Rick Perlstein hits back at a critic of his book on Reagan

Historians in the News
tags: Rick Perlstein

In 1980, the year Ronald Reagan won his first landslide presidential victory, pollsters at National Opinion Research Corporation asked Americans whether they thought, as Reagan did, that “too much” was being spent on welfare, health, education, environmental, and urban programs. Only 21 percent did—the same percentage as had answered that way in 1976. The number that favored “keeping taxes and services about where they are” was a healthy plurality, 45 percent—the exact same result as in 1975. 

The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations did a similar poll in 1982, and found that since 1978, the year of the much-vaunted national tax revolt spearheaded by Proposition 13 in California, the percentage of Americans who wished to see welfare programs expanded rather than cut back had increased by 26 percentage points. In 1984, the year Reagan won 49 states and 59 percent of the popular vote, only 35 percent of Americans said they favored substantial cuts in social programs in order to reduce the deficit.

Given these plain facts, historiography on the rise of conservatism and the triumph of Ronald Reagan must obviously go beyond the deadening cliché that since Ronald Reagan said government was the problem, and Americans elected Ronald Reagan twice, the electorate simply agreed with him that government was the problem. But in his recent review of my book The Invisible Bridge [“A Bridge Too Far,” Issue #34], Jacob Weisberg just repeats that cliché—and others. “Rick Perlstein’s account of Reagan’s rise acknowledges his popularity,” the article states, “but doesn’t take the reasons behind it seriously enough.” Weisberg is confident those reasons are obvious. Is he right?

Begin with his opening judgment. He says Reagan’s stubborn insistence that Watergate didn’t matter was “anodyne” and “the safe political course.” Then why was he the only prominent political figure taking that position? Why did political handicappers like Rowland Evans and Robert Novak call it professional suicide, quoting aides agonizing that Reagan could go no further in his career until he made (in Evans and Novak’s words) that “politically necessary rupture”? (He never did.) Weisberg’s claim simply contradicts the record. For that matter, I did not say that there was a “deeper motive in Reagan’s evasion of the crisis.” No: It was just Reagan being Reagan. And, as I demonstrate throughout The Invisible Bridge, Reagan being Reagan—projecting blitheness in the face of what others called chaos, in addition to being a shrewd politician, a gifted rhetorician, and an inventive beneficiary of the growing organizational forces of professional conservatism—is how his candidacy for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination evolved from an improbability to a near miss, and from that to his 1980 victory. It was not some unproblematic rallying of the masses to his skepticism of government.

Weisberg dislikes my method for arriving at this conclusion, which for his taste involves far too much use of everyday contemporary media sources. “[F]or long stretches, reading this book feels like leafing through a lot of old newspapers,” he writes. Another way of understanding this, though—and, in addition to old newspapers, I’d add old newscasts, old magazines, old movies, old TV shows, old comic strips, old barroom and barbershop conversations, old shopping trips, old Mad magazines and Wacky Packages, old TV commercials and magazine ads and high school textbooks, etc.—is that I do history. I try to do it the way my methodological guide, the British philosopher R.G. Collingwood, described the ideal in his 1946 masterpiece, The Idea of History: by providing the reader occasion to empathetically “re-enact” past thought. “[R]ather than present a case,” Weisberg writes of this method, I indulge “the newsmagazine writer’s habit of substituting glib narrative for coherent argument.” Perhaps it’s a matter of taste. But for me, conveying how the headlong rush of all that was solid melting into air felt, in the nation that defeated Hitler and created the world’s first mass middle class and which had seen itself as the moral light unto the nations, is anterior to understanding how politics changed during the period under study—why supporting Reagan became a temptation even for those indifferent to top marginal tax rates or runaway government bureaucracies. You can’t separate the dancer from the dance...

Read entire article at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas