The nation’s original failure to “build back better” was Reconstruction, the attempt to radically remake society in the wake of the Civil War. Then as now, the most powerful people in the country went out of their way to maintain the status quo.
America loves a good comeback story, but only at the movies. In the theater of history, promises to build back better have often followed in the wake of war and crisis — but the nation’s ruling class has always ensured that they’ve rung hollow.
Modern times are no exception. During the coronavirus pandemic, the country paid homage to the extraordinary sacrifices of its nurses, teachers, and factory workers, but it has proceeded to rebuild in the interests of big business and wealthy elites. The fate of the Build Back Better Act currently hangs in the balance, but even if it does pass, the bill will be a shadow of its former self, having already been stripped of paid family leave, expanded Medicare eligibility and benefits, tuition-free community college, a tax on billionaires, and more.
The nation’s pitiful response to the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic calls to mind the recovery from the financial crisis and recession of 2008–9, which imposed austerity and debt on working people while bailing out financial institutions. While Republican intransigence presented formidable obstacles for the Obama administration, possibilities for genuine change were hamstrung from the beginning by Barack Obama’s unwavering faith in a neoliberal orthodoxy that has been ascendant since the 1970s.
However, the roots of austerity politics in the United States are older and run much deeper than neoliberalism itself. To understand the origins of American austerity, we must start not with the 1970s but with the 1870s, when Reconstruction was kneecapped in favor of an emerging system of industrial capitalism.
After the Civil War, Radical Republicans sought to use their power in Congress to safeguard civil rights and institute social reforms. Meanwhile, the abolition of slavery had invigorated movements for shorter working hours and women’s suffrage. In response, a nascent industrial bourgeoisie and their ideological minions sounded the alarm to defend private property and restrain government intervention. They embraced the tenets of social Darwinism, pushed for a premature end to Reconstruction, and crushed the insurgent labor movement during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
The defeat of Reconstruction was the nation’s first failure to build back better, and it set the stage for the failures that followed. American austerity politics found their first full expression during this period, pivoting on an ideological turn to classical liberalism within the Republican Party. The events of the 1870s created a pattern of missed opportunities and reactionary blowback that has since been repeated time and again.