Harry Tarq : Revisionist History and the ‘Great Presidency’ of Ronald Reagan

Center stage: Ronald Reagan on the set at the General Electric Theater, 1954-62. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Ronald Reagan and revisionist history

The Reagan era brought us depression, war, and mass murder in the Global South.

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / February 1, 2011

The right wing media have resumed the historical revisionism that portrays Ronald Reagan as a great president. The occasion for this is the 100th anniversary of President Reagan’s birth. He is being trotted out by Republicans and Tea Party spokespersons to celebrate the political life of “the great communicator,” the savior of America.

Let us be clear: the policies and programs instituted in the 1980s that led to 30 years of economic decline at home, dramatic increases in military spending, and massive killing of peoples of color in the Global South, have their roots in the demands of economic and political elites before President Reagan assumed office.

In addition, the disastrous 30 years of public policy was created with the willful collaboration of powerful figures in both political parties and a political economy that makes such pain and suffering likely.

However, the Reagan era (preceded by the rise to power of Reagan’s mentor, Margaret Thatcher, prime minister in Great Britain) can be seen as introducing a qualitative shift in public policy from state and market collaboration as exemplified by the New Deal (1932-1976) to the celebration of the market as a source of economic well-being and political stability.

While government grew enormously during the last 30 years, the official ideology was used by Republicans and Democrats alike to reduce or eliminate government programs that were targeted to assist the vast majority of the people, the working class.

Looking at economic policy, the Reagan administration launched a campaign to destroy the U.S. labor movement, reduce rudimentary public services and supports for the poor (President Clinton finished the job), radically reduce corporate taxes, provide tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to move plants overseas, and expand the deregulation of banking and financial speculation (begun by President Carter).

The impacts of these policies included reducing the rights and living conditions of workers, resuming the historic process of shifting the wealth and income of the country to the top one percent of the economic elite, reducing the middle class, and increasing the percentage of the people living below the poverty line.

While the proportion of the society’s wealth controlled by the economic ruling class grew, the rate of economic growth of the economy as a whole since Reagan declined by one third compared to the period from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Reagan’s global economic policies, commonly referred to as “neoliberalism,” used debt, induced by the IMF and private banks, and military power to force virtually every country in the world to cut back on public services to their citizens, privatize their economies, shift from producing goods and services for their own people to producing for exports (to earn foreign exchange so that they could pay back western banks that forced them to borrow billions of dollars).

As the economic vulnerability of workers grew in poor countries, they became desperate, pliant, and cheap labor was forced to manufacture goods for 10 percent of the wage costs of workers in the United States. By 2000, half the world earned $2 a day or less. In the United States, wages stagnated; earnings at the dawn of the new century in real dollars were no higher than the early 1970s.

Also, the Reagan administration of the 1980s increased war-making and complicity in the deaths of millions of people around the world. As a candidate, Ronald Reagan convinced many Americans that a “window of vulnerability” had opened in America’s security posture because of the escalation of military spending by “the evil empire,” the former Soviet Union.

As president, Reagan launched the biggest arms buildup, aside from World War II, in United States history. And, as was the case in 1960 when candidate John F. Kennedy campaigned with claims of a “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union, the claim was a lie.

Hamstrung by the post-Vietnam fear Americans held about the U.S. getting involved in another quagmire, what beltway policy wonks called “the Vietnam Syndrome,” Reagan defense intellectuals shifted to what they called “low-intensity conflict.” LIC meant that the United States would fund anti-communists, reactionaries, and militarists who would fight our wars for us.

The United States funded anti-government rebels in Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Afghanistan, including followers of Osama Bin Laden. Arms sales to right-wing regimes, such as those in El Salvador, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Pakistan, skyrocketed as Reagan lifted Carter administration sales limitations. Conservatively 2 million people in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East died because of these policies.

Finally, the Reagan administration shifted strategic doctrine from Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which emphasized maintaining the capacity to deter a Soviet surprise attack on the United States to a “counterforce” strategy that called for plowing resources into developing a first strike nuclear capacity, which included the Hollywood fantasy, the “Strategic Defense Initiative” or “Star Wars.”

Given the Reagan public discourse concerning “evil empires,” threats that the Soviets had better give up their system or expect war, and the new military doctrines, the world was lucky to survive the 1980s without nuclear war.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of the threats to human survival waned but the neoliberal global agenda continued through the first Bush presidency and the Clinton years. The global military agenda resumed in the new century as the creators of the Reagan era military programs assumed positions of power in the Bush administration.

The Rumsfelds, Cheneys, and their subordinates, who gained experience back in the Nixon days and became foreign and military policy influentials in the Reagan (and George H.W. Bush) periods, and who had organized out of power in the Clinton period, were back in the saddle. They used the 9/11 tragedy to project military power on a global basis.

So when hometown papers publish articles with headlines like “ ‘Great Communicator’ Still Resonates” (Journal and Courier, Monday, January 31, 2011) be prepared to remind people what really happened in the 1980s and that the public policies adopted then have caused so much pain ever since. Probably some of these newspapers will continue to expand their revisionist project in other subject areas as well; for example, suggesting that the Founding Fathers opposed slavery in the United States.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

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3 Responses to Harry Tarq : Revisionist History and the ‘Great Presidency’ of Ronald Reagan

  1. Allen Young says:

    Just about every gay man I know associates Ronald Reagan FIRST AND FOREMOST with the tragic and in many ways hateful U.S. government indifference to the AIDS epidemic, which began in the Reagan era. For the author of this article to not mention Reagan’s horrific non-existent AIDS policy in his “review” of the regime is insulting to me and the memory of my many friends who died. “What really happened in the 1980s” (Mr. Targ’s phrase) includes AIDS, but apparently this is not important to Mr. Targ. Shame on him.

  2. That’s understandable. The dude and his followers have built up a huge debt to the entire universe but in increments.
    Increments of human suffering. To begin to describe the hatred for all humanity expressed in the “Reagan Revolution” or… my favorite “Revolting Reaganites” you’re faced with a mulligan stew of complaints, complaints so many and varied that they can dismiss the whole stew because, they say, there’s too many ingredients to focus on. They’re pleading their own mental laziness as a valid reason to dismiss the “Cassandras” with their “Jeremiad” litany of complaints, and just call us whiners and their agenda somehow better because they’ve managed to create so many problems.

    How CAN their stew be sorted out? To put it in Health Care terms, it’s like somebody showing up at the emergency room who was stabbed, poisoned, shot, clubbed, bludgeoned, hit by a car, mauled by dogs, overdosing on drugs, and lit on fire.
    And the police-question joke comes into play, “did he have any enemies?”

    By the way, Jeremiah and Cassandra were famous for the same thing, different cultures. They were right, and those in power flatly refused to believe them.

    The Wreligious Wrong love the chaos left by their vicious machine-gun attack on the world. So many different problems in so many different areas that they can dismiss all complaints by saying there’s too many complaints for them to focus. Too many symptoms of their malignant disease.

    The wars that Reagan inflamed and left for others to clean up, took money and focus away from the poverty caused by his blatant denial of workers rights, $3.35 an hour minimum wage which was eroded by so many loopholes that some workers in America made about HALF that, then privatized Health Care that put the burden of debt on people who were making less money than it takes to survive. Out of that 3.35 or less we were supposed to buy our own health care, education for our kids, the kids who were to be groomed as servants for the Reaganite Rich. So it’s the fault of the Minimum wage or below workers that they couldn’t afford basic health care. All the while the Wars were sinking us further into debt, but not the Reaganite Rich because they had their escape clause from the debt they created, Tax Breaks.
    They didn’t and still don’t have to pay for all the damage they’ve caused.
    What funding was left for AIDS research or even basic health care for people afflicted?

    See, in just that one short paragraph ten issues are addressed and the WingNut “conservatives” who conserve NOTHING will say they lack the attention span to follow any of it.

    A machine-gun information attack and the gunner walks away from the screams of the dying crowd laughing because he can’t be bothered to focus on any one scream.

    Or, as Reagan put it “Well, there you go AGAIN”.

    An instant Narcissism disconnect. Can’t see the forest for the loud chorus of the chainsaws.

    And it’s supposedly OUR weakness that THEY are too intellectually lazy to see more than one problem at a time, far less the myriad web of problems all feeding off the others.

  3. There’s a Tee-shirt that was popular in Ft Worth a few years back, Bush the Simple (W), John Wayne and Ronnie Ray-Gun standing around wearing cowboy clothes and the motto “My heroes have always been cowboys”.

    Only thing is, ain’t none of them were ever Cowboys and aside from Dubya’s National Guard “service” which his Daddy arranged and from which he promptly deserted, none of them were soldiers either. Wayne and Ray-gun PLAYED cowboys and soldiers in their cheap-ass movies, but it takes more than boots and a hat to make you a cowboy. I can think of 5 stores in downtown Ft Worth that will gladly sell you all the acoutrements of “cowboy” and depending on how much you wanna pay you could walk out with a hat and boots and jeans and a honkin’ big fake-rodeo belt buckle, with your name on the back of the belt so folks can tell exactly who they’re laughin’ at… maybe as low as a couple hundred bucks.

    Reagan and Wayne and Bush never took up Real Cowboy because, you see, it’s actual work.

    Same way they didn’t take up real soldiering. They liked the way they look in uniforms but didn’t want to actually take the risks that go along with it.
    Bush is coming to Colorado Springs this spring to be honored at an award ceremony by the Colorado Springs Christian School, for being a “hero” of Christianity. I believe they gave a similar award to Ronnie-babie.
    ha and double ha.
    Like God seriously told them that baby-killing was a commandment.
    The award is named for Richard Couer-de-Leon, another infamous babykilling, torturing warmongering PIG crusader

    It’s called the “Lions Heart” medal.

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