Every so often, people ask me for suggestions for the best books to read about modern American politics. For what it’s worth, I usually refer them to the efforts by E.J. Dionne jr. and Godfrey Hodgson to explain the crisis of American liberalism and other big themes in US politics over the last 40 years. Then there is another suggestion, that usually takes people by surprise: to read just about anything that is well-written about Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan.
Following my own advice, I am currently reading Nixonland, a brilliant new work by Rick Perlstein. He explains the secret of Nixon’s electoral success, articulating the resentments and rages of the "silent majority", and describes his toxic political legacy. In bringing the America of the late 1960s and early 1970s to life, Perlstein provides a stark insight into the underlying divisions of modern US politics. He traces the brutal, vindictive and over-personalised nature of much of its political discourse back to Nixon’s campaigning. We should also remember that over the last forty years, forms of this cynical brand of wedge politics has oozed across to the UK, Australia and New Zealand. (Remember the 2005 Conservative campaign? The 2005 NZ National Party campaign? John Howard?) Still, Americans do not live in the age of Nixon: Watergate saw to that. And the politics of race and gender have moved on significantly.
So, on to my other suggestion: the importance of Ronald Reagan and what he achieved. In the almost-twenty years since he left the White House, most analysis of Reagan has been heavily partisan. Now a liberal historian and active Democrat, Sean Wilentz, has produced The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. This marvellous, incisive book focuses on presidential politics and argues -- convincingly in my view – that, Reagan is the dominant, defining figure of modern American politics. The main contours of policy - tax breaks for corporations, a “unitary executive” theory of presidential power, welfare cuts, a federal judiciary heading rightward –date from the Reagan years.
Wilentz says that Reagan "cemented the alliance between social conservatives and economic libertarian conservatives" and thereby completed the enlargement of the conservative movement. Such was the basis of his two landslide victories. The same movement enabled both Bushes to win the White House. Bill Clinton won two elections but from 1994 on, he faced a conservative Republican Congress, which made for a presidency that was very different from the one he may have planned. Clinton had to duck, weave and, yes, triangulate with this new conservatism. He did not fundamentally alter Reagan’s legacy and in some ways managed and extended it. (See: Welfare Reform Act 1996). The right has also consolidated its power by politicising the process for appointing federal judges. B This year, John McCain, along with all the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, claimed to be the true heir of Reagan.
Wilentz explains in detail how and why Reagan cast aside the old wisdoms regarding nuclear warfare and the Soviet Union and began to end the cold war. Along the way, the book demolishes some conservative myths. America's renewed militarism after 1981 did not bring about the end of communism. The Soviet economy was already collapsing and could not pay the massive defence bills that the cold war demanded. Reagan had high ideals that the nuclear arms race had to end (partly fostered by films like The Day The Earth Stood Still!) and, when Gorbachev arrived on he scene, he seized the opportunity to act on them.
UK readers, who live in the Age of Thatcher, will see some familiar parallels in the way Reagan reshaped the guiding assumptions of economic policy. (So will NZ readers, living in the Age of Douglas.) For example, thanks to largely to Reagan, the idea that reducing taxes on the rich will cure all economic ills has moved to the mainstream of American political thinking; so has the theory of economic deregulation. His abilities as a communicator enabled Reagan to win elections and prevail in the battle of ideas. Yet he was not a popular president by historical standards.
Wilentz puts Reagan’s success down to his "distinctive blend of dogma, pragmatism, and, above all, mythology". His conservative followers have carried on telling and building on these stories, thereby keeping control of the political debate.
On top of that, the right have played hardball politics. Another theme in Wilentz’s book is the number of politically-charged constitutional confrontations that America has seen since Watergate. In the Iran-Contra affair (in which, he is sure, the president was always a key conspirator) Reagan’s henchmen threatened to launch "an ambitious, permanent secret military operation, which would allow the White House to pursue every variety of covert operation completely free of congressional scrutiny or any constitutional constraint" [Oliver North]. In the fight against “communism”, the ends would justify the means. But Reagan ultimately got away it, partly because of blunders by Senate Democrats.
The right’s ruthless determination to win, if not to change the political order was also seen with the Clinton impeachment and the Supreme Court’s highly dubious decision to halt the effort to learn who won the 2000 election. In neither case was Reagan present and Wilentz may be going a little far in claiming that the right’s zeal had its roots in Reagan’s triumphs. Also, the age of Reagan has not seen liberalism routed altogether; the truth is that Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes all faced big shifts in their political fortunes. So have their causes. Wiltentz shows how on the Clinton impeachment, Newt Gingrich and co over-reached and lost both the trial and the political battle. Yes, in 2000, Republican justices effectively handed the White House to George W. Bush. But Bush II has revived liberals’ political fervor.
The reasons for Reagan’s ultimate victory were about economics as much as politics. Wilentz is less strong on economic, financial and social policies than on other areas. Still, he shows how Reagan’s drive to cut taxes (for the wealthy) while massively increasing military spending came at the expense of social programs. The American economy revived under Reagan but that was mainly due to the policies of Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve (appointed by Jimmy Carter). And the wealthiest Americans benefited most from the new prosperity. Meanwhile, most of Reagan’s deregulation policies ended in tears, especially in the banking sector. His successors had to deal with the savings and loan disaster.
Above all, Reagan left behind massive fiscal deficits. Wilentz argues that “Reagan’s fiscal policies left an enduring legacy to future lawmakers” that is, Democrats – “who might wish to build any new social programs even remotely resembling those of the New Deal or the Great Society”. Sure enough, George H.W. Bush had to raise taxes, which arguably cost him the 1992 election. Bill Clinton’s record in social policy was severely constricted by Reagan’s fiscal legacy. And Barack Obama hardly promises an FDR-style New Deal.
Wilentz discusses the domestic policies of George W. Bush only briefly and depicts them as a reheated, radicalised form of Reaganism. They may also be the last gasp of an old new order. With his own massive deficits, failures on social security reform, scandals, mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and, of course, the credit crunch, Bush has disgraced Reagan’s legacy and placed it in real danger. OK, Wilentz shows how the legacy started to unravel in the 1990s and I have seen many predictions that the age of Reagan is about to end. (I recall some from 1982!) For all the Republicans’ problems, the 2008 election is still up for grabs, the way ahead unclear. But as E.J. Dionne jr. argued on Friday, the core assumptions that have dominated economic and financial policy debates for thirty years are falling away in the wake of the Great Panic -- even if the media don’t fully realise it. The script is about to be rewritten. But who will write it and what will they say? I wonder what Barack Obama thinks about that.
The Age of Reagan A History, 1974-2008. By Sean Wilentz.
Illustrated. 564 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers.