Manufacturing Reagan

At the end of the 1976 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan’s political career and particularly his presidential aspirations were widely regarded as being washed out. He was looked upon as being too elderly and his opinions too right wing for contemporary America. Particularly his old-fashioned, patriotic views came across as quaintly anachronistic in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America. Also for many Americans, his background in Hollywood as an actor, in amiable but bland ‘B movies’, met with some derision. The consensus was that he was ‘past it’ and that his time had come and gone. Yet four years later, he beat the incumbent president Jimmy Carter and went on to win a very convincing re-election contest in 1984 to become the first two-term president since Eisenhower. Even today, more than 40 years later, his name still resonates and for people on the right of politics, he along with Margaret Thatcher is credited with leading the movement away from the post-war expanding government and social democracy consensus to a free-market, small-government, society. Since his time, all aspiring Republican candidates for high office in America name-check him in their campaigns to assure the party faithful of their true political credentials.

The book ‘Reaganland’ (Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976 – 1980 by Rick Perlstein) explores this transformation in Reagan’s standing between 1976 and 1980. Its central message is that he was transformed from being an electoral liability to a popular vote-winner, not by changing his conservative views and shifting to the centre as conventional wisdom would have suggested, but rather by being a figurehead for a movement that deliberately and successfully set out to ‘move the dial’ and propel America rightwards. The book is also a socio-political history of the United States in the second half of the 1970s and weaves together many interacting issues of the time. While the book is not directly concerned with socialism (although clearly written from a ‘progressive’ perspective) it does offer insights into key issues for us in terms of how powerful forces within capitalism can come to dominate the political agenda.

The New Right

After Carter’s election in 1976, conservative activists on the right began to organise and stir up discontent about a number of social issues such as the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, the recent Roe versus Wade ruling on abortion, the demand for gay rights and calls for better treatment of minority groups. They also raised fears about rising crime rates and the need to ensure the death penalty remained on the books. Later on in the decade, as the economy faltered, they began to agitate about over-regulation of business and accompanying high taxes. These New Right activists or Neo-conservatives (a term they liked to use to distinguish themselves from the East coast, traditional Republican establishment) learned to harness disparate movements such as evangelical Christians, free-market libertarians, American nationalists and disgruntled white workers with the illusion that some imaginary past, viewed through a nostalgic lens, could be recreated.

The movement though needed a figure to coalesce about as its leading spokesman, someone who could then become its candidate for the Republican nomination for president. There were a number of possibilities but eventually Reagan became the favourite. Ronald Reagan was easily underestimated as a lightweight politician and his former acting career in mainly kitsch movies viewed as a drawback for someone planning to hold ‘the most important job in the world’. But for capitalist politics in the age where television had become by far the most important means of communicating ideas, he had some inherent strengths. He could deliver a speech, written by someone else, to camera with a skill that only someone who spent many years professionally practising this art could. So it came naturally to him to be able to pose as being warm and generous or coldly statesmanlike as each passage of the speech required.

Moreover, he had a sound track record in politics. He won the election for governor of California in 1966, beating the established Republican favourite in the primary, and also had a convincing win over the popular Democratic incumbent in the main election. This is what cemented his position on the national map. A conservative Republican winning an important Democratic state showed he had that priceless quality for a politician: an ability to win elections against the odds. He was re-elected in 1970 for another four-year term. Over his eight-year governorship, in spite of his sometimes hardline rhetoric, he ruled as a pragmatic conservative and was astute enough to avoid any traps that could result from a dogmatic insistence on ideology. As California led the way in identity politics, Reagan was artful in terms of the associated culture wars. He made sure to let his audience know his sympathies lay with traditional social values when issues such as abortion, gay rights, minority advancement, etc. were raised but never publicly identified with the more bigoted opponents of these movements.

Spokesperson for corporate America

Reagan’s own political views had evolved with time. As an actor and then head of the Screen Actors Guild (in effect the union for film actors) in the 1940s, he supported the Democratic Party and could be loosely regarded as a ‘left-centrist’. As his movie career declined, he steadily moved to the right through the 1950s and by the 1960 election was officially a Republican supporting Nixon against Kennedy. His views never changed subsequently. