The Reagan Revolution

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The second part of our American Politics series looks at the age of Ronald Reagan. In this essay, we examine the impact Reagan had on American politics, and ask how influential the ‘Reagan Revolution’ really was.

Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign was centred around the slogan and perhaps the idea that it was ‘morning in America again.’ Indeed, many credit Reagan with bringing about a revolution in American politics. However, this essay will argue that this was not the case. While Reagan certainly presided over a period of remarkable change in American politics, it may be fairer to describe his presidency not as revolutionary, but rather as an ‘incomplete revolution.’[1] The revival of the Republican Party under Reagan is perhaps the only aspect of his presidency that may be described as revolutionary. However, it will be argued that while Reagan and his administration represented this conservative revolution, they did not instigate it. In conjunction to this, we will also examine the economic policies of the Reagan administration. In doing so, one will argue that despite Reagan’s conservative rhetoric, his policies did not bring about the revolution many commentators attribute to him. As will be shown, all of this resulted in a revolution of sorts, but not to the extent that many had hoped, or some had feared.

Before looking at the failures of the Reagan revolution, let us first examine its successes. Without doubt, Reagan and his administration represented a new type of politics. The previous presidencies of Ford and Carter had been exhibitions in mediocrity, leaving room for an energetic Reagan to capitalise on their mistakes. His rhetoric painted an optimistic picture of America’s future, much different to that used by President Carter. ‘Mr. Carter’s American tragedy,’ Reagan claimed, ‘must and can be transcended by the spirit of the American people, working together.’[2]This optimism captured the minds of a dejected American public. With the scars of Watergate and Vietnam still raw, Reagan presented ‘a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America’[3] in her people. His energy and optimism struck a chord with the American electorate, helping to secure a Republican victory in 1980. But, it was not the personality of Reagan that proved revolutionary. It was the rejuvenation of the political right that sparked this supposed revolution. This, it may be argued, meant that Reagan was merely a passenger upon the major shift that occurred in American politics at the beginning of the 1980s.

The late 1960s and 70s saw a decline in support for the Liberal agenda. There were a number of reasons for this, the main one being the perceived failure of Johnson’s Great Society. The escalating Cold War prompted many Americans to support more hard-line foreign policy initiatives, which played largely into the hands of the Republican Party. But most importantly, the late 1970s saw a surge in political support for the American right. Republicans began to target specific sectors of society for support. ‘Reagan appealed for the support of business by indicating that he would trim costly social programs, weaken the influence of organised labor, and relax the environmental rules.’[4] Blue-collar voters were also targeted. Reagan and the GOP siphoned blue-collar votes from the Democrats by undermining organised labour through pro-business, anti-union policies. These elements formed a coalition behind Reagan, in conjunction with a revitalised Christian right, that stood square behind the president throughout most of his term. Reagan and the GOP had transformed Conservatism from a ‘fringe ideology’ to ‘a belief system around which American politics defined itself.’[5] And so, Reagan helped build the foundation for a revolution in politics. The basis was there. He had a huge coalition of political support behind him. All that was left to complete this conservative revolution was for Reagan to deliver.

But it is here that the claims of a Reagan revolution fall down. The Reagan administration ‘did not bring the radical recasting of American politics’[6] that the president had sought. Moreover, one would argue that Reagan did not instigate any major revolution in American politics, but rather represented the changing face of the political system. Reagan may be better described as a ‘right place, right time’ president rather than a revolutionary. The rise of the Christian right in the deep south, the failures of Carter, the war against communism and the formation of the right-wing coalition, comprising of pro-business, anti-labour union and Christian evangelicals, came together to instigate change. Reagan became a vehicle for that change. As Griffith and Baker note, the successes of Reagan ‘must be understood in light of the powerful tensions coursing through American society and culture during the 1970s and 1980s.’[7] For conservatives, Reagan came to represent the solution to the strife of the American people, ‘the triumphant personification of their beliefs and the foundation on which to consolidate their hold on the American electorate.’[8] Thus, Ronald Reagan and his administration did not instigate a revolution, but were merely vehicles that were used in an attempt to further the cause of the conservative movement.

But the fact that Reagan was only a facilitator in an incomplete revolution is not reason enough to claim his presidency was such. The reasons as to why the Reagan revolution remained incomplete run much deeper. The president’s economic policies are perhaps the greatest reason as to why Reagan’s revolution remained incomplete. Speaking on the campaign trail in 1980, Reagan outlined the problems he saw with the American fiscal and monetary system. ‘We must first recognise that the problem with the U.S. economy is swollen, inefficient government, needless regulation, too much taxation, too much printing-press money,’[9] he claimed. Tax cuts and deregulation became central to what became known as ‘Reaganomics.’ Those who stood to benefit most from these policies were businesses, corporations and the wealthy, with the idea being that giving these sectors more room to manoeuvre economically would bring about greater investment to stimulate the U.S. economy. This, of course, greatly appealed to the conservative wing of American politics. After the great expansion of the liberal reform agenda throughout the 20th century with the policies of FDR and Johnson, there was anticipation amongst conservatives in American politics that their time had come.

The reality, however was somewhat different, and by the end of the 1980’s many on the right who had supported the president’s conservative agenda ‘were largely disappointed with what he had achieved, perceiving it as a lost opportunity.’[10] Reagan’s onetime supporters had reason to be disappointed, particularly when it came to the areas of Social Security reform and the managing of the federal budget. Instead of reigning in the budget allocated to Social Security and Medicare, in an effort to ‘assure the fiscal integrity of social security’ and to ‘restore the financial soundness of the social security system,’[11] Reagan’s policies actually caused the budget to suffer from ‘enormous increases in the costs of entitlement programs.’[12] The very fact that Social Security survived the Reagan years was enough for some to label this period as a failed revolution, with Schaller noting that ‘In practice, the Reagan Administration shifted costs’ rather than reducing them.[13] Aside from this, the Reagan Administration presided over an era of sky-rocketing budget deficits. The Administration accumulated more debt in its eight years than had ever been accumulated by the U.S. in its entire history. Reagan’s failure to control the Social Security budget, his tax cuts and massive spending on the military meant that, much to the disappointment of the conservative movement, the federal government actually got bigger as the deficit grew larger. This, along with a series of scandals such as the Iran-contra affair, and the ‘president’s own declining energy’ meant that by the end of Reagan’s time in office, the administration had lost its effectiveness,[14] and much of the support of the coalition it had built around itself in the early years.

In his book The Age Of Reagan, historian Sean Wilentz seeks to argue against the views held by others, such as Hill, Moore and Williams, that Reagan’s presidency was a failed revolution. No other president who sought to consolidate the conservative right, Wilentz claims, ‘came close to matching Reagan in defining the politics of his era and in reshaping the basic terms on which politics and government would be conducted long after he left office.’[15] One can certainly see the strength of this argument, and it may be difficult to see how one could disagree with this statement. After all, conservative politics in America came out of the Reagan presidency a dramatically much more powerful force on the political playing field. But the question is, can this truly be regarded as a revolution? The answer, one would argue, is no. When attempting to judge the revolutionary nature of the Reagan years, this essay has not only examined the outcomes, but also the processes. It is true to say that conservatism became politically stronger as a result of the Reagan presidency. But the actual progression of conservative aims throughout this Administration remained limited. The religious right made very little headway with Reagan in later years, despite them forming a major sector of his coalition, as foreign policy began to consume his presidency. The president’s economic policies resulted in massive budget deficits and the increase in spending on the Social Security budget. But most of all, Reagan had failed to ‘establish the durable coalition that Roosevelt had,’[16] meaning towards the end of his presidency, his support began to dissipate. It may be fairer to cast Reagan and his presidency as a symbol of the rejuvenation of American conservatism. The president and his administration acted as vehicles upon which the newly energised right could latch on to. But the reality was that despite conservatives gaining a stronger foothold in the American political system as a result of Reagan, their agenda, while improved, was not revolutionised. It is for this reason that it can be said that Reagan and his Administration brought about an incomplete revolution in American politics.

Bibliography

  • Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation, A Concise History of the American People, 5th Ed. New York, 2008.
  • Dallek, Robert. The Politics of Symbolism. London, 1984.
  • Ginsberg, Benjamin and Shefter, Martin, ‘Politics by other Means: Politicians, Prosecutors and the Press from Watergate to Whitewater,’ in Griffith, Robert and Baker, Paula, eds. Major Problems in American History Since 1945, 3rd Ed. Boston, 2007.
  • Griffith, Robert and Baker, Paula, eds. Major Problems in American History Since 1945, 3rd Ed. Boston, 2007.
  • Hill, Dylis M., Moore, Rayond A. and Williams, Phil. The Reagan Presidency. An Incomplete Revolution? London, 1990.
  • Hogan, Joseph. The Reagan Years. New York, 1990.
  • Reagan, Ronald. Statement on Signing Social Security Legislation. December 29th, 1981. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Wooley, available through http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=43395. Accessed 04/03/2013.
  • Reagan, Ronald. ‘Speech Delivered before the International Business Council.’ Chicago, September 9th, 1980, in Griffith, Robert and Baker, Paula, eds. Major Problems in American History Since 1945, 3rd Ed. Boston, 2007.
  • Reagan, Ronald. ‘Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals.’ Florida, March 8th, 1983, in Griffith, Robert and Baker, Paula, eds. Major Problems in American History Since 1945, 3rd Ed. Boston, 2007.
  • Tygiel, Jules. ‘Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism,’ 2nd Ed. In Griffith, Robert and Baker, Paula, eds. Major Problems in American History Since 1945, 3rd Ed. Boston, 2007.
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Age of Reagan : A History, 1974-2008. New York, 2008.

[1], Dylis M. Hill, Raymond A. Moore, and Phil Williams, The Reagan Presidency. An Incomplete Revolution?, p.239.

[2] Ronald Reagan, ‘Speech Delivered Before the International Business Council,’ September 9th 1980, in Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.356.

[3] Ronald Reagan, ‘Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals,’ March 8th, 1983, in Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.360.

[4] Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter, ‘Politics by other Means: Politicians, Prosecutors and the Press from Watergate to Whitewater,’ in Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.373.

[5] Jules Tygiel, ‘Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism,’ in Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.383.

[6] Dylis M. Hill, Raymond A. Moore, and Phil Williams, The Reagan Presidency. An Incomplete Revolution?, p.233.

[7] Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.351.

[8] Jules Tygiel, ‘Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism,’ in Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.389.

[9] Ronald Reagan, ‘Speech Delivered Before the International Business Council,’ September 9th 1980, in Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.355.

[10] Jules Tygiel, ‘Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism,’ in Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.389.

[11] Ronald Reagan, Statement in Signing Social Security Legislation, December 29th, 1981.

[12] Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, p.903.

[13] Michael Schaller, in Jules Tygiel, ‘Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism,’ in Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.389.

[14] Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, p.914.

[15] Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008, p.286.

[16] Jules Tygiel, ‘Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism,’ in Robert Griffith and Paula Baker, Major Problems in American History Since 1945, p.390.

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