Reagan and the Great Man in History

The latest controversy in the US about Rick Perlstein’s new book is an opportunity to post a couple of thoughts I’ve had for a long while.

First, the outsize Republican idolatry of Reagan is explained in part by the fact that there’s no one else in their history of whom they can really approve. The Bushes are a bad memory for most, Ford was a non-entity and Nixon was Nixon. Eisenhower looks pretty good on most historical rankings, but he’s anathema to movement conservatives: Eisenhower Republicans were what are now called RINOs. Going back a century, and skipping some failures/nonentities, Theodore Roosevelt is problematic for related but different reasons. Going right back to the beginning,and skipping more nonentities and disappointments, some Repubs still try to claim the mantle of the “party of Lincoln” but that doesn’t pass the laugh test. As many others have observed, the “party of Jefferson Davis” is closer to the mark. So, they have little choice but to present Reagan as the savior of the nation.

Something of the opposite problem is found on the left. I haven’t read Perlstein yet, but a lot of the discussion is based on an implicit or explicit assumption that the shift to the right in the US since the 1970s can be explained by the successful organizing efforts of movement conservatism, culminating in Reagan’s 1980 election victory. That’s an explanation with a lot of contingency attached. Suppose, for example, that the attempted rescue of the Iranian embassy hostages in April 1980 had been a success. That, along with some fortuitous good economic news, might have been enough to propel Carter to victory. By 1984, Reagan would have been too old to run as a challenger, and Bush senior would probably have been nominated.

I don’t think, however, that this would have had a huge effect on economic-political developments in the US. Other English-speaking countries, with very different political histories followed much the same route, ending up, by the late 1990s, with a hard-line rightwing conservative party driving policy debate and a “Third Way” centre-left alternative trying to smooth off some of the rough edges. The election of Carter, a conservative by the standards of the times, was a step towards that outcome.

I don’t want to overstate the determinism here. Individuals matter, and national circumstances differ. Still, I think we are talking about variations on a common theme, driven by global economic events, rather than a US-specific story beginning with Reagan’s 1964 address in support of Goldwater.

23 thoughts on “Reagan and the Great Man in History

  1. Reagan had the good fortune to be US President when Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary of the CPSU. To the extent that Reagan cooperated with Gorbachev’s disarmament initiatives he deserves praise, but the notion that Reagan single-handedly brought about the entire epoch of regime changes in the USSR and Eastern Europe has been debunked often enough, including in previous threads at this blog.

    An interesting counterfactual question is what would have happened had Reagan won the Republican nomination in 1976 (as he came very close to doing) and won the Presidential election that year (as Gerald Ford came quite close to doing).

  2. We already know the world got mighty close to nuclear war in 1983. An earlier ‘Cold War II’ with a (relatively) younger Reagan vs Brezhnev might have tipped us over the edge in 1979 with the soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

  3. Rachel Maddow’s Drift is a good book on the subject of Reagan’s (many) faults. The way he manipulated the already militaristic average Yank is extraordinary.

  4. “I don’t think, however, that this would have had a huge effect on economic-political developments in the US. Other English-speaking countries, with very different political histories followed much the same route, ending up, by the late 1990s, with a hard-line rightwing conservative party driving policy debate and a “Third Way” centre-left alternative trying to smooth off some of the rough edges. The election of Carter, a conservative by the standards of the times, was a step towards that outcome.”

    This is a fascinating issue. What went wrong with the New/Left. Can you pursue this?

    Its easy to blame the Chicago boys, economic rationalism or conversely surface manifestations attributed to the broad ‘left’ such as Baader Meinhoff, inflation, excessive union wage claims, drugs and some significant recession etc.

    But these sorts of factors don’t feel like they explain everything. Memories of Vietnam were still fresh which should have worked against the conservatives and their allies.

    How much has the left analysed its own contributions to its fall from grace/transformation into the Third Way?

    Perhaps a lack of economic theory development beyond the old social democratic model from the 1940s is a consideration. There were many changes and wins that made life easier which we take for granted – not least of all being people on average in the Anglosphere moving beyond near starvation for better (e.g. cheap food) and worse (e.g. cheap food).

