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Book Review: The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989 (Steven Hayward)

This is the second volume of historian Steven Hayward’s voluminous biography of Ronald Reagan.  As with any modern, widely documented life, “voluminous” does not mean “comprehensive”—there is no such thing, and Reagan in particular is the type of man who, when writing about, the biographer must select his facts and weave them into a coherent whole that takes the measure of the man.  In this Hayward succeeds brilliantly, while simultaneously illuminating the America of the 1980s—for as I noted when reviewing the first volume, this biography is about the Age of Reagan, not merely Reagan himself.  But compared to that first volume, this volume, subtitled The Conservative Counterrevolution:  1980-1989 is much more about Reagan and less about his times.  Or rather, it is about his times, but viewed nearly exclusively through the prism of Reagan, who after all molded those times more than any other human being.  The first volume viewed the times largely through other prisms, including most notably Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Here, the focus settles and stays on Reagan himself.

Hayward takes a straightforward chronological approach, alternating between discussing domestic and foreign policy, with all chapters bound together by the understanding that Reagan accomplished much more than many people thought he would, and much less than many people hoped.  Such a mixed bag is, of course, all that can ever be hoped for from any political figure—it is an error, and a corrupting and dangerous one, that any political figure, democrat or tyrant, can deliver on all or even most of the hopes of anyone.  The book begins (after an excellent Prologue analyzing Reagan’s personality, and concluding that it was not nearly as opaque as many claim), with Reagan’s election (an event I am just old enough to remember).  The nation was in crisis—persistent high inflation and unemployment; the continued expansion of Communism; the nationwide perception that America was in decline; and the conclusion by the elites that the country was “ungovernable” (the usual conclusion when a modern Democratic president is meeting resistance, from Carter to Obama).

Reagan’s election was regarded at the time as a sea change in American politics, and in America itself.  Hayward quotes a Democratic political operative as noting at the time that Reagan’s in 1989 was “an 8-plus earthquake on the political Richter scale, and it sent a number of eminent statesmen—Republicans and Democratic—into shock.”  This is doubtless true.  But it brings up an interesting point—for the past thirty-five years, there have been multiple such political earthquakes where conservatives do much better than predicted and thereby upend the political order.  The two biggest that come to mind, of course, are 1994 and 2016.  But there are never, ever, any political earthquakes resulting from Democrats doing better than expected.  Counterintuitively, though, nothing lasting ever results from the Republican earthquakes—instead the march of left-liberal dominance continues materially unabated (though we will see what Trump will bring).  In the infamous words of Obama, America has been fundamentally transformed since 1980, and not for the better.  The reasons for this “heads I win, tails you lose” outcome probably relate to the stranglehold the Left has maintained over the educational, media and cultural institutions of the country, as well as the opposition of the all-important moneyed interests to any politics that is actually conservative.

Before his inauguration, Reagan assembled his team, composed in part of California loyalists and in part of relative newcomers to his circle.  Throughout the book, Hayward frequently notes the violent political debates that characterized Reagan’s inner circle of advisors, such as critical disagreements on the viability of Reaganomics (with David Stockman playing the role of Judas) and on how to approach the Soviet Union.  Such disagreements are often seen as a sign of dysfunction; as we speak oceans of (mostly electronic, today) ink are being spilled to analyze who is getting the upper hand in the Trump White House, with most commentators not bothering to hide their glee at this supposed turmoil supposedly hobbling the Trump administration.  But, as Hayward says, “[T]he most successful presidencies tend to be those that have factional disagreement within their inner councils, whereas sycophantic administrations get in the most trouble.  Fractiousness in an administration is a sign of health:  the Jefferson-Hamilton feud in Washington’s administration, the rivalry within Lincoln’s cabinet, and the odd combination of fervent New Dealers and conventional Democrats in FDR’s White House provided a dynamic tension that contributed to successful governance.”  That seems true, but it must also be true that (a) such tension can in fact go so far as to be destructive, which may ultimately be the case with Trump, especially given Trump’s huge deficiencies in leadership; and (b) such tension is not always necessary—the Obama White House team was the very epitome of ignorant sycophancy centered on the Lightbringer (see Jarrett, Valerie) yet was extremely successful (perhaps because of the aggressive cooperation of the news/entertainment complex) in ramming through huge and largely unwanted left-liberal social policies, mostly by administrative action directed from the White House.

As I say, the nation in 1980 was in crisis, and it stayed in crisis for some time, a fact often forgotten.  In fact, it got worse, considerably worse, on the economic front (but the spiritual malaise embodied in Jimmy Carter quickly improved).  By September 1981 unemployment had risen from 7.4 percent to 8.9 percent and “in the last quarter of 1981, real GDP fell at an annual rate of 5.2 percent.”  Moreover, the deficit was much greater than expected (though Reagan’s deficits seems shockingly low to us today).  Reagan was under immense pressure from all sides to change his programs (although his personal approval ratings, which had rapidly gone up, stayed high).  But he refused, even if he had to tack some.

This strategy was vindicated by events.  In the 1982 midterms (when unemployment was 10.1 percent), the Republicans lost some seats but did not do as badly as expected.  And then, of course, the economy boomed, lifting all boats.  It is commonplace in the media and pop culture to call the 80s the “decade of greed,” which is silly.  The real decade of greed was the 90s, where false wealth was created and then evaporated, unlike the 80s, where real growth restored the entire nation.  But, of course, a Democrat was President in the 90s, so that truth must be rewritten to attack conservatives and pretend the sunny 1980s were actually an unpleasant decade.

The next few years went generally well for Reagan, with the usual day-to-day political ups and downs.  Hayward strongly criticizes Reagan for running a defensive campaign in 1984, one that refused to draw a strong contrast between Republicans and Democrats.  It earned Reagan a landslide but failed to improve the position of the Republicans in Congress or at the state level; Hayward calls it “one of the greatest lost opportunities in American politics to break the opposition party and bring about a lasting and fundamental realignment.”  I doubt this is true—as I say, political earthquakes have several times occurred that seem to favor such a realignment toward conservative Republicans, but in each case quickly enough the advantage has been lost and the Left has made new strides in its march to dominance—which suggests that only something more aggressive, some new thing, will break the iron triangle of the Left’s political machine, the media/entertainment complex, and the money of America’s financial elite.

On the foreign policy front, Reagan began his term with an uncompromising attitude toward the Evil Empire (although he only used that phrase in 1984).  It is hard to remember now (in part because it has been actively suppressed and denied in modern discourse and education), but in 1980 received wisdom across both Democrats and Republicans was that the Soviet Union and the tyranny of global Communism were here to stay, and among nearly all Democrats and many Republicans, a sickening moral equivalency was the default and “sophisticated” position.  Our allies were the same:  Pierre Trudeau (whose imbecile son is now prime minister of Canada) strongly endorsed Poland crushing Solidarity with martial law, as did leaders of the British Labour Party.  This defeatist attitude was buttressed by totally false statistics generated by our government and private Sovietologists:  that Soviet life expectancy was greater than in the US; that East Germany had a higher per capita income than West Germany; and that, as Seweryn Bialer said when saying the Soviet Union was in solid shape, “it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability that suffice to endure the deepest difficulties.”  Thus, Reagan’s fresh, commonsense, morality-based approach was regarded as somewhere between stupid and wicked by the vast majority of the political classes.

But the result of Reagan’s approach, of course, was a breakthrough in negotiations and the ultimate undermining and collapse of the Soviet Union, and global Communism.  Reagan rejected the plausible sounding but always false common idea that a hard line would encourage hardliners to rise to power in the Soviet Union; instead, he got Gorbachev.  He maintained command of the moral high ground, along with an inflexible position on the Strategic Defense Initiative, but showed flexibility and originality (to a degree frightening to the sclerotic State Department) in negotiating with Gorbachev.  This, combined with the internal contradictions of the Soviet Union, was the recipe for the ultimate end of the Soviet Union.

Hayward covers all the nitty-gritty of both domestic legislation and foreign policy machinations (not only involving the Soviet Union, but also proxy wars like Nicaragua, and other challenges such as Libya).  This sounds boring, but it isn’t, in part because of the personalities involved and in part because Hayward keeps the story moving.  He also covers other key episodes, such as the assassination attempt and the breaking of the air controllers’ strike.  And the narrative is leavened by frequent examples of Reagan’s humor:  For example, when asked if he knew about Pac-Man, Reagan quipped: ‘Someone told me it was a round thing that gobbles up money.  I thought it was Tip O’Neill.’”

Two interesting points stand out to me.  First, in the fall of 1984, voters under twenty-four had an 82% favorable view of Reagan.  This seems incredible to us now, where we are told that the young overwhelmingly favor Obama and Hillary Clinton, and the snowflakes on college campuses shut down conservative speakers with violence, encouraged and abetted by their professors and college administrations.  We are told (often by aged hippies reliving their supposed glory days of the 1960s) that this leftist domination of campuses is the natural state of things and permanent—but as is clear from Reagan’s popularity with the young, this is totally false.  As always, things that seem permanent and inevitable are not, with very rare exceptions.  Naturally, the Left has a vested interest in pretending and even believing that any movement to the Left is final; it is “the right side of history.”  But events like Trump’s election and Brexit (and perhaps this coming weekend’s election in France) show this is false, and such events also show the frenzy resulting in the Left when their deliberately created myth of inevitability is punctured.  Thus, puncturing it, and laying waste to the Left, should be our goal, and we should not be discouraged by propaganda telling us it is impossible.

Second, despite such lows points as frequent vicious attacks on Reagan as Hitler, there was much less division in the country than today, even among elites (and also less than in the late 1960s and 1970s).  Hayward notes that “Reagan . . . launched a charm offensive even before he took office.”  No Republican would attempt such a thing today, because divisions are so entrenched, and the media/entertainment complex would merely use it either as an excuse to further attack him, or claim it showed weakness and obeisance.  Trump-style truculence is the only possible successful strategy for Republicans today.  Hayward notes, too, that Reagan sent a chatty, humorous filmed message to the Academy Awards in 1981, something inconceivable today—that the Academy would allow a Republican to address the Oscars without showering him with unhinged hatred and contempt.

The book ends with George Bush’s defeat of Dukakis, where the liberal Dukakis was successfully tagged as being a liberal.  As Hayward concludes, “Rather than examine whether contemporary liberalism was unpopular with a majority of voters, the media-academic complex took up the rallying cry that Bush had won unfairly and unscrupulously, an approach that has become the template for liberal interpretations ever since.”  Hayward wrote in 2009, but as of the spring of 2017, it is very clear that not only has this approach not changed, it has become ever more aggressive and vicious.  No need to inquire why Hillary’s policies might not have resonated with Americans; and no need to discuss her close ties to Wall Street (and Obama’s $400K payout for a single speech from Wall Street, and $60 million for a book deal).  Trump is illegitimate!  #Resistance!

Reagan himself was not a traditional American conservative.  He loathed the suffocating hand of government, but he was not a Burkean conservative—indeed, one of his favorite phrases was Paine’s “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”  He meant it in an optimistic, Americans-can-do-anything way, but still, as an expression of unbounded possibilities, it is not a very conservative view, and dovetails too easily with conflating “We” with “government,” something Reagan probably did not see.  And his views were formed at a time when the government was much less suffocating and ideologically driven than it has since become:  the Cthulhu State, as I have dubbed it elsewhere.  Thus, from a philosophical perspective, Reagan was both unique among conservatives and a man of his time, and his time only.  Today he would not fit and he would not meet today’s needs.  What is more, Reagan nostalgia is a dangerous trap for conservatives today, for the most basic of all principles of life, and the most widely ignored, is “you can’t go back.”  Therefore, The Age of Reagan is interesting and has many lessons, but it is not a manual for future conservative electoral or cultural success.  This is something Reagan himself would have been the first to see, and something we would do well to remember.

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