Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Reagan

I don't remember Reagan's presidency much. When he was president, I was still more into playing with dolls than following politics. So I'm still trying to figure out what Reagan did and how that mattered. The following article by Mark Sumner made a lot of sense to me:
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.  
This is just a small quote. Make sure you read the whole thing here. Even if you disagree in terms of ideology, the writing is so beautiful, powerful and passionate that it definitely makes the article worth reading. I want to learn to write this way.

P.S. I once witnessed a conversation between two older colleagues. One was British and one was American.

"I used to be a conservative," said the American colleague. "But then Reagan came to power, and I had to choose between abandoning the convictions of a lifetime or not calling myself a conservative any more."

"You are not going to get any compassion about the evils of Reagan from me," retorted the British academic. "We had Thatcher, and that's much worse."

28 comments:

eric said...

I am also a child of the '80's, and of course I had no idea back then, when I was so busy playing Atari, that Reagan was selling my future (and that of everybody else of my generation) down the river. Of course, my mother and step-dad spoke of him with complete reverence, and still do. The light at the end of the neo-liberal fudge tunnel, though, is that those our age realize how screwed-over we were with diminished economic prospects, and the generation just behind us does not remember the Reagan era, nor the Cold War, nor all that cheesy pro-business propaganda that was shoved down everyone's throats--and they therefore view government not as 'the enemy', but as a collaborative effort. The only way to demythologize and completely distance ourselves from the Reagan 'legacy', is to publicly and forthrightly proclaim what an asshole he really was. You'd think more of our Democratic politicians would be on this bandwagon, but...I guess that's expecting TOO much!

D said...

"...So I'm still trying to figure out what Reagan did and how that mattered. The following article by Mark Sumner made a lot of sense to me..."

The aforementioned article from the Daily Kos certainly represents the liberal viewpoint of the Reagan presidency - no surprise there. However, there are so many misrepresentations it's hard to know where to begin. Let's try just a couple of points from the quote in the initial statement:

"These ideas have destabilized our economy, accelerated the destruction of our environment, and set back the advancement of human rights."
This is absolute nonsense, and anyone who is remotely familiar with the economic conditions during the Carter presidency knows it. I suppose the author would have preferred another four years of double-digit inflation, unemployment and interest rates. The economic recovery resulting from Reagan's policies was one of the most remarkable in the country's history. Maybe he thinks the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant nothing for the advancement of human rights.

Regarding the idea that Reagan's policies sold a generation's future "down the river" - talk about an empty statement. Once again - maybe another four years of Jimmy Carter's economy would have been better? Let me offer just one small example of how wrong this statement is: just imagine what it would be like today of you had to finance your home with a 30-year mortgage at the fixed rate of 14%. My wife and I did exactly that in 1978. There was a reason that Carter was defeated in a humiliating landslide, and that Reagan was re-elected for a second term by a similar margin.

Clarissa said...

I don't have enough knowledge to respond intelligently to this. So I'll just keep quite, absorb information, and ask questions.

D: When I lived in New Haven, people told me that the reason why there were so many mentally unstable people in the streets, is that "Reagan closed down all mental health facilities and threw them out int the streets."

Can you comment on that?

Lindsay said...

"When [Reagan] was president, I was still more into playing with dolls than following politics."

Oh, wow, you *are* close to my age! I had assumed you were much older, since you are a professor and they usually are older...

(I was born halfway through Reagan's presidency.)

profacero said...

I like the Kos piece and it's much better than the standard liberal drivel. I had an outright gorgeous post right here about all of these matters, I know Reagan well as I am from California, which means my 8 years under the Reagan presidency followed 8 under him as Governor; I've got a diploma signed by him, even. But Blogger blinked and lost my post, and I'm a lazy thing unwilling to reconstruct now.

Clarissa said...

Lindsay: I'm 34. But my students seem to think I'm ancient. :-)

profacero: I'm so sorry the post was lost! It would have been great to read it. Blogger does annoying things from time to time.

D said...

"Reagan closed down all mental health facilities and threw them out int the streets."

Clarissa - patently false. As the first effective psychotropic drugs were being developed in the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration started offering states the financial incentives to close mental institutions and provide more localized mental health solutions on a somewhat "outpatient" basis. Perhaps this was a combination of misplaced compassion for the mentally ill and concern for the state and federal money being spent on housing them. The result was an excessively high standard for commitment, resulting in homelessness and criminality previously unseen among the mentally ill. This trend was well established by the time Reagan was elected in 1980.

Clarissa said...

Interesting. I always had a very poor opinion for the Kennedy presidency, and now I can see that dislike being justified.

What is your take on the Iran-Contras debacle?

Thanks for answering my questions! I'm still working on gathering knowledge about this, and everybody's input is highly appreciated.

Patrick said...

I'm slightly older than you Clarissa, and was always a little more aware of politics and economics as a child than most.

Reagan's presidency must always be viewed in the historical context of which it happened.

It's hard to fathom in today's economy that large regions of the continent would have been happy with unemployment, inflation and interest rates under 10%.

The international tensions were prolific - the PLO; the assassination of Sadat; the Iranian revolution and the beginnings of the Iran/Iraq war; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter was perceived as weak and incapable of dealing with those foreign issues, especially as he proved he couldn't get the American economy moving.

There is much that Reagan did that history shouldn't whitewash - the deregulation of the airlines, the forced break up of AT&T, the firing of Air Traffic Controllers, the Iran/Contra affair. (I don't believe for a second that he wasn't aware of what was going on. Plausible deniability only extends so far. Ultimately, the President is responsible for the actions of his administration).

