Distal Muse Archives

Reagan and the Politics of Presence

by Mark W. Tiedemann

 I have friends who thought it was great thing when Reagan became president, who now reject any such accusation, and refuse to believe it when I remind them that they said encouraging things about him when he took office.  One quote, during a ceremony broadcast on television, that I'll never forget: “He just looks like a real president!”

 Time passes, policy comes to fore, and most of those people no longer recall these initial bouts of near-patriotic enthusiasm.  They have conveniently forgotten.

 I didn't like Reagan's policies.  I'm sure I would have liked him.  Everybody who met him seems to say the same thing.  When Donna Brazille can say she thought he was a decent man, despite the complete polarization of their politics, you have to admit something was going on with Reagan which is all too often more telling about politics and history than the facts attached to a particular era.

 Reagan was presidential.  He had Presence.

 I listen now to the talk about putting his face on the ten dollar bill with some amusement.  Reagan already has at least one airport, a couple of highways, no doubt many streets, parks, a library named in his honor.  He may be the most honored president of recent history, although I feel safe predicting that he would never have received a Nobel Peace Prize.  He's dead now, so legally we can mint currency in his honor.  Let's not forget that a serious movement was underway to revise the prohibition against a third presidential term on his behalf.  For Reagan personally, the two-term limit was doubtless a good thing--we can't be sure when his Alzheimers began, but a third term in office would have made his moments of memorative slippage even more apparent.

 I have said elsewhere that the primary difference between Republicans and Democrats lies in who they count as Citizens.  To say it again (and our current president exemplifies this more than any other I can think of since Hoover), Republicans believe people with property are the only legitimate citizens; Democrats think anyone who legally lives here is a citizen.  It's a profound difference in action.

 And I'm not saying that the Republican Party is the Party of Money.  They are that, but not in the way most people generally deploy the accusation.  When I say they hold that only those with property are citizens, I mean that they have decided that those who have a material stake in America--those citizens with Something To Lose--are those who shoulder the most responsibility in the political health of our country.  The others they see as transient, disconnected, too easily swayed by outré  ideologies to be depended upon for sound judgement.  It is that sound judgement Republicans treasure most, and traditionally they feel that people with property represent that potential best.  Because generally, those people have the better education, the broader scope, greater opportunity to be cosmopolitan, the burden of ethical necessity, and in the case of business owners, the added responsibility of community support--they know what it means to take care of others.  There is a quality of noblesse oblige in such an assessment, like the perfect picture of the feudal lord who must care for those who live on his lands and work for his estate.

 Like all generalizations, it is fatally flawed.

 But we have to remember that historically, that's where this country got its first leaders and its initial ideas about citizenship.  Jefferson wanted to see a nation of landowners--the yeoman farmer--who, by his estimation, had an investment in the country.  (His theory of land ownership is quite complex and critical of slavery because, he believed, the plantation system which slavery enabled was ultimately destructive to this form of citizenship AND environmentally.  That part certainly bore out--the trail of ecological destruction in the South that followed the migration of the plantations proved Jefferson correct, and a study of it informs every argument about slavery and the subsequent poverty and civil liberties issues of the South and, subsequently, the country as a whole.  Slavery and the economic practices it engendered left a legacy of disparity with which we are still struggling today and which makes such debates about who is a citizen all the more trenchant.)

 Not a bad notion in its simplest form, property owners as citizens, since combined with that idea was the notion that property ownership was, theoretically, for Everyone.

 Pity it didn't work out that way.

 But then how could it?  Wealth as a concept is based on inequity.  The possibility that I can make more than my neighbor, have more, earn more, create more--it drives us, it infuses our ambition with a tangible goal, and exercised with restraint is certainly a hell of a lot less destructive than robbery, warfare, rapine, and murder.

 The problem is, what do you do with the people on the bottom?

 Seems simple enough.  First, you empower them politically, so they can participate.  Secondly, you enact laws forbidding their exploitation.  Thirdly, you make compensation based on future potential--if not them, their children.

 Ah.  Entitlements.  There's where Reagan becomes the icon of both sides of the debate.

