Last week, I linked to a video of a 1980 GOP presidential primary debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, in which the two discussed the subject of immigration with sufficient compassion that the two men would be laughed off the stage of a GOP debate this year. Then, over the weekend, I was chatting with a friend, a very smart friend, and a pastor to boot, and he was waxing nostalgic about Reagan. It is all well and good to demonstrate how far the GOP today has fallen into mean-spiritedness by recalling previous GOP heroes, but I want to remind the readers: Reagan was a nightmare.
The most fundamental problem facing the country at this moment is the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Reagan started that. It was not only his tax cuts for the very rich, but many of his administrative rules, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission’s rule 10b-18, about which Harold Meyerson wrote last week. In ways large and small, the economic plutocracy increased its power over our democratic processes on Reagan's watch. The Reagan administration’s economic policy was a strange mixture of ideologically driven commitment to laissez faire economics, combined with the truly pernicious idea that corporations should write the rules that govern their behavior.
Both sides of that equation, the ideology and the chumminess with fat cats, are still characteristic of today’s GOP and, regrettably, have infected too many Democrats as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders has a point when he notes that, his self-described status as a democratic socialist notwithstanding, the top tax rate under Eisenhower was 90 percent and Sanders is not proposing anything like a return to that high of a top rate. The idea that you can balance the budget by cutting taxes was accurately described by then-candidate Bush as “voodoo economics” but it is now mainstream Republican thinking. And, the GOP’s unwillingness to stand up to Wall Street and, specifically, the hedge funds, is a major reason Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis just continues to get worse and worse, and many underdeveloped nations face similar crises. All of this started under Reagan.
My friend protested that at least Reagan did not follow through on his promise to gut the social safety net. True enough. So, instead, the Democrats, who had long been addicted to deficit spending, found a new companion, the Reagan GOP, so that both of our parties are firmly committed to the proposition that the nation can and should subsidize its current spending with IOUs our children’s generation will have to pay back. I understand that sovereign debt is not like personal debt, but I also understand that it is not good for the country morally to be profligate, whatever the economic consequences. Deficit spending during times of national emergency is one thing, but it should not be standard operating procedure. It is now.
To be sure, in the Reagan years, the economy rebounded, convincing many that Reagan’s voodoo worked, but I think most economists would agree that it was Fed Chair Paul Volcker’s squeezing inflation out of the economy that set the recovery in motion. Jimmy Carter had appointed Volcker. And, by following through on his commitments to slash taxes without cutting spending, the Reagan recovery was textbook Keynesianism. But, because the recovery happened on Reagan’s watch, and because he talked a bunch of nonsense about unleashing America’s entrepreneurial genius, still today people credit his policies with generating the “Morning in America.”
Reagan also set a horrible precedent when he busted the air traffic controllers’ union. There was a stigma attached to union-busting in this country, as there should be, because workers have a fundamental right to organize, but that stigma largely vanished by the time Reagan returned to California. Combined with the policies noted above, the consequence has been disastrous for the middle class. Unions were once a bulwark in the fight for some measure of social equality, and the fact that the decline in union membership has coincided with the decline in middle class wages is not coincidental. Indeed, the whole libertarian ethos got a boost from Reagan, whose worldview was shaped by images of rugged individuals, even though he lived in Southern California, and cities there were only made possible because of federal water projects. Reagan had no sense of the importance of a communitarian ethic, and instead made selfishness respectable and mainstream. Remember the question he posed in his 1980 debate with Carter: Are you better off than you were four years ago? He did not ask if we, as a nation, were better of.
But, wait, my friend protested: At least Reagan knew how to handle the Soviets. It is true that the military buildup in the U.S. during the Reagan years led the Soviets to try and mimic us, but they lacked the economic strength to do so. Of course, we continue to pay a price for that military buildup, both economically and morally. Still, one of the things that peeves me the most is the way a certain type of conservative Catholic breezily asserts that Reagan and Pope John Paul II brought down communism. Both men played their part, to be sure, but just as certainly, Pope John Paul II never claimed credit for the fall of communism, asserting that it collapsed because of its own internal contradictions, a judgment that is closer to the truth than the assessment of his acolytes. And, just as importantly, people like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik and Christian Fuhrer deserve a mention in the story of the fall of communism, do they not?
An additional complaint I hold against the Reagan years has to do with his blessing of the Religious Right. Now, conservative Christians like the Rev. Jerry Falwell had just as much right to enter public debate as did liberal Christians like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. But, fundamentalism brought a cast of mind to our public discourse, a logic and a language, that has been corrosive of how our democracy functions. It was not only often Manichaean, separating competing political actors agendas into categories of good and evil, when politics is usually mostly grey, but the Religious Right also entailed the encouragement of a simplistic understanding of complex issues. Find the right Bible verse, and you have the answer you want.
Worse still, Falwell and company had so long been living in a cultural wilderness, a self-imposed exile from mainstream culture, that they warmed mightily to the world of White House Christmas parties and photo ops with the First Family. They were bought cheap by Reagan, and they brought the pro-life movement with them. What, exactly, did Reagan do to advance the pro-life cause? There were a couple of policies, and a couple of judicial appointments, but the GOP learned on Reagan’s watch that they could give lip service to the cause of justice for the unborn, without really producing any policies, such as assistance for women facing a crisis pregnancy, that might actually reduce the abortion rate. And, by the time Reagan left office, the pro-life movement had become an arm of teh Republican Party, which was a dreadful mistake. (Yes, the increasing stridency of the Democrats on the other side had a lot to do with this, I admit.)
Lastly, while the video from that debate showed that Reagan and Bush were both more thoughtful on the subject of immigration than today’s GOP, let’s not forget the degree to which Reagan was perfectly willing to demonize those whose struggles should have evoked compassion. Donald Trump did not invent the phrase “welfare queen” and the sense of entitlement, as well as the penchant for garish displays, by America’s wealthy class has today got its start in the Reagan years. And, is appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court guaranteed that much of Reagan’s hatefulness would be with us for a long time, as it still is. Not for nothing did George H. W. Bush feel the need to run as Reagan’s successor on the promise of delivering a “kinder, gentler America.”
So, by all means, fellow liberals, use the Reagan years to point out just how much worse today’s crop of GOP candidates is, but let’s not get too nostalgic for Reagan. Many of the things that are most ugly about American politics today got their start on his watch. He may have been a popular president, and he certainly achieved many of the things he set out to accomplish, but the country was worse for it all.