In Reagan’s nation
In Reagan’s America, “you don’t admit” that the magic-free market, on its own, “cannot solve all economic problems”.
Republicans love Ronald Reagan. First in 2008, and again in 2012, they had nomination debates at the Reagan Presidential Library, each candidate jockeying to establish their bona fides as the most dedicated Che Guevera in something they call the “Reagan Revolution”.
“I’m a little too nervous to actually touch it,” debate moderator Anderson Cooper said of the original copy of Reagan’s diary laying before him during the 2008 event, as if it were a holy relic, so reverent were the candidates’ references toward what Mitt Romney called “the house that Reagan built”.
Romney has kept the reverence going this year. His trade policy proposes something he calls a “Reagan Economic Zone” for Asia. His “Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth” mentions Reagan nine times. “Romney Tax Plan Goes the Full Reagan”, reads an article republished on the campaign website. But what is this “Full Reagan” of which they speak?
Democrats, including President Obama, never get tired of pointing out all the things Ronald Reagan did that no Republican would ever dare propose today: signing a liberal abortion law as governor of California in the 1960s; raising taxes, negotiating with America’s sworn enemy the Soviets, and signing a law granting amnesty for illegal immigrants as president in the 1980s.
What’s more, again contrary to the Republican myth, Americans didn’t embrace Reagan for his pledge to slash government. The first year he was first elected president, only 21 per cent of Americans thought “too much” was being spent on the environment, health, education, welfare and urban aid programmes.
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Four years later, only 35 per cent of Americans said they favoured cuts in social programmes to reduce the deficit. And yet they voted for Reagan in record numbers – even though 65 per cent of Americans understood, correctly, that Reagan was fighting for just such cuts.
So why do Republicans hug so closely to a cult of Reagan as a pure, Platonic manifestation of conservatism when they require them to ignore so much of the actual record? What, at the deepest level, is “Reaganism” all about? Why does it signify so deeply within American political culture – even, as we’ll see, among dyed-in-the-wool Democrats?
The answer derives from deep within America’s historic identity – a nation founded upon fault lines. The Southern colonies based their economies upon slavery and demanded low tariffs conducive to transnational trade; the economic and moral interests of the Northern colonies directly opposed that – and so, at the very moment of its birth, the fissure had to be papered over by a set of foundational compromises for the United States to even exist. Preeminent among them, the invention of an anti-Democratic chamber of Congress, the Senate, to equalise power between the slave states and the more populous North – a sort of institutional prayer for how the problem might magically disappear.
Instead, the problem just festered and 600,000 Americans slaughtered one another in the Civil War of 1860-65. That holocaust was superseded by another set of contradictions, these ones based upon class. Industrialisation shuddered across the nation, wrenching yeoman farmers from the land, forcing formerly independent artisans into degraded factory work, giving rise to “Robber Baron” fortunes, financial panics, wretched immigrant slums, a crisis that produced periodic violent convulsions well into the 1930s’ New Deal. The first, in 1877, the year Reconstruction ended, produced the most violent strike wave in American history.
But, and here’s the cusp of the matter, each of these crises of disunity was followed by frantic rituals of reconciliation. After the civil war, Confederate and Union soldiers paraded together down the streets of Boston, as patriotic orators pledged the nation to a new “union of hearts”. Accompanying the industrial convulsions of subsequent decades, Americans constructed a sentimental cult of patriotism unmatched by any nation in the world.
That’s how America works. They call us United States, but in many ways we’re the most divided nation in the world. That fact, almost entirely repressed in our official discourse, is thus accompanied by a frenzied propaganda that fetishises an imagined national “consensus” above every other possible ideal.
In the 1970s, the latest turn of that ever-twisting screw derived from the interlocking traumas of Vietnam the first war America ever lost, Watergate, where the nation learned their trusted leader was a crook, and the Arab oil shocks, which undid a post-World War II boom that Americans had imagined would last forever.
And the 1970s was the decade of Ronald Reagan’s unlikely rise to the presidency. He achieved it by inculcating a mythology that let people imagine those crises of disunity simply did not matter at all. It comprised the deepest part of his political being, something he could not compromise even if he wanted to. This is what the “Great Communicator” communicated: America was still God’s chosen nation, always had been, always will, and that anyone demurred should be ignored.
