End of the Reagan Narrative?

Exclusive: Election 2012 may turn on whether Ronald Reagan’s narrative of evil government and beneficent tax cuts for the rich has finally run its course – and has been replaced by a new narrative demanding government intervention to save the American middle-class, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

As yet another statue of Ronald Reagan is unveiled – a $1 million one at Washington’s National Airport which was renamed in his honor in the mid-1990s – the key question about the 40th president is whether his long and destructive era is finally coming to an end.

More than any other political figure, it was Ronald Reagan who put America on its present course toward stunning income inequality and into a brave new world of deregulated industries, which were then able to exploit lax government controls to devastate the economy.

Ronald Reagan statue at National Airport

It was Reagan who experimented with “supply side economics” which held that slashing the top marginal tax rates for the rich by half or more would eliminate the federal deficit and supposedly help everyone by letting the extra money at the top trickle down.

It was Reagan who declared that “government is the problem” and convinced many middle-class Americans – especially white men – that they should despise “big government” as a threat to their liberty and trust their financial security to the kindness, wisdom and generosity of corporate chieftains.

It was Reagan who demanded a massive reinvestment in the U.S. military, even as America’s principal adversary, the Soviet Union, was in rapid decline. Reagan also allied the United States with some of the world’s most brutal regimes and insurgent movements, as long as they identified themselves as “anti-communist.”

It also was Reagan who transformed the Republican Party into a political organization disdainful of science and empiricism – and devoted to retaining its power at almost any price. For Reagan and his P.R. team, the goal was always “perception management,” controlling how average Americans saw the world, not how it actually was. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]

Though it may be true that the current crop of Republicans is even more extreme than Reagan, that is mostly because today’s GOPers have dropped the few nuances that Reagan retained because of the political constraints that he faced. Three decades into Reagan’s transformation of America, the Right’s accumulated power has allowed the embrace of even more radical positions.

As an implicit acknowledgement of Reagan’s continued spell over the U.S. population, Democrats often try to find some common ground with the beloved Gipper, often using the phrase “even Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have gone that far.” But the truth is that Reagan composed the political music that today’s Republican Party plays.

The personable Reagan was the Pied Piper who led middle-class Americans dancing happily toward their own oblivion. Without him, it is hard to envision why so many downwardly mobile Americans would rally to the Tea Party and its demands for lower taxes on the already rich and fewer regulations on today’s corporate masters of the universe.

When the only realistic way to restrain the immense power of the rich and the corporations is through a democratized and energized federal government, Reagan’s memory instead inspires the Tea Party and many typical Americans to demand that government get out of the way.

Beginning of the End?

Yet, the question today is whether the days of Reagan’s enduring narrative are finally coming to a close. Has the Occupy Wall Street movement, which protests the gross economic inequality that Reaganism wrought, eclipsed the Reaganesque Tea Party?

The OWS narrative is that Reagan’s (and George W. Bush’s) tax cuts for the rich – and the deregulation of Wall Street (that had bipartisan support) – greased the skids for the nation sliding into the current swamp of concentrated wealth at the top and a shrinking middle-class.

Though the “Occupy” activists have so far shunned laying out specific policy recommendations, they have hoisted signs that demand that the coddling of corporations end, that the rich pay their fair share, and that the United States commit itself to becoming a more equitable society.

That goal can only be achieved by redistributing some of that concentrated wealth, by rebuilding the middle-class and by restoring jobs that disappeared over the past few decades as U.S. corporations either sought cheaper labor abroad or boosted productivity by replacing manpower with machines.

Reagan – and the “free-marketers” who followed him – encouraged these trends by incentivizing greed via sharply lower income taxes for the rich and by negotiating “free trade” agreements with low-wage countries.

Suddenly, the wealthy – who had seen about 70 percent of their top tranche of income recycled back into American society through income taxes – were getting to keep more than twice as much under Reagan-era reductions in the progressive tax rates. That prompted corporate chieftains to push for much higher pay for themselves, since they could keep much more of it, even as they took steps to hold down the pay of their employees.

To jack-up profits even more, U.S.-based companies shipped millions of factory jobs overseas. And, as capital gains taxes were slashed, too, investors kept even more money than those who earned their pay from work, explaining why multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett could pay a lower tax rate than his secretary.

The consequences on the United States from these three decades under various forms of Reaganomics (including the neo-liberalism of Bill Clinton and the full Reagan restoration under George W. Bush) are now apparent: massive federal debt for the public sector and major concentrations of wealth in the private sector.

These twin factors have fed two competing political movements: one, identified with the Tea Party, demands sharp cuts in government spending on domestic programs and even fewer regulations on business, and the other, associated with Occupy Wall Street, implicitly favors higher taxes on the rich to fund jobs – and tighter government controls on reckless gambling by the banks.

The danger for the Republicans is that they have gone pretty much all in with the Tea Party. Some top Republicans are even advocating raising income taxes on the poor and middle-class in order to fund more tax cuts for the rich.

So, if the momentum shifts from the Tea Party side to the Occupy Wall Street side, Republicans could find themselves caught in a dangerous crosscurrent. They must hope that the Reagan narrative – hostile to government and favorable to the rich – isn’t swept away before the November 2012 elections.

On the other hand, it is less clear that the Democrats will benefit substantially from a more anti-corporate tide, since they have done their best over the past several decades to muddy the waters regarding their differences with Reaganism, not wanting to be labeled “tax-and-spenders” or “anti-business.”

Still, as careful as many Democrats have been to stay in the middle of the mainstream, President Barack Obama and others have at least offered some limited proposals for raising taxes on the rich to pay for infrastructure investments and other jobs programs. That could put them in position to be pulled along by a favorable public current.

As imperfect a test as Election 2012 is sure to be, it seems likely to offer some measure of whether the Reagan narrative has finally run its course.

[For more on related topics, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Reagan’s Greed Is Good Folly” and “How Greed Destroys America” or Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

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16 comments on “End of the Reagan Narrative?

  1. Michaelena on said:

    Mr. Parry,

    I’ve found myself coming to Consortium daily to see if you have written any new commentary. There are few that speak to the current issues with such clarity as you do. I rarely disagree with your perspective. Today’s article is no exception. I hope, with my whole being, that you are correct and that the OWS movement is exposing the disastrous effects from our Reagan history. Thank you.

    M.

    P.S. I would really love to support you by buying your books, but, unfortunately, I’m one of the many who just get by. I’m deep in the heart of the 99%.

  2. Reagan has a legacy so distorted by the Conservative idolization of him that we may never have a clear picture of the real man behind the television set beyond the elaborate myth now concocted of him. Did he really rid the world of commie scum? Did destroy or save our economy? Check out my portrait of The Gipper in commemoration of the Reagan Centennial and help me figure it out on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/02/happy-100th-gipper.html

  3. Reagan has been more popular, personally, than his policies. In addition to what Robert reported, shortly after coming to office, the Reagan SSA administration denied and/or ceased benefits for at least two hundred thousand medically disabled Social Security disability applicants/beneficiaries, which prompted a huge public outcry. He sharply raised the FICA tax rates (not withholding tax rates which would have been death) to help offset a skyrocketing debt; that fell heavily on the working middle class and poor, not the rich (the debt still doubled under his presidency). He gave away import markets (that Jimmy Carter had protected) and flooded America with cheap imports. Few people remember that Michael Dukakis began his campaign against Bush I with a 17 point lead, a good indication of the rejection of Reagan policies. Dukakis squandered the lead with the worst campaign in modern history. America has always polled that the country is headed in the wrong direction, with one exception—right after Obama was elected, and, of course, that has changed.

  4. Henry Clay Ruark on said:

    To all:
    I’ve been writing re Reagan ever since his early days and have been in step with friend Parry all the way, led by his perfect perception of the man and his behavioral syndrome ever since he began to cover “Dutch”.
    There’s no question left unanswered about his actual actions despite the immoral and fact-distorting falsity of myth and motivation built around him over decades by those bearing direct responsibilities for support and succor supplied him despite the clear evidence he himself supplied by those actions.
    What would America be today if millions had not been deluded by the depth and deceit with which those few surrounded him ?
    Total up the times and tides of desperate actions surrounding his immature unmeasurable stupidities, at every level and in every year, and one must wonder what keeps America afloat in the face of such calamitous political judgments by so many who should know better from experience and simple observation.

  5. rosemerry on said:

    As a non-American, I still find it difficult to understand the mentality of millions who vote against the interest of the majority, who help the rich because they hope one day to be one of them, who pretend to be Christians but value human life only if it is not yet born. How can they want “small government” yet imperial supremacy and full spectrum dominance on the world scene? The adulation of Reagan perhaps shows that he was not really a second-rate actor but a marvellous one!

  6. Pingback: Kyle’s Links for the Day- 11/3 « The Lost Generation Podcast

  7. Pingback: End of the Reagan Narrative? | Consortiumnews | TRUTH4USA

  8. Don’t forget that Alan Greenspan was his economic advisor when he won the Presidency. Mr. Greenspan is an ardent follower of Ayn Rand and so tried to institute her ideas. He was very Republican and very libertarian. But the markets would not correct themselves in 2008 because of his deregulation. That’s one source of Reagan’s crazy ideas.

  9. Heartbeatt on said:

    I would gladly pay for a copy of Mr. Parry’s book for Michaelena, if Consortium can assist the connection.
    By the way, last year Herr von Guttenberg of the conservative party in Germany and Defence Minister (he privatized the army, which is proving to be a disaster) tried to get a public square in Berlin named after Reagan. Shortly after when it was revealed that his doctorate was heavily plagarized, he had to resign in disgrace, although Chancellor Angela Merkel stood by him until the bitter end. Does not bode well for Germany, where I fear there are many sentiments like his behind the scenes. Of course Merkel is also responsible for Germany’s vote against Palestine at UNESCO, which did not represent millions of Germans.

  10. Tom Richards, MAmoderate on said:

    Parry has it right!

    Reagan’s coddling of Wealth conrinues to induce Wealth to raise tuitions, ticket prices, medical premiums and etc. and to export JOBS and manufacruring CAPABILITY in order to maximize personal gains to hoard.

    The takedownn of our progressive income tax is the ROOT CAUSE of our eonomic and social malaise and will eventually lead to revolurion unless sooner reversed.

  11. Reagan’s actual record bears no resemblance what so ever to his myth. The man’s understanding of policy, foreign, domestic, and otherwise, bordered on the non existent. He had a nice smile, and a profound gift for telling whom ever he was addressing exactly what they wanted to hear. The man’s true legacy is that knowledge, and competence don’t matter as long as you look good doing it. Reagan was a terrible president, but he excelled at playing one on TV.

  12. Emilio on said:

    I have faith that my fellow Americans we will no longer tolerate the crushing injustices applied to us by the bought-and-paid-for government the corporations have imposed upon us. By all measure we have become a fascist nation, and as such democracy is the enemy of our current overlords, therefore, we need to fight ardently to have our democracy and our future restored.

  13. It’s important not to soft peddle the change in the Democratic Party in term of its increasing catering to the corporate/moneyed interests and its decline in supporting the needs of people. Now, Obama, just like Clinton (the Great Triangulator) before him has pandered to the multinational business interest by moving ahead with Free Trade Agreements (Columbia, Panama, Korea). It was Clinton who moved ahead with the dissolution of the Glass-Steagal Act, and along with Republican Phil Gramm was responsible for opening the door to unregulated derivatives. Obama has done quite nicely in getting campaign money from the financial industry, thus his lack of moving on any substantial and effective reform and regualtion of the industry that brought us the economic meltdown. It should be noted that unlike in the Savings and Loan crisis of the 80′s, not one person has been brought to trial for his or her complicity in the financial meltdown and the illegal activities associated with the derivatives and mortgage foreclosure.

    At some point, “the people” have got realize the problems is with the system, one that allows corporate money to flow and pervert democracy and our election system. In truth, we no longer have a democracy, one where the interests of people take precedence. And the second thing that must be realized, and this is the 800 pound gorilla in the room that no one wants to challenge or talk about, is that capitalism itself is a bankrupt system since its fundamental impetus is wrong due to the fact the we live in a finite world with finite resources–and that wrong starting point is that profit is the end all of human life.

    Thus, I think it important to call it as it is and not to give the Democrats wiggle room since they themselves are a part of the problem. One only look at Obama’s cabinent, starting with Timothy Geithner, and the foreign and economic policies, along with his corporate driven health insurance reform, to see that the game is lost if one puts his or her faith in the Democratic Party as the vehicle for change.

    We need an independent issue driven movement, one that via mass moblization and fightback does not deal with the veneer of the system but changes its inderpinnings. Though not an alarmist, if we do not do as much, we are moving into dangerous territory as a species and the dire consequences that will ensue to our world.

    • Philip Reiss on said:

      Mr. Carano has spelled it out quite nicely just how much the Democratic Party itself must share the blame for the state of affairs we are now confronted with. Bill Clinton accelerated the drift of the party away from
      the precepts of FDR’s New Deal. The Clintons are opportunistic wolves in lamb skins always eager to dance to the tune banking and Wall Street interests play.

  14. Forgive typos above–was typing in a hurry, and typing isn’t my strong point.

  15. W.W. Berster on said:

    Lemmings. Barreling full-tilt-boogie toward the cliff. Destroyed the country in the name of Reagan.. exactly as the deluded British destroyed their country in the name of Thatcher. Both of those mouth-pieces were mere sockpuppets of the banksters’ stooge economists. Whores. A phalanx of gibbering whores.

    And the worst is yet to come. The one sick consolation will be watching the simpering Reaganites starving under bridges in their soggy cardboard boxes.

    The west should get the Darwin Award for allowing these wretched scumbags to steal control of the economies of the western countries.