As the Republican party rises from the ashes of its destruction in 2008 to a renewed prominence in the 112th Congress, soapbox lectures can be expected touting Ronald Reagan as a President to be revered, devoted to small town, traditional American family values and a smaller, more efficient government - but nothing could be further from the truth.
By the time of Reagan’s 1980 election, the country had experienced three assassinations, one impeachment/resignation and five Presidents within a twenty year span. With little enduring leadership since Eisenhower, Americans were ripe for a President who would bring stability and optimism to the country.
Son of an alcoholic father whose family were recipients of FDR’s welfare program in the 1930’s, Reagan’s need for admiration took him to Hollywood. Originally a liberal New Deal Democrat, Reagan received two WWII draft deferments and as President of the Screen Actors Guild, became an FBI informant in 1947.
With a national television presence as host of GE Theater, Reagan traveled the country honing the image of an affable neighborhood basketball coach railing against taxation and ‘big government.’ An early supporter of privatizing Social Security, Reagan’s candidacy for California Governor in 1966 was promoted by a new class of self made millionaires, fueled by a loathing for government regulations. What became known as the ‘kitchen cabinet’ remained influential during his entire political career including their hand-picked selection of cabinet appointees. Tapping into a need from childhood deprivations to be an American superhero, the pursuit of self interest and a lavish lifestyle had found a willing participant in Reagan.
As children of alcoholics frequently compensate, Reagan re-invented himself as an ‘organization man’ whose illusory identity relied on popular media images, loyal syncophants and a public relations persona he himself could believe in. Not unlike today’s Congressional Republicans who flaunt working class backgrounds, Reagan walked away from an early life of poverty and never looked back.
Auditioning for his next role, Reagan offered glib, simplistic slogans as he led a moral crusade attacking the Federal government becoming the country’s first anti-government President. Neither a reader nor interested in public policy, Reagan’s lack of intellect and one-dimensional quality displayed no understanding that decades of an activist government had raised millions of Americans out of poverty or its role ‘of, by and for the people.” Preaching a mantra belittling the American public’s confidence in their government to solve public problems, Reagan embodied elements of the Tea Party before there was a tea party.
In 1980, Reagan received 50.7% of the vote with the lowest voter turn out in 30 years. Advocating budget austerity, Reagan’s $16 million ostentatious inauguration with more limousines, private jets, sable and mink coats than had ever before been seen in one place and a $45 million renovation of the White House residence ushered in the pursuit of greed and materialist consumption as new American values to be emulated.
The product of a Presidential selection process that too frequently results in mediocrity, Reagan proved to be a better actor as President than on the Hollywood screen. Reagan institutionalized a corporate-government liaison that flooded the Federal government with political hacks as a corporate influence on the Presidency, the Congress and much of the Federal bureaucracy is still evident 30 years later. For example, Reagan’s former employer, General Electric, paid no taxes between 1981 and 1983 even as they laid off 50,000 workers and received a $283 Million tax rebate with a pre tax profit of $6.5 billion in 1981.
Ever the B actor projecting an innocent boyish charm and a voice tinged with sarcasm, Reagan’s sanctity struck a discordant note as he shrewdly avoided mention of billion dollar cuts that sought to dismantle every Federal Department while repealing regulations that protected the public’s health and safety as his political appointees labored to eviscerate every agency’s mission. Rarely ever benefiting consumers,
corporate deregulation including airline, bank and telecommunications as well as corporate mergers profited under Reagan as consolidations grew from 1,565 in 1980 with a value of $33 billion to 4,323 with an increased value of $204 billion by 1986.
Inheriting an $85 billion deficit from Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan promised to reduce the Federal debt and balance the budget but instead increased the military budget by $300 billion in 1985 wasting billions on a speculative Star Wars project. His increased military budget was a calculated strategy to force Congress to choose and decimate the New Deal People Programs. After 8 years in office, Reagan brought the Federal deficit of $255 billion to historic levels.
As if great wealth would prove the moral virtues of capitalism, Reagan’s commitment to voodoo economics, laissez faire, the free market, supply side, trickle down or Reaganomics proved a false promise as tax cuts for the rich never created the economic prosperity promised. An untested hypothetical, the concept that tax cuts to the top 1%’ers will spend and invest resulting in increased economic activity and the good times would roll for all was always a myth and Reagan’s economic team knew it. For details on Reagan’s deregulation of the financial industry, see http://trueblueprogressivereport.blogspot.com/2011/01/short-history-of-financial-deregulation.html
Even as Reagan fanned the flames against minority criminals and drugs, 138 Reagan Administration personnel were convicted, indicted or investigated for assorted criminal activity becoming the nation’s most corrupt Presidential administration in more than 50 years. While providing no Federal funds for drug treatment, federal funding that increased inner city police presence resulted in the massive arrest of young black and Hispanic men increasing incarcerations from 600,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million by 2002.
Never a churchgoer, Reagan legitimized the Moral Majority and its televangelist with tax exemptions as the constitutional separation of church and state blurred with participation in elections as the religious right moved to assume control of the Republican party. With corporate campaign contributions banned after the Watergate scandal, a loophole in the law allowed Reagan backers to concoct the ‘soft’ money concept and form ‘independent’ committees that opened the floodgates to corporate domination of campaign financing.
Thirty years later as President Obama has spoken of Reagan with admiration, the full damage of the Reagan revolution on the quality of American life and the integrity of a functioning Federal government cannot be overstated. The America of 1980 no longer exists leaving in its place an American people with a broken economy and the collapse of a two-party political system.
Mindful of the pain and suffering this one man caused millions of Americans, Reagan’s term as President confirmed that all conservatives share a lack of compassion and in retirement, Ronald Reagan never expressed any regrets or gave any indication he had grown into a man of mercy with a loving heart.
Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years by Haynes Johnson
The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America by William Kleinnecht