    But maybe I’m seeing things incorrectly, after all the 80s did seem to see despite the rise of neoliberalism much progress in the politics of environment, gender, sexuality, and the disabled concurrent with the terminal decline/burn out in the old reactionary religions.

  5. The guy the Republicans ought to focus their idolatry on, if what they want to do is demonstrate an affection for militarism and America’s overweening sense of itself as a beacon of capitalism and might, is that prize lunkhead and Democrat, Harry Truman. He did more than anyone to poison the well of goodwill that came out of World War 2 and set the world on its Cold War fury, which killed untold millions in proxy wars around the globe. Truman was a total pawn of the military-industrial-complex like no other, and one of the great disasters in US and world history. So, a perfect Republican hero.

  6. ‘How much has the left analysed its own contributions to its fall from grace/transformation into the Third Way?’

    Right at the outset of the counter-revolution Eric Hobsbawm & Stuart Hall attempted just that sort of analysis. The breakdown of a working class movement prevented an effective war of position against the Radical Right.

  7. Gore Vidal after commenting on the disasters that pre-Reagan Repub Presidents had been:- “Then they decided the perfect Republican President would be someone who could read cue cards.”

    Maybe one aspect to look at in US politics is the issue of Presidents (and the Houses) being the puppets of oligarchs. Has it always been there is US politics? Is it getting worse? My personal belief is that it has always been strong in US politics and oligarchic power is in fact enshrined in the US Constitution. Modern oligarchs with and through their state puppets have simply used evolving technology to continuously tighten their control on power, money and the people.

  8. “” has an informative piece about the attacks on the book and its author.

    The attacks are led by Shirley, of the hard-right-wing spin doctors ‘Shirley & Bannister’.

    All of this leads to the obvious conclusion that these dubious cries of plagiarism represent a coordinated right-wing attack designed to interfere with Perlstein’s book roll-out. How do we know it’s coordinated? Media reporters like Politico’s Dylan Byers have confirmed it is: “As someone on the receiving end of the Rick Perlstein oppo, I can assure you its pretty aggressive.”

    Also, Shirley’s business partner, Banister, sent out an email over the weekend, obtained by Media Matters, beseeching colleagues to join the “offensive” against Perlstein:

    “We are considering steps to take and would appreciate you help in our offensive as his book is publishing on Tuesday, August 5 and he has a number of interviews. Anything you can do to jump into the fight would be helpful. We can send suggested tweets or other information as you need.”

    If a biographer like Shirley was actually concerned about Perlstein’s supposed scholarly shortcomings, why would he seek partisan help in a public relations “offensive”? And why would Shirley’s team offer to type up prefabbed tweets for allies to send out, presumably bashing Perlstein?

    Note that lots of Shirley’s allies have already apparently been part of the “offensive,” with items appearing in The Weekly Standard, The New York Post, and The Daily Caller, all hyping Shirley’s claim about Invisible Bridge plagiarism.

    Their deification of Reagan is, in my opinion, nothing to do with any actual achievements but rather because they need a ‘messiah’ figure and, being so plastic – not to mention dead, he is ideal for the role.

  9. @J-D

    1. The USA is an oligarchy.

    A new quantitative study by Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern’s Benjamin Page finds that the USA is not a democracy but an oligarchy. The paper is “Testing Theories of American Politics : Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”.

    Look at Truthout for this paper: “That Giant Sucking Sound…it’s the Oligarchs”. This paper is a polemic but gives examples of the enormous and growing wealth of the oligarchs. The extreme wealth disparities of contemporary USA are a demonstrable matter of fact.

    2. What bearing does the constitution have?

    With the fact established that the USA is an oligarchy with extreme wealth disparities, we then need to consider what bearing the constitution had historically and has now on this state of affairs. Three theories present themselves;

    (a) the constitution has no bearing on the structure of the political economy.
    (b) the constitution fosters and protects oligarchic interests.
    (c) the constitution seeks democratically to protect the interests of all the people.

    If a constitution had and has no bearing on the structure of the political economy what is its reason for existing? It or reference to it would wither away. In practice, constitutional court judgements and governmental actions in all fields continually demonstrate the real effects of constitutional provisions in a functioning constitutional state.

    If the state is an oligarchy then the principle of Occam’s razor suggests that the founding document of the state (the constitution) fosters and protects oligarchic interests. Looking further we can only allow the possibility that the constitution seeks to democratically to protect the interests of all the people but fails (almost utterly in the case of the USA).

    The US constitution in letter, spirit and interpretation is a complex and amended document. The truth, in my opinion, lies between (b) and (c) above but closer to (b) than (c).

    As always, it pays to follow the history. This article is excellent. (I am avoiding links and leaving the search to you.

    “A Constitution for the Few: Looking Back to the Beginning” – By Michael Parenti

    Summing Up.

    In answer to your question “When you write that oligarchic power is enshrined in the US Constitution, which bits of the Constitution are you thinking of?”:-

    I would say “Almost all of it, with maybe some specific exceptions.” It is the entire structure, the edifice that has the results I claim.

    Your question is a bit like asking, “Which bits of a house keep the effects of inclement weather out?” The answer again is “Almost all of it. The roof, the windows, the cladding and then the frame, in effect, because it holds these things up. Indeed, the foundation, the slab and the ground posts play their role in keeping effects of inclement weather (moving surface and sub-surface water) out.”

    Parenti’s paper demonstrates historically how the constitution was born and evolved. Protection of the monied classes is the very stuff it is made of and this goal is woven into almost every part of its fabric.

    The above is not to say I am not a constitutionalist. I am indeed a constitutionalist albeit with nuances. The above is also not to say that I view the US Constitution as an entirely negative document. I do not. It does have positive aspects and effects. In securing rights for the propertied and business classes it represented an historical advance over aristocratic and feudal rights. It set up rights, which by extension, could permeate or percolate downwards to the masses. Some of the Amendments strongly illustrate this process. However, after a hopeful period, democratically and economically speaking, from about 1935 to about 1970, the USA has taken the wrong path (away from democracy, equity and the rule of law) and one has to locate part of the aetiology of this malaise in the serious deficiencies and anachronisms of the US Constitution as it stands.

  10. I agree with the determinism problem it’s hard not to take the easy out with it.

    The issue is, that things have gone beyond the point of no return. The informal Oligarchy is well entrenched now, if it were not well entrenched all long. With the entrenchment and the aging process at the top, things seem to have slipped from mere conservatism to some thing akin to Habsburg Spain and the reactionary Church of the early seventeenth century, where dissent is not tolerated, even when dissenters provide facts to back up their assertions.

    The solution to problems of dissent rests no longer the reasoned argument process of thirty or forty years ago. De-industrialisation has eroded the capacity of those outside the Oligarchy to ensure it justifies its policies, (abused) technology has enabled refined surveillance of opposition and refined consent manufacture techniques.

    I really think the Tardis has landed and we find ourselves back in a kind of or Brezhnevism or Middle Ages, with no real solution for civilisation in the immediate offing.

  11. @paul walter

    What you say is true of the West. Oligarchic power is entrenched and ossified. Arguments from science, fact and truth make no impact. The West is becoming increasingly reactionary and probably entering its “Endarkenment”.

    The West is also de-industrialising. Japan and Sth Korea are fully industrialised and might be following the path of the West. The rest of the East on the other hand is industrialising, particularly but not only China and India. Russia as always is an enigma. I am not sure where Russia is headed. Oligarchic power is alive and well in China and India of course but at least in China it is not nearly as ossified and sclerotic as Western oligarchic power.

    The West is in serious decline with de-industrialisation, a sclerotic oligarchy, declining education and general Endarkenment sapping every aspect of its vigour. Can the East rise however at the very moment, historically speaking, that we hit the limits to growth? For China and India I think the answer is “no”. Their ecological overshoot is too great. Of the great powers only Russia is not in ecological overshoot. Russia is best placed if only it does not shoot itself in the foot with its endless tendency to abolutism. But I think Russia will botch things too.

