Posted: January 2, 2006
he extraordinary outpouring of public affection at the time of Ronald Reagan's death marked the moment when his loving memory ceased to be the distinctive property of conservatives and became the possession of Americans generally.
All parties now claim him. Libertarians upset with the contemporary Republican Party recall him fondly by airbrushing away his social conservatism and treating his defeats as his desires. Liberals extol his compromises and accommodations. Even isolationists have claimed the old Cold Warrior as their own. All factions praise his optimism—a safe, non-ideological virtue. Our understanding of Reagan is, in short, in play, which makes it a promising time for new books about his time in the White House.
Neither John Ehrman nor Gil Troy has produced a polemic, and both attempt to provide exquisitely balanced judgments. Their concerns are different: Ehrman is strongest when it comes to the economy, while Troy is most interested in the interplay of politics and culture, especially popular culture. Foreign policy takes a back seat in both books, with Ehrman explicitly ignoring it. Its absence is strange given its importance at the time (and given that Ehrman is a foreign-policy analyst), but perhaps understandable given the preoccupations of the present. Many of the specific issues that concerned Reagan, chief among them the Cold War, are no longer issues, because he won.
Ehrman's judgment of the economic issues of the 1980s seems largely sound. He reminds us of the controversy that surrounded the corporate restructurings of the decade, and correctly argues that the role of "corporate raiders" and "junk bonds" was largely salutary. He reminds us, as well, that the liberals of the day were enamored with corporatist "industrial policy" based largely on a Japanese model that was subsequently discredited. At the same time, he is critical of the grandiose claims and political irresponsibility of supply-siders. Some of his conclusions are open to question—his account of rising inequality in the '80s does not take account of immigration, as Troy's also does not—but all are sober. Sober, indeed, to a fault. The one instance of passion in this book comes when Ehrman flays the Gramm-Rudman automatic-budget-cut bill as "one of the most disgraceful and irresponsible laws ever passed."
Troy's book, on the other hand, cannot help being engaging, packed as it is with memorabilia of the Reagan years. Hill Street Blues, the Cabbage Patch Kids, and Cyndi Lauper all make appearances. Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, makes a communitarian critique of the Reagan era. He is on solid ground in contending that America became more individualistic and materialistic under Reagan, and also in noting that the trend predated and postdated his presidency.
Troy believes that Reagan encouraged this baleful individualism, which is a plausible thesis. But he does not succeed in making this case. The problem emerges in the first pages of the book:
The 1980s would be Reagan's decade because Reagan skillfully rode and often took credit for one independently generated cultural wave after another, ranging from the founding of CNN, MTV, and USA Today, to the reign of Dallasand Dynasty on television, and the transition from Walter Cronkite to Dan Rather at CBS News—all of which occurred at the start of Reagan's administration.
If Reagan took "credit" for any one of these things, Troy doesn't demonstrate it.
He refers to "the Reagan celebration of American hedonism." It's a provocative, but unsupported, comment. He writes that Reagan "often confused great fortunes with great virtue." He offers no evidence for this criticism—unless he means the subsequent sentences about Reagan's support for deregulation and opposition to government waste to be that evidence, in which case the passage is a non sequitur. Troy never grapples with the possibility that increased selfishness was practically an inevitable consequence of prosperity. That is, he never explains what alternative policies or rhetoric Reagan could have used to avoid it, which makes it hard to see why Reagan should be condemned. When alternatives are imaginable, they are not realistic. Troy writes, "Reagan wanted Americans to feel good, not think too hard." All incumbents want voters to feel good; and few politicians conduct Socratic dialogues for their own sake.
Troy's attempts at balance too often result in mere inconsistency. "An amazing recovery" becomes, 90 pages later, "the illusion of prosperity." In a chapter on the year 1984, we learn that "women…feared Reagan's program"; it isn't until 120 pages later that we see that 55% of female voters cast ballots for him that year.
Both authors are better on the strictly political aspects of the 1980s. They correctly regard the 1980 election as a public repudiation of Jimmy Carter and liberalism rather than an embrace of Reagan and conservatism. Ehrman notes that by the late 1970s, American elites were reaching the conclusion that the country was ungovernable. Troy reminds us how rocky Reagan's first term was. The new president took office with record low ratings. Until mid-1983, many people thought that his administration had, by failing, confirmed the ungovernability thesis. (Both authors, however, exaggerate the extent to which Republican losses in the midterm elections of 1982 reflected public dissatisfaction with Reagan. At least half of those losses were the consequence of increasingly efficient Democratic gerrymandering.)
The authors place great emphasis on the 1980s as a time of "reconciliation"—a time when conservatives made their peace with many of the social changes of the 1960s. There is some truth in this. But the decade also contained the seeds of later "culture wars," as both also note. Here their analysis of the Supreme Court misleads them. Both authors consider Reagan's effort to remake the federal judiciary a success, with Ehrman going so far as to say that the Supreme Court has stayed "conservative" since Reagan. Even Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times's famously liberal Court reporter, knows better.
Which brings us to a bigger problem. Reagan was, to an unusual extent, a politician of ideas. Yet neither author pays much attention to his ideas. Troy talks about Reagan's projection of American strength, for example, and the effects this had on the American psyche. But he largely ignores the Reaganite critique of détente and advocacy of "morality in foreign policy" which inspired his strong stance. Reagan's much-discussed "optimism" was not optimism conventionally defined; it was confidence rooted in certain principles—including constitutional ones that Reagan largely failed to see prevail. If Ehrman and Troy wanted a failure to balance Reagan's success, here would have been a place to look.