It's a well-known fact that as a young man Ronald Reagan supported Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
An acquaintance of mine who happens to be a prominent politician and who knew Reagan personally says that Reagan later was "absolutely certain" that, had FDR lived to preside over postwar America, he would have "seen the light."
Reagan himself saw the light -- got his first glimmer, anyway (his full conversion to conservatism came later under the guidance of a hard-nosed labor negotiator) --while working for the Screen Actors Guild, an organization crawling with Commies. Most had joined the party to protest the fascism that had gripped Germany and was about to subjugate Europe.
Whether FDR would have flip-flopped remains an open question, but I doubt it. Roosevelt had a more nuanced understanding of economics than Reagan did. He knew that fascism is capitalism without boundaries, that both fascism and communism (with a small "c") are apolitical, and that economics trumps politics every time.
Born into wealth, FDR understood that Wall Street traders had a gambling mentality and that outwitting the feds was part of the game. In 1934, he set out to level the playing field. His Securities and Exchange Commission ushered in the longest stretch of financial stability in U.S. history.
Most Americans in the 1950s paid scant attention to any of this, thanks in part to the sense of security FDR had provided by ending the Depression and winning the war. To them Stalin was the new Hitler. After all, hadn't Stalin annexed the entire eastern bloc in a brazen, Nazi-style power grab?
Something else FDR understood, having fought with the Soviets and having sat beside their leader at Yalta, was that those countries were the spoils of a war that took 40 million Russian lives.
Fast-forward four decades. By the time Reagan imperiously commanded Gorbachev to "tear down that wall," the evil empire had already imploded. It was in its death throes. The U.S. president relished his opportunity to turn the Russian people's suffering into a live-action morality tale.
The longer the bread lines in Moscow, the more he mocked the austerity that such images displayed. To Reagan, the lesson could not have been simpler. Get out those credit cards, America, and turn up the thermostat. The Cold War's over and the good guys won.
The private sector saw an opportunity, too -- in the president's giddy enthusiasm for unfettered capitalism. On the home front, deregulation removed pesky governmental red tape and impediments to the consolidation of everything from banking to agriculture.
Americans for the most part enjoyed their spending spree. And why not? The stock market was booming. Banks were turning home ownership into a bet you never lose.
Few seemed alarmed by the S&L crisis, the tech bubble, Enron, Tyco et al. -- or even knew that President Bill Clinton, in a failed effort to soften Republican positions on other issues, repealed the Glass-Steagall Act and set the stage for the mortgage crisis by turning the financial sector into what Charles Ferguson, whose scorching critique of Wall Street, "Inside Job," won Best Documentary Film at last year's Oscars, calls "the predator elite."
Ferguson believes that a coalition of corporations and big banks has "captured and neutralized" elected officials. Campaign spending has soared by a factor of more than 300 since the late 1970s, and private-sector interests have outspent public-sector interests by "between 50 and 100 to one."
Former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley is also concerned. He spent $1.6 million to get elected in 1979. The seat Bradley held for 17 years cost his successor $65 million. And that was before super PACs. The winning candidate, a billionaire, financed his own victory.
Reckless spending at all levels of society caused the current recession, but if it weren't for Republican spin, bought and paid for by the predator elite, the average American would have long since figured out not just that housing prices don't always go up but how ill-advised were the Bush tax cuts, deregulation, and the leveraging of everything but Grandma.
They'd see that it wasn't socialism that brought Europe to the brink of bankruptcy but American-style capitalism -- real-estate deals and other high-risk ventures facilitated by something called the credit default swap that was all the more effective for its inscrutability.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is learning the hard way that inscrutability is fascism's ultimate weapon. His was the swing vote in the Citizens United case. He wrote the majority opinion granting corporations the same free-speech rights as people.
In the real world, that means unlimited spending on right-wing political causes and candidates. Kennedy insisted that along with such freedoms would come certain responsibilities: He required that all contributors identify themselves.
But economics trumps politics every time. Our democracy is now in its death throes. Enforcement has been deemed more trouble than it's worth.
Bonnie Blodgett is a St. Paul writer. She blogs about gardening, politics and life at bonnieblodgett.com.