Posted: July 12, 2004
resident Ronald Reagan's legacy has been debated since the moment he left office. First came the kiss-and-tell memoirs, the tentative scholarly appraisals, and of course the straightforward ideological attacks. Then his supporters launched a sustained counteroffensive, which proved more insightful and influential than one might have expected. We are now well into a third stage of commentary, of which these two books are examples. Reagan's death and the subsequent celebration of his life will doubtless hasten a new wave (overwhelmingly favorable, to be sure), followed (after a decent interval) by the inevitable rebuttals. As from an inexhaustible but intermittently active volcano, ancient layers of controversy are built upon, not expunged.
The Reagan Presidency, a collection of 14 scholarly essays, offers some fresh insights, both broadening and deepening our understanding. Its pieces are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but they are typically thoughtful and do no grave injustice. Reaganism and the Death of Representative Democracy, by Walter Williams (a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, not the famous economist), has not advanced beyond the first stage. Caught in a time warp that makes it forever 1992, Williams informs his readers that Reagan and his "virulent antigovernmentalism" were responsible for the destruction of American governmental institutions and the onset of "early stage plutocracy" in the United States. There is no complexity to this thesis, no coherent argument on its behalf, and no evidence for it. Invective is the book's theme, as if Williams had been angry since Reagan's tax cuts but only just now got around to venting his displeasure.
Shot through with contradictions (apparently Reagan had little to do with the economic performance of the 1990s but retained sufficient influence to be responsible for Enron), Reaganism fails even to get Reaganism right. Williams holds that Reagan believed that the federal government "is never the solution." What Reagan actually said, in his First Inaugural Address, was that "in this present crisis" government was not the solution. Likewise, Reagan allegedly believed in completely "unregulated capitalism" (in 1988, there were still over 50,000 pages in the federal register) and in individuals who acted "solely in their own self-interest" (no mention here of Reagan's considerable efforts on behalf of an ethic of voluntarism and a strong civil society).
Williams retraces the picture of Reagan as ignorant, lazy, and stupid, a point well debunked over the last decade—adding to the vintage 1992 atmosphere—but he does acknowledge the overriding importance of Reagan in 20th-century U.S. politics. Indeed, this assessment is a necessary prerequisite for his argument: "My claim that Reagan blighted America rests on the tremendous impact of Reagan's own actions during his two terms and the continuing wide influence of his political philosophy." In Williams's view, "In the years since the coming of the Reagan Administration, the United States has undergone a transformation in its political institutions and its philosophy of governance of a magnitude not seen since the 1930s." He often explicitly compares Reagan with Franklin Roosevelt, though in his view Roosevelt was benign, Reagan malignant. This appraisal stands in some contrast with the general tone in The Reagan Presidency, where numerous authors portray Reagan as mostly benign but overrated in importance.
A few (a very few) of Williams's criticisms provide food for thought. He accuses Reagan and conservatives more generally of misunderstanding federalism, of placing more importance on states' rights, and less on national supremacy, than the framers themselves intended. Reagan's formulation was that the federal government was created by a compact of the sovereign states and hence was inferior to them. Even in making this point Williams allows disdain to get the better of illumination, for he ignores the Jeffersonian roots of Reagan's formulation in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
This shortfall is emblematic of a broader problem: Reagan's philosophy of limited government is treated throughout as if it were some sort of alien intrusion into the political life of the American nation. Williams derides Reagan's refusal to accede to unlimited centralization of power as antigovernmentalism, which is always virulent, less a philosophy than a disease. The author dismisses numerous phrases as emblematic of simplistic Reaganism without ever acknowledging their original source—e.g., government as a "necessary evil" (Thomas Paine).
When Williams does condescend to a factual discussion, it usually undermines the point he is trying to make. Was Reaganism a key factor in the decline of civic culture? Williams points out that 20th century voting turnout peaked in the 1960s and mentions more than once that "in 1964...Americans recorded their highest level of trust in the federal government." This means, of course, that trust had been declining for 16 years before Reagan's election, and voting turnout for 20 years. What Williams does not admit is that turnout stabilized after 1980 and levels of trust improved.
Did Reaganism inflict drastic harm on our institutions of government? Well, if the institutional integrity of American government has been harmed, it was not by Reagan. To the contrary, it is modern liberalism that has given us a breakdown in the federal system; a breakdown in the effectiveness of the presidency (under Jimmy Carter, remedied by Reagan); and a breakdown in the separation of powers, with both regulatory agencies and courts routinely usurping legislative functions. Williams never asks whether the collapse of governing institutions—a collapse that, in any event, is asserted rather than proved—might be the result of the very overextension of federal authority that Reagan fought against.
Actually, this is not a book about Reaganism's effect on civic institutions, the honesty of the presidency, or any of its other ostensible themes. Williams's anger is, really, directed at one thing: income inequality and Reagan's alleged contribution to it. "No charge looms larger against Reaganism than that its tenets induced federal policies and organizational and individual behavior that led the nation into plutocracy and a much diminished brand of democracy." Dominating the era, Williams charges, was "the phenomenal growth of the maldistribution of income and wealth." This too is old hat, but it is useful to see it repeated, inasmuch as it summarizes the Left's critique of Reagan: For the first time in 60 years, he tilted federal policy toward liberty instead of equalization of condition.
Never mind that income inequality started rising around 1973; that Reagan's policies contributed no more than one-fifth to the growth of income inequality in the 1980s; that studies of consumption distribution (rather than income) showed no growth in inequality in the 1980s at all. And certainly never mind that the Constitution does not sanction (let alone mandate) the transformation of American democracy into a pillaging expedition in which the primary purpose of government is to take the money of some and give it to others willing and able to exchange their votes for it. Reagan opposed the agenda of radical egalitarianism; he offered an appealing alternative which has more or less held sway now for two decades—and for that he cannot be forgiven.
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By contrast, the Reagan presidency is sober and reasoned, offering a variety of viewpoints on a number of topics, many of which fall outside of the usual focus on economics and foreign policy. Based substantially on new archival evidence, the gist of The Reagan Presidency is that Reagan was more important and successful than many (at least many academics) believed he would be in 1980, that he moved public philosophy and policy by and large in a more conservative direction, and that his flaws have been overstated by his harshest critics and his accomplishments overstated by his strongest supporters. The book's subtitle—Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies—seems meant to soften Reagan, perhaps rendering him more acceptable to academic audiences. To be sure, "pragmatism" can mean at least two things. In common usage, it can mean a kind of tactical good sense or practicality, the willingness to take half-a-loaf in preference to none. But pragmatism can also refer to a deliberate strategy of refusing to be guided by any set of first principles.
Reagan clearly did not fit the second definition. Indeed, the book's strongest and most interesting section is on Reagan's ideas. Hugh Heclo of George Mason University addresses Reagan and the American public philosophy, arguing that Reagan must be taken seriously as a thinker:
To be sure, Ronald Reagan did not engage the world of ideas in the intellectually sophisticated, abstract way of which academics approve. He did so as a public man seeking political power in the name of certain ideas. That he also became president is a very remarkable thing. At the risk of putting it too grandly, one might say that Ronald Reagan was devoted to advancing not just a political program, party, or even movement, but a philosophy of history.
That philosophy was centered on "God's unique relation to America," and offered not just an alternative to but a rejection of John Dewey's secular liberalism. Heclo's essay is followed by one on Reagan's reshaping of Republican conservatism (allegedly to the disadvantage of Kirkian traditionalism) and a chapter on Reagan's effects on American populism.
Other notable contributions include Martha Derthick and Steven M. Teles's chapter on Reagan's abortive efforts to reform Social Security, and Otis L. Graham, Jr.'s, essay on the failures of immigration reform during the Reagan years. If many conservatives are now incensed over the nation's immigration policies, they often do not know (or choose to forget) the highly problematic Simpson-Mazzoli bill, which was signed by Reagan, whose libertarian instincts got the better of him.
By far the most problematic piece concerns U.S.-Soviet relations. Written by Beth Fischer of the University of Toronto, it restates her long-held view that Reagan is to be commended not for his resolve against the Soviet empire but for his supposed rejection of resolute policies starting in 1984. According to her, Reagan's willingness to engage in diplomacy was crucial, though not as crucial as Mikhail Gorbachev's benign presence; but any claim that Reagan "won the Cold War" by pressuring the Communists is plainly wrong. While there may be a kernal of truth to the argument—more than most conservatives, Reagan understood the potential value of negotiations with Gorbachev—it fundamentally misstates administration policy by inventing a radical turnaround that never happened. To catalogue a few pieces of pertinent evidence: the Strategic Defense Initiative, while launched in 1983, was pushed hard by Reagan through the end of his presidency; the Reagan Doctrine of aiding anti-Communist rebels in the Third World was not fully formulated until 1986, when aid to the Angolan and Cambodian resistance started and overt aid to the Nicaraguan contras resumed; the controversial decision to supply the Afghan mujahedin with Stinger missiles was made and aid levels to the mujahedin continued growing throughout this period; Libya, then a Soviet client, was bombed in retaliation for terrorism in 1986; and U.S. defense spending did not plateau until the late 1980s and did not decline significantly until after the Berlin Wall fell. As Reagan himself said in the late 1980s, long after his reversal is alleged to have taken place, "The forces of freedom put ever greater pressure on the forces of totalitarianism." And in 1987, when the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was finally signed and Soviet bloc aggression in the Third World finally addressed, it was on Reagan's terms.
In order to make her argument, Fischer must ignore this chronology, disregard contrary evidence provided by authors like Peter Schweizer, and pay no heed to the plethora of Soviet and Soviet-bloc sources who say otherwise. For example, Eduard Scheverdnadze, Gorbachev's foreign minister, describes in his memoirs the "Gordian knot" caused by the newly assertive U.S. policies. A short time before there had been great confidence within the Soviet hierarchy; by the late 1980s, there was growing despair.
Oddly, The Reagan Presidency simultaneously rescues Reagan from academic opprobrium (exemplified in the Williams book) and gives him short shrift. The latter tendency may well be due to the fact that each topic is given equal weight, as if taxes, defense, and public philosophy (where Reagan had greater success) are no more important than, say, natural resource policy (where he fell far short of his goals). But can anyone believe that Reagan (or most Americans, for that matter) cared equally whether he succeeded in the Cold War or water policy?
The outpouring of public grief and the stunningly positive commentary following his death must cast at least some doubt on both books, undermining claims of his infamy and bolstering claims of his significance. In any event, as these volumes attest, the debate continues, not only between Ronald Reagan's friends and foes but between serious and frivolous scholarship.