Reagan: a Critical Analysis
Ronald Reagan: A Critical Analysis of the US’ 40th President
Often heralded as the darling of modern conservatism as well as an idol for aspiring members of the Republican party, the 40th President of the United States is widely considered the epitome of American idealism and exceptionalism. After all, the context of his upsurge to the country’s ultimate authority was spawned within a nation plagued by a post-Watergate cynicism of central government and economic mayhem. Here, his semi-nationalist and state centric grandiloquence became music to the ears of those who had been told by incumbent president Jimmy Carter that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” Rather than tolerating this message, the American public gravitated towards a leader who existed at the heart of this “era of consumption”. An individual who had embellished their television screens on an unvarying basis as a B List Actor gone corporate spokesperson for General Electric. A former enlisted serviceman and Governor of California whom continuously espoused the need for free marketization, anticommunism, low taxes, and limited government. Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Most of the analysis directed towards the Reagan years, particularly after his death in 2004, comes to the same ambiguous supposition: his legacy speaks volumes. Considering that the US’ GDP saw a seven percent increase, Real GDP per Worker increased by $10,000 and the Cold War came to a swift conclusion this is no outlandish claim. Even today, no sitting nor aspiring American politician can pursue the Caesar-like throne of the Oval Office without first praising his memory.
Despite this, it is widely argued that Reagan was by far the least “hands on” president in US History. Historian Nigel Hamilton asserts that Reagan was not only comparatively tranquil regarding his method of governance, but in his approach to managing his staff simultaneously. He was instead sustained by the charismatic familiarity he projected onto television screens, accompanied by his various quips on issues ranging from the internal politics of the Soviet Union to nuclear weapons. An individual who carried his former position as a corporate spokesperson into the structuring of his own White House.
Thirty-seven years later, the voices of Reagan’s critics are becoming increasingly heard. From economists to civil rights leaders, thousands seem to hold some form of resentment towards the man and the ideology he stood behind.
Economic Policy: The Selling out of the American People:
Economically, the primary criticism levelled against Reagan focuses on the fact that his administration became an outlet for corporate Interests. Economist Paul Krugman concurs, arguing that despite wide conservative support for his Reaganomics programme, it did far more harm than good. Furthermore, writer Murray N. Rothbard contends that Reaganomics failed in its primary motive of reducing government spending, indicating that:
“In 1980, the last year of free-spending Jimmy Carter the federal government spent $591 billion. In 1986, the last recorded year of the Reagan administration, the federal government spent $990 billion, an increase of 68%.”
Rothband also identifies that Reagan’s ambition of cutting the deficit was fruitless. During the 1970s, the deficit fluctuated between $40-50 billion; however, by 1984 the deficit had reached $200 billion.
The true negative implications of the Reagan economic plan can be seen not only within its impact on the US economy, but also the US’ industrial infrastructure and workers’ rights. Krugman argues that this began when Don Regan, former CEO of Merrill Lynch & Co, was employed as Treasury Secretary and subsequently Chief of Staff in 1981. Regan used this position to slash the taxes of the country’s wealthiest by 53%. The impact of this, he contends, was less an employment of effective supply side economic theory, but the corporatization of the US economy, dismantling of the US’ industrial infrastructure and the creation of short term profits for companies, including GM, AT&T and Reagan’s former employers General Electric.
Furthermore, Krugman identifies that despite the administration’s claims, productivity and American business prestige “didn’t stage a comeback” until the 1990s, when the U.S. began to reassert its technological and economic leadership under Pax Americana. Meanwhile, Reagan’s tax cuts fashioned a “rapid ballooning” of the federal debt, and despite significant growth within the stock market, said wealth failed to “trickle down” as predicted. The primary fatalities of such a policy were therefore middle-class citizens.
Millions lost jobs because of this of seismic shift in US economic and industrial infrastructure, a 20% decrease throughout 1980s. Remaining workers were forced to increase productivity despite stagnated wages. This subsequently led to the increase in bank borrowed money, creating a house-hold debt of over 100% to GDP. Furthermore, personal bankruptcies shot up by 610%, alongside a 78% increase in healthcare costs due to the wealth expansion of pharma companies and the healthcare industry. Finally, the number of citizens in poverty increased by 3.8%, an upsurge of 1.2 million Americans.
The severity of these shifts can be directly attributed to the obliteration of unions. A primary incident was in 1981, when Reagan fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers, replacing them with members of US Air Force and dismantled their union.
This move by the Reagan administration began to ripple across the country’s unionized workforces, diminishing the role of low to mid-level employees in the operation of companies whilst drastically limiting their ability to organise over issues affecting them. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson argued that this shift would see millions of jobs leave the United States in a move that would effectively dismantle the prosperous middle class; this quickly became a bleak reality. In many ways, the wounds struck by Reagan to the heart of both the US’ Workforce and Unions have yet to heal. However, abroad, something far more sinister was taking place.
Foreign Policy: Secret Friends and the War Machine:
Reagan became the beacon of Neoconservative ideology, which spawned during the 1970’s, achieved mainstream political success in the 1980s/90s and dominated the administration of President George W Bush in the 2000s. Writers Kristol and Keagan identify that the Reagan foreign policy doctrine rested on several key principles: “Rolling back” communism, “Peace through Strength”, high military spending and confrontational military deployment with the aim of capitalization. Most of all however, the Reagan administration seemed to believe that democracy and capitalism could work hand in hand to secure peace and prosperity. Thus, the Reagan doctrine was more than purely focussed on confronting the USSR, but destabilising communist/socialist governments across the world.
Though debated heavily, Reagan’s foreign policy is widely viewed by prominent conservative writers as the primary catalyst for the downfall of the USSR and subsequent conclusion of the Cold War. Rarely, however, are the controversies of the administration discussed by mainstream political figures in the US. They present a damming portrait of US Imperialism, neglect for Human Rights and plain stupidity and are epitomized by the Iran Contra scandal.
Reagan’s actions during this time were enabled by the National Security Council, an executive branch that allows the President control over covert military operations without Congressional nor media constraints. From the 1950s onwards, the US held a sustained presence within the South American state of Nicaragua, mainly to ensure that the country remained under US control as it was considered a key ally for regional and economic autonomy. However, the Socialist movement known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had forcefully taken power in 1979 from the corrupt and authoritarian sitting government. In response, various rebel groups, known collectively as the Contras, were formed against the new Nicaraguan Assembly and its economic nationalisation. The Contras committed mass atrocities against civilians, including launching attacks on health care facilities and schools. Reagan, however, perceiving them as anti-communist dissenters, wanted to support the movement via sustained military and financial aid. However, he was halted by the Boland Amendment (1982), which prevented the President from supporting foreign combatants without Congressional approval.
Meanwhile in Iran, despite the recent 1979 Revolution being significantly anti-American, the Shah began to accept weapons from the US via Israel for financial profit. This deal led to Hezbollah, the extremist/terrorist wing of the Shah government, beginning to release hostages taken during the siege on the American Embassy five years earlier. Reagan attempted to disguise these actions under the banner of aiding the combatants of the Iran/Iraq war. Writers Kornbluh & Byrne estimate that between August 20th 1985 and October 28th 1986, over 2000 anti-tank, anti-Aircraft and tube launched missiles were delivered to the Iranian Government. All funds were then transferred to the Contra’s war machine, funding its brutality in 1986.
This deal was largely carried out by US General Oliver North. When the transactions were eventually uncovered, a congressional investigation was launched with Reagan denying all accusations in a televised national address delivered on November 13th 1986. However, the testimony of North before Congress in July 1987 found that the Administration had violated Congressional legislation whilst simultaneously contributing to both mass human rights violations and the capability of Iran to damage both regional integrity and US autonomy within the Middle East. Despite this, Reagan remained largely undamaged by the controversy and continued to orchestrate US Foreign Policy in a largely imperialistic manner. By 1989, 10,000–43,000 combatants are estimated to have been killed alongside a further 250,000 civilians. In light of, this writer Robert Busby argues that
“The Great Communicator struggled to articulate a message regarding his involvement in the scandal and to explain how a complex operation originating in the White House could have taken place without his knowledge or authority. Dealings with terrorists, covert arms trades and the transfer of funds to supply an insurgent army suggested that the spirit — if not the letter — of the law had been undermined by Reagan’s operatives”
Reagan’s controversial approach to foreign policy, however, was not marred by just one controversy. He would continue to exercise US military and diplomatic power at great expense to many across the globe. Take, for example, the administration’s decision to veto the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (1986). Though conservative pundits have defended the administration’s position under the argument that it would have damaged the Black African population, such claims ignore the fact that sanctions later employed by successor George H W Bush, reducing US investment from $2.5 Billion to $1 Billion, worked to incite reforms. The reality is, Reagan conceived of South Africa as one of the “necessary allies” that required a policy of “constructive engagement” in the continental fight against communism. Thus, he was willing to overlook and thereby actively sustain the apartheid regime to pursue the US’ global interests. Writer David Schmitz evidences these claims by highlighting that not only did Reagan present Pro-Apartheid SA Prime Minister P.W. Botha as a “moderate”, he also considered the African National Congress to be a “dangerous, pro-communist movement” composed of “terrorists”.
The Reagan administration also increased the sale of arms to the Indonesian government, who had brutally ruled over the people of East Timor since occupying the country in 1975. Between 1980 and 1988, the Reagan administration supplied between $40 million-$600 million in arms despite a 122 US Congressman demanding the ceasing of such activities.. Reagan similarly supplied $10.5 Million in military weapon parts to the anti-Communist Guatemalan President José Efraín Ríos Montt, bypassing Congress in the process. These were subsequently used by the President to commit numerous human rights violations, mainly directed at the indigenous Mayan population. During Rios Montt’s trial in 2013, it was revealed that over 200,000 civilians had died because of the mass genocide. Importantly, Reagan, rather ironically, attempted to justify the transfer of weapons to the Guatemalan Government in 1982 by arguing that:
“President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment….I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”
Finally, Reagan also intervened in El Salvador’s civil war, supplying $4 billion to the country’s military dictatorship, resulting in more than 75,000 deaths. In all three cases, the Reagan administration conceived of the sustained relationships with violent dictators and authoritarian regimes as more important than the fate of oppressed minorities and occupied nations
Furthermore, the conservative pundits who attribute the conclusion of the Cold War to the policies of the Reagan administration make two blatant errors. Firstly, they drastically underestimate and thus devalue the many dissenting movements across Eastern Europe, who organised anti-government pressure groups and protests as early as the 1950s against Soviet occupation. Furthermore, they simultaneously fail to acknowledge how much the Soviet Union contributed to its own demise via imperialistic overstretch and economic deterioration. Secondly, the anti-communist rhetoric, praised by these pundits, that was utilized by the administration continuously to justify military aid programmes that resulted in thousands of civilian casualties in Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa and East Timor. Whilst diplomatic conferences and outspending, as well as outbidding in the case of the Strategic Defence Initiative, certainly contributed to the bankrupting of the Soviet Union, it would be naive to assume that Reagan, in demanding Gorbachev “tear down this wall”, deconstructed an entire empire single-handily. Historically, the downfall of the Soviet Union can be characterised as an inflating balloon. Each breath of air, big or small, contributes to the pressure building and the balloon inflating. As it grows, the now thin layer of rubber cannot support itself and begins to strain. Then, suddenly, it pops. Therefore, whilst Reagan’s military spending was an undoubtable factor that caused Soviet collapse, we cannot neglect alternate contributors nor his many foreign policy faults because of it.
Social Policy: Target and Disenfranchise:
Though Richard Nixon’s hard-line approach to “Law and Order” was the primary catalyst for the creation of the so-called “War on Drugs”, Reagan’s administration created the means for it to be transformed into a literal war in predominantly African American communities. In 1982, Nancy Reagan launched her moderate “Just Say No” campaign, aimed predominantly at young Americans facing peer pressure. Quietly, Ronald began setting the stage for the first strike against “public enemy number one”, dangerous narcotics – despite polling from 1981 suggesting that less than 2% of the population considered drugs to be a key political issue. In attempting to curb social care programs to avoid “wasteful spending”, Reagan had set in motion a system that treats drug users as criminals rather than individuals with serious health problems. This system was exacerbated by Crack Cocaine’s arrival to inner city areas. The mass hysteria created by the administration surrounding this drug led to mandatory minimum sentences being established at a significantly higher rate than powdered cocaine. Thus, as federal spending on law enforcement increased from $20 billion in 1982 to $40 billion in 1988, the number of incarcerated African Americans increased from 500,000 in 1980 to 1.1 million by 1990. Many authors have referred to “Mass Incarceration” as a huge turning point in which significant portions of the African American community were stripped away from their families and placed in correctional facilities. An individual caught with possession of 5g of crack cocaine would be sentenced to the same amount of prison time as an individual with 500g of powdered cocaine. The Reagan administration had effectively transformed the impoverished African American communities into the scapegoat for so called “societal decay”, using drugs as a means by which to employ a hard-line law and order policy to achieve electoral success.
