The Man Who Was Responsible for Dividing the Country ... into Reaganite Republicans and Reaganite Democrats


Mr. Jensen is emeritus professor of history at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

American politics today is evenly split into two camps, the Republican Reaganites and the Democratic Reaganites. Start with economics—no one had to tell Reagan, “it’s the economy, stupid!” Reagan’s first challenge was mending an economy in such deep trouble that most observers thought the country was permanently stagnating relative to its stronger competitors. Stagflation in 1980 was a combination of inflation and high unemployment. The Keynesian model said it was impossible: the theory was that the “Phillips curve” taught that you could always trade one for the other. Yet inflation was out of control and interest rates had soared to nearly 20 percent, making long-range planning almost impossible for corporations, and home mortgages prohibitively expensive for young couples. Reality destroyed Keynesianism; today it’s as dead as socialism. Critics said Reagan would need voodoo to slay that monster; his voodoo worked and it is the Democratic Reaganites (like Robert Rubin) who today warn against fiscal policies that threaten to raise interest rates again.

Reagan railed against the federal deficit—his screeds are echoed almost word for word by the Democratic Reaganites these days. (Government debt is indeed hurtful when interest rates are as high as they were in 1980; when they are as low as they are today, the debt is not much of a burden to ourselves or our grandchildren.) Reagan preached Supply Side Economics that combined basic themes of republicanism and efficiency. In terms of political ethics it reflected Grover Cleveland’s dictum that unnecessary taxation is unjust taxation—it is a corruption and an evil. In the name of efficiency, supply siders argued that cutting taxes would permanently boost the economy by releasing entrepreneurial spirits. The Republican Reaganites of course hold faithfully to the creed. Most Democrats, like John Kerry, have accepted it. (Kerry says he will only raise taxes on the undeserving super-rich, thus neutralizing the idea that unnecessary taxes are a corruption.) As for the empirical results of Supply Side, note that federal revenues, after declining in the first year after Reagan’s massive tax cuts, rebounded strongly – as predicted. Indeed, the economy that caused so much malaise in 1980 was roaring back in 1984: America was back, stronger than ever. The voters of 1984 of course realized that; 49 states rejected the old New Dealer, Walter Mondale.

The New Deal was largely reversed during the Reagan years. He did preserve the Social Security system, which was in danger of collapse. Thanks to a universally accepted compromise designed by his chief economist, Reagan and Congress raised the retirement age and thus dramatically reduced the future payouts and stabilized the system. That is Reagan lowered the implicit national debt. Reversing the hoary adage of the Progressive Era, he proclaimed, "Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” He was an enemy of the welfare state—he cut some budgets and most important he transformed the terms of the debate.

Reagan’s redefinition of welfare as corrupt and inefficient allowed the triumph of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in 1995, when they abolished the most egregious features that perpetuated a cycle of poverty and dependence. No leading Democrat to the right of Dennis Kucinich now speaks of returning to the old system. Reagan was the foremost enemy of the regulatory state. He built a bipartisan coalition that swept away most of the remaining New Deal controls holding back industries such as banking, airlines, telecommunications, and trucking. People have complained about some of the effects, but no one wants to turn back the clock. As a trust-buster Reagan scored the biggest success since President Taft dissolved Standard Oil in 1911 by breaking up ATT, the New Deal’s favorite monopoly. Simultaneously he dropped the punitive attacks on big business that had characterized New Deal Democrats like Lyndon Johnson. (In his last week in office LBJ started a massive antitrust suit to break up IBM.. Seeing it as an unfair attack on entrepreneurial success, Reagan dropped the suit.)

Reagan was the one who finally buried the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. Recall that the New Deal had also strongly opposed it, albeit for different reasons. Did women need special protection or could they achieve the American dream without special protections? Women soared under his watch. The enrollment of women in law school, business school, medical schools and the military rocketed upwards. This achievement was ignored by the militant feminists, who ideologically were unable to celebrate middle class success. But even they stood in awe when Reagan moved the Supreme Court to the right by making his first nomination--a conservative woman whom everyone had to vote for. He finalized conservative control by promoting William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, not to mention hundreds of young conservative lawyers who reshaped the federal district and appeals courts. Reagan’s judicial triumphs helped eventually to reverse the crime wave. After getting blown apart by the way Michael Dukakis mishandled the explosive crime issue in 1988, Democrats sought safety under the Reaganite umbrella. Today they nominate tough prosecutors like Kerry and take credit for adding 100,000 new police officers, building hundreds of thousands of new prison cells, and keeping them filled so that our streets are no longer so fearsome.

In foreign policy Reagan’s critics warned of Armageddon, making hysterical charges that he would destroy détente, ruin relations with our allies, and bring the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. He did put détente on hold until Moscow did a 180 degree about face; then he rewarded Gorbachev with a series of astonishing arms reduction deals and set up the end of the Cold War. As for the allies, he did convince NATO countries to accept new missiles over the vehement protests of the peace movement and anti-American forces. More important in the long run was Reagan’s success in forging a special relationship with Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, setting up a partnership that to this day underpins the Bush-Blair alliance. The Democratic Reaganites hail Reagan’s achievement in ending the Cold War. In 1991 Jimmy Carter proclaimed, "Under President Ronald Reagan, the nation stayed strong and resolute and made possible the end of the Cold War." Just yesterday Kerry said Reagan had “shaped one of the greatest victories of freedom." They attribute Reagan’s triumph to his being inspired by Democratic Cold Warriors like Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, John Kennedy and Paul Nitze—which surely is more accurate than saying Reagan followed the Republican isolationist guidance of Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft. However I suggest the Democratic Reaganites misread history. Reagan after 1960 rejected containment, and came much closer to the ideas of James Burnham (of the National Review). Barry Goldwater was getting his “Why Not Victory” ideas from the same source, but lacked Reagan’s uncanny ability to disarm his critics. Reagan attacked Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger in 1976, and Carter in 1980 for pushing détente and setting up the humiliations suffered during the 1970s. That all ended with Reagan’s new policy of rollback. He started with Grenada in 1983—a small move militarily but the greatest policy shift in a generation, one that stunned the world and shocked the Soviets into totally rethinking their entire system. He put heavy economic or even military pressure against Communist regimes in Afghanistan, Poland, Latin America, and indeed everywhere. The longstanding argument against rollback was that it mean nuclear war. Reagan found just the right formula—Star Wars, combined with a massive increase in high tech warfare and a new offensive mission for American military might. Star Wars was funded and is going forward right now--all the major Democratic candidates this year supported it (including Howard Dean). Clinton gingerly adopted rollback when he secured Congressional approval in 1998 for a policy of regime change in Iraq; it was George W. Bush who wholeheartedly endorsed rollback, winning two wars (against adversaries as strong as Vietnam) with support from most Democratic leaders. Kerry has supported Bush’s basic strategy in the Mideast, complaining that Bush handled Iraq and terrorism inefficiently. Kerry’s solution is to add even more troops, attack terrorists more aggressively, and to modernize the military even faster than Reagan. Only a few Democrats recoil away from the this Reaganite vision of American moralism triumphant. Kucinich is the most articulate foe; along with Ralph Nader and Michael Moore; they speak for the anti-Reaganite remnant of the once dominant New Deal movement.

Reagan made Americans proud again. The malaise was gone, forgotten as the economic demons were slain and foreign enemies faltered. Many occasions of national pride and unity found the ideal spokesman in the White House. He went to Europe for his best platforms: telling the British that the last pages of Soviet history were now being written, demanding that Gorbachev “tear down this Wall,” commemorating the heroes of the Normandy beaches twenty years ago today . Reagan personalized American politics—asking not if the statistical indicators were a few points higher, but if you personally felt better off than four years before. No Reaganite, Democrat or Republican, has matched his eloquence with the single exception of Bush’s address to the Congress after 9-11. Ronald Reagan redefined the two core values of American politics, republicanism and efficiency. For the last two decades every major politician has worked in terms of his ideas and his values, and, with a show of the optimism he made famous, we can expect his vision will guide the nation for decades to come as we try to Win One for the Gipper.

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andy mahan - 9/18/2006

What a good article. Jensen's tribute is succinct and accurate. It hadn't occurred to me earlier, but it is true that not only has Reagan transformed the Republican Party but the Democrat as well. Jensen's foresight that "we can expect his vision will guide the nation for decades to come" is a fact. His influence has completely changed the world. God bless Ronald Wilson Reagan.

andy mahan - 9/18/2006

Thanks Mr. Thomas for your clear, honest, well thought out piece. I agree, when good people sit by quietly and allow others to subvert the morality of society it drags down all of society. Good people should more actively and directly confront the lies and evil intensions of Marxism. We should dispose of the idea that they are protected by the first amendment to spread those lies and meet them headlong in the marketplace of ideas.

andy mahan - 9/18/2006

At the risk appearing unable to recognize a joke, let me say that the above is nothing but self-aggrandizement. How about a little humility you trash talking historian. I do not intend to insult you Mr. Dresner, but viewpoints as expressed above are based in ignorance and prejudice in their most literal senses. Ignorance because one couldn't even know all there is to know about one’s own discipline much less all there is to know about all other disciplines necessary to make a wise comparison. Prejudice because the basis of your conclusion is not based in fact, (see above). I can appreciate a rah-rah attitude of rooting for the home team (historians). But the expression of history is not a competition. It should simply be an honest attempt to assess and reflect past occurrences accurately. Where in that charge is there room for your claim of superiority?

Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

I have returned to this board for one time only to comment on the passing of Ronald Reagan, the second greatest son of my native state of Illinois.

Like many who have addressed this board, as a young man I spoke of Reagan with disdain and contempt. I was very wrong, and so are you. The stink of Marxism dominates the academics who write on this board. Mr. Reagan was completely correct in labelling Marxism a criminal ideology. The comments of the "professional historians" on this site provide a chilling glimpse into an academe that has no moral bearings and no sense, not even that kind of sense we might expect from a factory worker. In fact, given the romantic yearning for Marxism constantly expressed by Messrs. Chamberlain, Dresner and Catsam, I wonder if we wouldn't be better off without history departments. While we do need to teach our young the importance of dissent, we also need a brand of dissent that is not morally contemptible.

Ridding the public discourse of Marxism is the primary moral work of the coming years. No moral or intelligent person speaks this discourse. I am not speaking here of censorship. I am talking about public disgust. Just as Nazism is driven from the public arena by public disgust, Marxism should be purged simply through moral shaming.

Few men have been as thoroughly vindicated as Ronald Reagan, and with good reason. He knew good from evil. When I was growing up in central Illinois, my father constantly told me the story of Honest Abe and his humble beginnings. And he always ended the story by telling me that even the humble son of a poor man can become president of the United States. Thanks, President Reagan for proving my father right.

I've read the opinions of the historians on this site, and it's not a pretty picture. The moral ignorance is astonishing. The tearful hankerings for a Marxist Nicaragua are just about obscene. I am comforted by the reality the Dutch beat your butts, and he beat your butts good. The good guys won. And, let's be frank, the Marxist doggeral about the "oppressed and poor" is opportunism. Marxists pray for class war and race war so that when chaos ensues they can seize absolute power. Marxism is not the elixir for the poor and oppressed. That elixir is freedom and capitalism.

So, professional historians, Ronald Reagan was many, many times wiser than you. Thank God that the American people mostly ignore you.

And, God bless the Great Liberator.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/13/2004

Someone (I'm away from my quotations file) said, "God cannot change the past, but historians can. Perhaps that is why He tolerates their existence."

I do not believe that historians are in any way divine, but I do believe that their wisdom, collectively and in the long run, outshines that of any other discipline. Or population.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/10/2004

Mr. Kipper, I respect individuals. I also know what horrors and follies aggregations of individuals can commit. Think about it. The statement of my colleague, Jonathan Dresner, suggests that the retrospective judgment of historians may have the critical distance on emotional subjects that contemporary eulogies lack. And, until we know the judgment of God, I'll take the judgments of the historians as interim wisdom. Or, is that argument too nuanced for you?

O. Gene Clanton - 6/9/2004

Surely Richard Jensen is pulling our leg? The Illinois professor would have us believe that virtually everyone has become either a Reagan Republican or a Reagan Democrat. Stagflation of the 1980s was cured by Supply Side Economics and Keynesian Economics has been rendered obsolete. Most of the New Deal has been reversed, the General Welfare or regulatory state is a thing of the dreaded past, deficits really don't matter as long as the interest rate is low, and Reaganites advanced the cause of women by defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. In foreign affairs, rollback has replaced containment and detente, and the vision of the Reaganites will remain the nation's masterplan "for decades to come." The future and the world, he suggests, belongs to the neo-conservatives.

Someone should introduce Jensen to what has been called perverse or reverse Keynesianism, as well as the old notion of "trickle-down" economics. Likewise, me thinks he should work real hard at separating rhetoric from reality, in the world of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Unfortunately, we've moved a considerable distance to the Right since the presidency of Reagan but one would hope we haven't moved quite as far toward neo-fascism and/or neo-conservatism as Jensen would appear to believe--maybe even hope. Who's sleep walking through history now?

Gene Clanton, emeritus professor of history, Washington State University

John Stephen Kipper - 6/9/2004

Mr. Luker, a really interesting comment. I just don't know how you can read my comment and interpret it to mean that I implied that the public opinion trumped the Almighty. I refered to Dresner's argument that historians' judgements must suffice in the absence of Divine explication. I put my faith in the sincere outpouring of respect from the public for the President. Surely you can see this difference. Or maybe the argument is too nuanced for you. After all, I thought that you were an advocate of the nobility of the individual.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/8/2004

Mr. Kipper, a really interesting comment. Do I read it correctly? Do you really feel that the judgement of "the public" is co-equal to the judgement of the Almighty?

John Stephen Kipper - 6/7/2004

Mr Dresner, a really interesting comment. Do I read it correctly, do you really feel the judgement of historians ranks directly below the jugement of the Almighty? What an elevated position, the historian as demi-god or archangel. I suppose that this means the public has no legitimate veiwpoint. You remember the public, don't you. They are the thousands of people paying their respects in Simi Valley.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/7/2004

Since it is not given to us to know the judgement of God, nor do most theologies posit God's judgement based on policy effectiveness, the judgement of historians must suffice.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/6/2004

My intent was less to light a candle for Ortega (who is still alive, the last I heard) as to underscore the willingness of Americans to discount the harm that our leaders have sometimes done in pursuit of their goals. I felt that Richard Jensen's eulogy was an example of that discounting.

In the 1980s, Reagan's supporters could and did claim that the evil of Communist ideology could only be met with evil tactics. But now we claim to be fighing terrorism, that is the use of those tactics, itself. That is a far greater challenge, and Reagan's legacy in Central America is now a burden in meeting that challenge.

One of the problems that President Bush is having with the War on Terrorism is that too many people elsewhere in the world look at our past. They know that Reagan's policy, in the case of Nicaragua, combined noble rhetoric with terrorist tactics. They look at Bush's actions today and wonder if the same thing is true.

Postscript: Most of our military's behavior in Iraq and, I think, Afghanistan would bely such suspicions. Our imprisonment policies, even without the recent horrors, would tend to provide fuel for them.

Charles McCant - 6/6/2004

President Reagan put forth policies that his advisors and supporters thought were "good for America." Many persons opposed his ideas and policies to this day. God will be the final arbiter on President Reagan not historians and Americans.

One lasting legacy of President Reagan is how it was during his administration, 1981-1989, that the Republican Party’s ideology went from representing all Americans to representing a select few. I cannot prove that President Reagan was responsible for the swift change, but persons in his administration certainly perpetuated the ideology and it lives on today.

Overall, President Reagan was an effective leader. He also was directly responsible for the fall of Soviet Union.

God Bless President Reagan

Jonathan Dresner - 6/6/2004

Jensen writes: "He built a bipartisan coalition that swept away most of the remaining New Deal controls holding back industries such as banking, airlines, telecommunications, and trucking. People have complained about some of the effects, but no one wants to turn back the clock."

No one? We don't even know what the effects add up to yet: we may yet want to turn back that particular clock, but we will probably have lost the power to do so.

Jerry Lee Bowyer - 6/6/2004

When the people of Nicaragua finally did get a chance to vote, they rejected the Sandanistas utterly. I can't believe some aging leftie still burns a torch for them and chooses today to wave it around.

Grant W Jones - 6/6/2004

"he knew what the contras were doing in Nicaragua," attempting to overthrow a brutal Marxist dictatorship. "Rape, murder, and wanton destruction," tell that to the Miskito indians.

You might direct some your moral outrage at those that operated the notorious "chiquitas."

It was a nasty civil war, no doubt. The Contras did police there own. While the Ortega brothers, like all commies, instituted terror as formal policy. Who misses those fucking Sandinistas?

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/6/2004

And Reagan's life was remarkable.

But in the mix of paeans and requiems, let us have a small moment of memory for the victims of the terrorism we paid for in Nicaragua. There the tactics Reagan knowingly supported--both legally and illegally--were rape, murder, and wanton destruction.

And I don't want to hear any plausible deniability garbage. At least through his first term he was suprememly competent. He knew what what the contras were doing in Nicaragua; he knew that if they did it long enough enough Nicaraguans would change sides for us to win. Therefore he wanted them to do it.

And it worked.