 I think Ronald Reagan was misled by Big Business.  Carter had been shucked by the oil industry.  “We got all these controls and regulations, Jimmie, and look what OPEC just did to us!  Take the cuffs off so we can compete and bring the price of gasoline down.”  There was some short term relief.  It's been a long time ago, maybe a lot of people don't remember.  Over the long run it turned out to be a disaster.  But mainly because Reagan then took the idea of Deregulation and ran with it, spurred on by the Captains of Industry who promised they'd be good citizens with the new freedoms.

 It looks to the Republicans like Reagan's policies worked.  A lot of people,. after all, made a LOT of money in the Eighties.

 And aren't they--the moneyed, the propertied--the true citizens of America?

 There's a very seductive quality to the argument.  After all, one of the basic differences between America and the rest of the world for a long time--and to some extent still even today--is the absolutely sanctity we grant Property Rights.  We have a huge legal structure built to protect it, even at the most limited and basic level.  True, it gets violated a lot, but all things like that face tests.  Sometimes they fail.  In the long-run, though, it has proved significant and terribly potent in defining an ideology.  Europe does it, too, but not nearly to the extent we do.  For us, Property is religion.  Consider just this--the state, on every level, has got to get permission from the community to invade my home.  Attorney General Ashcroft may want to change that and certainly he and his forebears (J. Edgar in particular) violated it often, but by and large, it works.  I am secure in my home from the kind of frivolous intrusion many nations past and present take as a given.  One of the causes of the Revolution (and this is often overlooked and forgotten in school) was the resentment of the colonists toward housing British soldiers in private homes.

 Property rights allocated to the common citizen are one of the things that Americans take as defining of national birthright.  And it's not a bad thing.

 But the problem is when you ask “What about those who have no property?”  On what basis do they claim equity in citizenship with those of us who have something?

 As I said earlier, wealth is based on inequity.  To have More than someone else is meaningless unless there is measure born out of inequality.  For me to have More, someone else has to have Less.  This isn't quite an abstract.  In real economic terms, the value of anything is relative.  There must be a greater and a lesser gauge.  In any system where you have extremes, the scale itself exists by virtue of those extremes.  So if we have a system in which some people have a whole lot, there must be those who have very little.  The value of currency, the setting of interest rates, pricing of goods and services, all become dependent on a scale of ability to pay--which is based on haves and have nots.

 Unfair you say?  Not even in systems where supposedly there is no money is there an absence of this concept.  Less and More are universal.  Not money?  Then less and more honor.  Less and more courtesy.  Less and more land, wives, herds.  Even gift-giving conforms to this logic.  In some cultures, the greater the number or quality of gifts, the more the gift-giver is worth.  In the Workers Paradises, less and more existed buried within the hierarchy of power and perks.  The Soviet Premiers traditionally didn't make much more than ten thousand dollars a year, but they had access to floors of the department stores the bricklayers and mill workers could not get onto.  More than that, they did not have to wait in line.
 But we're talking about citizenship and the fair distribution of civil rights.  Clearly some other standard must be applied, since not everyone can be a property owner.  Not in any system.

 And that's where the Republicans and the Democrats separate.

 I am going to lengths to explain this in order to explain where Reagan came from and what he meant to the generation that put him in office, and still means to those who think he represented some kind of rebirth of traditional American values.

 The entire property thing was called into question in the Sixties.  Ah, the infamous decade!  I have heard it said that the Sixties produced not one thing worth a damn and that everything since has been an attempt to make right the mess left behind.  Reagan was the first successful janitor in this view.

 Because the Baby Boomers inherited and increased a basic wealth unknown in history, certain things were taken for granted.  I'll admit to that.  We actually thought principles were more important than money.  I mean, way more important.  The hard lessons of the Seventies turned some of us into hardcore right wing capitalists, but even so, capitalists of principle, not just greedy moneygrubbers.

 Opinions vary as to the meaning of the Sixties.  Among the things all those revolutions were about--and there were many, fought on several fronts, and sometimes as crossed purposes— the one thing I think informed them all was this: we wanted an absolute freedom of association.  We were by god going to associate with whoever we wanted to under whatever circumstances we decided were valid.

 Think about it.  The civil rights movement was about freedom of association--of access to services, of integration, or voting, or commerce, of public interaction, and private choices.  One of the most provocative images of the Sixties was the blond female in company with the black male.  Following on that, you have the subsequent association rebellions--the women's movement chief among them, but certainly gay rights, the brown revolution, and all the busing issues.  The rebellion against the draft was fueled by a determined individualism that stated that individual conscience mattered more than the State's interest in military defense.

 This was anathema to almost all public aspects of traditional patriotism.  The so-called Me Generation staked out its prerogative to, very loudly and very publicly, matter more than any national c cohesion.  The generation that bred the Boomers looked on in dismay and wondered just what had happened to the country they felt they had worked so damn hard to build.  They failed utterly to see the successes of this turn of events.  All they saw were failures.


 Certainly.  It's a mistake to imagine that the neocon revolution has come in reaction to failure.  Failure takes care of itself, through the very fact that it must be replaced by success.  Although the neocon movement has managed to successfully characterize the entire liberal era as a failure, their motivation and support have come from the fact that they are campaigning against success.  (This goes a long way toward explaining why the Right attacked Bill Clinton so relentlessly.  Ken Starr can only be understood in the light of Clinton's potential to succeed in exactly the things the Right opposes.)

 Consider: institutionalized racism, rhetoric notwithstanding, is gone.  What remains of that legacy is a question of inertia more than intent.  Systems change far slower than minds do.  Racism is fading.  (Xenophobia is something else and has less to do with race than culture, but xenophobia has always been a temporary aberration in this country, traceable entirely to periods of prosperity or depression.  Yes, I'm generalizing--I don't have time for a book--but in the broad vista of two centuries of American history I think I'm correct.)  Civil Rights as a legal principle has become an article of common faith.  We have our Ashcrofts and Borks, certainly, and we always will, but they actually do little damage in the long-run.  That is a success.

 Women moved from housewife/concubine status, into the workforce, and are now more and more taking positions in society on par with men.  In 1965, the easiest professions for a woman to enter were nursing, teaching, secretarial, and entertainment.  Today, the idea that a school advisor would coerce a woman from taking courses in any field is an anachronism.  All fields are open.  Certainly inequities exist, but the trend is clear.  Coupled with the collapse of marital expectation and the sexual revolution, women are people first, females second.  That is a success.

 The government can no longer expect unquestioned acquiescence from the public.  After Watergate, the Vietnam War, the revelations of the Hoover FBI years, people expect the government to conform to standards of honesty and integrity.  No, it doesn't happen at nearly the level it needs to, but no politician can act without a reasonable expectation that his or her actions will be questioned by the voter.  That's a success.

 Secularism in public life has moved forward.  The muffling effect of religious misdirection and assumed verities no longer informs our public discourse.  Minority religions have been granted the freedom to exist always presumed in the Constitution but so often not acted upon.  That is a success.

 Poverty is viewed as a condition of social architecture, not as a moral failing on the part of the poor.  Argument rages over what to do about it, but it is seen as something with which we can have positive impact.  This is a success.

 I could go on.  The net result of all this success was the steady increase of Liberal government through the Seventies and even into the Eighties.  Despite the war cry of the Right against Socialism, we embraced Socialism by way of the New Deal and the Great Society and rarely question it.  Social Security is sacrosanct--at least as an idea.  The idea of universal health care is becoming inexorable.  We're arguing over implementation.

 The neocon movement would have had nothing on which to base a counter revolution if all this had failed.  Instead, they attacked these things because they had succeeded.  Ronald Reagan was the first major success in the war to turn back the clock and undo all this liberal success.

 But if it had indeed been a success, as I suggest, how come Reagan was elected?  You would think Carter would have been a shoe-in.

 In fact, Carter led in the polls through most of the campaign.  The Iran situation wrecked him.  But that alone probably wouldn't have gone in Reagan's favor without the whole of the Seventies has added ammunition.  While all the aforementioned social changes were indeed successes, they came alongside a decade filled with ambiguity and pain.  The Seventies were a mess.

 Vietnam was finally winding down.  America had lost.  It had cost us a presidential resignation.  Worse, it disillusioned a generation.  Veterans were dumped back into society in such a way and at a time when the economy was taking a sharp downturn.  Unemployment rose.  But so did inflation.   In 1970 we were spending more than any other nation on defense.  By 1975, that spending was being rolled back.  Defense spending--never mind the morality of it--is fuel for the economy.  Cut it back, you put a drag on the economy.

 These rollbacks came at the same time American industry entered the doldrums.  Car manufacturing had been hit hard by new safety and environmental standards.  Costs rose.  The Big Three were forced to make cars differently.  While Germany and Japan had relatively new factories, ours were old and retrofitted poorly.  The bleating of industry in the Seventies was not all groundless.  We were suddenly faced with the so-called Japanese Miracle.   Japan had not had the burden of defense spending we had--in fact, we largely provided defense for Japan, as a necessary expense in the Cold War--so their industry was not burdened with any task but consumer manufacture.  The visions of SF writers like Gibson and Sterling who saw Japan as the dominant economic power of the future are only foolish in retrospect.  At the time, it looked possible, even probable.

 Veterans dumped back into the workforce were faced with a growing population of working women.  After World War II the same situation existed, but women were summarily fired from all those jobs to make room for the returning vets.  In the Seventies, that simply could not happen.  But the increase in available workforce also led to gradual decline in the buying power of a dollar.  At the beginning of the decade, a single breadwinner could support a household.  By 1980, that was a thing of the past for the vast majority of American households.  Two incomes were a necessity.

 All of this fed a pervasive malaise that America had somehow Lost It.  We were  partying ourselves into oblivion.  The grassroots liberal and radical movements of the Sixties gave up and went into a hedonistic phase.  When they came out of it, Ronald Reagan was president, Roe v. Wade was under severe challenge, and the Religious Right--in its early manifestation as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority--was filling the vacuum left by the vocal civil liberties groups who had discovered disco and cocaine.  A mess indeed.

 But Carter, for all his perceived faults, was fixing it.  The much vaunted military build-up for which Reagan gets all the credit began with Carter.  Volker, erstwhile and capable predecessor to our current Fed Chairman Greenspan, was a Carter appointee.  Steps were being taken to strengthen American industry.  What Carter began came to fruition under Reagan, who took all the credit.  Certainly a new president can scuttle the work of his predecessor, but if he doesn't, if he rides the tide, that work usually takes shape and continues on.  Reagan did increase military spending--but Carter had done it first.  Reagan took Volker's advice and later appointed Volker's hand-picked successor, Greenspan.  Inflation came down as part of the Carter legacy.

 So what happened?

 Public perception happened.  Carter was seen as weak, indecisive, chaotic.  Reagan was put forward as focused, dynamic, and disciplined.  Yet, as I said, Carter led the polls until the Iranian debacle undercut him.  We may never know what really went on there.  The suggestions that Bush Sr. cut a deal with Tehran to guarantee the election won't go away and his son's reclassification of those documents only feeds the speculation.  But how much blame can Carter actually deserve for what was a popular revolution in a mid-eastern nation who's Western-friendly leader, the Shah, had been a despotic, mean-spirited dictator set up by the Eisenhower administration?  Khomeini returned from exile in France to lead the rebellion that chopped Carter off at the knees in a P.R. disaster of which Carter had no part.  His perceived failure at a rescue should be looked at more closely.  This was a major operation, bold and substantial, that got screwed up by a combination of haste and the traditional enmity existing between different arms of our own Services--something Carter then set about to change.

 But blame like that is a public pillory.  And Reagan rode the tide of antipathy into the White House.

 What did he bring with him?  Presence.  That's it.

 The hostages were freed after he became president.  Why?  Because Khomeini was afraid of Ronald Reagan?  He had no more reason to fear Reagan than Carter--to him all American presidents are temporary events, one more or less the same as any other.  (Perception--truth or fact is immaterial in this game.)  That the hostages were released so quickly is more evidence that some kind of deal may have been cut.

 Why did we elect him, though?  What did we think he would do?

 Restore America.

 I hate that line.  It says nothing useful.  Restore it to what?  From what?  One has to presume that it has need of restoring, that without this man, it could not happen.  Nonsense.  But this is the politics of perception, and Reagan, B-movie star, consummate actor-as-politician, provided the Image that fulfilled the perception.

 “He looks like a president should.”
 Ultimately, the problem of the Seventies--if “problem” is the correct word--was that it was a time of ambiguity.  We didn't quite know what was going on, what was going to happen, what we could do about anything.  We weren't really sure what the problems were, except that no one seemed to be able anymore to say exactly what being American meant.  Ambiguity is not in itself a bad thing, but it can have unpleasant effects--for instance, in the stock market, which did indeed reflect a kind of overall indecisiveness.

 To recap: all the popular movements of the Sixties had come home to success.  The Vietnam War was over, civil liberties were becoming more widespread than ever before, freedom of speech had finally been established as sacred (which led directly to a burgeoning porn industry among other things--not something to be seen in a completely positive light) and it appeared possible to redress the other social ills that plagued the Boomers.  With the War over, all those resources--presumably--could now be spent on...

 What?  Education?  Welfare?  Research?  Where do we go from here?

 To be sure, a large degree of exhaustion came with all these “successes” and perhaps some downtime, a party or three, a vacation were in order for the culture.  That's what seemed to have taken place.  No one could decide what to do now that the Good Fight looked won.

 Except for one group.  Conservatives.  Young Republicans, neocons, whatever label you wish to give them.  They had a purpose.  Take America Back.  From what?  Well, from all those unwashed, scuzzy, hedonistic people whose behavior was so embarrassing, so extreme, so unChristian, so...liberal.

 The moneyed citizenry--who hurt with rising inflation and an erratic stock market, whose investments suffered with the decline of industry and the ambiguity of American direction--demanded a leader who would bar the uninitiated from the promised land.  As they saw it, all those people--poor people, people who thought the environment mattered more than profits, people who didn't seem to understand the first thing about market economies and the need for a firm hand--were a drag on the future.  America couldn't make up its mind what it wanted to be.  The Conservative movement had a vision.  They knew what they wanted it to be.  They wanted it to be like it was before Vietnam, when America was proud, rich, and right.  Politically and morally right.  They looked at the rebuilding of Germany and Japan as their idea of American charity, not the Peace Corps.  They looked at Levittown as the model of domestic tranquility, not communes, Woodstock, or the Gay Liberation Front.  They saw Mrs. Cleaver as the ideal of American womanhood, not Jane Fonda.  Pluralism was all right, they guessed, but not barrier-free integration!  All this personal choice and freedom of expression led to a chaotic condition in which Doing Your Own Thing came at the expense of national solidarity, as they saw it.

 So they picked Reagan as their icon.  He brought to the office the perception that America was...

 What?  Well, absolute in its defense of Freedom--as long as only certain freedoms were exercised.  Translated into the field, it meant a renewed commitment against Communism.  Dictators who were friendly to markets were okay if distasteful.  We could fix them eventually, after the Soviet Bear has fallen to our well-aimed hunting rifle.  Destroying the Soviet Union was the thing.  It was the only system offering any kind of legitimate alternative to our own and while we had our suspicions that it wasn't working too well, we didn't know.  Moscow's disinformation system had been extremely effective in fooling the world into thinking they were on the verge of being capable of conquering the world.  We really had no idea how fragile they were.

 Direction.  Okay, this is what America stands for.  Unambiguously.

 We really don't like ambiguity.  We prefer bold gestures based on some sort of moral certitude.  Doesn't seem to matter if the facts underlying that certitude are bogus or insubstantial.  What counts is Doing Something.

 Reagan Did Something.  And a lot of people made a lot of money in the Eighties.  The people who put him in office.  The people who have made up the core backing for the current administration, who like the gross inequities Reaganomics created.