Meanwhile, by 1982 the number of deaths caused by AIDS was at 853, with the Department of Health & Human Services declaring it an epidemic. The Reagan administration ignored the issue. By 1983, the total number of deaths was over 2000, hitting 4251 in 1984. Once again, silence from the administration. It took until September 17th 1985, 20,000 deaths later, for Reagan to first publicly address the crisis before the number of cases had skyrocketed to 100,000 by 1989. The extent of the administration’s relaxed approach to dealing with the crisis can be measured trough recently uncovered recordings of White House Spokesman Larry Melvin Speakes and the press pool laughing about the so called “Gay Plague”. The Federal Drug Administration’s slow response caused individuals to turn towards dangerous alternate treatments, whilst the Christian Right began hurling ill-educated accusations at the gay community. Though Reagan eventually allocated funds in 1986 and 1987, not only was it miniscule compared to the preceding years, but the damage had already been done. Modern activists have even suggested that Reagan’s lack of response to the AIDs crisis may have had something to do with his views on homosexuality…
“My criticism is that the gay movement isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I.”
It becomes clear upon analysis that the Reagan years were less a time of utopian American idealism and more a period of limbo.
Not in the sense that the US had no direction nor purpose, but that for a moment in the country’s history, an unpredictable enigma began to destructively steer the American power dynamic head-first into uncertainty. The decisions taken by Reagan’s Administration took on a very sinister form once his time in power had concluded. Corporate deregulation and Wall Street’s presence within the White House during this time signalled a chain reaction that would eventually leave the US in the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Largely by ending New Deal restrictions on mortgage lending.
The reality is, the vast wave of applause that carried Reagan’s legacy to its current heights was delivered with an unprecedented level of ignorance. If historical analysis is about having an objective view of celebrated figures, Reagan has undoubtedly slipped under the radar.
Written by James Bastin
- Speech: Jimmy Carter Malaise Speech (July 15th 1979) – Link Here: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=32596
- Book: Joseph Hogan (1990) – The Reagan Years: The Record in Presidential Leadership
- Book: Nigel Hamilton (2010) – American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush
- Article: Paul Krugman (2013) – The Myth of Reagan’s Miracle Link Here: https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/the-myth-of-reagans-miracle/
- Article: Paul Krugman (2015) – Reaganomics Undefended – Link Here: https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/reaganomics-undefended/
- Article: Paul Krugman (2008) – Debunking the Reagan Myth Link Here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/21/opinion/21krugman.html
- Article: Murray N. Rothbard (2004) – The Myth of Reaganomics Link Here: https://mises.org/library/myths-reaganomics
- Article: Harold Meyerson (2004) – Class Warrior http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2004/06/09/AR2005033112101.html
- Article: Kristol and Keagan (1996) – Towards a Neoreaganite Foreign Policy – Link Here: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1996-07-01/toward-neo-reaganite-foreign-policy
- Book: Chomsky (2011) – How the World Works
- Article: Peter Kornbluh Malcolm Byrne (1993)- Iran Contra Scandal – Link Here: http://thenewpress.com/books/iran-contra-scandal
- Article: Robert Busby (2011) The Scandal that Almost Destroyed Reagan – Link Here: http://www.salon.com/2011/02/04/busby_iran_contra/
- Article: David Schmitz (2011) – Reagan and Apartheid http://www.salon.com/2011/02/05/ronald_reagan_apartheid_south_africa/
- Article: Hannibal Travis (1993) – Genocide, Ethnonationalism, and the United Nations in Indonesia – Link Here: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=NbWdlRL8WzMC&pg=PA111&dq=reagan+and+indonesia&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwix-bajiNfVAhVJb1AKHR9AA4UQ6AEIQTAE#v=onepage&q=reagan%20and%20indonesia&f=false
- Book: John G Taylor, (2002), East Timor :the Price of Freedom, issue 1, pp. 55-70
- Press Release: Reagan Statement on Guatemala delivered on October 3rd 1982
- Article: Professor Greg Grandin (2015) – Guatemalan Slaughter Was Part of Reagan’s Hard Line – Link Here: https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/05/19/what-guilt-does-the-us-bear-in-guatemala/guatemalan-slaughter-was-part-of-reagans-hard-line
- Article: Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan (2004) – In Central America, Reagan Remains A Polarizing Figure – Link Here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A29546-2004Jun9.html
- Article: Benjamin Schwarz (1998) Dirty Hands: The success of U.S. policy in El Salvador — preventing a guerrilla victory — was based on 40,000 political murders – Link Here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/12/dirty-hands/377364/
- Book: Michelle Alexander (2010) – The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
- Book: Bryan Stevenson (2006) – “Confronting Mass Imprisonment and Restoring Fairness to Collateral Review of Criminal Cases”
- Documentary Film: Eugene Jarecki (2013) – The House I live In – Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime
- Documentary Film: Ava DuVernay (2016) – 13th – Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime
- Documentary Film: Virginia C. Cobler (1993) – The Reagan Administration’s Policy Response to AIDS