For almost 20 years after he was elected president in 1980, historians were condescending toward Ronald Reagan. Often dismissing him as a somewhat dim man who believed strange things and was more lucky than skilled in politics, they wrote little about his two administrations and waited for his influence to fade. Starting in the late 1990s, however, as the durability of the changes he had made became evident, historians slowly began to realize that Reagan had been the most consequential president since Franklin Roosevelt. Like FDR, Reagan had changed the direction of politics and society and built an electoral coalition that endured long after he was gone. As a result, historians now speak of the Age of Reagan, the period running from Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974 to the present, in which Reagan was the central character. In this narrative, he led a vigorous conservative movement that pushed aside declining liberalism, established itself as the dominant power in American politics, and forced liberals to accept the changes it had made.
The task for historians now is to fill in the details of this picture. They have much to work with, especially because the Age of Reagan has been a time of great change at all levels of American life. Politics has been driven by a large-scale battle of ideas, with conservatives and liberals clashing on economic, social, and cultural fronts. In economics, deregulation and globalization have combined with the revolution in technology to bring tremendous prosperity, while at the same time dramatically changing how people work and live. The internet arrived in the middle of this period, and not only has had an enormous commercial impact, but also has helped alter social norms and the conduct of politics. Finally, the feeling of triumph at the end of the Cold War has given way to widespread anxiety as the realization has spread that the United States faces enormous problems abroad and has no clear strategic consensus for dealing with them. Many good books have been written on various parts of these issues, but there still remains an opportunity for a sharp-eyed historian to pull these threads together and provide new insights into the course of modern American life and politics.
Sean Wilentz is a historian at Princeton University and a leading authority on pre-Civil War America whose political history of the period, The Rise of American Democracy (2005), was an impressive, though flawed, intellectual and literary achievement. Given Wilentz's skills, his new history of the United States since 1974, The Age of Reagan, should be a shrewd and penetrating look at the years of conservative power. Unfortunately, however, it turns out to be a disappointing and poorly thought out book that, despite the author's stated goal of exploring the consequences of conservatism's rise to power and identifying new issues for debate and research, says almost nothing that has not been said before.
The Age of Reagan starts promisingly. Organizing the book chronologically, Wilentz marches through the major events in American political life and foreign affairs from Nixon's resignation to the end of Bill Clinton's presidency, and finishes with a brief epilogue covering George W. Bush's presidency. This simple organization, combined with Wilentz's talent as a writer, makes the book easy to read, but the familiarity of the story extracts a heavy price. As he lays out each major episode, Wilentz becomes more caught up in the details—he covers the 1981 and 1982 tax and budget battles in ten pages, but uses 30 pages for Iran-Contra, and another 25 for the Lewinsky affair—which takes away the space he might have devoted to exploring changes in society or other fresh topics. His criticisms, whether on specific points such as Reagan's economic record, or on longer trends such as growing income inequality, also repeat many of the popular cliches of the past 25 years and show little appreciation for the large bodies of serious economic and social research that go against his points. The reader soon begins to wonder what Wilentz will say that is new, or how he will do a better job of narrative and analysis than, say, James Patterson did when he covered much of the same territory in Restless Giant (2005).
The core of the problem is that, in a book on the period of conservative ascendancy, Wilentz has almost nothing to say about conservative ideas. He makes it clear from the start that he dislikes Reagan and conservatism—Wilentz was one of Bill Clinton's most outspoken academic defenders when Clinton was impeached—but the problem goes beyond bias. He simply does not want to engage with conservative thought. The book has no discussion of the complexities of conservative thinking, how conservatism relates to modern American culture, or how conservative thought has contributed to the changes of the past three decades. Rather than ask, for example, why conservative think tanks, journals, and other institutions have displaced their liberal counterparts at the center of American politico-intellectual affairs, Wilentz just asserts that they are part of a "corporate-funded takeover" of the Republican Party, whatever that means. Nor does he look at Ronald Reagan's intellectual background—about which we have learned much from the publication of Reagan's personal writings and recent books by John Patrick Diggins and Thomas Evans—even though he is central to the story. Instead, Wilentz essentially repeats Gary Wills's argument from Reagan's America (1985) that Reaganism was based largely on nostalgia for a mythical American past, and says nothing more.
Not surprisingly, Wilentz is naïve about the interplay between ideas and policy in the American political system. He is uncomfortable with the reality that American politics rewards flexibility and that politicians, even if they are consistent in their fundamental views and ultimate goals, must make tactical shifts and compromises if they are to make any gains at all. Even as he acknowledges Reagan's political successes, Wilentz criticizes him as intellectually inconsistent without admitting that there might be a connection. Similarly, he is appalled that in foreign affairs Reagan did not follow a relentlessly consistent approach, but instead put into place a "patchwork of policies in different parts of the globe, sometimes successful, sometimes vacillating, and often disastrous." The silliness of the statement about disasters aside—only the Iran-Contra episode qualifies as a debacle—Wilentz is right that Reagan varied his foreign policies according to place and circumstances. But this is a routine approach, too, for any president who hopes to succeed in a messy world. More important, Wilentz overlooks the idealism that guided Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union and Communism, which were always his overriding concerns. Given that the American position in the world was far better in January 1989 than it had been eight years before—and that it improved further as the Soviet Union lurched toward its final collapse—Wilentz's judgment does not amount to much.
He ultimately draws two main points from his review of Reagan's presidency. The first centers on the growth of corruption in American life. Wilentz contends here that deregulation was in many ways a disaster because, even though it helped the economy, its supporters often denigrated the legitimate economic and legal roles of government. This, in turn, weakened the enforcement of remaining regulations and created an atmosphere in which lawlessness could flourish, as in the savings and loan catastrophe and the market manipulations that led to the Wall Street scandals at the end of the 1980s. He also claims that the ideology of deregulation encouraged a "do-nothing inertia" that led to an exceptional number of scandals within the Reagan Administration, as no one tried to stop high-level officials from using their offices and connections for personal profit. Second, Wilentz sees the long-range effects of the Iran-Contra affair as disastrous for democratic government. Reagan and his aides, he argues, not only broke the law but created an "unelected junta inside the White House to prosecute the president's policies outside the Constitution." Congress's weak response meant that the president and his men got away with their deeds. This, Wilentz laments, diminished the rule of law and constitutional limits on the executive, and also allowed several major Iran-Contra figures to return to office in the administration of George W. Bush, where they undertook fresh assaults on the Constitution.
Wilentz's points about the growth of corruption and the expansion of executive power are well worth considering, but he abandons them when he gets to the Clinton years. This is odd, to say the least, because Clinton maintained Reagan's hands-off approach to mergers and the financial markets, and supported additional deregulation. Indeed, the mergers of the 1990s, such as that of Exxon and Mobil, dwarfed those of the decade before, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 was an enormous step in financial deregulation that few had dreamed of taking during the Reagan years. But, where Wilentz is quick to criticize much of the corporate restructuring and economic activity of the 1980s as illusions "built on insubstantial paper transactions, overleveraged credit, and sharp dealing," he is silent on the implications of same behavior during the Clinton years. Similarly, while he deplores the stock market bubble, crash, and financial scandals of the late Reagan years, he has nothing to say about the much greater—and much more costly—bubble, frauds, and collapse that followed a decade later.
Having made so much of such Reagan-era scandals, it is jarring to see Wilentz remain silent about the deeds of Clinton and his associates. He rightly points out that the Whitewater affair amounted to little in the end, but that hardly excuses the non-discussions of campaign finance, how Clinton's relations with donors affected policy, and the implications of a president escaping accountability for committing perjury. Having made telling points about constitutional abuses in the Iran-Contra affair, Wilentz might at least have considered the Kosovo war which, whatever its moral justification, was undertaken without regard for the Constitution's warmaking rules. As much as Wilentz admires Clinton, he would have been better off, and his book much more intellectually honest, had he considered the implications of these issues and then argued his way through a defense of Clinton. His failure to do so, however, suggests that, deep down, he does not have much faith in the strength of his position and understands that he has written a hollow book.
The most unfortunate part of all this is that there are good ideas buried in The Age of Reagan. Some 400 pages into the book, buried at the end of a paragraph bemoaning Al Gore's fate, Wilentz makes a comment about the "persisting public distrust of politics and politicians that had become a dominant theme of the age of Reagan." This line is startling, for it comes out of nowhere and Wilentz never follows up on it. Had he placed this sentence at the beginning of the book, and then used it as a theme to organize his narrative, perhaps he would have produced the original and stimulating book he wanted. As it stands however, The Age of Reagan is a collection of old arguments, presented half-heartedly, that leaves the reader lamenting Sean Wilentz's missed opportunity.