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Posted at 2:29 PM ET, 01/31/2011

Did Reagan change America?

By Ezra Klein

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Conventional wisdom holds that Ronald Reagan ushered in a new, conservative moment in America. But what's the evidence for it? Brendan Nyhan quotes political scientist James Stimson, saying that if Reagan did anything, it was to quickly take advantage of an existing opportunity for conservatism and then simply survive electorally as that moment drained away -- a cycle that probably sounds familiar to the Obama administration and a lot of its supporters:

Conservatism peaked with the election of Ronald Reagan; it was not produced by him. The 1980s did see pretty fundamental change in Washington, but ... [t]he first 100 days or so of the Reagan administration produced it all. The spring of 1981 saw Reagan's tax cut, his one serious effort to limit domestic spending, and the buildup of defense. The rest of the Reagan years, and the 1980s generally, were a time of conservative retreat. ...

Millions of people, having moved away from supporting government spending in the late 1970s, were moving back in support in the 1980s. Those millions were barely perceptible in the survey numbers and hardly noticed in Washington. The percentages of those who thought that "too little" was being spent on education [previously 53% in 1980 and 56% in 1982] moved from 60 in 1983 to 64 in 1984, down to 60 in 1985, then 61 in 1986, 62 in 1987, 64 in 1988. And the opposite numbers advocating "too much" fell at the same time. Over the eight years of the Reagan administration the percentages moved from 53 to 10 (83% too little) to 64 to 4 (94%). On the environment, it was the same, moving from 48 to 17 (74%) in 1980 to 65 to 5 (93%) at the close of the administration.

I wouldn't say this is definitive evidence, but if you believe that Reagan substantially transformed American politics, what features of the state or trends in the economy do you consider the strongest evidence for your thesis?

By Ezra Klein  | January 31, 2011; 2:29 PM ET
 
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Comments

If there has been a conservative shift in the overall policy debate, it might have begun with the failure of the Clinton health care reform. As you've pointed out, what used to be Republican HCR ideas are now denounced by conservatives.

Posted by: jduptonma | January 31, 2011 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Everything good from 1980-2000 is Reagan. Everything bad from 1980-2000 is somebody else.

Posted by: MosBen | January 31, 2011 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I think that poli sci prof is Jim Stimson not George Stimson - from UNC.

Posted by: marcalle | January 31, 2011 3:03 PM | Report abuse

More seriously, I wonder if, looking at the chart starting with Reagan, what we're seeing is that in an era of high partisanship, and where large-scale government projects aren't undertaken because of the partisanship, people get excited to elect someone and then are frustrated when things don't quickly change in the way the voters thought they would/should. People were very excited for President Obama to get into office because they expected/hoped that it would usher in a new era where elected officials got along better and worked together to pass some major initiatives. As that hasn't been born out (whatever you think the reason is), they quickly turn away to the other party.

Posted by: MosBen | January 31, 2011 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Reagan popularized the "government is the problem" dogma and his speech in Birmingham solidified the "cultural values" voters crawl into the GOP ranks. When Reagan took office the wealthiest 1% had 10% of the money - 30 years later it was 25% and increasing.

Posted by: WisconsinReader | January 31, 2011 3:16 PM | Report abuse

- free trade movement caused loss if millions of manufacturing jobs.

- taught abhorrence of taxes and gvmt

- legacy of debt

- worst of all, brought Bushes and their Cuban terrorists to power

Posted by: lauren2010 | January 31, 2011 3:16 PM | Report abuse

You forgot the other main thing he did in 1981, locking out the striking air traffic controllers, destroying the careers of many of them , and beginning the long and continuing union-busting trend.

Posted by: rjewett | January 31, 2011 3:18 PM | Report abuse

You forgot the other main thing he did in 1981, locking out the striking air traffic controllers, destroying the careers of many of them , and beginning the long and continuing union-busting trend.

Posted by: rjewett | January 31, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I'm reluctant to write here because I'm worried it will make you less likely to read my comments on Cowen's technology article. So please read those. It's very important stuff.

That said, the problem here is how liberal is defined, or self identified. The percent of people who self identify as liberal today may be the same as it was in 1972, but the stances and attitudes of liberals today are very different than those of liberals in 1972, and that is very largely due to Reagan – to the country's great detriment.

On economic policies a "liberal" today is typically more to the right than Nixon was in 1972; this is where Reagan really had the biggest impact. On social issues, though, like gay rights, they're further left than liberals of 1972.

If you look at actual issues and attitudes, not very malleable labels like "liberal", the nation is much further to the right on things like taxes on the rich and government, a shift which has caused profound harm and decline, and that's where Reagan really had an effect. On social issues like gay rights, we have gone much further to the left.

And of course what counts is the substance, not the ever shifting label.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 31, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

The single biggest thing Reagan's tenure changed was the tax structure in the US, specifically the top tax rates for individuals and businesses. This -- combined with his lack of concern a lower rate of spending -- led us to the fiscal black hole we're in.

http://sites.google.com/site/taxrates/ demonstrates the last 100 years of top tax rates and their effects on the Deficit and Debt.

Posted by: masseydvt | January 31, 2011 3:59 PM | Report abuse

The major changes Reagan made weren't in the American body politic, but in the mainstream of the Republican party. He:

1. Institutionalized long-term, profound structural deficits, and successfully blamed them on "spending" by liberals;

2. Moved government policy even more strongly towards spending on the elderly than on spending for domestic investment or on the young;

3. Decreased tax rates on the wealthy and began the whole supply-side "jobs come from the rich" argument that is so in flower today that many policymakers genuinely do not understand that we are in a demand crisis.

4. Popularly re-defined tax rates as income taxes, with payroll taxes left entirely out of the picture.

5. Began the policies of deregulation that led to our current financial catastrophe;

6. Arguably: completely ended the Eisenhower tradition in Republican circles--domestic investment was no longer something the Republican party stood for, and military spending was.

7. Mainstreamed unionbusting with his general rhetoric and his federal action towards the flight controllers;

8. Finalized the Republican Party's Southern Strategy race war begun under Nixon.

9. Even as the nation became more secular and religiously diverse, rhetorically mainstreamed a reactionary "bible belt" religious sentiment as proper for the government to formally espouse. The religious tradition he chose to elevate was one derived from Southern Protestant traditions.

10. Moved the Republican party's base further from urban centers to suburban/rural ones.

All of these were conservative achievements aimed at re-defining his party. Making these positions the new mainstream was a huge and deliberate break from the party's past. By the time Reagan left office, there was no room in his party for leadership from the Rockefeller Republicans who just 6 years earlier had been seen by the Party's leadership as very mainstream--so mainstream, in fact, that they picked Rockefeller as vice-President.

George HW Bush was a one-term president largely because he failed to adjust to the new normal, and tried to do old Republican things like actually address the deficit, rather than exploit it for political gain over his opponents.

Most regular people don't have genuine policy preferences, and don't understand who's "liberal" and who's "conservative." Honestly, if you just looked at their actions in office you'd think Sarah Palin was a socialist and Bernie Sanders a moderate liberal, but try telling that to most people.

What Reagan did was threefold. First, he changed the Republican party's mainstream on a number of major issues, and empowered a new faction to make policy--the Southern conservative faction. Second, he was charming and he presided over a marvelous recovery led by his liberal economist fed chair, and aided by spectacular deficit spending. This cemented his takeover of his party. Third, he villified Democrats effectively.

Posted by: theorajones1 | January 31, 2011 3:59 PM | Report abuse

--*You forgot the other main thing he did in 1981, locking out the striking air traffic controllers, destroying the careers of many of them*--

The PATCO strike violated federal law. Reagan gave adequate warning, and then took decisive action. One of the high points of his presidency.

Posted by: msoja | January 31, 2011 4:05 PM | Report abuse

* Government revenue as a percentage of GDP
* Shifts in discretionary spending as a percentage of GDP (from non-defense to defense)
* Effective top marginal tax rates
* Measures of inequality (after-tax income of top 1%, gini index, 90th percental/10th percentile, you name it).

In all of these, we started living in a different world that started under Reagan, and then started taking off again in the late Clinton years, but median wages were moving in the right direction so people paid less attention (plus the dotcom boom created a larger number of formerly middle class, now upper-middle class professionals), and then went nuts in the Bush era.

I would be curious about things like the amout of "tax expenditures", percentage of workforce employed by the government, and the share of government spending going to contracters as opposed to direct employment, but I don't have the numbers there.

I'm also curious about access to abortion services, but don't know how that's changed over time.

I think in hindsight, Reagan's biggest accomplishment was to eliminate the top tax bracket ultra-wealthy, making the debate about tax increases something where upper-upper middle class people in any coastal urban areas now have solidarity with millionaires, who are almost entirely CXOs or in finance.

Posted by: NicholasBeaudrot | January 31, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Actually, one other major policy achievement I failed to mention for Reagan was his willingness to deal with Gorbachev. He could easily have whiffed this opportunity.

This policy of honest and genuine engagement, continued by George HW, meant that when 1989 rolled around we had a non-enemy in power in Russia, who was quite frankly willing to let us win the Cold War because he thought this was in the best interests of his nation.

And winning the Cold War was absolutely critical to the legacy of Reagan, and his popularity after leaving office. Although completely separate from Reagan's conservative domestic policies, it helped cement them by making him a positive figure.

Posted by: theorajones1 | January 31, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

I love charts from professors they usualy lack any proof except what is in their liberal bastion of the non real world they live. 2 polls never to believe any the the post runs and any that fox produce. reagan was the best president of my liftime because he did what he said he would not like what we have now the most polarizing president of this generation. Look at states these leaders came from Ilinois and California both which will be the first staes in the coutry to bankrupt. Liberal ideas bankrupt it easy to see. I live in maryland and Omalley has a 1.6 billion deficit to deal maily of his own making since he was left a 1.6 billion rainy day fund from the last gov. So in 4 short years he created a 3.2 billion plunge but the liberal voters put him back in to office. I guess we will get in line with the other liberal states. The more milk you put on the porch the more cats you get.

Posted by: dcofer | January 31, 2011 4:30 PM | Report abuse

--*Ezra, I'm reluctant to write here because I'm worried it will make you less likely to read my comments on Cowen's technology article. So please read those. It's very important stuff.*--

Hilarious, the self-importance of the professional busybody/meddler/looter.

The best thing about Reagan (and now, Palin) is the way he stirred lefties to apoplexy and beyond. He must have done something right.

Posted by: msoja | January 31, 2011 4:42 PM | Report abuse

"More seriously, I wonder if, looking at the chart starting with Reagan, what we're seeing is that in an era of high partisanship, and where large-scale government projects aren't undertaken because of the partisanship, people get excited to elect someone and then are frustrated when things don't quickly change in the way the voters thought they would/should"


That's not because of partisanship. It's because the destructive programs called Medicare and Medicaid demolished the federal budget.

Posted by: krazen1211 | January 31, 2011 5:12 PM | Report abuse

"The single biggest thing Reagan's tenure changed was the tax structure in the US, specifically the top tax rates for individuals and businesses. This -- combined with his lack of concern a lower rate of spending -- led us to the fiscal black hole we're in."


IE: Back then us leftists were not false Keynesians. Deficit spending was not acceptable during recessions!

That changed in late 2006. A year before the December 2007 recession began, Paul Krugman suddenly because a pro-deficit figure.

Posted by: krazen1211 | January 31, 2011 5:16 PM | Report abuse

"- free trade movement caused loss if millions of manufacturing jobs.

- taught abhorrence of taxes and gvmt

- legacy of debt

- worst of all, brought Bushes and their Cuban terrorists to power"

You know someone is being dishonest when they fail to mention that about 50 million jobs were created from 1981 until when Barack Obama took office.


In any case, the article's premise is only half right. Reagan didn't change America. It was already changing on its own, and this was egged on by the utterly useless feckless failure known as Jimmy Carter.


Oh, and of course, the Democrat's rampage through Vietnam. Back then they were a pro-war party.

Posted by: krazen1211 | January 31, 2011 5:19 PM | Report abuse

- brought all the dixiecrats into the Republican party
- made it OK to hate on social safety nets for swarthy people
- started the "war on terror" (oh, yes he did)
- gave up on manufacturing, made us "bankers to the world"
- destroyed energy efficiency / alternative sources
- greatly decreased progressivity of taxes
- made politics into a professionally produced sitcom / family drama...

The list goes on. You're too young, Ezra. He really did change things.

Posted by: GBMcM | January 31, 2011 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, you have to prove Obama's wrongness yourself since it appears the left is once again having a hissy fit abt Reagan.

Posted by: carolerae48 | January 31, 2011 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Death of unions.
"Greed is good."
Revival of Social Darwinism.

Posted by: RZ100 | January 31, 2011 7:58 PM | Report abuse

1. Attacks on workers/labor.
2. Insane defense spending.

That's what business wanted back then, and they got it. He did what he was paid to do, GE spokesman and all.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | February 1, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

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