As we push further into a neo-conservative future, it seems like everybody agrees on one thing - Carter, and the 70s in general, were bad, while Reagan represented a "renewal of hope," or "Morning in America." Reagan was not our first television-president (that dubious honor belonging to JFK) but he was our first actor-president, bringing to pass what 60s media theorist Marshall McLuhan had most feared, and what the art collective Ant Farm had hillariously spoofed in their 1975 piece "Media Burn." Reagan was "the great communicator" which, in the one-way communication model of television, meant the great myth-maker. From his years in Hollywood as a second-string actor, he instinctively knew that we would much rather hear a good story than a difficult or troubling one, that we'd much rather boost our own egos, than face the troubling prospect of changing our attitudes, our behavior, our "core-beliefs." Reagan "renewed our faith in America." But what kind of "faith" was renewed? And was losing this "faith" such a bad thing?
After a decade-long war with Vietnam that decimated an entire generation of young Americans, we lost faith in the idea of the nobility of war, and began to think more seriously about multilateralism, negotiation, and the social and historical complexities of a geopolitical situations. After the OPEC oil embargos and the long fuel lines, we began to think seriously about alternative sources of renewable energy, about energy conservation, fuel efficiency, driving smaller vehicles, and investing in public transportation. After Watergate, and hearing Nixon's terrible record of secret operations against his political opponents at home, we lost faith in government secrecy, and began to push for the first major "sunshine" or ordinances that would make government more transparent and subject to public scrutiny. And for all the talk of "economic decline" in the 70s, there was actually much less of a gap between the rich and the poor - the very criterion of an economically civilized nation - then would henceforth ever exist.
So what is the legacy of the 70s today? While many of us still believe firmly in peace and multilateral diplomacy, energy conservation, transparency in government, and mitigating economic inequality, these have been the stated enemy of every conservative government since Reagan. Today, Bush immediately announces a "war without end" on terrorism, even as he alienates all of the major nations who could have best helped to neutralize the terrorist threat through vigorous international policing. Rather than combining force with saavy international diplomacy in the Middle East, we are left trying to salvage the best of a botched operation that has resulted in the deaths of a thousand Americans, and countless thousands of Iraqis. Furthermore, at the very moment of an economic downturn, we are spending tens of billions of dollars on military operations, rather than investing in education and job training that would bring the country back on track. Dick Cheney publically ridicules the idea of conservation (just like Reagan), and Bush puts through tax breaks for Hummers and other massively wasteful vehicles, as well as standing firmly opposed to raising fuel economy standards, despite all the problems of our oil supply. As a result of these policies, we now spend much more money on much larger vehicles that produce much more polution and consume much more of the world's diminishing oil. Sure, a few quirky consumers drive hybrids or play with bio-diesel, but with no incentives to purchase these vehicles, and no incentives for automakers to produce them, they will never even make a dent in our oil consumption or pollution problems. Futurist fantasies play into our love of Science Fiction films and our boredom with science class: just as Reagan promised a "Star Wars" orbital laser defense system, Bush promises a hydrogen technology that is safely decades in the future. The Bush presidency has been the most secretive and closed-off government in our modern history - records are closed, committees secret, and even press conferences are treated as something that are graciously bestowed upon the public, rather than as an absolutely necessary and fundamental aspect of a functioning democracy. Finally, the massive tax cuts - which offered much to large corporations and the wealthy and almost nothing to the vast majority of smaller businesses and middle class voters - have further increased an already intolerable economic divide. As Princeton Economist Paul Krugman points out (below) - Reagan did much the same thing early on. But once he realized that the country could not afford them, he switched gears and raised taxes because it was the responsible thing to do. Even Bush's father, after promising "No New Taxes," had the decency to go to the American People and tell them the truth - that he needed to raise taxes. But Bush is unlike either his father or Reagan in this respect. After irresponsibly raising taxes, and going into massive dept to pay for them, he continues to push for more and bigger tax cuts, and for precisely the same people and corporations as before.
Reagan was the rebirth of "hope" for America, if we understand that to mean "hope... that we don't need to change." That's why Reagan is the father of American Conservatism. He pioneered a legacy of myth-making, of pandering to the people, and by telling them that the America they've always known is, at its heart, good, and noble and beautiful. And anyone who says otherwise - who insists that there are serious problems that need to be addressed through government intervention - these people are "dour" and "tedious", as Reagan said of Carter, of Mondale, and of Dukakis, and which we will all surely hear said of Kerry all through this fall. An unthinking optimism, the heart instead of the head, the soundbyte of "compassionate conservatism," which is effectively, "Father knows best" - this all meshes perfectly with the increasingly evangelical cast of American spirituality, which conservatives eagerly support and prey upon.
It takes faith and courage and determination to oppose this "Good Will" message - it means saying things that people simply do not want to hear. Do we have politicans capable of delivering serious, thoughtful positions on matters of great complexity - even when they are difficult, or require real sacrifice, while still fostering the spirit of hope and optimism for which Americans so desperately yearn? Or are we saddled with a legacy of optimistic anti-intellectuals, pandering to the crowd with soundbytes and winning all the elections, while the dour realists, delivering their litany of complaints, earn the wrath of unreceptive audiences? I try to be optimistic. -Andrew V. Uroskie
Princeton Economics Professor Paul Krugman's The Great Taxer
NY Times Regan Multimedia Feature
Ronald Reagan, Party Animal - The man who taught Republicans to be irresponsible. By Timothy Noah
"What Reagan Got Wrong - Liberty is not the absence of government." By William Saletan