Reagan and the Great Man in history

by John Quiggin on August 8, 2014

The latest controversy 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.