The Reagan factor in American politics

An insightful new book puts Ronald Reagan in a proper historic perspective, but it overplays the strength of his political ideology and his role in creating a new world order.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Books

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Long after he left the White House (in 1988) and this Earth (in 2004), Ronald Reagan made a return during last year’s US presidential election, in the sense that he was a key reference point for candidates from both parties.

At a Republican debate back in January 2008, all of the contenders praised Reagan and claimed their own candidacies were fulfilments of his mission. That was not only because the debate was held at the Reagan Library in California and his widow Nancy was in the front row. Paying homage to Reagan, some 20 years after he left office, is still understood as a prerequisite for establishing oneself as a real Republican.

Democrats also brought up Reagan. Barack Obama commented on Reagan’s role in history in January 2008, when he told the Reno-Journal Gazette: ‘I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.’ (1) Obama took a lot of flak from liberals for daring to mention that Reagan was an important transition figure, and especially from the Clintons for appearing to dismiss Bill’s presidency.

Now, after the election, Reagan and Reaganism continue to be touchstones. In particular, Obama’s initial measures are often talked about as a representing a break from Reagan’s governing philosophy. Obama’s budget proposal, according to David Leonhardt of the New York Times, ‘is nothing less than an attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of Ronald Reagan and his supporters’ (2).

Why has Reagan held such sway over American politics for so long? And does Obama mark the final end of Reaganism? A new book by Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University, considers Reagan’s ascendancy, his record in office, and his ongoing authority. The Age of Reagan views Reagan as the dominant figure of American politics in recent times, with his influence stretching all the way from 1974 (that is, before being elected president in 1980) up to 2008. By thoroughly examining the long Reagan era, it also provides a useful context for us to assess what the new Obama presidency might represent.

Wilentz shows how Reagan benefitted from the vacuum in American politics created by Nixon’s fall from the Watergate scandal. Neither Nixon’s Republican successor Gerald Ford nor Democrat Jimmy Carter could establish a foothold, and Reagan stepped into the breach and offered a new way forward. Wilentz contends that Reagan took advantage of the Democrats’ feebleness: ‘Reagan had the excellent fortune to emerge as a presidential candidate just as Democratic liberalism fell into intellectual confusion and political decay.’ In particular, he had the good luck to run against Carter, whose downbeat presidency was most known for stagflation, energy crisis (those long lines at the gas pumps), the Iran hostage crisis and, in Carter’s own phrase, a general ‘malaise’.

In contrast, Reagan appeared sunny and optimistic, offering a nostalgic return to greatness and wholesomeness to Americans tired of Vietnam-era conflict and what appeared to be ongoing national decline. In opposition to Carter, Reagan presented a slate of new ideas, including support for the free market, scaling back government, military rearmament and moral renewal. Again, Reagan played upon existing discontent with what came immediately before; as Wilentz writes, Reaganism ‘with its attack on big government, capitalised fully on the anti-government mood created by Vietnam, Watergate, the hostage crisis in Iran, and the losing battle against stagflation’.

In the process, Reagan was able to consolidate the electoral coalition that Nixon had initially forged, winning over the traditionally Democratic South and sections of the Northern working classes (who would become known as ‘Reagan Democrats’) (3). In addition to building on the Nixon formula, the Reagan candidacy relied on newly activated evangelical Christians, whose ranks provided foot soldiers (among other assets), and a new array of right-wing think-tanks, whose members provided intellectual ballast.

Wilentz’s portrait of Reagan the politician goes beyond the typical caricatures that prevailed both during and after his reign. Although appearing to some to be promoting a selfish and harsh individualism, Wilentz argues that Reagan spoke more about ‘communities’ and ‘Americans’ operating free from government intrusion than go-it-alone individuals (in this regard, Reagan may have differed somewhat from Margaret Thatcher, whose ‘there is no such thing as society’ was arguably more individualistic). The liberal left preferred to depict Reagan as an old simpleton than come to terms with him and his policies. Wilentz (a liberal himself) shows that Reagan was in fact a skilful politician, negotiating various constituencies behind the scenes. He perceptively notes that when Democrats blamed Reagan for dumbing down politics and lulling voters to sleep, they were in fact criticising the masses: ‘Ironically, in a party that supposedly championed the interests of ordinary Americans, these analyses showed a certain contempt for the intelligence of the average American.’

In assessing Reagan’s record in office, Wilentz unsparingly highlights how Reagan failed to walk the ideological walk, and judges many of his policies to be unsuccessful, if not disastrous. The man who claimed ‘government is the problem’ could not achieve his stated aim of reducing the size of government: federal spending as a percentage of GDP when Reagan left office was at essentially the same level as when he entered, and total expenditures on social welfare programmes actually rose over that period. Government deficits soared on his watch, and the economic boom of the 1980s was, ironically, due in part to a type of military-based Keynesianism. Reagan was successful in deregulating certain aspects of business, but Wilentz argues that lax standards backfired, most notably in precipitating the savings and loan financial scandal.

In the area of foreign policy, the Reagan Doctrine – the attempt to ‘roll back’ Soviet communism by backing regimes in Third World hot spots – was either ‘irrelevant to winning the Cold War or helped set in motion forces that would challenge the US after Soviet communism collapsed’. And on the social and cultural issues front, Reagan ‘delivered virtually nothing except speeches’ (as Wilentz notes, Reagan used religious conservatives, but never ventured too far beyond the mainstream consensus on issues like abortion and affirmative action).

Despite delivering such a negative scorecard, Wilentz concludes that Reagan must be considered one of the greatest presidents of all time: ‘If greatness in a president is measured in terms of affecting the temper of the times, whether you like it or not, Reagan stands second to none among the presidents of the second half of the twentieth century.’ Wilentz thus elevates Reagan to the pantheon of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D Roosevelt.

Part of the reason for Wilentz giving Reagan such exalted status has to do with accomplishments in office. Most notably, he calls Reagan’s role in facilitating the end of the Cold War ‘one of the greatest achievements by any president of the US – and arguably the greatest single presidential achievement since 1945’. In this regard, Wilentz says that Reagan’s success was not due to his aggressive stance towards the Soviet Union (such as accelerating the arms race or bellicose rhetoric), but rather his ability to recognise that the country had changed and his willingness to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev in good faith.

Reagan also deserves a high stature, according to Wilentz, because of his lasting impact on American politics. In practical terms, he says Reagan’s stacking of the federal judiciary with conservatives had consequences beyond his tenure in office. But more importantly, Reagan’s impact is indicated by how he changed ‘the guiding assumptions and possibilities of American politics’ for many years after. Here he is referring to basic Reaganite ideas that became mainstream and continued on after him, such as a negative view of large-scale government intervention, a reluctance to increase taxes, and a consensus on the need for a strong military. Reagan’s reach was evidenced by how even Democrat Bill Clinton, an avowed opponent of the Republican Reagan, worked within the political assumptions enshrined by Reagan. Clinton in fact appeared to embrace Reaganism when he pronounced that ‘the era of big government is over’ and fulfilled the Reaganite promise of reforming welfare, which meant many no longer received assistance.

But Wilentz’s apparently ‘balanced’ conclusion – that despite his programmatic failures, Reagan was nonetheless a president with lasting influence – actually avoids confronting and fully exploring what is a contradiction. To explain this contradiction you need to comprehend the essential weakness of Reagan’s opponents and the character of the Reaganite response.

By the time Reagan was elected in 1980, the old liberal order, established during the New Deal and revived during the early 1960s, was exhausted. The traditional liberal response to economic slowdown – Keynesian counter-cyclical spending and monetary policy – stood discredited in the face of stagflation. Before Reagan emerged, Carter’s own second State of the Union address indicated that mainstream liberals had already given up; its message, as Wilentz writes, was ‘that federal resources were limited, and that government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy’. So when Reagan comes along and states a new capitalist ideal that does not rely on government, he is kicking at a liberalism that is already well and truly down and out. Likewise, before Reagan entered the White House, the Soviet Union was imploding. Reagan’s success came mainly from simply accepting the concessions the Gorbachev regime offered. In both the domestic and international spheres, Reaganism was the executioner, putting the old order out of its misery.

