The Reason for Reagan

Understanding Ronald Reagan requires looking beyond clichés to the cultural climate of the time. A response to Jacob Weisberg.

By Rick Perlstein

Tagged conservatismHistory

In 1980, the year Ronald Reagan won his first landslide presidential victory, pollsters at National Opinion Research Corporation asked Americans whether they thought, as Reagan did, that “too much” was being spent on welfare, health, education, environmental, and urban programs. Only 21 percent did—the same percentage as had answered that way in 1976. The number that favored “keeping taxes and services about where they are” was a healthy plurality, 45 percent—the exact same result as in 1975.

The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations did a similar poll in 1982, and found that since 1978, the year of the much-vaunted national tax revolt spearheaded by Proposition 13 in California, the percentage of Americans who wished to see welfare programs expanded rather than cut back had increased by 26 percentage points. In 1984, the year Reagan won 49 states and 59 percent of the popular vote, only 35 percent of Americans said they favored substantial cuts in social programs in order to reduce the deficit.

Given these plain facts, historiography on the rise of conservatism and the triumph of Ronald Reagan must obviously go beyond the deadening cliché that since Ronald Reagan said government was the problem, and Americans elected Ronald Reagan twice, the electorate simply agreed with him that government was the problem. But in his recent review of my book The Invisible Bridge [“A Bridge Too Far,” Issue #34], Jacob Weisberg just repeats that cliché—and others. “Rick Perlstein’s account of Reagan’s rise acknowledges his popularity,” the article states, “but doesn’t take the reasons behind it seriously enough.” Weisberg is confident those reasons are obvious. Is he right?

Begin with his opening judgment. He says Reagan’s stubborn insistence that Watergate didn’t matter was “anodyne” and “the safe political course.” Then why was he the only prominent political figure taking that position? Why did political handicappers like Rowland Evans and Robert Novak call it professional suicide, quoting aides agonizing that Reagan could go no further in his career until he made (in Evans and Novak’s words) that “politically necessary rupture”? (He never did.) Weisberg’s claim simply contradicts the record. For that matter, I did not say that there was a “deeper motive in Reagan’s evasion of the crisis.” No: It was just Reagan being Reagan. And, as I demonstrate throughout The Invisible Bridge, Reagan being Reagan—projecting blitheness in the face of what others called chaos, in addition to being a shrewd politician, a gifted rhetorician, and an inventive beneficiary of the growing organizational forces of professional conservatism—is how his candidacy for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination evolved from an improbability to a near miss, and from that to his 1980 victory. It was not some unproblematic rallying of the masses to his skepticism of government.

Weisberg dislikes my method for arriving at this conclusion, which for his taste involves far too much use of everyday contemporary media sources. “[F]or long stretches, reading this book feels like leafing through a lot of old newspapers,” he writes. Another way of understanding this, though—and, in addition to old newspapers, I’d add old newscasts, old magazines, old movies, old TV shows, old comic strips, old barroom and barbershop conversations, old shopping trips, old Mad magazines and Wacky Packages, old TV commercials and magazine ads and high school textbooks, etc.—is that I do history. I try to do it the way my methodological guide, the British philosopher R.G. Collingwood, described the ideal in his 1946 masterpiece, The Idea of History: by providing the reader occasion to empathetically “re-enact” past thought. “[R]ather than present a case,” Weisberg writes of this method, I indulge “the newsmagazine writer’s habit of substituting glib narrative for coherent argument.” Perhaps it’s a matter of taste. But for me, conveying how the headlong rush of all that was solid melting into air felt, in the nation that defeated Hitler and created the world’s first mass middle class and which had seen itself as the moral light unto the nations, is anterior to understanding how politics changed during the period under study—why supporting Reagan became a temptation even for those indifferent to top marginal tax rates or runaway government bureaucracies. You can’t separate the dancer from the dance.

Other questions point to the reviewer’s inattentiveness. “Perlstein pays a lot of attention to cinema, but little to TV.” He must have missed Chapter 1, which builds the narrative foundation partly on how the nightly newscasts covered the Vietnam prisoners of war. Or the ground-up account of the experience of watching the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, and the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings in 1974. Or the crucial role my extended discussion of “M*A*S*H” plays in Chapter 15, or my discussion of “The Waltons,” Dean Martin’s celebrity roasts, TV coverage of the 1976 Winter Olympics, and more. And then: “…still less to pop music, and none at all to literature. How can one write a cultural history of the 1970s without delving into ‘All in the Family,’ Born to Run, or John Updike?” Well, the cultural impact of “All in the Family” was nugatory by the time my story begins. As to Born to Run, despite Bruce Springsteen’s coup of appearing simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek in 1975, its stay near (never on) the top of the Billboard 200 album chart lasted less than a month. “It is a folly of too many,” Jonathan Swift once remarked, “to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom.” In fact, the albums people were actually listening to much, much more were Chicago IV, Elton John’s Greatest Hits, and Captain & Tennille’s Love Will Keep Us Together; and—so sue me—I’m just not sure what inner cultural logic those sources reveal. And I do talk about Updike, though I talk more about the far-better-selling Alive (a surprise hit among evangelicals). The choices I make are not accidents.

But what of my “failure to engage seriously with ideas”?
Sometimes ideas have a powerful motor force in history. Sometimes they do not. So it’s the historian’s job to discern which, what, when, and how actual ideas actually affect the course of history, or not. “Ideas”—in the sense of serious intellectual work that diffuses outward to influence a wider public—were very important in the later 1970s, when the writings of formerly liberal intellectuals known as “neoconservatives” did so much to make conservatism respectable to journalistic and political elites. But ideas in that sense were not, in my considered judgment, nearly as influential in the rise of conservatism earlier in the 1960s and ’70s—just a little bit, which is why I write about them only a little bit.