In 1973, when Los Angeles, a city only 20 per cent black, elected its first black mayor in 1973, Reagan explained that this meant America’s racial problems were behind her. That year and next, the nation twisted in agony as each new presidential lie was uncovered. Upon Nixon’s resignation in disgrace, politicians rushed to reverse the systematic corruptions Watergate was believed to have revealed in the American system – all except Ronald Reagan, that is, who insisted the Watergate felons were “not criminals at heart”, and that in fact Watergate revealed nothing essential about America at all.
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It seemed perverse to commentators at the time, who said such obtuseness was destroying his political future. In fact, that blithe effect in the face of what others called chaos was central to his burgeoning political appeal – his ability to deliver one-man rituals of national reconciliation in the face of the nation’s latest crisis of disunity. No more true than in the case of Vietnam.
On his daily radio show, Reagan somehow even managed to translate the humiliating fall of South Vietnam to the Communists into a moment of national pride – spinning a bizarre homily about the aircraft carrier the USS Midway plucking refugees out of the water, performing shipboard miracles (“A tiny baby with double pneumonia was cured. People without clothes were given America clothes… Charity begat more charity…”). You almost wouldn’t know, listening to that, how the USS Midway over most of the past decade had served as a platform from which to carpet bomb the Vietnamese countryside. Which was the point?
In 1980, heading into the fall campaign, he called Vietnam America’s “noble cause”. “It’s morning in America,” went his re-election slogan in 1984. His fans term this Reagan’s “optimism”. It is better described as his gift for granting absolution – a quasi-religious office, just as the reverence at the Reagan Library debates suggest. Reagan’s ability to project American exceptionalism with such unblinking fervour, whatever the facts, is what every Republican politician seeks to emulate.
The core of ‘Reaganomics’
This might help explain what must be baffling to so many Europeans: when Republican politicians like Romney excoriate their adversaries for simple acknowledgment of empirical reality. “Never before in American history,” Romney says about Barack Obama, “has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologise for so many American misdeeds… It is his way of signalling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable.”
He’s referring, apparently, to Obama utterances like his admission in France that America “has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive”. You don’t admit such things in Reagan’s America – in the same way, in Reagan’s America, you don’t admit that the magic-free market, on its own, cannot solve all economic problems. The core of “Reaganomics” encodes a blithe refusal of contradiction as well: that absent the messy intervention of human institutions, growth is inevitable and astronomical.
It’s childish, to be sure; but much about Ronald Reagan’s appeal is childish. But Americans’ constitutional difficulty accepting the contradictions and conflicts inherent in adult social life goes deep – and Barack Obama is not immune. Obama, citing Scripture in his inaugural address, said “the time has come to set aside childish things.”
He was also, however, on the record citing Reagan as his model as a “transformation figure” for his ability to tap into the discontent of the nation. On the occasion of the centennial of Reagan’s birth, his tribute ran as follows:
“Ronald Reagan was a believer. As a husband, a father, an entertainer, a governor and a president, he recognised that each of us has the power – as individuals and as a nation – to shape our own destiny. He had faith in the American promise… and in his own unique ability to inspire others to greatness.”
There are unmistakable echoes of this rhetoric in a famous response he made shortly after he was asked how he would reckon with the crimes of the Bush administration like torture and warrantless wiretapping. He responded, “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward, as opposed to looking backwards.”
He repeated the point three separate times, as if in an incantation. A potential crisis of disunity. A frantic ritual of reconciliation. It is the American Way, Reaganite iteration – a kind of willed, enforced optimism, the magic thinking of an empire that refuses to call itself such. We’re a little nervous to actually touch it. We’re Ronald Reagan’s nation now.
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, which won the Los Angles Times Book Prize for history, and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, a New York Times bestseller that Newsweek called “the best book written about the 1960s”. A contributor to publications, including the New York Times, the New Republic, and Rolling Stone, Perlstein lives in Chicago.