The Public Eye: Ronald Reagan: Setting the Record Straight

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday March 01, 2011 - 11:20:00 PM

Shakespeare wrote, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” In American politics the process is reversed, as the longer a President is out of office the more his reputation is sanitized. Tricky Dick Nixon is recast as a “statesman.” And Ronald Reagan, who did more than any contemporary President to kill the American dream, is elevated to sainthood. 

February 6th was Reagan’s 100th birthday. Throughout the US he was eulogized as a font of optimism; remembered for his promise “it’s morning in America.” For this reason it’s a good time to tell the truth about Ronald Reagan, to set the record straight, because many onerous US problems are his responsibility. 

Reagan was a popular President, despite the fact that throughout his tenure most voters disagreed with his policies. Reagan got what he wanted from Congress because he had an affable manner, was an effective speaker, and could deliver the most egregious lie with a straight face. Of course, Ronald Reagan was an actor made famous as a spokesman for General Electric and their nuclear power program, where “progress is our most important product.” 

Regan’s archconservative ideology has had a devastating impact on America: dogmatic advocacy of unlimited defense spending; unwarranted faith in the free market; and exaggerated emphasis on “traditional” values. 

Military Budget: During his first term as President, Reagan dramatically escalated the “Cold War” with the USSR and increased weapon-related expenditures. Some say the resulting arms race precipitated the economic demise of the Soviet Union. Whatever the reality, no one doubts that the spending spree produced the zenith of American “empire” where the US military budget was more than that of all other nations combined. 

As a consequence of Reagan’s policies, America continues to spend billions on “defense,” even though the Soviet Union has ceased to exist and there is no comparable threat to our security – fighting “terrorism” requires far fewer resources. Nonetheless, the Department of Defense remains America’s sacred cow. Politicians fear to challenge DOD expenditures less their manhood be questioned and their reelection prospects diminished. 

Ronald Reagan is gone but his military policies continue. Now it’s the US, rather than the USSR, that teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. And, like the former Soviet Union, America has wasted billions on a bloated military while vital infrastructure projects were not funded. 

Free Market Economics: During the Reagan presidency, conservative economists infused American political discourse with three malignant notions: helping the rich get richer would inevitably help everyone else, “a rising tide lifts all boats;” markets were inherently self correcting and there was no need for government regulation; and the US did not need an economic strategy because that was a byproduct of the free market. Indeed, Reagan famously argued, “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” 

As a consequence, America’s working families were abandoned in favor of the rich. Inequality rose as middle class income and wealth declined. As corporate power increased, unions were systematically undermined. As CEO salaries soared, fewer families earned living wages. “Reaganism” produced a warped and brittle US economy, where more than two-thirds of our GDP was housing related: building, buying, and furnishing new homes or borrowing against existing homes in order to maintain a decent standard of living. (When the credit bubble burst, the debt-based consumption model failed, taking down first the housing sector and then the entire economy, resulting in catastrophic job losses.) 

Ronald Reagan had been President of the Screen Actor’s Guild, a union. Nonetheless, as President of the United States, he turned against labor and “broke” the Air Traffic Controller’s Union, thereby sending a message that Republicans were anti-labor and greatly diminishing the power of US workers. 

Traditional Values: Finally, Reagan and his GOP cohorts devised the “Southern Strategy” to win over Democrats incensed about Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Civil Rights movement. The strategy had three ideological components: support for state’s rights; stealth racism – opposition to affirmative action and the suggestion that people-of-color did not deserve the same privileges as white folks because they were “lazy;” and “traditional values.” 

Abortion and rejection of same-sex marriage are the most visible manifestations of the Republican traditional values agenda. They are the banners that herald a GOP worldview that is radically different from that of most Americans. (In his landmark book, Moral Politics University of California Linguistics Professor George Lakoff explains the elemental differences between the parties. Republicans favor a “strict father” family system, while most Democrats support a “nurturant parent” model.) 

In the Reagan worldview, the man is the unquestioned leader of the family: father, breadwinner, and protector; and women are subordinate to men, caregivers for the children and father. Reaganism is political social Darwinism that preaches that rich white men are in power because they deserve it. 

Ronald Reagan has been out of the White House for twenty-two years but his legacy lingers on, leading us down the path to “Twilight in America.” 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at