 The reassessment he's going through in the wake of his death is stunning in its collective amnesia.  Under Reagan, veteran's benefits were cut (why is that, that the most hawkish presidents seem incapable of supporting the sinecures of veterans?), state aid was cut, welfare went through a sort of reform, the seating of conservative justices on federal benches and the supreme court began.  Iran Contra, AbScam, a near nuclear exchange that nobody remembers...not to mention the obscenity of Reagan's AIDS policies, which exacerbated the epidemic because he wouldn't tolerate anything that appeared to be pro-Gay.  The deficit rose to record levels, although not nearly what they are now, and American belligerence seeded the coming era of terrorism culminating in 9-11.  Reagan supported Saddam Hussein, even after Hussein used chemicals to slaughter his own people, because, of course, Hussein was Anti-Communist.  There is a consistent blindness throughout Reagan's administration about that--the Contras, for whom he risked a Constitutional crisis and possible impeachment for lying to Congress, were anti-Communist, and it didn't matter that they used the arms Reagan procured for them to blow up hospitals and schools.   Labor unions saw their status under Reagan decline after decades of gains--let's not forget the blanket firing of air traffic controllers, which was more about busting their union than anything to do with national interest.  Deregulation nearly destroyed the airline industry (and it still hasn't recovered) and he began the first serious curtailments of environmental protections.  And who could forget the gutting of school lunch programs and the famous (infamous?) “Ketchup is a vegetable” line?

 And Reagan himself?  It is perhaps mollifying to realize that he was a throwback to the kind of America that actually believed in being charitable and tolerant.  In other words, it could have been worse.  But he was at least self-reflective enough to change or modify some of his policies in his second term, when he realized that the chestnuts he came into office with simply didn't work the way they should have.

 That said, he was trapped by the decisiveness of the conservative movement that put him in office.  For them, all the hurt done to minorities, the environment, the economy was to the good, to their good.  As long as the true Citizen was doing okay, Reagan was fine.

 Which brings me back to the initial point of citizenship.  Reagan's politics developed a twist on the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer.  Two centuries past time, though, it didn't translate very well, but the ideal was there, buried in all the neocon aggressiveness.  Poverty, in this view, is not a consequence of The System, but a personal failing.  It's a self-centered ideology that looks at one's life and says “Look, I've worked very hard and see what I have?  It's the work that does it.  I've done this myself.  So can you.  And if you don't. then the choice is yours.  I'm not responsible.”  Poverty becomes, then, a moral judgement.  If you haven't got anything, you must be doing something wrong.

 Tell that to the people who worked for Ken Lay.  They did everything they thought they were supposed to do--and now have, if not nothing, at least not what they thought they should have.  While Ken Lay apparently did everything wrong and nearly ended up with everything.

 It's all image, though.  Perception.  And the perception machine is rolling along nicely for Ronald Reagan.  He's still being remade into the image of what Americans want to think themselves to be.

 Shorn of that Americanness of which he was one of the last, though, all we are left with is the blatant greed and intolerance of those who despise ambiguity and embrace direction at any cost, just so they can set the tone and define the character of the nation.  Because they see themselves as True Citizens, and as True Citizens they get to say what is right.

 What is right?  Marriage is between one man and one woman; markets are natural things that suffer when the government interferes; the poor cannot be saved since they are somehow corrupt; a woman does not have the right to control her own body (nor, really, does a man); God is on our side (no matter what we do); and there were weapons of mass destruction.  Money is good, especially in the hands of those who know how to use it, and preemption only makes sense in such a dangerous world, no matter who gets caught in the crossfire.  Entitlements are always bad and private charity, even when inadequate, the only moral way to alleviate social ills.  Education is a good thing as long it doesn't cost too much. And privacy is to be cherished as long as no one wants to do anything counter to the Religious Right or John Ashcroft's paranoid suspicions of individual liberty.

 In such an environment, money can be made.  And if we're making money, everything much be just fine.  The Citizens are happy.  Am I right?

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann