The Right's success in this propaganda campaign was made easier by the American Left's failure to push back with a media buildup of its own, allowing a media asymmetry to take hold in the United States.
A key turning point came with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. During his First Inaugural Address, Reagan spelled out his vision, declaring: "Government isn't the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
Though the federal deficit was relatively small when Reagan took office and his predecessor Jimmy Carter had actually reduced the federal debt as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product Reagan promised that he could generate more tax revenues by slashing taxes.
Reagan called his plan "supply-side economics" but his Vice President George H.W. Bush had earlier dismissed it as "voodoo economics," an assessment that proved prescient when the federal debt soared over the next dozen years.
Reagan implemented another novel approach for undermining government. Unable to get Congress to eliminate federal regulations on issues ranging from the environment to workplace safety, Reagan appointed bureaucrats who were hostile to the purposes of their own agencies.
These officials, such as Anne Gorsuch at the Environmental Protection Agency and James Watt at Interior, made common cause with the corporations they were supposed to regulate.
Reagan also busted unions and pushed a pro-corporate "free trade" agenda. His ideological apologists insisted that removing constraints on capitalism would, in the end, mean greater wealth for everyone. Instead, much of the U.S. industrial base disappeared and the middle class shrank.
End of the "Old Lions'
During this time, a generational shift was occurring among congressional Democrats. The "old lions" who had experienced the Great Depression and World War II were retiring or dying off, replaced by a new breed of Democrats who were less willing to defend the policies that had helped the country overcome the economic distress of the 1930s.
These younger (and more timid) Democrats also found themselves in a more hostile political environment. Even though Reagan's economic policies primarily benefited the wealthy, large numbers of middle-class whites were switching from Democrat to Republican.
Many of these voters were separated from the Democratic Party by Republican "wedge issues," which exploited unease about demographic and cultural changes. Also, as the right-wing media grew in size and influence, the word "liberal" was turned into an epithet.
Even though Bill Clinton managed to win the White House for the Democrats in 1992, the anti-government dynamic that had been set in motion by Reagan continued. Clinton's "New Democrats" worked to restore responsible government by reining in the massive federal deficits but they still rode along with the GOP's deregulatory gang.
Most significantly, a key reform of the Great Depression a provision in the Glass-Steagall Act that separated Wall Street speculators from commercial banks was repealed in 1999 by a Republican-sponsored bill that President Clinton's senior financial advisers, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, supported and that Clinton signed into law.
By the time, Republican rule was fully restored under George W. Bush in 2001, pretty much all the pieces were in place for the implementation of Reagan's anti-government vision.
Many of Roosevelt's New Deal safeguards had been removed; labor unions had been devastated; and a well-funded right-wing media reaching from newspapers to talk radio to cable TV shaped the national debate.
Besides slashing taxes again and wiping out Clinton's budget surplus Bush appointed "free-marketers" to run regulatory agencies. The new watchword was "self-regulation," suggesting that the "invisible hand of the market" would make corporations do the right thing.