As yet another statue of Ronald Reagan is unveiled -- a $1 million one at Washington's National Airport which was renamed in his honor in the mid-1990s -- the key question about the 40th president is whether his long and destructive era is finally coming to an end.
More than any other political figure, it was Ronald Reagan who put America on its present course toward stunning income inequality and into a brave new world of deregulated industries, which were then able to exploit lax government controls to devastate the economy.It was Reagan who experimented with "supply side economics" which held that slashing the top marginal tax rates for the rich by half or more would eliminate the federal deficit and supposedly help everyone by letting the extra money at the top trickle down.
It was Reagan who declared that "government is the problem" and convinced many middle-class Americans -- especially white men -- that they should despise "big government" as a threat to their liberty and trust their financial security to the kindness, wisdom and generosity of corporate chieftains.
It was Reagan who demanded a massive reinvestment in the U.S. military, even as America's principal adversary, the Soviet Union, was in rapid decline. Reagan also allied the United States with some of the world's most brutal regimes and insurgent movements, as long as they identified themselves as "anti-communist."
It also was Reagan who transformed the Republican Party into a political organization disdainful of science and empiricism -- and devoted to retaining its power at almost any price. For Reagan and his P.R. team, the goal was always "perception management," controlling how average Americans saw the world, not how it actually was. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
Though it may be true that the current crop of Republicans is even more extreme than Reagan, that is mostly because today's GOPers have dropped the few nuances that Reagan retained because of the political constraints that he faced. Three decades into Reagan's transformation of America, the Right's accumulated power has allowed the embrace of even more radical positions.
As an implicit acknowledgement of Reagan's continued spell over the U.S. population, Democrats often try to find some common ground with the beloved Gipper, often using the phrase "even Ronald Reagan wouldn't have gone that far." But the truth is that Reagan composed the political music that today's Republican Party plays.
The personable Reagan was the Pied Piper who led middle-class Americans dancing happily toward their own oblivion. Without him, it is hard to envision why so many downwardly mobile Americans would rally to the Tea Party and its demands for lower taxes on the already rich and fewer regulations on today's corporate masters of the universe.
When the only realistic way to restrain the immense power of the rich and the corporations is through a democratized and energized federal government, Reagan's memory instead inspires the Tea Party and many typical Americans to demand that government get out of the way.
Beginning of the End?
Yet, the question today is whether the days of Reagan's enduring narrative are finally coming to a close. Has the Occupy Wall Street movement, which protests the gross economic inequality that Reaganism wrought, eclipsed the Reaganesque Tea Party?
The OWS narrative is that Reagan's (and George W. Bush's) tax cuts for the rich -- and the deregulation of Wall Street (that had bipartisan support) -- greased the skids for the nation sliding into the current swamp of concentrated wealth at the top and a shrinking middle-class.
Though the "Occupy" activists have so far shunned laying out specific policy recommendations, they have hoisted signs that demand that the coddling of corporations end, that the rich pay their fair share, and that the United States commit itself to becoming a more equitable society.
That goal can only be achieved by redistributing some of that concentrated wealth, by rebuilding the middle-class and by restoring jobs that disappeared over the past few decades as U.S. corporations either sought cheaper labor abroad or boosted productivity by replacing manpower with machines.
Reagan -- and the "free-marketers" who followed him -- encouraged these trends by incentivizing greed via sharply lower income taxes for the rich and by negotiating "free trade" agreements with low-wage countries.
Suddenly, the wealthy -- who had seen about 70 percent of their top tranche of income recycled back into America society through income taxes -- were getting to keep more than twice as much under Reagan-era reductions in the progressive tax rates. That prompted corporate chieftains to push for much higher pay for themselves, since they could keep much more of it, even as they took steps to hold down the pay of their employees.