As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of our 40th president amid glowing plaudits, folksy reminiscence, and an abundance of praise, it's important to remember one thing: the election of Ronald Reagan is the central and enduring tragedy of our age.
By that I don't mean "it's the worst thing that has happened." It would be foolish to raise (or lower) the political fortunes of any one man to equal the human toll of the earthquake in Haiti, the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe and in Africa, or the ravages of the Iraq War. I mean that the rise of Ronald Reagan was the tipping point, the axis around which history turned away from one view of the world towards another. And it was a devastatingly wrong turn.
The general acceptance of the ideas behind Reagan, and the movement of those ideas from the radical fringe into the mainstream of American politics, has shaped a world in which fantasies are accepted as givens; a world in which positions that are not only unproved, but disproved, are seen as foundations to build on. These ideas have destabilized our economy, accelerated the destruction of our environment, and set back the advancement of human rights. They, and the man who delivered them into our living rooms, are now so coated in mythology and media adoration that we accept them not just as American, but as America, despite the fact that these ideas – the conservative daydream -- represent the single greatest threat to the continued progress of our nation and our world.
The primary message that the "Great Communicator" spread in soothing tones and often high-minded words borrowed from the Puritans, was that the enemy of the middle class was not the wealthy, but the poor.
She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.
Reagan's welfare queen also featured one more important number: she was 99.9% imaginary. However, Reagan managed to sell this ugly fantasy not as a description of an individual criminal, but as a condemnation of a class of people. The conservative class warfare that Bill Buckley and the boys had nodded about in the steam rooms of exclusive clubs, became the accepted wisdom in the taprooms of Peoria. What was holding back the middle class was not executives and speculators pocketing millions, it was poor mothers getting a few hundred a year in food assistance. Americans became convinced – and still are convinced – that some vast pool of "urban poor" was draining the wealth of the nation.
At the same time Reagan convinced the American people that the poor were stealing from us and laughing all the way to the bank, he persuaded us that we needed to do two things in response: deregulate the banking industry and lower the taxes on the top earners. This would somehow throw afterburners on the economy and drag us all forward (even those undeserving poor) – though of course the vast majority of us would not directly benefit. Even the man who would be Reagan's vice-president understood well enough to see that this was "voodoo economics," that it was not just unlikely to work, but impossible. Since then, all forms of supply-side economics have proven not only ineffective but counter effective time and again. From Reagan’s day to our day what these economic policies have delivered is greater inequity of wealth, stagnation for what had been a growing middle class, and a bleeding away of critical jobs. In the last thirty years, productivity has soared – but none of the profits from that vastly expanded productivity have gone to the middle class. We are literally working much harder and producing much more, but doing it for less. That’s not a “city on a hill,” that’s a workhouse in a hollow.
That many people still buy into Reagan's ideas on economics is understandable, because the press then and now fails to point out the most important fact about Reagan’s contentions. They made it up. The Cadillac driving welfare queen, the ever-enriching Laffer Curve, the insistence that regulation was what troubled our markets and banks – they are phantasms. Deliberate mendacity, with no sounder theoretical basis than "that's what I want you to believe." The Great Snake Oil Salesman foisted on America a set of remedies that had all the scientific basis of the four humors and even less curative power than a good old fashioned bleeding. But now we take these things for granted, we start from the basis that aid to women and children needs to be reduced, that decreasing taxes stimulates the economy, and that deregulation is the cure, not the problem. We deliver the nation one round of poison after another, and feign shock when it fails to work.
Another equally vital front in the conservative War on Progress was opened on the very day Reagan took office and ordered that the solar panels be removed from the White House. Both symbolically and directly through the gutting of alternative fuels projects, the defunding of the EPA, and the refusal to enforce environmental regulations, the Reagan administration committed America to a path that led inexorably to more dependence on fossil fuels of all types, and specifically on imported oil. They could not pretend to ignorance. The oil shocks and environmental studies both delivered the message that change was required, but the Reagan administration ignored that message. Wielding the still widely-used myth that by removing pesky regulations (and through awarding cheap land and hefty tax breaks) America's oil companies would generate all our needs here at home, Reagan established a baseline for conservative energy mythology. Taking any steps to resolve the real problems was relegated to the actions of "tree huggers" and "radical environmentalists." As with the economic fallacies, the abject failure of conservative energy policies hasn’t done a thing to stop people from touting their effectiveness nor kept the press from treating them as anything less than a solid option. This flight of oily imagination has led to ever-greater dependence on imported oils, an erosion of America's ability to act as a champion of human rights, and a deepening of our ties to foreign regimes without regard to human rights. There is an iron connection between Reagan's removal of those solar panels, and American soldiers falling in wars in the Middle East.
Of course, human rights were never a concern of the conservative agenda, and Reagan made his disdain for the notion abundantly clear. In both the Middle East and the Americas, Reagan’s support for terrorists and dictators alike served to limn the extent to which “freedom” was redefined as “doing what we want.” Anyone could be a partner in freedom, even if they were running brutal death squads, just so long as they were brutal right wing death squads. Any oppression of democracy was forgivable, any level of torture and destruction admirable, if done in the name of thwarting leftist bogeymen. Aggressive interference in other nations was certainly not a new policy for the Reagan administration, but few moments in history reach the dizzying heights of hypocrisy seen in the Iran-Contra affair, events in which coddling dictators, cheering on killers, and lying to the public were all bundled into what should have been a clarion call to sanity. Instead, this moment of utter disgrace is now treated as a non-event by the media and as an actual rallying point for the right. As you go through this week of Reaganophilia, compare how many times you hear about utterly fictional events of his life (he saved 70 people from drowning!) as compared to the utterly real moment when he had to step in front of the camera and admit to breaking the law and running arms.
Most astounding of all, Reagan sold a democratic society on the idea that their own government was the enemy. And he repeated that charge while sitting as the head of that government. It was if the chairman of McDonald's was proclaiming there was rat meat in every burger, or the CEO of Pepsi announcing his intention to pee in every bottle. You quite literally had the President of the United States telling America that government of the people, for the people, and by the people was the people. And we believed it. Hook, line and sinker we bought into a philosophy that says the government that took generations to build, the product of all those much-beloved heroes and founders, deserved no better than being ripped apart. We accepted the Republican premise that government was the problem. Meaning, in a representative government that we are the problem.
Reagan convinced us to grab our own throats, and . It's little wonder that after three decades of his followers, we are left bruised and wheezing.