Reagan and the Great Man in history

by John Q 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.



Neil Levy 08.08.14 at 5:53 am

Missing word: “based on an implicit or explicit that”


cassander 08.08.14 at 6:03 am

Reagan’s impact is also overstated by the left who claim he massively deregulated the economy (actually, the biggest deregulation was done by carter) that he slashed taxes (taxes as a percent of GDP averaged exactly the same from 1950-80 as from 81-2011), or that he made the tax code less progressive (the top 20% paid 55% of taxes in 1979, 58% in 89).


vasilis 08.08.14 at 6:12 am

From TIME: “As a result of the 1981 and 1986 bills, the top income tax rate was slashed from 70% to 28%.”

That’s a sweeping change that was very difficult to undo.

“Two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 together “constituted the biggest tax increase ever enacted during peacetime,” […] The bills didn’t raise more revenue by hiking individual income tax rates though. Instead they did it largely through making it tougher to evade taxes, and through “base broadening” — that is, reducing various federal tax breaks and closing tax loopholes.”

That was indeed very important, but much less easier to dismantle. Moreover, the momentum changed towards reducing the tax rates — and here we are today.


Kindred Winecoff 08.08.14 at 6:56 am


I’ve disagreed with you in the past, but this is music to my damn ears. The structural conditions, or “variations on a common theme, driven by global economic events, rather than a US-specific story” did not pre-determine outcomes, but they were very meaningful. The left’s inability to recognize that the state of play had changed was a stunning failure in retrospect. There was a real opportunity to make the case for a viable — and strong — set of policies that would enhance workers’ status and well-being within the structure of global capitalism. Germany, for one, did it. But the opportunity was lost in the US and the UK. McGovern ran as a ’68er long after that moment had passed (and after it had already been defeated). Carter represented nothing and, at the time, the alternative was… Teddy Kennedy? The vacuum created by the dissipation of the New Deal/Bretton Woods consensus was easily filled by Reagan-Thatcher neoliberalism.

Probably it didn’t have to be that way. Although, given that similar things happened in various ways in so many places (including basically all of the social democratic states) around the same time period, maybe it was very difficult to avoid. Structural conditions can be brutal.


Mike Schilling 08.08.14 at 7:04 am

I don’t know why Bush 1 would be a bad memory, other than his losing re-election to Clinton. GHWB won a huge victory over Dukakis, the Soviet Union fell, GW1 was a quick success. The economy was reasonably sound, other than a slight downturn with just the wrong timing.


Chaz 08.08.14 at 7:10 am

The statistics Cassander has presented do not support his thesis. Furthermore, they are exactly the sort of figures a dishonest would present to support this thesis if he knew that it was not actually true. Instead of comparing just Reagan’s terms to just Carter’s term, he pulls up tax rates for the whole period of 1950-2011. Instead of stating the actual effective tax rate the wealthy paid, he states the share of total tax revenue paid by wealthy (and middle class) people.

I hope that this was not done intentionally.


Tabasco 08.08.14 at 8:12 am

“Nixon was Nixon”

Have Republicans disowned Nixon? His southern strategy made them “the party of Jefferson Davis” which is why they control the House, most governorships and state legislatures, and contributed decisively to all their White House wins since 1968.


otto 08.08.14 at 8:25 am

GHWB pretty good president I would say.


Murc 08.08.14 at 8:42 am

As many others have observed, the “party of Jefferson Davis” is closer to the mark.

I think the formulation you’re looking for, used many places, is “The Party of Lincoln became the Party of Calhoun.”

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.

Then reading Perlstein, any of his three books about conservatism, should be pleasing to you, because he utterly rejects the idea that the shift to the right in the US can be explained that way. His stories of Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and the conservative movement are really about the intersection of cultural, economic, demographic, and social factors that gave rise to the political apparatuses and constituencies that were willing, eager even, to elevate men like them to leadership positions, but also about the particular pathologies and ideologies that drove each of those men as an individual.

It’s a very holistic approach, but it’s also exhausting because it takes a ton of pages to paint that complete a picture.

Also for everyone wondering why GHWB would be anathema in Republican circles… really? That’s a mystery? The man raised taxes, wasn’t a culture warrior, and appointed David Souter to the Supreme Court, an act still regarded on the right as a massive failure at best and the foulest of betrayals at worst.

And that’s without even noting that (though it would never be said openly now) at the time lots of conservatives considered him a wimpy coward for refusing to conquer Iraq. That cooled a lot of them towards him.


Kevin Donoghue 08.08.14 at 8:46 am

Mike: “I don’t know why Bush 1 would be a bad memory….”

“Read my lips: no new taxes.”


ZM 08.08.14 at 9:15 am

Funnily enough, The Economist has an article on a (modest) George H W Bush revival today

“TWO decades since losing the presidency after a single term, George Bush senior is in fashion. No living ex-president enjoys higher net approval ratings (though his successor, Bill Clinton, comes close). George W. Bush has written a loving book about his father, out in November. Two other books are in the works (one wistfully titled “The Last Gentleman”). They follow admiring television biographies on HBO and PBS.

The establishment cheered Mr Bush’s 90th birthday in June, which the former navy pilot marked with a parachute jump. “Happy 90th to our former boss,” beamed the CIA, tweeting a picture from Mr Bush’s security badge as agency director. Sailors on the USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft-carrier, formed the message “41=90” on their flight deck. The Republican National Committee (RNC) hailed Mr Bush’s WASP-ish sense of style, selling socks in the vivid colours loved by the ex-president, a “sock man”.”

Supposing you date the rise of neoliberalism from the year of the other September 11 and the OPEC oil crisis – I think individuals/families /groups drove that particular response (of shoring up resources and control for the West) – the neo-liberal response wasn’t built in to the socio-economic situation.

George H W Bush was made director of the CIA shortly afterwards in 1976, but is reported to have had a side career with the CIA linking with aspects of his business interests dating back to the early 1960s:

“According to Joseph McBride of The Nation, “a source with close connections to the intelligence community confirms that Bush started working for the agency in 1960 or 1961, using his oil business as a cover for clandestine activities.” ”

The Bush family was also involved in the Iran-Contra affair somehow apparently:

” Jeb Bush in 1986 was the 33-year-old chairman of the Dade County Republican party and he was up to his eyeballs in the Iran-Contra scandal. …
George Herbert Walker Bush: “Sarah, if the American people ever find out what we have done, they would chase us down the street and lynch us.”
That is a famous 1992 quote by George Herbert Walker Bush to Sarah McLendon, a Texas journalist who Bush had known for years and who was the grand dame of the White House press corps at the time. McLendon had asked Bush: “What will the people do if they ever find out the truth about Iraq-gate and Iran contra?”
Jeb Bush to intelligence operative Al Martin, who had worked closely with Jeb Bush during the Iran-Contra scandal and was threatening to go public: “There is no constituency for the truth.””

The article claims the Bush family were somehow involved in a murder of CIA drug runner Barry Seal around that time (1986). I can’t tell whether it is a reputable claim or not – if the government insists on being involved in CIA intrigue and not transparently keeping proper records of the intrigue I don’t know how you can tell what things are reputable and what are not.


Scott Martens 08.08.14 at 9:18 am

You missed Hoover. A few movement conservatives do know his name and bring it up, but brand Reagan sells better because:

1. Hoover was, like 100 years ago.
2. Hoover is a vacuum cleaner.
3. Hoover is not on video in colour.


Patrick Caldon 08.08.14 at 10:47 am


And Hoover was around for the Great Depression – and either had Andrew “liquidate everything” Mellon as Treasury Secretary busily liquidating everything or sold out A(le)M in his memoirs.


John Quiggin 08.08.14 at 10:58 am

On the other hand, the real hardliners like Amity Shlaes denounce Hoover as an interventionist

He can’t win either way

Coolidge probably has a more favorable image, but it’s hard to summon up any enthusiasm. I’ve even seen a few try to rehabilitate Harding.


Scott Martens 08.08.14 at 11:21 am

Really? I mean, that Amity Shlaes is a few beers short of a six-pack is something I already knew, but I’ve heard plenty of silly conservatives defend Mellon and claim letting the free market sort it out was the right idea, and castigate Hoover for reluctantly voting for Smoot-Hawley. And even in grade school in Jersey, they taught us that Harding was one of the most corrupt presidents in US history, and that Coolidge shifted the burden of income taxes almost exclusively to the super-rich and created the first American agricultural subsidies. I can’t see either of them working for the Tea Party.


P O'Neill 08.08.14 at 12:20 pm

Another variable in that 1980 campaign was John Anderson. It’s plausible that he was taking votes from Reagan so with a few of the breaks JQ describes plus his campaign holding up a little better, that’s a route to a Carter victory. But Anderson’s (relative) success also shows that the broader tensions in the Republican party were already there prior to the Great Man or Men.


J Thomas 08.08.14 at 12:26 pm

GHW Bush is unpopular partly because he came right after Reagan and he didn’t have all that much charisma. Also he tried to rein in some of the “voodoo economics” and that reduced various people’s opportunity to siphon lots of money out of the economy.

The deficit went way up in his administration, by 1992 it was about a third bigger than Reagan’s biggest. I don’t know that anybody was paying much attention to that at the time, though, since Reagan had shown that deficits didn’t matter.


CP Norris 08.08.14 at 12:38 pm

I love Perlstein’s articles and Nixonland was entertaining but I definitely found it way too dependent on Great Men to be a proper history.


details matter 08.08.14 at 1:12 pm

how about the stupidity of Mondale
At the Presidential Debate, Concord NH, iirc

W Mondale: I question if my opponent is to old to be president
RR: (joking) I won’t make an issue of my opponent’s youth..
a great reagan moment
lets re write history
RR: (joking) I won’t make an issue of my opponent’s youth…
WM (serious) I don’t think the National Security of the United States is a joke. Some of us are hale and active at 80 or 85; however, we do get older. You, Gov Reagan, will be 8x years old after 3 years in office.
If you get woken up at 3am and a young man says, Mr. President, we are under attack – what are your orders ? – will you, R Reagan have the mental and physical stamina needed ?
I do not think this is a joke, and I do not think the lives of our brave young men (all men thne) in the armed forces should be at risk because you are to old to think clearly
I think the American people are entitled to know if you are physically up to the job, just as they are entitled to know if I m up to the job.


Ed 08.08.14 at 1:22 pm

Others have pointed this out, but GHWB agreed to raising taxes and some other liberal legislation, plus the Souter appointment. In retropect, I think the Perot movement was the vehicle some factions within the Republican Party used to get rid of Bush. Perot’s platform was actually more similar to Anderson’s, but we know now with the Tea Party how easily the right can co-opt and use populist movements, and the fake third party challenge designed to drain votes from a disfavored candidate is an old tactic in American politics.

There is also a tradition that presidents who lose re-election are failures, though hopefully the record of the last three presidents, all of whom won a third turn, should put that to rest.


djr 08.08.14 at 1:25 pm

90 year olds always get a boost in popularity. People think “good on him for doing a parachute jump at the age of 90”, and it also reminds people of GHW Bush’s wartime activities. As his presidency fades into history, he’s no longer the headline news, he’s the “and finally…” feelgood story, no longer a major actor but an irrelevance. See also Prince Phillip, who has now moved from “oh no, what’s he said now” to “grandad sometimes uses slightly dodgy language, but things were different when he was growing up.”

This probably applies more to the general public than to Republican operatives, who might be thinking more of “squandering his legacy” (oh, the irony…) and “losing to the devil incarnate”. I guess the equivalent on the other side would be Al Gore.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.08.14 at 1:30 pm

To some extent the memory of Reagan is a screen onto which conservatives can project their aspirations. Like conservatism itself, Reagan could not fail, only be failed, or be betrayed.
If you point out about taxes being raised, it was betrayal by Tip O’Neill and the Democrats who did not live up to their part of the bargain. If you point out that the deficit went up, it was because the Democrats would not give Reagan the spending cuts he was promised. And I am confident that they truly believe that scenario.
As far as rehabilitating Nixon, he is too valuable now as someone they can compare Obama to. Obama has gone from being the “black Jimmy Carter” to being to “black Richard Nixon.” Plus, they don’t acknowledge Nixon as a Republican, much less as a conservative.


bianca steele 08.08.14 at 2:05 pm

In the 1980s, my college classmates used to report back from their semesters in England that they’d spent a lot of time apologizing for living in a country that elected Ronald Reagan. (I would have found that annoying, but most of them seem to have relished the opportunity to proclaim themselves Democrats.) Presumably, the people they apologized to were leftists who hated Reagan because he was a right-winger. But what about Thatcher? I’ve never been able to figure that out. But that kind of thing might be one reason why people feel there’s a strong need to explain what makes the US different.


Anarcissie 08.08.14 at 2:36 pm

It seems to be widely thought that the shift away from the Bismarckian Welfare-warfare state AKA Social Democracy occurred, not because of influential individuals, but because as of the 1970s and ’80s the West / Capital no longer felt that communist and other radical movements were a serious threat to their interests, and the previous deal with the home-front working class could be cut back or eliminated. The success of Thatcher, the Southern Strategy, and Reagan (rightists, but not ‘conservatives’ in the actual meaning of the word) would have confirmed rather than initiated this shift. The folk (in the U.S., at least) were subsequently distracted with Culture War while they were taken to the cleaners economically. I oversimplify, of course.


djr 08.08.14 at 2:52 pm

bianca steele @ 22:

As a British student during the Bush / Blair years, I saw plenty of American students having much the same conversations. Is the answer an acceptance that the USA has vastly more influence on the world stage than the UK? Blair was regularly described as Bush’s poodle, and the many issues people in the UK had with Thatcher are almost all about UK issues, not international ones.

But as I recall it was always something that the Americans brought up – maybe it’s just that all 20-somethings assume that the world revolves around them?


Jod 08.08.14 at 3:21 pm

You don’t have to go through the process of elimination to understand why they liked Reagan. His publicity back then was the same as now–he gave people a sense that the norman Rockwell, morning-with-grandpa-lookin’ out over the fields world of moral certainties was real. He was made for TV, and the TV nation loved him.

But yeah, he was not personally responsible for neo-liberalism’s success.


bianca steele 08.08.14 at 3:53 pm

Ed @19 : Perot’s platform was actually more similar to Anderson’s

Anderson supported imposing martial law in non-white neighborhoods, and demanding payback from Germany and Japan for postwar reconstruction?


Jay 08.08.14 at 3:54 pm

I think more than anything it was the demographics that made America a place where Reaganism could sell. By 1980, the leading edge of the Baby Boom was about 34 and had kids. They were done with questioning authority (with some exceptions, obviously), and were looking for a simple narrative that would simultaneously justify them to themselves and their children, while also promising endless prosperity for their kids.

One advantage of this explanation is that it applies to every democratic country that had a post-WWII baby boom, which is most of them.


Bruce Wilder 08.08.14 at 4:15 pm

Pearlstein’s books are about the rise of the right, of movement conservatism, but political evolution over time was driven by the collapse of the left.


cassander 08.08.14 at 4:32 pm


>Instead of comparing just Reagan’s terms to just Carter’s term, he pulls up tax rates for the whole period of 1950-2011.

the assertion by the left has always been that reagan lowered taxes to a permanent new low. Indeed, vasilis made that claim immediately after my post. the fairest way to judge that claim is to look at rates pre and post reagan

>Instead of stating the actual effective tax rate the wealthy paid, he states the share of total tax revenue paid by wealthy (and middle class) people.

Effective rates do not tell you much because the definition of taxable income has changed over time, generally being made more expansive. the share of total taxes paid (compared to share of total income) is a much better way to evaluate the progressivity of taxes over time.


Kalkaino 08.08.14 at 5:25 pm

The fact that GWHB isn’t being pursued with torch, pitchfork, and noose is deeply indicative of American idiocy, and proof that you can in fact polish a turd. Poppy appears to have been a scumbag from getgo (he learnt it from Daddy, American bagman to the Nazis), the kinda guy who reportedly will fire on enemy survivors in lifeboats, abandon his airplane with his crew still in it, learn that his daughter has died in morning then play golf with Babs in the afternoon, be boning his mistress in Houston ( and hence MIA for awkwardly long) when the President is shot. Then of course he will go on to avidly participate in the scheme to send missiles and cake Bibles to the same people who blew up our Marines in Lebanon, thereby enriching death squads down south. He will of course lie about it (“I was out of the loop.”), and also later pardon people who helped him cover that lie so that he could get elected and pardon them. He gave us Willie Horton ads. He put on a totally mendacious presentation about crack being sold in Lafayette Park so that he could declare war on an abstraction and of course black people — who were soon going away for decades behind a few bucks worth of rock. (Colin Powell would reprise this white-powder gag for the UN a few years later, to different but equally evil effect.) Soon Poppy and April Glaspie drummed up a real war against our erstwhile allies in Iraq — a war which he then actually botched in many different ways…. It goes on and on and on. But of course the worst thing Poppy did was teach his sons his MO — ‘Do whatever you feel like and lie your ass off.’ They seem to have learned this lesson well, especially George Junior, much to the further detriment of the world. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.


Sasha Clarkson 08.08.14 at 5:50 pm

Kalkaino @30

And let us not forget the disgraceful (but lucrative) symbiosis between the US right, especially the Bush family, and the so-called “Reverend” Sun Myung Moon.


Ogden Wernstrom 08.08.14 at 6:00 pm

Tabasco 08.08.14 at 8:12 am:

Have Republicans disowned Nixon?

Nixon, like racism, is a topic Republicans avoid or deny. In their hearts, they know he turned out to be Right. For such topics, they know enough not to express their thoughts. Nixon may be publically disavowed, but he has not been disowned.

Tabasco’s question reminded me that Rick Perlstein, in 2005, wrote ‘I Didn’t Like Nixon Until Watergate’: The Conservative Movement Now, which is mostly a transcript of his presentation as the Token Liberal at a conference full conservatives.

I get the question all the time from smart liberal friends: what is conservatism, anyway? They’re baffled. “As far as I can tell, anything someone on the right does is, by definition, ethical. It’s not about the act, or even the motivation. It’s about who’s perpetrating it.” It has become the name for a movement that can scream from the rooftops that every Supreme Court nominee should have an expiditious up-or-down vote, then 15 seconds later demand tortuous proceduralism when that nominee is Harriet Miers. Flexibility is the first principle of politics.

The postscript explains the origin of the article’s title:

Postscript: The response to my address was, understandably, defensive. My co-panelist Stan Evans retorted that my invocation of Richard Nixon was inappropriate because Nixon had never been a genuine conservative. He added: “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.” I responded: “Thanks for making my point.”


Ogden Wernstrom 08.08.14 at 6:02 pm


temp 08.08.14 at 6:05 pm

I don’t know; I think if Reagan had lost in 1980, particularly if it wasn’t close, that would have done a lot to discredit movement conservatism as a path to political power, and that might have convinced the Republicans to go on a different path. The comparisons to other countries aren’t very convincing, because the right-wing parties in other English-speaking countries don’t seem to share the radicalism of the US right (at least on economic issues). The sample of English-speaking countries is also very small, and it’s not an independent sample; right-wing parties influence each other. Maybe a general shift to the right was inevitable, but I think the extremity of the manifestation in the US has a lot to do with Reagan specifically. There are also direct long-term effects; e.g. on judicial appointments and institutional culture of government agencies.

And Carter wasn’t really a conservative even by the standards of his time, except perhaps relative to other Democrats.


Harold 08.08.14 at 6:07 pm

Let’s not forget the savings and loan scandals.


The Temporary Name 08.08.14 at 6:28 pm


The Raven 08.08.14 at 6:34 pm

“global economic events”

And also global economic actors. Matters would be very different without Scaife, the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, and so on. Maybe there are great men…just not where we are looking for them.


Ogden Wernstrom 08.08.14 at 6:35 pm

cassander 08.08.14 at 4:32 pm:

the share of total taxes paid (compared to share of total income) is a much better way to evaluate the progressivity of taxes over time.

Then why don’t you use that better method? It appears that you are ignoring any tax other than federal income tax. Or do you have your own definition of “total taxes paid”?


steve 08.08.14 at 7:32 pm

@Anarcissie 24

You have it right, I think. In the US the Right could exploit racism/xenophobia to gut the welfare state by turning the poor against each other (i.e. the southern strategy). That exacerbated the shift to neo-liberalism that was occurring everywhere as the Soviet Union stagnated and “The Left” was discredited. I am sure there are interesting stories to be told about mitigating factors in other countries.


Sasha Clarkson 08.08.14 at 7:50 pm

Paul Krugman’s weighed in on this one now! :)


Doug Weinfield 08.08.14 at 8:30 pm

In Bizarro World Reagan-Not-Elected, the new conservatives (i.e., the cohort Perlstein described in “Before the Storm” and “Nixonland), would have carried on and elected someone else to serve as their useful idiot. The rest is commentary.


Bruce Baugh 08.08.14 at 8:31 pm

Sometimes I think it’s sensible to write the history of the right wing (at least in English-speaking countries) in terms of what they decide to throw away. A big long-term one is shame – the realization that they can get away with never apologizing, never feigning being sorry, once they succeeded in beating mass media into lasting submission. In the course of the ’70s, the British and American right didn’t stop being pants-wettingly fearful of the Soviets. What they realized, I think, is that they could pursue their mindless ongoing obsession while ceasing to make any pretense of caring about the lower classes at home. Their planners figured out that with the right mix of propaganda and gestures, they could stop worrying about any bad treatment their enemies might exploit in propaganda.

They made it work, too.


cassander 08.08.14 at 11:46 pm


>Then why don’t you use that better method?

I did use that method.

>It appears that you are ignoring any tax other than federal income tax. Or do you have your own definition of “total taxes paid”?

No, I am not. my definition of total taxes paid is the all government revenues according to the CBO.


cassander 08.08.14 at 11:46 pm


>Then why don’t you use that better method?

I did use that method.

>It appears that you are ignoring any tax other than federal income tax. Or do you have your own definition of “total taxes paid”?

No, I am not. my definition of total taxes paid is the all government revenues according to the CBO.


Anarcissie 08.09.14 at 12:49 am

Bruce Wilder 08.08.14 at 4:15 pm @ 29 — I don’t understand ‘collapse of the Left’. Middle-of-the-road, established-order Democrats collapsed ideologically and to some extent organizationally with the advent of Reagan, but these were the people the Left (Marxists, Trots, New Left, hippies, anti-war activists, Civil Rights/Black Power activists, feminists, environmentalists, etc.) were initially against. That Left has been too disorganized to collapse, in living memory, anyway. My guess, based on little or no evidence but boss media flaps, is that the Democrats collapsed because the leadership and the money people pretty much agreed with Reagan’s supporters as to philosophy and policy, differing only as to style — pretty much the same as today.


stevenjohnson 08.09.14 at 12:56 am

The true effects of “McCarthyism,” especially in the labor movement, took decades to really take effect. If you want to call mass repression of the left a political collapse, I suppose you can. But I think that was essential to the so-called rightward movement of the population.


bad Jim 08.09.14 at 4:19 am

It’s my job to offer a superficial explanation for Reagan’s popularity:

He’s revered as a god for the same reason John Wayne is considered a great American hero: he played the role. He had rugged good looks and exemplified traditional American values by splitting wood and riding horses on his ranch and standing tall against the Soviets.

The actual policy details don’t matter any more than his dementia or the various scandals of his administration. He was someone with whom much of the public could identify, a popular brand, despite being a mediocre commodity.


bad Jim 08.09.14 at 5:31 am

Reagan’s election is also when the current conservative constellation came together. It was a founding moment: the South became Republican. Before then, contraception and abortion were uncontroversial among evangelicals; afterwards they became shibboleths. The coalition’s design was carefully fashioned.


Sasha Clarkson 08.09.14 at 6:01 am

Bad Jim’s comment @48 reminded me of Ben Elton’s statement in his first novel Stark: “The marketing itself is the product”: think , for example, of beverage themed T shirts and pencil cases.

As with so many consumer goods, people choose the product because of the packaging, rather than the quality.


b9n10nt 08.09.14 at 7:56 am


The ecstasy that Reagan originally produced in the wealthy N American cabal that would replace the vacuum of social democracy in the West in the late 70s was this:

In Reagan, here was a social genius (14 perstein) who had discovered a role (48 bad Jim) that could get populist voting patterns yoked to the movement conservatives yoked to the wealthy donors yoked to the old conservative wing of the beaurocratic wing of the State.

As per the subject of the OP, geopolitically any one political faction or individual politician was of course strongly overdetermined to find a way to mold a single identity out of what had been disparate but similarly-striving forces as the social democratic wave receded.

Perstein is correct: the most summative and relevant biography of Reagan would be one that framed his life as a particular member of the species (of right-wing fusionist politician personalities, see above). But without having read the book, perhaps Perstein fails to note that anything as simple as demographics or as complex as social perceptions of political theatre explains that Thatcher and others would accomplish a similar feat.


ZM 08.09.14 at 7:57 am

I think Reagan was important politically before he became President when he was Governor of California in the 1960s and 1970s – I’m not sure about much of what he did as Governor but I remember reading Lillian Gish (who had opposed US involvement in the Second World War and been made to keep quite about it in public) sent him a letter giving thankfulness and support that he was supportive of US fighting the Vietnam War (I don’t know why she changed her opinion on wars) (it might have turned out better if Gregory Peck had stood against Reagan for governorship after all). Also I remember Reagan studied economics at university while he practiced his broadcasting skills there as well.

John Quiggin,
I am curious as to what sort of historiography you are suggesting in stead of the great man approach?

Would you suggest some sort of strictish structuralism (like Marxists on po-mo?) or a history from below (if I studied the era from the history from below perspective I think I would not look at new-liberalism as a grassroots phenomena but be more likely to look into the imposition of policies from political and economic elites and the responses from below eg. Miner’s strikes, decreased support for multiculturalism, the emergence/growth of an educated urban professional class in the ‘knowledge economy’ etc) or some other tradition or a new approach?


James Wimberley 08.09.14 at 8:32 am

Anarcissie in #24. Your attractive theory suggests a new reading of May 1968, as the moment when the Old Left ceased to be a genuine threat to capital. Cohn-Bendit etc were high-class clowns; even Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigades were plainly for show, and alienated workers.


Robert Salzberg 08.09.14 at 9:02 am

President Reagan’s sunny attitude despite all obstacles and rah, rah patriotism, as detailed in Perstein’s book, was the tonic to smooth all reality based ills. Republicans as well as Democrats fell for it. Sunny paternalism fits well with American’s attitude towards our country’s history. There’s a seductive tendency to embellish the best and deny the worst.

The current brand of right wing crazy goes way beyond just denying America’s ugly past to denying all major aspects of our current situation, (global warming, the economic damage of austerity in a liquidity trap, the inadequacy of gunboat diplomacy, inequality, severe under investment in education and infrastructure, the positive aspects of government, etc) and how their obstructionism is preventing America from preparing for the future. You see it whenever some inconvenient fact passes through the news cycle. It is exemplified by the rage and immediate banishment of any conservative that acknowledges facts that don’t fit with the delusional conservative narrative.


bad Jim 08.09.14 at 9:59 am

Reagan’s signature’s on my Berkeley diploma. I cherish it, perversely.

Politics has always been a variety of entertainment, and you cannot refine it. America’s bombing Iraq again, and stock are up! Yay?


Carey 08.09.14 at 2:59 pm

Tolstoy on Great Men (and determinism):

In historical events great men — so-called — are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1865), Bk. IX, ch. 1


Gregory 08.09.14 at 3:02 pm

Eisenhower Republicans were what are now called RINOs Barack Obama

That’d be my adjustment, which illustrates how far to the right both the Republicans and Democrats have moved.


Anarcissie 08.09.14 at 3:17 pm

James Wimberley 08.09.14 at 8:32 am @ 53 — I don’t think Capital realized it was going to prevail until the late 1970s. By then they had survived the Civil Rights movement, the hippies, the New Left, rioting in the streets, the feminists, defeat in Indochina and elsewhere, the oil shocks, and yet there they were — still standing, still Number 1. The White Man is dead, long live the White Man! But a new kind.


Bruce Wilder 08.09.14 at 4:35 pm

Anarcissie @ 46

I think you understand “collapse of the left” perfectly. As Wimberley wryly put it, you make it seem in retrospect, that May 1968 is the moment that the Left ceased to be a threat to Capital.

The collapse of the establishment Left into neoliberalism was articulated by Charles Peters, publisher of the Washington Monthly, in 1983: “. . . we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. . . .” That articulation came in 1983, after Reagan’s election and policy triumphs, but the political ideas animated Carter’s election and administration: it was the idea that they could make liberalism work “better” by stripping away the institutions and, as they saw it, animosities.

So, yes, the “collapse” was the neoliberal Democrats agreeing with the neoconservative and conservative-libertarian Republicans about pretty much everything, but style. And, that collapse happened in Carter’s Administration, with deregulation, the political abandonment of unions and countervailing power, and the appointment of Volcker.

There were distinctive choices made by Reagan. The most salient ones concerned oil and the financial sector. But, those choices were not much opposed. Mondale’s forlorn hope campaign sometimes tried to articulate what was going on, but with a consciousness of no longer having a winning electoral formula.

A two-party political system is normally a contest for the middle ground between the parties, with the consequent exclusion and marginalization of other possibilities. I am not as cynical about that, as you are. I regard it, in the main, as a good thing — all political systems have to find ways to narrow political choices and controversies down, and build a legitimating consensus. The collapse of liberalism meant that the two Parties were contesting the Reaganite agenda, whereas, before 1975, they were contesting a liberal agenda.

The neoliberal v conservative libertarian dialectic that has dominated the public discourse ever since is a peculiarly synthetic one. It is kept alive as the opinions that journalist-pundits can get paid to articulate in a Media bought and paid for by billionaires and corporate advertising. Neither pole represents the natural opinions or interests of any actual electoral grouping, in the way that a labor union or a small town chamber of commerce might once have brought their interests to bear in the form of ideas. That artificial quality and its role in a vacuous propaganda troubles me.

I attribute the hollowness of political thought to the evaporation of institutional and financial support for anything else, not to the two-party system, per se. It’s the story Chris Hedges outlines in The Death of the Liberal Class. The rise of institutional support for right-wing views that Perlstein documents has its counterpart in liberal neglect and abandonment of institutional support. The openness of the Republicans to cryptic racism, voodoo economics and the religious right has its counterpart in the fierce hostility of mainstream liberals for anything to their left, and the contempt of upper-class liberals for the authoritarian followership of what remains of the working classes.

There are two requisites to satisfying a left aspiration to power. One is that the Left has to be willing to contest with the Right for the leadership and confidence of the mass of ordinary people, whose political psychology might be characterized as that of authoritarian followers. That means mass-membership organization and making populist appeals. It’s not the sort of thing an “open-borders” idealist or a “racist!” shouting Democrat, is entirely ready for. The other requisite is the credible threat of some more radical agenda or force further to the Left. (Right now, for mainstream Democrats, the threat is the far-right agenda of the Tea Party, and we can see how that perverse dynamic works out.)

I am old enough to remember the whole arc from Nixon to Obama. And, the rise of the Right is an interesting and multifarious story of building ideas and institutions. But, the success of the Right depended also on the collapse of the Left over that time period. When the whole long deterioration from Reagan through George W. Bush finally reached a crisis, the Democrats produced a continuation rather than a contradiction. It’s truly horrifying.


Bruce Wilder 08.09.14 at 5:06 pm

Anarcissie @ 58

Capital in the 1970s felt itself in fairly desperate straits — not in the competition with the Soviet Union, but in the all-important contest for income and wealth. The age-old divide-and-conquer strategy, implemented as racism, sexism, and domination of the working man had backfired in the mass-membership organization and movements aimed at removing those barriers. It had backfired as technocracy and professionalism, with the technocrats and professionals making common cause with the public interest.

Schumpeter, playing the prophet, had inadvertently identified the strategic point of vulnerability in the social welfare state: the complacency of the beneficiaries of the system. Friedman understood. Tell people that the good, well-managed political economy was a “natural” emergence, which didn’t require all those authoritarian institutions to manage it. In fact, introduce bad management, and tell people that the institutions were to blame, and move to dismantle them. Dismantle them in a way that promised to yield some immediate payoff, even if the payoff was from disinvestment. The grifter economy was born!

Social-issues liberalism would continue, as long as it promoted political inactivity and a decline in political participation rates, and didn’t involve economic costs.


details matte 08.09.14 at 5:10 pm

Reagan *looked* good on TV
if u turned off the sound, his facial expression is positive
Our brain responds to images very strongly

Sort of like dead children in gaza, in reverse
(and yes, I know it is sort of grotesque to reduce dead kids to image analysis – the point is about how we react to some subset of events; in any event, all the ardor displayed here in CT about the horrors of Israeli Bombs – I expect at least as much ink , for each body, re syria, ISIS, etc etc etc)


Luke 08.09.14 at 5:20 pm

When I was at uni, my impression was that Annales/Marxism/Structuralism etc. where where it was at with regard to academic historiography. ‘Big man’ history seems to be confined to cranks, op-eds, political science, and monarchy-fellating relics. Just my impression.


Harold 08.09.14 at 6:03 pm

I think it is a rather gross simplification to speak of Perlstein’s book as an example of “great man” historiography, since, though I have only read excerpts, he situates Reagan in his social context. He certainly does not present him as a “hero” à la Carlyle.

Tolstoy’s Calvinistic determinism is equally dated.


peter 08.09.14 at 8:31 pm

The mad-hatter right of the Republican Party disliked and distrusted GHW Bush long before he became President. During the 1988 Primary season, I attended a Republican lunch in Arizona where I was told, in all seriousness, that the then Vice President was a secret communist, and an agent of the Chinese Communist Party, having been recruited while he was representing the US in Beijing. Reagan had apparently selected him as Veep to annoy the Soviets.

No matter what tax policies Bush 41 had later implemented as President, that wing of the Republican Party would not have been happy with his tenure. The mad hatters now, of course, run the Tea Party.


Sasha Clarkson 08.09.14 at 10:03 pm

There are probably at least two varieties of “big man”: the ones who are good at hypnotising the public, and the ones who set the agenda.

I suppose a “great man”, for good or evil, would be someone who did both and left a lasting legacy. But most of the hypnotic “big men” are puppets, like those postulated in Erich Kästner’s comedy “Die Schule der Diktatoren” (The School of Dictators).

From what I’ve seen, there are also lots of duds coming out of the “dictator factory”, but their parties often invest far too much in them for far too long before discarding them as failures. This is particularly true of lower level apparatchiks, or those who are lucky once because the tide is with them. Reagan wasn’t a dud: his powers of hypnosis were excellent to the audience which mattered, even if he seemed like a clown to others.

In the UK, he provided wonderful inspiration for the satirical puppet show Spitting Image. (My favourite is 10 minutes into the following clip):


ZM 08.10.14 at 12:22 am

“When I was at uni, my impression was that Annales/Marxism/Structuralism etc. where where it was at with regard to academic historiography. ‘Big man’ history seems to be confined to cranks, op-eds, political science, and monarchy-fellating relics. Just my impression.”

If structuralism was in fashion when you were at uni you must be quite an old man (your use of crudity not withstanding) – post-structuralism was well advanced (by decades) by the time I was at uni.

The Annales were in the past, E P Thompson had passed away, Fukuyama had written his wrongheaded book, the ‘big man’ Marxists had written their Po-Mo books some time ago, the Melbourne School were getting close to retirement, etc

I think it depends what you mean by ‘Big man history’. When I did a subject on Australian social history, one day, for example, we looked at slum clearances – the slum dwellers funnily enough did not decide on the design and implementation of the slum clearances themselves – you look at other figures for this including the parliament and legislation and high up public servants and the bigger reformers etc, as well as the slum dwellers. When I did a subject on the French Avante Garde we looked at writers and film makers (mostly famous ones) and French political history over the 20th C – including specific prominent figures.

The chief problems with not naming the ‘big names’ involved and their specific acts and words etc as I see them are twofold (maybe I will think of more later):

1. it leads to a generalising sloppiness (which is moderately ok for blogs – depending on the claim – but not for proper history writing) – not proper old fashion Levi Straussian structuralism – but a wishy-washy ‘the social factors of the 1960s produced’… etc without enough names, dates, specific acts etc

2. It creates an expectation that academic writers not name specific contemporary /recent past powerful figures/families/groups and their actions – maybe this is because the academics are hardcore old school structuralists (even though that would be most exceedingly dated) – or maybe this is because they are a bit scared of losing their jobs?

It is true that academics in my experience unfortunately do not favour monarchist arguments – if I posit in a short paper ‘the Crown’s duty is this… so the public service must do this… ‘ I am likely to get the response that using the French Revolution is a better reference. This is despite the French Revolution not impacting Australian laws and public servants’ duties whatsoever and the bearer of the Crown being our head of state and even the Victorian government argues public servants are officers of the crown (although I think they did this so they could get out of being sued by policemen injured on the job, but nevertheless) :(


jkay 08.10.14 at 7:56 am

Reagan won, say my thoughts on my memories, both because he was a great demagogue and liar and he bribed with his Reaganomics and he had was an electorate evil enough, like Nixon.

Reagan’s ju0st most openly worshiped because his Teflon Wall NEVER fell, even in the big Iran-Contra Scandal. Nixon’s and Shrub’s worship are mostly secret. Shrub, especially, was an unPresident until this year.

But Perlstein’s Nixonland is rigbt about Nixon having started one of the radically evillest coalitions in our history,

Conservatives, make up your minds – isn’t Carter a sweater-vest wimp whom did nothing?


jkay 08.10.14 at 7:56 am

Reagan won, say my thoughts on my memories, both because he was a great demagogue and liar and he bribed with his Reaganomics and he had was an electorate evil enough, like Nixon.

Reagan’s just most openly worshiped because his Teflon Wall NEVER fell, even in the big Iran-Contra Scandal. Nixon’s and Shrub’s worship are mostly secret. Shrub, especially, was an unPresident until this year.

But Perlstein’s Nixonland is rigbt about Nixon having started one of the radically evillest coalitions in our history,

Conservatives, make up your minds – isn’t Carter a sweater-vest wimp whom did nothing?


Eli Rabett 08.10.14 at 9:12 am

It always struck Eli that when Reagan went on about how politicians are liars, Carter should have pointed out that as an actor, Reagan was a pro.


J Thomas 08.10.14 at 4:41 pm

#61 details matted

Sort of like dead children in gaza, in reverse
(and yes, I know it is sort of grotesque to reduce dead kids to image analysis – the point is about how we react to some subset of events; in any event, all the ardor displayed here in CT about the horrors of Israeli Bombs – I expect at least as much ink , for each body, re syria, ISIS, etc etc etc)

That’s silly.

When we give ISIS as much money and military support as we do Israel, then it will be important to point out what bad guys they are. But people mostly agree that they’re bad guys and there’s hardly any opposition to bombing them.

We rightly hold the nations we subsidize to a higher standard than the nations we bomb.

When the day comes that the USA is doing airstrikes on the Israeli terrorist camps in the West Bank, we will be treating Israel and ISIS more the same.


Luke 08.10.14 at 5:23 pm

I meant structuralism in a more general sense. Althusser never entirely goes out of style, for instance. Append a ‘post-‘ as you like.

Naturally, one was permitted (and expected) to speak about individuals and their actions. What I meant is that discussion of social history, class conflict, economic interests, and other broad historical processes was a given in the classes I took. While there certainly was a push from certain pomo writers toward de-emphasising process in favour of language, I don’t think anyone was trying to rehabilitate Ranke.


Blissex 08.10.14 at 7:07 pm

«the political ideas animated Carter’s election and administration: it was the idea that they could make liberalism work “better” by stripping away the institutions and, as they saw it, animosities. [ … ] that collapse happened in Carter’s Administration, with deregulation, the political abandonment of unions and countervailing power, and the appointment of Volcker.»

I think that is an incomplete picture even if it seems to me mostly correct.

The bigger problem is that *the country* had changed.

My impression is that the crucial thing was that the irish/jewish/catholic under and working classes that had been the bedrock of unionism and the Democratic party majority, made it thanks to good well paid union jobs (denied to the darker skinned minorities) and got property and good pensions and decided they had made it and were now reactionary, that is incumbents, with interests aligned with those of big property and big business, not liberal any more, no more challengers of incumbents.

Sure, many people with italian/jewish/irish family names are still prominent in the Democratic party, but mostly because of family legacy.

The white non-yankee middle and upper classes have turned Republican, because they have wanted to pull up the ladder that brought them there.

What Carter did in in the 1970s, and Clinton far more skilfully and luckily later, was to “triangulate”, to hold on to the Democrat historical base that had switched to reactionarism by talking more conservative too.

Carter of course underestimated the rejection of these newly minted middle and upper class members of any bad news, of any restraint, and dared to talk to them about energy policy, restraining consumption, when the voters just wanted to hear about celebrating their ascension to middle and upper class status by getting SUVs and blowing the Alaskan oil windfall on a 20-30 years long party of credit and import boom.


PJW 08.10.14 at 7:42 pm

“Nobody heard what you said.” Lesley Stahl’s Fable about Reagan:


Kathleen Lowrey 08.11.14 at 3:58 am

I’m surprised when talking about the “collapse of the left” no one has mentioned the fact that lots and lots of leftists were killed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s — globally, of course (Latin America anyone?), but plenty in the United States. The Black Panthers? For example? It wasn’t a leaky balloon… there were some sharp pins involved. It wasn’t all about “middle class baby boomers were hippies and then they were yuppies cause they owned property and had kids and “got mugged”, ho ho”. What penalties attached to belonging to the far right between the 1960s and the 1980s? Nothing. What penalties attached to belonging to the far left? Death. Which direction did things swing in? Oh, right. (to use an overused word as it is meant to be used: literally).


Ogden Wernstrom 08.11.14 at 5:11 am

cassander 08.08.14 at 11:46 pm:

…my definition of total taxes paid is the all government revenues according to the CBO.

You do realize that the CBO produces info within the parameters ordered by members of Congress? They can do good work, but it can be skewed by the constraints.

Are you using the CBO report that, among other things, attributes 75% of corporate tax revenue to high-income individuals? It sounds like something Romney would have commissioned, if he were a member of Congress. Or owned one.


jack1473 08.11.14 at 2:15 pm

I don’t believe in counterfactual guessing, in general; however, when you can isolate one variable like the close returns in a swing state in a presidential election, then you might have a case for hypothesizing.

IF….Gerald Ford had won Ohio (18,000 votes margin for Carter) and won Wisconsin (35,000 vote margin for Carter), he would have won the White House (For example, during the second debate, at the last second the light bulb goes on, and he remembers that Eastern Europe is in the Warsaw Pact).

Ford wins and the world historical force of pan-Islamic revolution falls on him and not Carter. He gets the oil shocks. He gets stagflation. He gets the hostage crisis (I doubt Khomeini would have turned to his men and said, “No, let’s wait, the Mighty Gerald Ford will crush us.”)

1980 arrives and it’s 12 years of hell from Republicans. An actual donkey could have won as a Democrat. A candidate from the left, I am thinking the popular choice would be Ted Kennedy, wins in a landslide.

The Fed crushes inflation with high interest rates (assuming reasonably that a centrist like Ford would have appointed Volker, or a Volker ally, just like the centrist Carter) and in 1984, the economy pops off with a GDP of 7.5% as it did under Reagan.

Kennedy is reelected in a landslide and the U.S. gets comprehensive health care reform (public option? could be). And the Cold War ends anyway (keeping in mind it was Gorbachev who floated the most radical disarmament plan in Iceland in 1985. And it was Gorbachev who kicked Erich Honecher to the curb. (SDI did not bankrupt the USSR–The Hoover Institute notes that no one new their Defense Budget until after the Cold War was over and it turned out to be Brezhnev size. And a man who worked his way up as a true believer in socialism does not pack it in two years later because the Mighty Ronald Reagan told him to tear down the Berlin Wall–in a really strong voice).

More importantly, what don’t we get? We don’t get the slashing of tax rates. We don’t get the PATCO firings. We don’t get S&L deregulation. We don’t get Iran-Contra. We don’t get a doubling of the national debt (LBJ, btw, increased the national debt by 15% during his entire time in office. Proving that tax and spend is far better than Reagan’s no tax and spend).

I generally believe in structuralism as a scaffold for understanding social sciences, but sometimes at the very top of it is a lunatic with a detonator.

If the sound system had failed in the second debate and not the first, Perlstein has no book and we are all in a much better place.


Anarcissie 08.11.14 at 2:35 pm

jack1473 08.11.14 at 2:15 pm @ 76 — So you don’t believe in social forces? There is just this one guy and he changes everything?


jack1473 08.11.14 at 3:14 pm

I think I made it clear that I do believe in social forces (in the second to last line). And I certainly believe in the rise of the New Right as a social force (McGirr, Critchlow, Kruse, et al.). However, I also believe that there are “moments of truth” in these processes where these social forces can be blunted and even transformed in short order (the end of the dynastic and aristocratic conservatism in Europe after 1945, for example).

To pose it a different way, if the German General Staff had carried out its coup against Hitler had he invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, are you certain that social forces still would have made the Holocaust inevitable? That’s a long stretch, no?

How did Braudel characterize the political affairs of Philip II in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World? As waves on the surface of a deep sea? Very apt, but if it’s your boat capsizing in those waves, you are not thinking about the long duree, you are bailing.

Or put it another way, the stroke of a pen that deregulated investment banks and securities trading in the 1990s essentially wiped out 16 trillion dollars of personal wealth in the fall of 2008. Did this make you want to vote for Obama? Why? What difference would it make?

When competing social forces are evenly matched, particularly in a democracy, sometimes it is the law or the election that settles the matter. And it matters quite a lot when it’s your fat in the fire.

But here’s another reasonable and maybe even more chilling counterfactual:

Kerry wins Ohio. He inherits the Iraqi insurgency; Hurricane Katrina in his first year before he’s rebuilt FEMA; all of George Bush’s tax cut induced debt from Bush’s first term; and the financial crisis. Do you think that would have made a difference in the material conditions of your life?


Anarcissie 08.11.14 at 5:48 pm

jack1473 08.11.14 at 3:14 pm @ 78 — What evenly-matched competing social forces? It seems to me that in the period and place we’re talking about — US, late 1970s to the present — the ruling class has been firmly in control of policy and quite coherent about it. Such social forces as were raised against the prevailing order were absorbed (Civil Rights, feminism) or deflected and dispersed (anti-war, anti-imperialism). Foreign and military policy have actually been consistent in principle since World War 2; the big change around 1980 was the decision to start rescinding the domestic Welfare state, and even that has been done by slow continuous torture rather than swift execution.

It is true that under certain conditions a single person or small group may seem to make a tremendous difference. The timely elimination of Hitler and his friends, for instance, might have led to German domination of Europe in 1940 instead of decades later. But I think that’s rare, a case of the butterfly in Brazil starting a typhoon in China, or the two-penny nail whose failure loses an empire.


Bruce Wilder 08.12.14 at 2:55 am

David Kaiser had an interesting post, trying to illustrate how he thinks U.S. foreign policy has changed over the long arc since the Kennedy Administration. He makes a pretty good case that the basic principles did change, in important ways.


Harold 08.12.14 at 5:59 am

Addendum: “Although each of his three books is structured around an individual politician, Perlstein’s subject is always political movements and political culture. “Biography doesn’t much interest me,” Perlstein wrote in The Baffler in 2012. ‘Powerful men are but a means to the more profound end of sizing up the shifting allegiances on the demand side of our politics.’” — Mark Schmitt, Righting the GOP, August 01, 2014


L.M. Dorsey 08.12.14 at 4:12 pm

It’s an interesting point: Americans do have a tendency to presume an exceptionalism of some sort is the likeliest explanation (of whatever). All Americans. Knee-jerk mythologizing maybe?

Anyway, Godfrey Hodgson’s The Myth of American Exceptionalism is a fascinating (and amusing) tour of a number of exemplary American exceptions that turn out to be echos and resonances of the life of the wider world.


Anarcissie 08.12.14 at 4:53 pm

Bruce Wilder 08.12.14 at 2:55 am @ 80 — I read the referenced article, and I don’t see the big change. It seems to me the US ruling class played with the idea of a global role, even of world domination, on and off during the earlier part of the 20th century, but then World War 2 convinced them it was time not only for an American century but an American world — that is, for a fundamental commitment to intervention, hegemony, imperialism anywhere and everywhere. Those in the r.c. who disagreed were extruded — they were ‘isolationists’, a word which became an abusive epithet even in the grade schools of my childhood. The Kennedys wanted a change in style from both Truman and Eisenhower; they wanted to be clever, intellectual, agile, cool — but they, too, wanted to dominate the world, by persuasion or bribery if possible, by force if necessary. Those who have power must rule, etc. etc.


TM 08.13.14 at 4:32 pm

Whatever Reagan did or did not do, what is relevant is the fairy tales the right-wingers keep telling themselves about him, and they actually believe them, and the mainstream media can’t be bothered to actually check up on the numbers (Random examples: Reagan never balanced a budget, ran record (at the time) deficits, tripled the federal debt, unemployment soared during his first term, he engaged in treasonous arms deals with a hostile power and armed islamic terrorists. And he’s the model president of conservative America? And why exactly is it that progressives are unable to push back against the grotesque myth?


TM 08.13.14 at 4:36 pm

“GHWB agreed to raising taxes” And so did Reagan. Something is missing in the narrative to explain Reagan’s appeal.


Bruce Wilder 08.13.14 at 4:52 pm

But, when Reagan raised taxes, it was the FICA tax mostly, and it fell disproportionately on working people and the merely middle class. It was a huge tax increase, but it fell on the 47%, who, in Republican mythology, don’t pay taxes.


TM 08.13.14 at 4:57 pm


“Reagan’s impact is also overstated by the left who claim he massively deregulated the economy (actually, the biggest deregulation was done by carter) that he slashed taxes (taxes as a percent of GDP averaged exactly the same from 1950-80 as from 81-2011), or that he made the tax code less progressive (the top 20% paid 55% of taxes in 1979, 58% in 89).”

“Taxes as % of GDP” – what taxes? Just federal taxes or all taxes? Anyway, it is correct that Reagan did not simply “slash taxes” – that is actually a right wing myth – in reality he raised taxes 10 times. It is however true that he overwhelmingly cut progressive taxes and raised regressive taxes such as the SS tax. Remember also that the SS trust fund was immediately plundered to help pay for the massive deficit spending (mostly military) which accounts for any success in job creation that may be attributed to Reaganomics. Reagan’s contemporary worshippers claim that Reagan slashed taxes and spending and reigned in the deficit (again see – the polar opposite is true.

“the top 20% paid 55% of taxes in 1979, 58% in 89” Again, does this include all taxes, including state and sales taxes and so on? Very likely not. Even if it did it wouldn’t support your argument because the income share of the wealthy increased.

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