With the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan also revived Richard Nixon's theory of an imperial presidency that could ignore the nation's laws and evade accountability through criminal cover-ups. That behavior also would rear its head again in the war crimes of George W. Bush. [For details on Reagan's abuses, see Robert Parry's Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege.]
Wall Street Greed
The American Dream also dimmed during Reagan's tenure.
Yet even as working-class white men were rallying to the Republican banner (as so-called "Reagan Democrats"), their economic interests were being savaged. Unions were broken and marginalized; "free trade" policies shipped manufacturing jobs abroad; old neighborhoods were decaying; drug use among the young was soaring.
Meanwhile, unprecedented greed was unleashed on Wall Street, fraying old-fashioned bonds between company owners and employees.
Many other trends set during the Reagan era continued to corrode the U.S. political process in the years after Reagan left office. After 9/11, for instance, the neocons reemerged as a dominant force, reprising their "perception management" tactics, depicting the "war on terror"--like the last days of the Cold War--as a terrifying conflict between good and evil.
The hyping of the Islamic threat mirrored the neocons' exaggerated depiction of the Soviet menace in the 1980s--and again the propaganda strategy worked. Many Americans let their emotions run wild, from the hunger for revenge after 9/11 to the war fever over invading Iraq.
Arguably, the descent into this dark fantasyland--that Ronald Reagan began in the early 1980s--reached its nadir in the flag-waving early days of the Iraq War. Only gradually did reality begin to reassert itself as the death toll mounted in Iraq and the Katrina disaster reminded Americans why they needed an effective government.
Still, the disasters--set in motion by Ronald Reagan--continued to roll in. Bush's Reagan-esque tax cuts for the rich blew another huge hole in the federal budget and the Reagan-esque anti-regulatory fervor led to a massive financial meltdown that threw the nation into economic chaos.
Love Reagan; Hate Bush
There's been talk that George W. Bush was so inept that he should trademark the phrase "Worst President Ever," though some historians would bestow that title on pre-Civil War President James Buchanan. Still, a case could be made for putting Ronald Reagan in the competition. his name attached to scores of national landmarks including Washington's National Airport.
Even leading Democrats genuflect to Reagan. Early in Campaign 2008, when Barack Obama was positioning himself as a bipartisan political figure who could appeal to Republicans, he bowed to the Reagan mystique, hailing the GOP icon as a leader who "changed the trajectory of America."
Though Obama's chief point was that Reagan in 1980 "put us on a fundamentally different path"--a point which may be historically undeniable--Obama went further, justifying Reagan's course correction because of "all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability."