Wayne O’Leary

The Reagan Legacy

The recent occasion of the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth brought forth a gusher of sentimental revisionism about the Gipper’s purported rise to Rushmore-like immortality in the years since he left the presidency.

Unsurprisingly, this retrospective groveling before the graven image of Saint Ronald has emanated mostly from the political Right.

Typical was this from conservative Byron York in the Washington Examiner: “The political world as a whole has awakened to the greatness in Reagan.” But almost equal Reagan worship was expressed by MSNBC’s putatively liberal Chris Matthews, who eagerly acknowledged the “iconic” status of the 40th president.

Perhaps the worst expression of mindless idolatry was left to the Fox sports network, which used the occasion of the Super Bowl to air a video tribute to Reagan as “one of the greatest presidents of all time,” a cynical attempt to indoctrinate a captive audience with the Murdoch worldview.

Such unabashed cheerleading was reminiscent of the televised patriotic halftime shows the National Football League used to present during the Vietnam era to generate pro-war sentiment. More annoying this time was the slavish participation of other networks, which chimed in with hagiographic film biographies of Reagan that gave legitimacy to Fox’s partisan display.

I don’t recall anything similar happening in 1982, when the centennial of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birth was quietly observed without fanfare, even though FDR had an impact on American life far beyond anything Reagan achieved. (Historians universally rank him third in the presidential pantheon behind Washington and Lincoln.) Of course, there is little in the way of color film or photography depicting Roosevelt, and this is a generation loath to watch even classic black-and-white movies unless they’re colorized. (Bogie and Bacall in pastels. Really?!)

More consequential, however, is the organized, coordinated campaign of modern-day conservatives to establish the historical bonafides of their ideological hero. For several years now, there’s been an unremitting effort on the Right to name things after Reagan, build memorials to him, and implant the notion of his unsurpassed eminence. In GOP mythology, he won the Cold War and replaced national economic decline with “morning in America.” Most of all, he reasserted an aggressive, unapologetic American “exceptionalism” and showed the world that our way is superior.

These conservative beliefs, repeated endlessly like a set of Fox News talking points, have become GOP gospel. It’s important to remember that Reagan fills an essential need for modern Republicans: he provides them with an idealized conservative standard of perfection at a time ill suited to their former icons, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Lincoln, for years the untarnished representational image of Republicanism, is far too liberal for today’s Right — he fathered the income and inheritance taxes after all — and trust-buster TR is high on Glenn Beck’s historical hit list as a hated big-government Progressive. So Reagan is all Republicans have left — thus, the effort to embellish him.

There’s one niggling problem: Reagan and Reaganism are causally linked to most of the chronic difficulties afflicting present-day America, and efforts to mythologize the Gipper necessitate an indulgence in historical amnesia.

First, as regards foreign policy, Reagan did not “win” the Cold War; the breakup of the Soviet Union was largely a result of internal contradictions that destabilized its economy, as well the political reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev that undermined Communism. It happened on Reagan’s watch, but except for some rhetorical posturing (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), he was barely involved.

Domestically, Reagan presided in 1981-82 over the worst recessionary downturn (up to that time) since the Great Depression; he then proceeded to triple the national debt and deficit. He also instituted an economic policy premised on the delusional supply-side notion that accelerated defense spending combined with massive tax cuts equaled a balanced budget, thereby confirming old Truman hand Dean Acheson’s succinct evaluation that the president was “an amiable dunce.”

But what’s most significant for this generation is the disastrous long-range impact of Reagan’s stewardship. He was a precedent-setter, no doubt — a transformational leader, as Barack Obama has observed — but nearly all the precedents he set were bad ones. Name your negative contemporary economic trend; it likely originated in the 1980s, either prompted by proactive Reagan policies or allowed to flower by virtue of benign government neglect.

Morning in America marked the start of soaring CEO salaries and flatlining employee wages. Average incomes, as David Cay Johnston has shown, leveled off in the Reagan years and have remained stagnant ever since, while wealth has steadily accrued to those at the top. The upper 1% have doubled their share of the national income since Reagan, a phenomenon that first asserted itself during his administration. The growing disparity between the rich and the rest owes much to the Reaganesque idea, still with us, that the wealthy should not pay taxes; its onset began with the tax cuts of 1981 and 1986, which reduced the obligation of those in the top income bracket from 70% to 50% and then to 28%.

Replacing full-time work with low-paid temp jobs was another innovation of the 1980s, as was outsourcing, which began under Reagan with the establishment of Mexico’s maquiladoras. Modern union busting, an evolving art form in corporate America, was kicked off by Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO strike in 1981. Merger mania, leading to today’s overly concentrated and monopolistic economy, got its start with Reagan’s abandonment of antitrust enforcement. Deregulation of the banking sector received its initial impetus under the Reagan-sponsored removal of interest-rate controls in 1982, which brought on the savings-and-loan crisis and its wave of federal bailouts. This was the predecessor to all that followed, namely the financial crash of 2008 and the current recession.

I could go on, but you get the idea. For 30 years and through several presidencies, this country has been in thrall to the Reagan philosophy of governance established in the 1980s. It’s a model premised on the propositions that money and the marketplace should rule; that the wealthy are our most important citizens and must be indulged; that, conversely, ordinary people need “tough love,” while average workers are disposable commodities; and that private, profit-making corporations are our most important institutions. Happy birthday, Ron, and thanks (but no thanks) for the memories.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2011


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