the precipice where we find ourselves precariously balanced in 2016, and it will take more than a vote in November to prevent our fall. In fact, our naïve belief in the power of Novembers is one of the establishment’s greatest tricks and the one that Zinn told me he believed would eventually bring us to this dangerous place.
To put it more succinctly, so long as the same wealthy establishment continues to choose the candidates for both parties — candidates who may differ on a few social issues but who are, in reality, 98 percent the same when it comes to governing on taxes, banking, corporate consolidation, military spending and the social safety net for the poor — November votes will continue to be little more than an illusionary exercise designed to keep the ruled in line.
Zinn was clear as he explained that so long as we justify our voting for the lesser of two evils out of our media-induced fear of the political other, our democracy will remain controlled by the financial interests and the politicians they choose to empower.
He added that the whole system was being run for the benefit of the “1 percent” who controlled most of the wealth in the country.
I have to say that talking about the outsized political and economic power wielded by the 1 percent was a bit ahead of its time in 1996. It speaks to Truman’s observation that “the only thing new in this world is the history we don’t know.”
Zinn knew that history.
In 1996 he told me, “What we are seeing now is recognized as the growing polarization of wealth in the country, with just 1 percent owning 40 percent of the wealth, with the middle class shrinking and becoming part of the working class and the working class shrinking as the people lose their jobs and become part of the homeless poor.”
He also said that the trend of less and less government regulation we had experienced during the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years (George H. W and Bill) was an attempt to return the U.S. to the free enterprise system, a system in which Zinn said the government does as little as possible to help people in need.
And he noted that this is not the first time in history that corporations have been allowed to more or less control their own destiny.
“When we go back to the 1880s and 1890s, what we see is a kind of unbridled capitalism. The country goes through a great industrial growth, but the poor and working-class people do not share in that growth and do not share in the profits of that growth,” he said.
He then added the context for how such unrestricted corporate behavior plays out on the political stage.
“What you have in both eras [1880s-1890s and 1980s-1990s] is sort of capitalism at its worst, [which] means the impoverishment of both the middle class and the poor, until the distinction between the middle class and the poor becomes less and less. Then the control of the country by the financial interests and by the politicians of both parties goes unchallenged.”
And here is where Zinn’s “crystal ball” got interesting, although I couldn’t see it at the time.
Zinn began describing to me how the corporate control of the political and economic system during the 1880s and 1890s eventually gave rise to the populist movement. He noted that so far in the 1980s and 1990s that the increasing control over government by corporations and the wealthy had only given rise to an antigovernment movement. But he also told me that he felt this could be changing and that we might be on the cusp of a new populist movement.
He reflected on the fact that populist movements rise out of periods wherein the Democratic and Republican parties grow nearly indistinguishable with a succession of presidents from both parties who resemble one another for the most part.
For example he said, “Grover Cleveland was the kind of Democrat that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have been; that is, a Democrat who really played a very cozy game with big corporations of his time.”
Zinn then speculated as to what he thought all this unbridled corporate influence would yield in the future. His best guess, which I must say now looks quite accurate, was that it would ultimately lead to a new social movement and perhaps new radical political parties.
Zinn made another interesting observation in 1996. He talked about how political violence — such as the famed bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1885 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 — is always used as an excuse by our government as a “way to denounce opposition to the existing order as terrorist and anarchist.” He added that such incidents are often “an excuse for further [government] oppression” including very broad government action aimed at many people beyond those suspected of being involved in the crime.
As an example, he pointed to the 1990s so-called antiterrorism act, which supposedly sprang from the efforts to combat the antigovernment movement, but which in actuality had a larger impact on immigrants.
The act, for what can only be described as political reasons, allowed for the deportation of immigrants who had come into the country legally but who may have committed any type of crime including those having nothing to do with terrorism or antigovernment behavior.
Twenty years ago, Zinn shared his fear that terrorist acts would continue to be used as an excuse to target innocent immigrants. Sadly, he was proven right again, as evidenced by our current war on all immigrants, particularly those of the Muslim faith, all in the name of security against terrorism.
So in 1996, Zinn believed the future was likely to hold the birth of a new social movement as the result of the increasing disparity between rich and poor which stemmed from the fact that corporations and wealthy individuals control our political system. While that is true, he did not believe such a movement would come about calmly as a result of voter engagement.
As he looked back over America’s history, Zinn spoke of how the violence of the disenfranchised had often been a prerequisite of socially conscience government reform. He described how even the great political reformers were often dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing as a result of violence or the fear of it.
He observed that if the country had not been simmering under the influence of tenant movements, labor strikes, unemployment protests and general unrest, Roosevelt’s New Deal would never have come about.
He also claimed that Kennedy was not planning more civil rights legislation or to address racial segregation in the South and that Lyndon Johnson and Congress were not prepared to push the Voting Rights Act. He believes these great strides only came about due to massive demonstrations by blacks in the South, many of which were confronted by violence in the streets in the early 1960s. He believes it was this violence and mass demonstrating that finally forced the federal government to address the problem.
Zinn sounded fatalistic as he described how this violence-before-change scenario was the pattern throughout history. “It takes rebellion to move an otherwise sluggish system,” he said, “a system that normally operates on behalf of the rich and powerful.”
So what are we seeing in 2016?
Is the Sanders “revolution” the birth pangs of the new social movement predicted by Zinn? Will its millions of supporters, more than six thousand of whom have promised to run for local office on Sander’s progressive platform in the next few years, stay in for the long haul?
Does the increasingly unpredictable anti-immigrant populism of Donald Trump have its own staying power, and how will his supporters react when he loses? How will other Americans react if he wins?
By all measures the establishment’s only remaining candidate, Hillary Clinton, will be the next president, but based on the lessons of history, she may well be the final act of corporate-controlled government, at least for a while.
The question now is how far will she be forced to bend away from the will of her largest contributors by the social upheaval that is sure to follow in the wake of her election? Will she be the next cozy-with-corporations president to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing the right thing to avoid the increasingly violent upheaval among the working classes and the poor?
We will see. But there is no reason to believe that the political explosion that erupted in 2016 will do anything but grow over the next four years.
How it will grow and what it will ultimately become is still unclear. And on that note, Zinn had one final warning for the future back in 1996.
“In a situation like today where there is enormous alienation … that alienation can be seized by demagogues of the Right, and this is what happened in fascist countries like Italy and Germany. It could lead to a kind of American fascism. I have no doubt it is easier to motivate people to violence than it is to motivate them to vote. If people become desperate enough and angry enough, they will take it out in various ways.”
I believe this 1996 conversation with Howard Zinn offers at least some of the missing context for the violence and racism we are seeing on our television and computer screens nearly everyday now.
I believe that it also offers us a clearer lens through which to view the current political upheaval, regardless of whether we are Republican, Democrat, unaffiliated or something more nuanced.
In 2016, we are teetering at the edge. The only question now is what will we do next? Will we step off into the fascist abyss? Attempt to turn back to the failed corporate-controlled government that got us here in the first place? Or will we start building a bridge to a better future that will insure fairness and an acceptable quality of life for every American regardless of race, economic status, gender, sexual orientation or religious belief?
I have a feeling we are heading for that bridge, but building anything takes time. And I fear, as Zinn’s historical perspective confirms, that it will not be a smooth or particularly peaceful transition.
I only wish he were here to see it all unfold.
Parts of this conversation with Howard Zinn appeared in Joel Dyer’s book Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is Only the Beginning (Westview Press, a Division of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc, 1997).