“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘Republicans in control of all three branches of government.’” — Me, correcting him.
I remember when Reagan was elected. Carter was in the White House, but he appeared hapless and helpless, maybe even cursed; the Iranian revolution and the storming of the U.S. Embassy, the hostage crisis, the failed attempt to rescue them, the OPEC oil embargo. . . for all intents and purposes, it appeared America was battered and on her knees, and new leadership was not only warranted but imperative. Enter Ronald Reagan, charged with playing the role of Hollywood president, who talked tough and exuded confidence, but took his orders from the head of Merril Lynch. When discussing Reagan these days, it is important to distinguish between the historical Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States, and the mythical being Reagan™, hailed by the Republican party for shrinking government, cutting taxes, defeating the Soviet Union, and restoring America to greatness. The historical Reagan did none of these things. The mythical Reagan™, conservative idol, did all of them and more. For this post, I am primarily focusing on Reagan, the man, and his historical record.
The most significant blow Reagan dealt to America was the quote above, and the paradigm shift that it represented. Reagan taught us to hate the government, to believe that government was the source of all of our problems, that government couldn’t get anything right, that anything government did was doomed to fail miserably. If all of this seems obvious, you’re either unaware of or have forgotten America’s past–you deny what it was that made America special and great in the first place.
The purpose of the American experiment was to see if there could truly exist a government that Abraham Lincoln would later describe as being “of the people, by the people, for the people”. A government that would exist to serve the will and interests of the governed, and that would reject the European model of feudal, aristocratic plutocracies that the founders fought to overthrow. All of the major powers in the world were autocracies, ruled by the caprice and fiat of kings and queens, claiming legitimacy in the name of God. They were also in the thrall of bankers and corporations (the Boston Tea Party was the first anti-corporate protest in American history). It was against this backdrop that America was conceived, a country whose government derived its just power from the consent of the governed, and not from the divine right of a sovereign leader who served as God’s living emissary on Earth. This was a radical and extremely liberal concept in the 1770′s, and judging by right wing talk radio and the ineptly named Tea Party movement today, has become one again. Or maybe it always has been, and the Tories are just experiencing a remarkable comeback.
For the majority of our national history, this was the framework In which we saw our government; flawed, imperfect, but ours. It was this that enabled the American government to rack up an impressive string of achievements in a relatively short period of time, and it is this legacy that modern conservatives–and all who buy into their misguided “government is the problem” rhetoric–deny and rebuke with their an-historic views.
To those who would say “the government can’t get anything right” or is “the problem, not the solution”, I would just like to point out one glaring, inconvenient truth: Almost every great achievement in American history was accomplished by the American government. This isn’t just my opinion, it is objective, incontrovertible fact. The free market has provided us with novelties and trinkets, but precious few truly remarkable, noteworthy accomplishments; almost all of those are solely attributable to government (I’d say all, but I’m sure there are one or two things I’m not thinking of right now). Without the direct and active involvement of the government, America as we know it wouldn’t even exist–for that matter, neither would the world as we know it. Saying that “government can’t get anything right” as I hear so often, particularly from conservatives, isn’t just wrong; it is ignorant of basic American history. To give just a small example, below is a list of some of the American government’s greatest hits, in no particular order. Note: not one of the items on this list would have ever been created by a purely free market system, absent government assistance.
- The Hoover Dam: The Hoover Dam, once the largest and most ambitious project of its kind in the world, remains a massive feat of ingenuity and engineering, so respected even today that it remains an achievable Wonder of the World in the Civilization series of strategy games. The Hoover Dam faced numerous legal and technical challenges during its inception and construction, and many new and innovative achievements in both engineering and labor management resulted from the problem solving necessary to accomplish such a monumental and historic undertaking.
- The Louisiana Purchase: The single biggest expansion of American territory in its history, edging out even Alaska, the Louisiana Purchase was originally an accident of circumstance; intending to purchase only the port of New Orleans, a critical point for commerce, America found itself negotiating with a French government indebted by wars and unable and unwilling to maintain any presence in the territory it had acquired in North America. In one bold gesture, America more than doubled in size and established itself as the dominant force on the American continent.
