Myths can be harmful. And perhaps the most damaging myth in modern American history is this: Ronald Reagan was a great president.
The Reagan myth machine has been in high gear as we recently passed the centennial of the 40th president's birth. If you already are sick of hearing about Reagan, brace yourself because the real hosannas haven't even begun yet. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation will host official birthday celebrations and tours in Simi Valley, California on March 9, April 20, and May 19.
Reagan came to power largely on the strength of a question he asked of Americans, to great effect, during a debate with Jimmy Carter: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" (See video below.)
Perhaps it's time for Americans to ask this question: "Are we better off than we were 30 years ago, when Reagan took office?" The answer is a resounding no. And that question is particularly powerful when you consider that two of "The Gipper's" successors--George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush--practiced what might charitably be called "refried Reaganism."
In essence, America has been ruled by Reagan's ideas for 20 of the past 30 years--and even Democrats in the White House during that time have moved way to the right of genuine progressive ideas. Where has it gotten us? On a road to destruction, says veteran journalist Robert Parry, who broke many of the stories about the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s.
Numerous reports have been issued in recent months about negative U.S. trends that started roughly around 1980. That's not an accident, Parry says, because that's the year Reagan took office. Parry makes his case in a recent article at Consortium News titled "Ronald Reagan's 30-Year Time Bombs." Writes Parry:
The time element of “30 years” keeps slipping into American official reports and news stories about the origins of crises--the latest in “The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report”--but rarely is the relevance of the three-decade span explained, and there is a reason.
The failure to close the circle in saying who started the nation off on the path toward these disasters is because nearly everyone shies away from blaming Ronald Reagan for almost anything.
Robert Reich, former labor secretary under President Clinton, picked up on the 30-year theme in a recent article titled "How Democrats Can Become Relevant Again." They can start, Reich essentially is saying, by undoing what Ronald Reagan set in motion:
Democrats have become irrelevant. If they want to be relevant again they have to connect the dots: The explosion of income and wealth among America's super-rich, the dramatic drop in their tax rates, the consequential devastating budget squeezes in Washington and in state capitals, and the slashing of public services for the middle class and the poor.
It is not a complicated story. Begin with what's happened to the typical American, whose wages have been stagnant for thirty years. Today's typical 30-year-old male (if he has a job) is earning the same as a 30-year-old male earned three decades ago, adjusted for for inflation. (Although women are doing better than they did 30 years ago, their wages still trail men's.)
The bottom 90 percent of Americans now earn, on average, only about $280 more per year than they did thirty years ago. That's less than a 1 percent gain over more than a third of a century. Families are doing somewhat better but that's only because so many families now have to rely on two incomes.
How did this happen? It started with Reagan, and Reich lays it out in stark, cold numbers:
Given this explosion of income at the top you might think our tax system would demand a larger share from them. But you'd be wrong. You're not taking account of the power of the super rich. As income and wealth have risen to the top, so has political power. As a result, their taxes have plummeted.
From the 1940s until 1980, the tax rate on the highest earners in America was 70 percent or higher. In the 1950s, it was 91 percent. Even if you include deductions and credits, the rich were paying a far higher share of their income than at any time since.
Under Ronald Reagan the top rate dropped to 28 percent. Under Bill Clinton it rose to 39 percent and then under George W. Bush dropped to 36 percent. As you recall, Republicans have managed to keep it there. Their avowed aim is to keep it there permanently.
Meanwhile, estate taxes (which hit only the top 2 percent) have been slashed, as have taxes on capital gains--which comprise most of the income of the super rich. In the late 1970s, capital gains were taxed at well over 35 percent. Under Bill Clinton, the capital gains rate was 20 percent. Now it's 15 percent.
Criticizing Reagan amounts to political suicide, Parry writes. Even many liberals are afraid to do it. And that helps fuel the destructive myth machine:
But the truth is that Reagan’s current historical reputation rests more on the effectiveness of the Republican propaganda machine--and the timidity of many Democrats and media personalities--than on his actual record of accomplishments.
Indeed, many of today’s worst national and international problems can be traced to misjudgments and malfeasance from the Reagan years--from the swelling national debt to out-of-control banks, from the decline of the U.S. middle class to the inaction on energy independence, from the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
All of these disasters are part of the Reagan Legacy. Yet, possibly the most insidious residue from the Reagan Years was the concept of manipulating information--what some Reagan officials liked to call “perception management”--as a means of societal control.
The manipulation of information has come to be known as "spin," and it permeates American society. We now are a nation of liars and cheats--many of them, including judges, in positions of power--and it started, to a great extent, with Reagan. Writes Parry:
Reagan’s team took aim at two key entities--the CIA’s analytical division and the Washington press corps--with the realization that if the information produced and disseminated by those two groups could be controlled then the insider community of Washington and the broader American public could be managed.
That enabled the Reagan administration to exaggerate the threat posed by the Soviet Union (after Reagan’s CIA chief William Casey and his deputy Robert Gates purged many of the CIA analysts who correctly saw a decaying empire eager for accommodation with the West).
Similarly, well-financed right-wing operatives and administration officials worked to marginalize mainstream journalists (the “liberal press”) who raised troublesome questions about Reagan’s domestic and foreign policies.
What's the result? Citizens are easily misled, and America has become virtually ungovernable:
The impact of these information strategies had deadly consequences even years later, such as when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney essentially dictated the intelligence “analysis” on Iraq’s WMD to the CIA and the Washington press corps fell in line behind the march to war.
Even today, President Barack Obama complains that his options for addressing the nation’s growing problems are limited by what he calls the Reagan "narrative,” demonizing government.
The presidents who immediately preceded Reagan deserve more credit than they get, Parry writes:
However, if future historians are fair (and that is no sure thing), the re-evaluation of Ronald Reagan should start with a reassessment of the “failed” presidents from the 1970s--Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. All may deserve more credit than they got for trying to grapple with problems that now bedevil the country.
For instance, Nixon, Ford and Carter won scant praise for addressing the systemic challenges from America’s oil dependence, environmental degradation, the arms race, and nuclear proliferation--all issues that Reagan essentially ignored and that now threaten the future of America and the planet.
These presidents also followed a generally moderate course on economic policies, finding bipartisan approaches to challenges like inflation and budget deficits, which were a tiny fraction of today's numbers.
Indeed, Reagan's most severe damage might have been inflicted on our nation's economy. Since 1980, deficits have soared, income-inequality has grown to historic levels, and the middle class has gone into a state of seemingly perpetual decline. The deregulation craze that started with Reagan led directly to the financial crisis of 2008, in which we still are mired.
In terms of our national psyche, Reagan helped foster a sense of white grievance that gave birth to the Tea Party movement and coarsened our political discourse. Perhaps more importantly, it caused many middle-class whites to routinely vote against their own economic interests. Writes Parry:
The American Dream also dimmed during Reagan’s tenure.
While he played the role of the nation’s kindly grandfather, his operatives divided the American people, using “wedge issues” to deepen grievances especially of white men who were encouraged to see themselves as victims of “reverse discrimination” and “political correctness.”
Yet even as working-class white men were rallying to the Republican banner (as so-called “Reagan Democrats”), their economic interests were being savaged. Unions were broken and marginalized; “free trade” policies shipped manufacturing jobs abroad; old neighborhoods were decaying; drug use among the young was soaring.
Americans rejected Republicans in the 2008 election, blaming George W. Bush and his followers for the mortgage crisis and other economic ills. But Bush simply was following a script that had been written by Reagan:
Meanwhile, unprecedented greed was unleashed on Wall Street, fraying old-fashioned bonds between company owners and employees.
Before Reagan, corporate CEOs earned less than 50 times the salary of an average worker. By the end of the Reagan-Bush-I administrations in 1993, the average CEO salary was more than 100 times that of a typical worker. (At the end of the Bush-II administration, that CEO-salary figure was more than 250 times that of an average worker.)
What about that report on the current financial crisis? Parry sums up its findings:
The majority report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission blamed the banking crisis, in part, on “30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation.” (Not surprisingly, the four Republicans on the commission refused to sign on, seeking to lay greater blame on government policies for encouraging home ownership.)
How powerful is the Reagan myth? He encouraged many whites to essentially slit their own economic throats--and they did it. Many are still doing it, and they continue to shy away from the truth about Reagan? Will they soon come to their senses? Probably not, writes Parry:
Republicans continue to enforce the notion that Reagan is an untouchable icon, that his memory and his policies must be revered. After the GOP gained control of Congress in 1994, the party rushed to name as many public sites after Reagan as possible, seeking to elevate their hero to the stature of martyred leaders like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. . . .
It may take many more years before a mainstream politician or a journalist who cares about future employment dares speak truthfully about Reagan and the grievous harm that his presidency inflicted on the American Republic and the people of the Earth.
Where have 30 years of Reaganism left us? Robert Reich sums it up:
So who's going to foot the bill for everything we need? Even before the Great Recession, the middle class's share of the nation's total income had shrunk. Yet their tax burden had grown. They were paying a bigger chunk of their incomes in payroll taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes than decades before.
Then came the Great Recession--and with it, lower tax revenues. That means all levels of government are squeezed. Obviously, the middle class can't pay more in taxes. But because the Democrats seem to lack the intestinal fortitude to suggest the obvious--that taxes need to be raised on the super rich --we're left with a mess.
Indeed, we are in a mess. And Americans need to be reminded when the seeds of our current mess were planted. Here is a video of the moment that pretty much ensured Ronald Reagan's rise to the White House. And America gradually has been heading down the crapper ever since: