If the measure is how much harm their cluelessness and ineptitude caused, George W. Bush's administration was the worst ever. If adherence to the principles established at the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal is the measure, the Bush administration might be the worst too. Bush's only serious rival would be Richard Nixon. Unfortunately, we will never know the full extent of either one's criminality because Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon before he could be brought to justice; and because Barack Obama, in a spirit of "forward-looking" generosity, and perhaps also in anticipation of doing more of the same, decided early on that Bush era war criminals would never be called to account. However on the scale of historical villainy, Bush and Nixon are small potatoes. By that measure, the worst administration without a doubt is the one that nowadays receives bipartisan adulation -- Ronald Reagan's.
Like Bush, the Great Communicator was ignorant and lazy. It is therefore unclear how much of the harm done in his name was actually his doing. It is also unclear how much of a role Reaganites played in initiating "the Reagan Revolution." Arguably, it began in the waning days of the Carter administration; incontestably, its basic features were perfected in Britain by Margaret Thatcher's government more than a year before Reagan took office. Nevertheless, it is fair to call Reagan's a "transformative presidency," as candidate Obama did (reportedly to get a rise out of Hillary Clinton). For three decades, it has deformed our politics.
It was the Reagan administration that established the principle that taxes should only go down, the better to assure a permanent fiscal crisis, the better to stifle constructive social spending. It was under Reagan that ways for putting "the Vietnam syndrome" to rest were contrived: finding soft targets with leaders who could be easily demonized; out sourcing tasks that would normally fall on conscripts; funding proxy armies to fight proxy wars, and so on. It was under Reagan too that ways were found to mobilize "populist" and evangelical fervor on behalf of the interests of the super rich, and that "Big Government" - the state's regulatory apparatus -- became "the problem." In countless other ways, it was Reagan who launched the undoing of the New Deal and Great Society - a retrograde process continued by all American presidents ever since.
Reagan's purported role in bringing down the "Evil Empire" was in reality minimal, but he did contrive a substitute, should our military, industrial and national security complex require one, as it did shortly after he left office. The Reaganites were never quite able to launch a war on terror because the facts on the ground couldn't be spun enough to sustain one. But they laid the foundation. Then, when the seeds Reaganites planted in Afghanistan and elsewhere bore poison fruit, the facts became more obliging. It is therefore largely thanks to them that Islamic terrorism was able to take the place of the Red Menace. For scaring people and turning democracy on its head, this new bugbear has proven remarkably useful.
This is bad news at a time when capitalism is in a period of profound turbulence, and as increasingly severe environmental catastrophes loom. Now, more than ever, "we, the people" should be facing reality boldly and imaginatively, not cowering before phantasms. The very last thing we need is more Reaganism.
Reagan rules is a subtler way as well. Before he took office, it was the left that was radical; it sought to transform institutions fundamentally for the better. The right was conservative; its goal was to maintain existing arrangements or, when unavoidable, to modify them as little as possible. Now it is the reverse. The left has become conservative, and the right is radical. This was Reagan's legacy.
Those who nowadays call themselves "conservatives" may blather on about "free markets" and adherence to the letter of the constitution, but their aim -- revealed by what they do, not what they say -- is to take the authoritarian, neo-liberal model of government that the U.S. installed around the world in the twilight of the Cold War and adapt it to conditions at home -- for the benefit of their paymasters, the economic elites who ultimately call the shots. If, in the process, they exacerbate "savage inequalities" and diminish traditional liberties (though not, of course, "the right to bear arms"), then, as in Central and South America decades ago, it's just too bad.
Back in the day, Bertram Gross called Reaganism "friendly fascism." Times have changed largely thanks to Reagan's successes. Crushing the labor movement, an objective of all past fascist movements, is therefore no longer the priority it was. But Gross's description remains apt. The most enthusiastic Reaganites today are radical, nationalist, racist and xenophobic; just like the fascists of old. And because Democrats lack the courage and conviction to stop them, they drag our politics rightward, regardless of who sits in the White House or which party controls Congress.
These circumstances have forced the left or what remains of it into a defensive mode -- struggling, often in vain, to retain as much as possible of the social, political and economic progress gained before the Reagan era began. Not in the Tea Party sense, but according to the real meaning of the word, it has made conservatives of those who would otherwise be struggling to make a qualitatively better world.
For many, Obama, the Rorschach candidate, conjured up hopes of putting an end to this sad state of affairs, putting progress back on the agenda. But, as Reagan's screenwriters might have had him say, "boy, were they wrong!" Under Obama as much as under Clinton or either Bush, Reagan rules.