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Robert Slayton

Robert Slayton

Posted: March 29, 2010 02:14 PM

The End of Reaganism

What's Your Reaction:

I have to admit, I'm scared. Yes, there have been assaults on Republican lawmakers, and we are overdue in condemning these attacks. But let's face it -- the vast majority of attacks are aimed at people who voted for health care, not against it. Congressman Bart Stupak, who is nobody's idea of a liberal, got calls declaring, "I hope you get cancer and die." There is something very, very ugly going on in America today.

This atmosphere reminds a lot of people, including me, of the South's reaction to civil rights in the fifties and sixties: never give in, and use threats and then violence to resist, if you need to. The analogy is limited; we haven't seen anything like the level of shootings and church bombings of sixty years ago, but the anger seems similar.

And that confuses me. In all fairness to white Southerners, they really were losing something: an enormous structure of status and wealth. Of course, it was based on racism and white superiority, but you could see why they were upset; no one gives up that much easily.

So what is the right losing now that is the equivalent, that could spark so much anger? The health care is a compromise, a lukewarm one at that. To use an analogy, when I teach about the 1930s, one of my favorite books to assign is Paul Conkin's The New Deal. Conkin was writing in the early '70s, when some folks still looked on FDR as a god, who had transformed America. His response was to ask, "So what?" After the New Deal we still had capitalism, we still voted for our elected officials, and we still had freedom of speech. The book forces my students to think long and hard about the Roosevelt Revolution's effect on this country, pro or con. Similarly, we can ask of this health care bill, "What is the big deal?"

One answer as to what they're afraid of is definitely not the size of the deficit, by the way. The biggest jump in the deficit in recent years came during the Reagan-Bush years. Democrat Bill Clinton gave us a balanced budget, then W. blew it wide open again with a couple of unfinanced wars and an impossibly flawed prescription bill. Somehow none of this seemed to bother John Boehner, Eric Cantor, or the tea baggers at the time.

I do think, however, this is an important question to tackle, figuring out what they are so scared of. As a progressive, I need to expose right wing shenanigans. But as an academic, I should be analyzing what is going on, with as much depth as I can muster, trying to further our understanding of what makes this country tick.

Some of the answers for why the anger have been discussed already, in many public forums and in previous blogs that I posted. Bigotry of many sorts plays a part in this, as does fear of change. And millions of Americans are hurting in very real ways, with jobs, homes, kids' educations, all the middle class goals, on the line.

But there is something more going on here, and that has been bugging me.
A very, very good answer appeared in the New York Times, in a column by David Leonhardt. Leonhardt pointed out the health care bill really is a big deal, because it is the biggest attack on economic inequality since the 70s, reversing a trend under both Republican and Democratic politicians towards greater concentration of wealth.

But the columnist went further. He pointed out that more than anything, the bill was attacking the Reagan legacy, in that it was using government to deal with inequality in a big way.
I think he has hit on something here, and something big.

For the right, Ronald Reagan is the equivalent of FDR to our side: the president who ushered in a sea change in American politics. And like some progressives, conservatives see Reagan as a god-like figure who can do no wrong. Forget that he was a complex politician; they haven't had their Paul Conkin yet. And Reaganism hasn't been fundamentally challenged. Till now. As Leonhardt pointed out, the health care bill really is the first major piece of social legislation passed since the Age of Reagan, the first big, public progressive bill passed, and the first major challenge to the principles the Gipper fought for.

So what is happening, indeed, is a change of much larger proportions than just the health care bill alone. For the right, this is an assault on Reaganism, an entire approach to governing, to American society and culture. That really is a big deal.

Let's take a look at what Reaganism stands for -- accurately or not -- in the minds of many on the other side. Let's see, in other words, what they think is at stake.

Reagan was militaristic, a big supporter, both with words and budgets, of the Pentagon. If that is lost, will we become weak? Will other powers push us around? Will our troops -- the best we have -- be disrespected at home and abroad?

An even larger issue is patriotism. Reagan was the best modern president at touting American exceptionalism, the notion that we are different, special, and blessed, more so than any other country in the world. If Reaganism ends, will we lose that pride, will we no longer honor our country in the most fundamental way, lose track of who we are? Take a look at all those textbooks that fail to discuss what unifies us as a nation, that harp on racism and sexism, and how we massacred the Indians. Sarah Palin recently remarked on Sean Hannity's show that, "Those who love America and don't want to see that transformation of America into some kind of socialized country," should fight health care reform. Clearly, to Governor Palin, those who support the health care bill, do not "love their country".

In economic terms, Reagan believed devoutly in mobility, that every American could become a millionaire. He lifted the hopes and dreams of all of us, instead of taking away our wealth and giving it to Big Government, who hands it out to welfare queens.

This is hogwash, of course. Under Reagan, hundreds of Marines got blown up in Beirut, undefended, without ever firing a shot. And Bob Gates, Obama's Secretary of Defense, has been criticized for spending too much money on things like better base housing and salaries and health benefits, instead of new toys like planes and ships and guns. For spending more on the troops, in other words.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, has raised our international prestige higher than it has been in decades. There is a lot to be proud of here. It's a funny thing; people all over the world, not just in the US, like someone who looks like them. And who treats them with respect, rather than bullying them.

I have spent most of my life teaching and writing American history, a dedication to our heritage most tea party patriots can't come close to matching. I fervently believe in an American nation and its greatness, but I also believe we benefit by telling all the parts of our rich and varied story. When I stated out decades ago, history was about presidents, generals, and Supreme Court rulings. All important items, even today, but that was all we did back then. Some of us took a different approach, writing about workers, in my case those who toiled in the Union Stock-Yards, a smelly lot. But I believed -- and still do -- that their story should be added to our mosaic. If you disagree, feel free to tell all the daughters and sons of Polish, Italian, Jewish, Greek, Slovak, German, Irish and other workers that their parents and grandparents weren't worthy of being called important Americans.

And in economic terms, historic study after historic study has shown that the Horatio Alger myth was just that: a myth. The odds of jumping from being a farmer or worker to the ranks of the millionaires were dismal. Yes. Andrew Carnegie did make it. But we remember him, in part, because he was so exceptional in this and other regards.

Instead the great American triumph was to rise from working to middle class. Not everyone who strived made it; there were literally millions of casualties along the way as workers died and were maimed in horrible factories, with no Workman's Comp or Social Security to help their families either (a couple of government-run programs, by the way). For those who achieved, the cost was often child labor, and hunger for all. But millions did make it, unlike the class-bound societies of Europe.

And the big news, to those who fear the boogeyman called Big Government, is that despite what Reagan preached, that mobility ladder is still working just fine, thank you. Why in God's name do you think all those people are still immigrating to the US today? Yes, there are still terrible obstacles, but an awful lot of these immigrants are jumping on that same ladder, and doing just fine. Take a look at Monterey Park in California, or Queens in New York City, or neighborhoods in Boston, or Chicago, or Cleveland. This country is still fulfilling the American Dream for some -- not all, by any means -- of those who seek it. And the health care bill won't deter that, only push some folks up a rung or two.

That's my big problem with Ronald Reagan. A truly gifted communicator -- he wrote many of his early speeches -- no recent president, with the exception of Barack Obama, has been better at enunciating ideals. The failure was his inability to capture the whole range of beliefs that made this country great. Yes, he enunciated faith in valid virtues such as hard work and independence, but he always left out concepts like the importance of community, or mercy, or consideration for our fellow Americans. He also pandered at times to bigots, as when he followed the instinct of his political supporters, and did not respond to our nation's worst epidemic since the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 -- AIDS -- because it was associated with homosexuals and Haitians.

But look at the list of Reaganisms above. If we really were losing all those things it would be a catastrophe. We really would be forgoing our country. Those who fear the end of the Age of Reagan, without sense or evidence, truly have a lot to be afraid of, hence their incredible fears. I could sympathize with them a lot more if any of what they perceive really was true.