  12. @Ikonoclast

    Economic inequality in the United States has, over time, varied significantly, downwards and upwards. It has not stayed quantitatively unchanged over periods when the text of the US Constitution has remained constant.

    There was significant disparity of wealth in the United States before the US Constitution was even adopted.

    This evidence suggests that the text of the Constitution is not a significant determining factor of economic inequality.

    I emphasise as strongly as I can that I do not dispute the extent of economic inequality in the US. But to conclude on the basis of that evidence alone that the US Constitution must have something to do with it, with no reference to the actual text of the document, is to make the fundamental error of mistaking ignorance for knowledge. You might just as well observe economic inequality in a country, ancient or modern, with no written constitution, and say ‘the constitution must have something to do with it’: you’d look a right fool when the country turned out to have no such thing.

  13. J D, just watching Stiglitz on ABC and he and his graphs seem to indicate that while you are correct in contending inequality has varied over time, in our era it has increased and it is likely this coincides with the oligarchic co-opting of the US Constitution for subjective rather than rational reasons; the price and cost of inequality has therefore become higher than the price of equality.

  14. @paul walter

    If you mean that features of the US Constitution have contributed to a recent increase in economic inequality in the US, you haven’t said which features of the US Constitution those are or how they’ve had that effect. If that’s not what you mean, then I have no idea what you do mean.

    If you compare economic inequality in the US with economic inequality in other countries, you’ll find differences: some countries are even more unequal than the US, and some less so. If you compare the US Constitution with the constitutions of other countries, you’ll also find differences. But if you compare countries on any measure, you’ll find differences: climate, ethnic diversity, length of period of independence, language, anything you like. I’m not seeing the evidence even of any correlation between those factors, let alone any evidence of cause-and-effect relationships.

    If you could show that countries with constitutional feature X have more economic inequality than countries with constitutional feature Y, it might be worth investigating: it might be a coincidence, but then again it might lead to some suggestions about what sort of constitutional changes might contribute to a reduction of economic inequality (if that’s an aim). I’m interested in ideas about how constitutions can be improved. I’m just not seeing any in this discussion.

  15. Professor J Q: I don’t think I’ve ever found less to quibble about in anything written by you. But let me toss in something you might or might not disagree with about Republican presidents.

    I would suggest that neither Calvin Coolidge nor Herbert Hoover eere bad presidents given the expectations of the times. It is true that there had been heroically activist Presidents like Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt but nothing in the prosperous 20s until late 1929 seemed to call for an activist president. Remember that the great Irving Fisher (his Econometrica article on Debt-Deflation justifies the adjective) had made the never-to-be-forgotten error of saying stockmarket prices seemed to have reached a “permanent plateau” only weeks before the crash. As for the even greater disaster of 15 years before it is easy to criticise political leaders in hindsight….
    PS should Julie Thomas be encouraged to regard this as trolling and offer her psychological insights?

  16. @Ikonoclast
    I’m not sure that “oligarchy” is the most useful concept or description. Received connotations matter and one obvious starting point for our conception of an oligarchy is Venice. But that highlights what the US does mot have, namely a close-knit group of effective administrators of a manageably small state. Or one could start with Robert Michels Iron Law of Oligarchy (Google it) and say” so, what’s knew, what do you expect?”.

    I like the formulation with which an Australian acquaintance teased some Old Yankees who were complacently proud of their instutions.

    “America is a plutocracy, tempered by meritocracy, within a framework of law and flavoured by the rhetoric of democracy.”

    You might say that essentially replaces your “oligarchy” with “plutocracy” but, apart from questioning the oligarchic connotations of “plutocracy” (which has cruder and arguably worse connotations in the sense that the power of money may be worse than the power of bureaucracy) I would say that my acquaintances formulation better captures the reality of America’s vast complexity, diversity and chaos.

  17. I read an article once, author and date escape me, but the argument was that the American colonies started with two models of government, the aristocratic, oligarchic Virginia model and the New England one of the Puritan commonwealth: religious, hysterical, populist, demagogic. The modern US has both forms in operation, the oligarchic is the real nature of US society, but the hysterical, religious, populist aspect is preserved as the public face of politics.

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