- The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Celebrated in history for its vision, courage, and audacity, the Lewis and Clark expedition was a government commission, intended to survey the newly acquired territory of the Louisiana Purchase and provide a report and maps of what America had bought. Countless books have been written about the project, and one of its key members even graces an American dollar.
- The Panama Canal: Seeking to shorten and speed the transport of goods and people between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Panama Canal was a particularly formidable and daring challenge that the French failed at twice. Undaunted by the inability of those two previous attempts, the American Government, operating well before the rise of modern “No, We Can’t” conservatism, took the project on and accomplished what many engineers had called impossible. To date, the Panama Canal, finished in 1914, remains a critical channel for commercial and military transport, nearly a century later.
- The National Power Grid: Originally created to deliver power to weapons and munitions factories during World War One, the system was expanded as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal infrastructure program, and now supplies the majority of American homes and businesses with power, even in the most remote locations. While we take electricity for granted, it should be remembered that prior to the creation of the national power grid, the only homes with electricity existed in major metropolitan areas; for better or worse, without the national power grid, suburbia would have never existed.
- The Federal Highway System: Every major city in America is connected by a vast, sprawling network of highways, developed by a conservative president as an effort to ensure the ability to transport military and commercial goods across the country in the event of a national emergency. Roughly 70% of American goods are transported by trucks around the country, 100% to their final destinations. The Federal Highway System is safe, comprehensive, and well maintained, a tribute to government achievement.
- The Apollo Space Program/Moon Landings: The SpaceX project, Virgin Galactic, XCOR, these private ventures are only even possible because of the vast amounts of research and data provided by decades of government programs. Prior to the existence of NASA, little was known about what existed outside the planet’s atmosphere, and the information that makes it possible for private companies to build ships capable of leaving and returning to it exists primarily due to the American government–and to a slightly lesser extent, the Russians. America remains the sole country to land men on another planet, and even if the Chinese project to do the same ever reaches fruition, it will be riding on the back of research and advances made by the United States government.
- Global Positioning Satellites: Tom Tom and Garmin are private companies, but didn’t create the technology that powers their devices. The Global Position Satellite system was created by the U.S. Government as a navigational and locational tool for use by the military. Today, GPS technology is ubiquitous, and can be found in everything from commercial airliners to modern cell phones.
- The Hubble Space Telescope: Capable of viewing farther and better into space than any other creation in the history of humanity, the Hubble Space Telescope remains a technological watershed in the history of space exploration. Science for the sake of science is common fodder for politicians–particularly conservatives, but has provided the world with a great deal of information and knowledge that simply wouldn’t be possible if we limited our investment in research to the free market and it’s commercially driven restrictions.
- The GI Bill: There were two major forces that contributed to the rise and stability of the middle class in the latter half of the twentieth century: labor gains achieved by the American Union movement, and the opportunities provided by the G.I. Bill. Enacted by Roosevelt as a reward for service during the war, the G.I. Bill encompassed a host of benefits for veterans that included low cost mortgages and tuition assistance for college and vocational programs. The ability to simultaneously re-integrate returning veterans into society while also improving their social and financial positions was a critical factor in the economic strength of the United States in the aftermath of the war. These gains continued until the early 80′s, and have been in decline ever since.
- The Internet: Despite being the butt of ignorant jokes, Al Gore was absolutely correct when he claimed that he “took the initiative in the creation of the Internet.” While it may seem hard to imagine, at one point the Internet was destined for the dustbin of history. Formed as an evolutionary offshoot of the military DARPANET, an advanced network for information sharing among military contractors and researchers, the system was replaced with a more advanced and secure model in the late 70′s and was slated for dismantling. It took the lobbying efforts of the Junior Senator from Tennessee, Al Gore, to save the project from obsolescence and open the infrastructure up into the modern, commercial entity now known as the Internet. While it is altogether possible that the effort would have remained a boondoggle, of interest only to hardcore computer enthusiasts without the development of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, the fact remains that the Internet was entirely the product of government research and spending. It is inconceivable to suggest that the modern Internet would have ever been created by private industry and the free market.
- Personal Computers: Taking a step back from the Internet, whose growth and popularity were only possible by the existence of personal computers, it should be noted that personal computers themselves were an extension of government research into digital processing and logic, and that the original mainframe computers were funded by government research. It is no disservice to or slight upon the innovators of the personal computer industry–including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak–to point out that all of their advances were, like most great inventions, predicated on the work that came before, and that in the case of computers a large part of that research was financed by government. Even the brilliant developments by the famed Xerox/PARC researchers benefited indirectly from the government, as a significant number of its scientists were government researchers laid off as the DARPA funding began to wind down.
- Satellite Imagery: Google Earth may be the product of private industry, but has never launched a satellite of its own; rather, all of its images come from government satellites or satellites that it purchased from the government. It is hardly credible to suggest that any company would have invested the billions of dollars necessary to develop the imaging and satellite technology and the additional money to then launch dozens of expensive satellites into orbit.
- Jet Engines: Of all the items on the list, this is the one possible exception to my claim that the free market would have never developed it; it is altogether conceivable that the industry may have eventually developed these methods of propulsion as the result of natural competition in the industry, but even here the exception proves the rule: the commercial aviation industry itself was created as an offshoot of government research into better and faster means of delivering bombs and troops to remote destinations during World Wars One and Two. It is also entirely possible that, absent government research money, nobody would have invested the considerable sums necessary to develop airplanes capable of delivering large numbers of people across vast distances. At the very least, government money jump-started the industry and advanced it by several decades.
Again, this list is by no means complete or comprehensive; rather, this represents just a fraction of noteworthy achievements accomplished or made possible by the United States Government. Even many commercial items of lesser importance are the result of government research (e.g. Silly Putty and Memory Foam were both accidental byproducts of government research into materials for use in government projects–among hundreds of others). To say that the government does nothing right is either mendacity or ignorance.
And yet Reagan painted government as the problem, completely rejecting and overturning its historical role as a partner to and servant of the people. Reagan cast government as a giant bureaucracy, ominous and malevolent, an enemy of the people; this was a brilliant piece of marketing judo, only possible because of the specific confluence of tumultuous events that were taking place as the 1970′s drew to a close. Ronald Reagan managed to take a series of annoying governmental nuisances, conflate them with current events such as the gas and hostage crises, and then use the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw fiasco to paint a picture of bloated government incompetence–all at a time when the public was just gullible and desperate enough to buy into it. As a result, Reagan initiated a paradigm shift in American public sentiment that fundamentally changed our relationship with our government. Prior to Reagan, “good government” was see as not only possible, but desirable. Since Reagan, “good government” is seen as an oxymoron, and this has been nothing but a disaster.
The role of good government, as envisioned by the founders, was to provide a cohesive suite of services to the people, all for the common good. These included, but were never limited to, a system of roads to provide commerce; a postal system to deliver personal letters and information throughout the land. The formation and maintenance of a serviceable navy to protect our coasts and commerce. A system of laws, to promote the general welfare and maintain the peace. For the better part of 200 years, the American government stood as a beacon of good governance, and oversaw our rise among nations to a position of leadership–economic, military, social, and moral. Political corruption existed and bubbled up throughout our history from time to time , but always ended in a thorough and public examination, followed by corrective laws to prevent a recurrence; we learned from our mistakes. Those days are gone. They ended during the Reagan administration.
My impression of Ronald Reagan, having lived through his presidency and legacy, was he is and always was largely a figurehead, a puppet ruler tasked with putting a good and noble face on the dark business of dismantling all of the most significant and beneficial gains that the American people fought for and won during the 20th century. Almost every one of Reagan’s major themes has been proven not only wrong but disastrous, not only during his presidency but in the years since–and yet, paradoxically, his ideas remain stronger than ever. Most significantly, the ideas that tax cuts and deregulation spur job creation, which get trotted out repeatedly by conservatives despite the mountain of evidence that not only are these notions wrong, they are 180˚ from empirical reality. The wave of deregulation that started with Reagan’s Savings and Loan debacle and most recently resulted in the spectacular collapse of the housing market has been an unbroken string of increasingly expensive failures, all bailed out at taxpayer expense–yet the acolytes of Reagan™, their faith undeterred, continue to insist that the problem is that we haven’t deregulated enough. Bush cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans at the turn of the century, only to watch the unemployment rate in America hit levels second only to those under Hoover–and that using the modified, lower numbers generated by the Reagan administration’s new method of tabulation. Nonetheless, Republicans continue to insist that allowing these cuts to expire will limit job creation. Journalists and pundits alike repeat these empty mantras with neither irony not challenge; such is the power and significance of the Reagan effect: even direct evidence cannot contradict the ridiculous, unwarranted reverence we have for the great Reagan’s™ dogma.
And here we sit, trapped between the proverbial rock and the hard place; on the one side, a growing number of difficult challenges that can only be overcome with the power and reach of government, on the other an intractable bloc of conservative voters and their representatives, hellbent on proving that government is incapable of solving any problems–despite a long and storied tradition and history of it doing exactly that. This isn’t principle and it’s not philosophy, it’s politics as an article of religious faith, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that the founders wanted to protect our government from, for exactly the reasons that are corroding us from within today.
There is a lot of talk about the unhappiness of modern voters with Washington’s gridlock, and the general public sentiment seems to suggest a desire to see it end; to see a restoration of the days when politicians could argue but compromise, and when the business of the country could be done. Those days ended when Reagan took office, and ushered in an era where an entire political party decided to believe that government was not only the worst place to turn to resolve America’s problems, but that it was structurally incapable. What amazes me is that, despite their position that government is the problem, Republicans not only run for but get elected to public office.
Electing a Republican to public office is like hiring a PETA activist to run your animal testing lab: when the animals all get released and the lab burns to the ground, it was your fault for hiring someone who was ideologically opposed to the project in the first place, and the outcome was not only predictable but inevitable. Likewise, when we look at the shambles that George W. Bush left behind, we see a Republican majority: in the House, Senate and Supreme Court, all three branches of government were controlled by a political party which has internalized and adopted their patron saint Reagan’s™ philosophical outlook on government as a whole; how and why would we expect anything less than disastrous results?
When Ronald Reagan came along and painted government as a vast, evil entity incapable of solving any problems and indeed the source of most of them, he created an alternate universe, one completely contradictory to the reality of our history, and yet one that sadly persists to this day. When you hear conservative commentators speak of government as incapable of doing anything right, when they speak about “government healthcare” as an inherently bad idea because “government can’t do anything right”, and when these sentiments are echoed by people from all walks of like, these aren’t just opinions, these are the echoes of the reality Reagan painted, a reality that contradicts over two hundred years of genuine American history. In creating and popularizing the “government is the problem” mindset, Reagan laid the foundation for the modern gridlock we see in Congress today; he made the notion of “good government” seem ridiculous. In doing so, he robbed America of two of its greatest assets: belief in our ability to achieve as a nation, and hope for the future, all while pretending to restore both of these things. The reality is, Reagan was a corporate shill whose purpose was to undermine the faith of the American people in their own government, and place it in the corporations themselves. Unfortunately, he was all too successful in this, and the damage he caused may yet be irreparable. The Occupy Wall Street movement is the first, real effort to roll back the excesses and mistakes of the Reagan Revolution, but it doesn’t appear to be winning. The forces of corporatism and greed appear to be holding the majority of the public in abeyance, as if we still expect some sort of reward for our abject obedience to the system that has thus far beaten us down so mercilessly.
As it stands, it would appear that the class war is effectively over, and Reagan’s side–the rich, powerful, and corporate elite–have won decisively. That they do so with such a large block of public support is a national tragedy. This, above all, is the legacy of Ronald Reagan: He was the president that destroyed us. Worst of all, he did it with our help.
He–and the new face of the Republican party that he left behind–couldn’t have done it without us.
UPDATE 07/25/2012: On Monday, Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz attempted to rewrite history by claiming the Internet was the product of private enterprise, and not government. No doubt conservatives will pick up this line of nonsense and run with it, despite the fact that he is wrong. Rather than pick apart his deeply flawed argument, I’ll refer you to Michael Hiltzik’s comprehensive takedown. Note that Crovitz claims Xerox invented the Internet: Xerox disagrees.