Furthermore, Reaganism has been mostly destructive, rather than constructive of a new order. In some respects, its aggressive dismantling of old structures had a rational basis in assisting a capitalist restructuring – such as the employers’ offensive against the union movement started by Reagan’s smashing of the PATCO air controllers’ strike in 1981, or treasury secretary Paul Volcker’s stringent monetary policies in the early 1980s, which enabled the deepest recession since the 1930s. But the destructive character was also highly problematic: advanced capitalist economies have always had to rely on some degree of state support (as noted, even Reagan could not reduce the size of government), but Reaganism undermined any rationale for state intervention, and its tearing up of state infrastructure damaged government effectiveness. In attacking the state, Reaganism was shooting the messenger: the state’s inability to deal with economic crisis was an expression of underlying problems of a lack of dynamism, not the source of them.

The end of the Cold War, in particular, exposed the one-sided nature of Reaganism. The demise of the Soviet Union was greeted with shouts of triumph from the US establishment, but the celebrations soon proved hollow. With its defining opponent gone, it was clear that the US case was only a negative one (we’re better than them). As it was not clear what the country now positively stood for, triumph turned to doubt and questioning. Working to end the Cold War might have been Reagan’s major success – what Wilentz calls his ‘greatest achievement’ – but it actually led to Reaganism’s undoing.

Reagan’s ‘long shadow’ after his departure from office – his lasting influence – has not been a reflection of Reaganism’s enduring strength, but a result of the fact that none of Reagan’s successors, Republican or Democrat, have been able to establish a new, constructive ideology in its place. For instance, Reagan’s Republican successors in the White House – George HW Bush and his son George W Bush – both recognised that undiluted Reaganism was not feasible, but they could not come up with a true alternative: the elder called for a ‘kinder and gentler’ version, while the younger called for ‘compassionate conservatism’.

Today, Reaganism is spent. Expressions of support for Reaganism are not what they used to be. Rather than being a confident ideology, today’s avowals of adherence to Reaganism are pale, downsized verions of their former selves: it has become simply an attempt to cover up a lack of confidence in decisive state action with a coat of principle.

When people today argue that Obama marks the end of Reagan era and the start of a new era, it should be borne in mind that, just as Reagan had an easy match against the liberal order, so does Obama now find it is not that difficult to knock down the empty shell of Reaganism. Rather than being defeated by Obama outright, it should be recognised that Reaganism has been exhausted for some time.

The real question is whether Obama will build a governing philosophy that lasts, and in doing so provide an alternative ideology that can cohere his government, his party and the country around common goals. Some think that Obama’s spending of billions in stimulus and bank rescues in themselves represent a refutation of the past ideology, but what is remarkable is how he has not provided much of a wider rationale and purpose for such massive spending. Saying that government spending is needed in a time of crisis, and could prove helpful in sustaining any recovery, does not constitute broad direction about the purpose of government and where to go as a society. Furthermore, the Obama administration’s actions have in fact been modest given the scale of the economic crisis today; for example, the plan to purchase so-called ‘toxic’ assets is timid and evinces a cowardice to tackle the potential insolvency in many of the biggest banks.

Jimmy Carter put himself forward as an ‘anti-politician’ after Watergate, and Ronald Reagan countered with political ideas. As his Democrat adversary Edward Kennedy said, Reagan was effective ‘because he stood for a set of ideas’. His ideas may not have been as big or revolutionary as his advocates claimed, and many would disagree with those ideas. But by putting clear ideas forward and rallying others around them, Reagan brought about a return to politics after the anti-political Carter years. That politics-infused Reagan era is now dead, and while the election of Obama has introduced a new fluidity, a new era of contested political ideas has yet to be created.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

The age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, by Sean Wilentz, is published by HarperCollins. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Cited in Obama’s Admiration of Ronald Reagan, Open Left, 16 January 2008

(2) A Bold Plan Sweeps Away Reagan Ideas, New York Times, 26 February 2009

(3) On Nixon, see From Nixonland to Obamaland, by Sean Collins, spiked review of books, February 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today