Historians are frequently biased toward overemphasizing ideas, because as intellectuals they find ideas interesting. There is also a bias—elsewhere I’ve called it a soft bigotry of low expectations—toward plumping up conservative intellectual work because it makes a liberally inclined historian sound fair. I first learned to distrust conservatives’ own protestations that theirs is a “movement of ideas” when I read a speech transcript from a right-wing congressman in 1962 backing his defense of laissez-faire economics by dropping the name of Edmund Burke, who had less than nothing to do with laissez-faire economics. “Ideas” in politics are often intuition in fancy dress.

You can read Hayek, Mises, or Friedman in order to understand how and why conservatives hold government intervention in the marketplace with contempt; or you can read a speech by a Chamber of Commerce executive in the 1920s, or an exchange of letters between factory owners in the 1950s, all of them managing to enunciate the very same thing without the benefit of scholarly clergy. And indeed, the vaunted ideas themselves are often not particularly deep, which is why General Electric was able to distribute Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to its employees in comic book form.

Weisberg is also inattentive to those moments when I do examine ideas. I write in detail, for instance, about the influence of economist Henry Hazlitt on Ronald Reagan. (But not Milton Friedman, because the evidence of his radio broadcast suggests he began influencing Reagan in the fall of 1976, after my narrative ends. I’ll be writing a lot about Friedman in my next volume, covering the years 1977 to 1981.) He writes that “Perlstein might give more weight to the visible bridge of Reagan’s stated views,” singling out those on welfare; but did he not notice my extensive (and laudatory) discussion of Reagan’s welfare reforms as governor in Chapter 18? He mentions my alleged lacuna concerning taxes. But I write a lot about Reagan and taxes, and where his ideas about them came from: It’s inside one of my three chapters, ranging over some 102 pages, specifically about what made Reagan tick. Perhaps Weisberg skipped those, because he writes, “Perlstein doesn’t wonder about what made Reagan tick.”

Chronology matters, too, when it comes to ideas. Facts matter. Sources matter. Why didn’t I write about taxes as a formative conservative issue in the first half of the 1970s? Because, for the most part, they weren’t one. Weisberg claims, “With a top marginal rate of 70 percent kicking in at just over $100,000 for individuals (or around $275,000 in adjusted terms), income taxes were both too high and, with as many as 25 brackets, gratuitously complex.” (Actually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that $100,000 kick-in point—$200,000 for married couples—adjusts in the years my study covers not to his claimed $275,000 but from a low of $418,000 to a high of $535,000.) Taxes just weren’t really a partisan issue during the period I’m writing about. As I point out on page 627, cleaning up the complexity of the tax code, which he liked to call a “disgrace,” was a central part of Jimmy Carter’s platform in 1976.

Weisberg thinks I “pathologize conservative views.” There are many pages in my book I could cite in refutation, but for the sake of brevity I’ll single out Chapter 15. That is where, amid my sympathetic discussion of the backlashes against liberal textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, and against federal Judge Arthur Garrity’s desegregation decision in Boston, I write about how dispossessing it must have felt to be an ordinary American of conservative temperament in a liberalizing culture all but taken for granted by everyone who mattered in the media—institutionalized, for example, in hit TV shows like “M*A*S*H” and in a popular high school history textbook that spoke of American capitalists as having “crushed the dreams of poor people.”

I describe a weary despair aimed at “liberal media gatekeepers who had made ordinary longings for simple order, tradition, and decorum suddenly seem so embarrassingly unfashionable.” I note that old-fashioned patriotism “felt somehow forbidden,” and I describe feelings of victimization “by a sort of radicalism that, because it graced Middle American classrooms, did not seem radical to most Americans at all.” Among those who found empathy in such formulations was The Wall Street Journal’s Max Boot, who noted that I reserve “some of [my] most cutting barbs…for clueless establishment liberals who all too readily dismissed the significance of conservative champions.”

In some places Weisberg accuses me of writing things I did not actually write. I never accuse Reagan of “telling lies.” Read carefully: I point out where he contradicted himself. Or said strange things that that were demonstrably untrue, or embellished, or repeated things he claimed were facts long after they had been debunked, or changed opinions while claiming he hadn’t changed them at all. That was, indeed, part of what made Reagan tick. For instance, concerning “Henry Kissinger’s amoral realpolitik”: Reagan defended it consistently and adamantly when Nixon was President, as I show, and excoriated it consistently and adamantly when Ford was President. Scholars of Reagan need to account for this, to venture arguments about why this was the case. Or should we ignore it? Does Weisberg think the legacy of Ronald Reagan can’t handle the truth?

“Ronald Reagan,” Weisberg writes, “was refining Goldwater’s pitch, shedding the warmongering, the pessimism, and the anti-New Deal extremism.” No. He called the New Deal “fascism.” Weisberg continues: “Reagan’s views were not simply Goldwater’s views; they were Goldwater’s views purged of their excesses and abstraction, grounded in the country’s lived experience, and given a hopeful cast.” This is an understandably tempting view, but quite ahistorical. There was much in the words I quote from Reagan’s that was mind-blowingly excessive, unrefined, and not hopeful at all: For instance, that teachers unions were following a script laid down by Hitler and the Nazi Party. Of course, he said other things, too, more hopeful, less excessive, and better grounded. It’s complicated. The writing of history must honor that complexity—and not just resort to tempting cliché.

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Rick Perlstein is a freelance writer and the author, most recently, of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, his third volume on the history of postwar American conservatism. He lives in Chicago.

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