Ronald Reagan and America: the real legacy

Godfrey Hodgson
4 July 2011

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“I am a shining city on a hill.
You are an American exceptionalist.
He is a unilateralist bully.”

It is understandable that Americans should mourn Ronald Reagan as a benign figure who made them “feel good about themselves”. But this spoof conjugation makes a point that needs to be heard above the drenching chorus of eulogy that has attended the former president’s death at the age of 93.

It is this: there is a direct connection between Ronald Reagan’s discovery that it was “morning in America” and those actions of the George W Bush administration that have made the world such an unnecessarily dangerous place.

These actions, it is true, follow the terrorists’ own attack on the American homeland on 11 September 2001. But Bush’s conduct of the “war on terror” has shattered alliances, shaken the United Nations, made middle-east peace more remote, and dissipated much of the admiration and gratitude the United States earned by wise and generous leadership for two generations.

What role, then, did Ronald Reagan play in this twenty–four–year shift in the image of America from “shining city” to “unilateralist bully”?

The feelgood president

One of Ronald Reagan’s most endearing of characteristics was his optimism. He made individuals who met him (as I did when making a TV biography of him in 1988) feel comfortable by his obvious interest in them and friendliness. He was indeed a very nice man. And with his superb media technique he made millions who never met him feel better about their country.

Godfrey Hodgson explains the roots of the “conservative ascendancy” in America and its impact on economy and society in his new book, More Equal than Others: America from Nixon to the new century (2004)

It is not surprising that people were grateful for that. When Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981, Americans had experienced almost twenty years of traumatic shock. There was the civil-rights movement in the south, welcomed by a majority, but sufficiently threatening to many white southerners to drive them out of the Democratic Party which had been their pallium for four generations.

In the north, there had been racial rioting, beginning in 1964, in more than 700 cities and towns. There was the long agony of Vietnam, beginning in a major way in 1965 and ending in humiliation in 1975. There was the shock of college campuses, still seen as holding the most privileged of America’s children, not only explode in rebellion against the war, but also flout every taboo of language, respect and accepted morality.

The presidency, the key institution of the modern American political system, was devastated. John Kennedy was assassinated, as were his brother Robert and Martin Luther King, the most charismatic figure to emerge in black America. Lyndon Johnson was booed and driven to abdicate. Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, and Gerald Ford was punished with defeat for pardoning him. For many who remembered Franklin Roosevelt and had seen JFK as his moral heir, Jimmy Carter – for all what we can now see were his real virtues – was a weakling and an embarrassment.

Was Martin Luther King, as Godfrey Hodgson says, “the most charismatic figure” of black America? You are welcome to respond to this article in our forums

And at the level of bread–and–butter politics, these were years of frustration. In the 1970s, for the first time, Americans became aware that their economy was vulnerable: to Arab oil boycotts, dependence on imports, to competition from Europe and Japan. The dollar, after 1971, was almighty no longer.

That was the context of Reagan’s claim, in his campaign for re–election in 1984, that it was morning in America. It was not so much that anything substantive had changed. Morning had been declared. Official.

The ingredients of revolution

Modern American conservatism, as it emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and as it seemed to have triumphed after Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in the spring of 1981, had six ingredients:

  • a suspicion of government and of liberal government interventionism

  • the revenge of the businesses class for years of bruises from big government and big unions; associated with that mood was the tax revolt launched with the Proposition 13 movement in California in 1977

  • a sense that the traditional social verities of church, family and morality were under threat from drugs, feminism, abortion and sexual hedonism

  • fear of and hostility to communism; a cement that bound together libertarians and traditionalists, business conservatives and social moralists

  • a barely acknowledged racism lurking below the surface – or at least an unease that the conventions of racial subordination had been cast aside

  • stronger than all of these, perhaps, a pervasive feeling that American patriotism, the traditional belief in the morally exceptional quality of American life, the superiority of American life, was being undermined.

So when Ronald Reagan summoned his countrymen to feel good about themselves, his words were understood as a perfectly innocent call to be of good cheer. But they also had a hidden, uglier meaning. They were also understood to mean “and to hell with the liberals and the radicals and the no–good un–Americans who have the gall to suggest that all is not for the best in this best of all possible countries”.

Occasionally, as in his crude attacks on student “bums” at the University of California at Berkeley, or in his ruthless destruction of the air traffic controllers’ union, Reagan allowed his own mask of benignity to slip. On the whole, though, as I have put it elsewhere, it was Reagan’s great gift that he was able to shift the centre of gravity of American politics to the right, not with a snarl, but with a smile.

openDemocracy explores the shaping ideas of modern American politics:
  • Danny Postel, “Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq” (October 2003)
  • Mark Blitz, “Leo Strauss, the Straussians and American foreign policy” (November 2003)

The cost of the dream

To the right, though, he did shift it. It may have been morning in America, but for many blue–collar and lower–income Americans it felt like a winter afternoon. Unlike its natural model, the sun of economic prosperity in the last twenty years of the 20th century did not shine on rich and poor alike. This was an age of growing inequality.

There were many reasons for this. The most obvious was that those with power in society, whether in politics or over money, took care that this should be so. Given the tax and other economic policies of Republican administrations and late Republican–controlled Congresses, it is hard not to suspect that this was deliberate. One of the most startling facts about the United States economy in the late 20th century is that the average wage actually fell by 10% from 1973 to mid–1999. Median family income barely held up, but that was because more family members were working, and everyone was working longer hours.