It's great for debate to consider whether or not Reagan was better than 4 more years of Carter, or four years of Mondale. And clearly, some of the seeds that Reagan sowed in the early to mid 80's helped to produce the environment that lead to the current problems of today. But lets not ignore or forget that there was an robust 90's decade, largely created by Reagan policies (Clinton acted more as a shepherd than proponent of change - that is, he was the beneficiary of the economic growth spurned by the Reagan policies)

profacero said...

Mental hospitals are funded by states. The closing of mental hospitals was in CA when Reagan was governor and it was a more complicated event than Reagan just deciding to close them ... although he did have that mentality.

More later ...

eric said...

@D: "Regarding the idea that Reagan's policies sold a generation's future "down the river" - talk about an empty statement."

Um, no. Empty, why? Because wages have stagnated over the past 30 years? Because jobs have moved overseas? Because people my age have gone into debt paying for educations landing us jobs that would have taken an AA degree in the '70's? Jeez, you sound like my mom.

Clarissa said...

Under Reagan, a profound anti-feminist backlash began that curbed many of the achievements of the feminist revolution in the US.

Of course, I don't blame Reagan for that. He didn't organize the backlash in any way. But if somebody like Mondale had been in power, I believe he would have tried to soften it.

Again, I don't mind being corrected if I'm wrong on Mondale here. (Not on the backlash, though, because that I know a lot about.)

Pagan Topologist said...

As a 66 year old university professor, I am very glad that Reagan masterminded the earlier forced retirement of faculty (and many other people) at age 65. I am pretty sure he never did anything else that I thought helpful.

It was a bitter irony that the only president ever who was a lifetime AFL-CIO union member (Reagan) was the first to break a union by firing all air traffic controllers who were exercising their right to strike for better (and safer for everyone) working conditions and better pay.

Clarissa said...

Why are you glad about that?

This practice of forced retirement for professors at 65 is currently in place in Great Britain. Terry Eagleton, my favorite literary critic, who is in his intellectual prime right now, was forced to retire. This made very little sense to me, honestly. The man is on the peak of his intellectual powers, so why should the students be deprived of his knowledge and his absolutely brilliant lectures?

Pagan Topologist said...

Sorry. I meant to say 'Masterminded the end of the earlier...'

Clarissa said...

Yes, I forgot about the air traffic controllers! That was a horrible story.

D said...

"...(Reagan) was the first to break a union by firing all air traffic controllers who were exercising their right to strike for better (and safer for everyone) working conditions and better pay."

Correction: the did NOT have the right to strike. It was illegal for Govt unions to strike, and Reagan declared this action a threat to public safety. He fired the PATCO workers after giving them a chance to return to work. Among the things they wanted was a 32-hr work week, and of course - more money. Personally, I don't have any trouble with them wanting to renegotiate their wages. But there are certain critical jobs such as these that should not be allowed to strike - for obvious reasons.

profacero said...

There were a lot of economic decisions made in the 70s and a lot of hearts and minds won to them; Reagan was elected to institute them but he was a figurehead.

This is not to un-blame Reagan but to put him in broader context.

He is not to be contrasted so much with Carter or Obama (who explicitly emulates him) as with FDR and the LBJ Great Society program ... it was also backlash against the civil rights legislation approved by LBJ albeit in a watered down form. The misconceptions about affirmative action which still reign date from that era.

Reagan's support for the Latin American dictators cannot be underestimaed.

profacero said...

If the 90s economy was really so great then why did that bubble burst so easily? Some groups were making a lot of money in the 90s, yes. But.

profacero said...

And re the Berlin Wall and the USSR: those were both bound to fall. I don't think Gorbachev had these precise intentions but he, among other Russians, deserves more credit (or blame, depending on your views) than Reagan for the end of the USSR.

I can't help thinking that with a different president than Reagan, that end could have had better results. I mean, look at Russia and some other ex SSR's now.

Clarissa said...

The collapse of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with Reagan. Or anybody else with an Anglo-Saxon name. :-) Everything that happened in the former USSR countries since then also has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anybody in the US.

Maybe I'll blog about it one day.

profacero said...

Side note: Reagan's not Anglo-Saxon though, it's Gaelic ... the Irish, you know, have reasons not to want to be considered English! ;-)

profacero said...

And on Reagan, there's this view from an immigrant, now a faculty person: http://www.littleindia.com/july2004/RonnieMe.htm

Clarissa said...

"Side note: Reagan's not Anglo-Saxon though, it's Gaelic "

-That's why I said that my knowledge here is very limited. :-)

Patrick said...

Profacero,
My point concerning the 90's economic boom was that Reagan laid the foundation; if Clinton and other liberals thought it was such a disastrous course, they had the power to change it. They chose not to. Therefore, they either didn't believe their own rhetoric, or they were political opportunists. Regardless, Clinton benefited politically, riding the wave. Bush Jr took the blame when the inevitable crash occurred. And now Obama owns the problem. It is always easier to deregulate that to create regulation.

profacero said...

Patrick, do you really see serious differences between Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama in terms of the economy?

Reagan sold to the public the decisions about the economy etc. that had been made in the 70s, and was their first big Presidential implementer. But he didn't come up with this stuff on his own, and the Presidents we've had since have continued it. Clinton in particular was a HUGE implementer of what are called "Reaganomics."

Tom Carter said...

Liberals have a problem explaining the slowdown (not the halt) of the march of liberalism (or progressivism, if you prefer) during the Reagan years. The ascendancy of Reagan was an effect, I think, not a cause. Liberalism regained some momentum under Clinton, then operated in stealth mode during eight years of the low-tax, high-spending Bush presidency. Now we've got Obama, and I would expect another reaction in the election in 2012 or certainly 2016 of a conservative. The pendulum keeps swinging....

profacero said...

Here's Cockburn on Reagan, bracing:
http://www.thenation.com/article/158472/dishonoring-reagan