The presidential election of 1984 resulted in one of the greatest electoral landslides in United States history. President Ronald Reagan carried 49 states, received 525 electoral votes, and left his opponent former Vice President Walter Mondale, with the 13 electoral votes from Washington, D.C. and his home state of Minnesota. The election vindicated President Reagan's deregulatory policies and would set the economic tone of the country for almost thirty years.
The Mondale campaign was doomed from the start, but through it a voice emerged, the hauntingly eloquent voice of New York Governor Mario Cuomo. His keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention was the greatest rebuke against the far right economic policies of the Reagan Administration and one of the paramount oratory performances in the history of United States politics. This speech planted a seed that would grow into the most challenging undertaking of my young adult life. It serves as the inspiration for my first feature-length documentary, Our Shining City.
President Reagan would often refer to America as "a shining city on a hill." This city represented a beacon of prosperity where anyone who worked hard could climb to the great heights of its glimmering towers. But since 1984, economic mobility was on the decline, homelessness became increasingly rampant as shelters and hospitals lost funding and government programs that were designed to propel the United States towards a "Great Society" for all were starved for funds and forced to shut down. Wages for the American worker became stagnant while CEO pay skyrocketed more than 726 percent since President Reagan took office. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer; these trends persist today.
Governor Cuomo challenged President Reagan's shining city metaphor and offered one of his own. He asserted that America is more a "'Tale of Two Cities' than it is just a 'Shining City on a Hill,'" that Republican policies such as trickle down economics "divide the nation into the lucky and the left-out." His speech was a reminder that as a society we have a collective responsibility to minimize pain and suffering amongst our fellow citizens whenever possible. The failure to do so would be a responsibility we would all have to bare. This is a philosophy that has been all but forgotten in the midst of the current political and economic climate. By completing my documentary I can play a small role in its revival.
President Reagan slashed government programs and agencies aimed at alleviating poverty and cut quality public education. President Clinton gutted welfare programs. President Bush's tax cuts greatly benefited the wealthy while providing little economic relief to everyone else. The last thirty years government policy only served to reinforce the wall that divided our shining city in two.
At the same time a culture has emerged where the poor are not only blamed for their own issues but also for systemic societal ills such as the financial crisis. False and hateful stereotypes such as equating laziness or stupidity with low income have entered the American landscape. Rich or poor, wealth disparity has manifested itself into every aspect of American life. It is the underlying factor in a broad range of issues from education, infrastructure, wages, social stress, and the growing lack of trust between Americans. Countries with greater inequalities have more prominent societal ills across the board.
The notion that the United States is a shining city on a hill is deeply embedded in American mythology and has been since before our founding. It was the puritan John Winthrop who coined the term in 1630. President Reagan capitalized on this idea and invoked the mentality that the shining city is the result of the hard work and business success of individuals, absent of any support from the government. But every city has a foundation, every spire atop a skyscraper is there because of a support system on the bottom and those below are increasingly left out of the picture, overlooked and ignored. When that happens the structural integrity of the city becomes unsound and collapse ensues. We experienced this collapse in 2008 and the country more notably experienced it in 1929.
In 1984 Governor Cuomo's speech served as a stark reminder that it is not the individuals on top that makes America great, it is our entire community. Rich or poor, we are all part of this American society and therefore we have a responsibly to each other. As Governor Cuomo said, "the failure anywhere to provide what reasonably we might, to avoid pain, is our failure." That idea has been losing ground everyday since Ronald Reagan took office and we need to be reminded again.