The Reagan tax cuts, hailed by a chorus of reliable sycophants in the press and even in the academy as a master stroke of supply–side economics, were so skewed that between 1977 and 1985 (most of the tax changes coming in the four Reagan years) the tax payments of the bottom 80% of American families actually increased by an average of $221, while the tax bill for the richest 1% fell by an average of just under $100,000 per family!

As Reagan’s budget direct, David Stockman, complained, social entitlements did not fall as much as was necessary to offset the tax cuts, and this led to ballooning deficits – as the George W Bush administration’s tax cuts will also do. Reagan did not have the nerve to cut domestic spending as boldly as he cut taxes, or indeed as much as he increased military expenditure. But overall his domestic policies certainly did have the effect of grossly increasing inequality of wages, of incomes and of wealth.

So why has there been so little protest? No feature of contemporary American politics is more puzzling than the fact that, at a time when the two major parties are more clearly ideologically aligned, the Republicans with conservatism and the Democrats with (relative) liberalism, and when the parties are more closely identified with the “haves”, in the case of the Republicans, and the “have–lesses”, in the case of the Democrats, the gross increase in inequality is such a minor issue in politics.

There are many answers to this conundrum. One certainly is the dependence of politicians of both parties on fundraising to pay for campaigns more and more conducted by means of increasingly expensive TV ads. Others perhaps include traditional American optimism, and the stubborn belief, against all evidence to the contrary, that all Americans have a chance to become millionaires. (According to OECD numbers, the United States, once a wonder to the world for the equality of opportunity there, came second last among all developed countries – above only Canada – in the rate of escape from poverty).

No tenet of Ronald Reagan’s robust patriotism was firmer than his belief that the United States was a country where all could aspire to be millionaires. The facts demonstrated that, if this was ever true at all, it was now less true than ever. Yet many Americans continued to believe that their country was uniquely equal, uniquely fair. One explanation for this growing discrepancy between the rhetoric of the “American dream” and the reality of a widening gap between the rich, a disconcerting proportion of whom turned out to have inherited their wealth, and everyone else, was perhaps precisely Reagan’s sunny discourse, multiplied through the myriad mouths of conservative propaganda, about a morning of glorious prosperity for all.

Reagan and Bush: continuity or break?

In foreign policy, Reagan is justly celebrated for his intuitive understanding that the way to end the cold war and break the grip of Soviet communism on its empire was to stand firm. Reagan’s part in the fall of communism is not exaggerated. But so far as it goes, it is true. He did stand firm, and communism, as much through its own internal weakness and through its own rulers’ despair at overcoming them, did collapse.

There was however a more ruthless strand to the foreign policy of the Reagan administration, and a continuity that cannot be denied in both concepts and personnel between that strand and the truculent unilateralism of the Project for a New American Century. When it was a matter of dealing with the Soviet Union, a great and (however weakened) nuclear power, Reagan deployed his grace and charm to convinced Mikhail Gorbachev that he was the Russian’s friend. The Reagan administration showed no such sympathy for radicals, communist or otherwise, who challenged American strategic interests in the developing world, and specifically in the middle east and in central America and the Caribbean.

The continuity of personnel is striking. The Bush administration’s choice for its proconsul in Iraq is that same John Negroponte who presided over a pitiless war against the Nicaraguan guerrillas from his post in Honduras, where he is widely known to have presided over a notorious torture centre. Elliott Abrams, convicted of deceiving Congress over the in 1987, reappears as the point-man for relations with Ariel Sharon in Bush's White House.

The continuity of strategy is no less remarkable. The Reagan administration, too, was confronted by terrorism in the middle east, and responded forcefully. After the Libyans planted a bomb in a Berlin nightclub in 1986, Reagan bombed Tripoli. In central America, his administration met a more or less plausible threat from native radicalism, more or less supported by Cuba, with support for counter–terrorism in Nicaragua, El Salvador and elsewhere, as well as with a bizarre invasion of Grenada in 1983 right out of the days of gunboat diplomacy.

The bare–knuckled foreign policy of the George W Bush administration is in that tradition. But its origins lie even further back than the Reagan administration in the odd yet decisive episode of “Team B”. It was George Bush, senior, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who set up the panel to take a more sceptical look at the capabilities and intentions of the Soviet Union, back in the Ford administration.

At the very time when, it is now known, the Soviet Union was falling decisively behind in military technology and in the ability to match American military expenditure, this group of ideologues, strongly influenced by the arch anti–communist Paul Nitze and including the young Paul Wolfowitz, headed in what now looks like exactly the wrong direction. Precisely at the moment when it is now clear that the Soviet Union was getting weaker, this group of conscious conservatives forced the US government to upgrade its estimate of the danger from Moscow. Also on openDemocracy, Godfrey Hodgson on American dilemmas and British delusions:

The point is not that every detail of the current Republican administration’s policies can be traced to the Reagan period. The present administration, after all, is far more arrogant, far more indifferent to all realities except its own ideological logic, far more contemptuous of foreign opinion.

The point is that the one thing contemporary American conservatives are very good at is public relations – far better than they are at managing an economy, an alliance, or a conquered country, or indeed at understanding why their country was once so much admired in the world than it is on their watch. All the while complaining about liberal bias in the media, they have packed the benches of editorial judgment with ideologically safe voices.

So we should beware of the way in which the genuinely attractive personality and the relatively beneficent policies of Ronald Reagan are being used as shields to protect the reputation of his heirs. There are more important goals to be sought in a dangerous world than making Americans feel good about themselves.

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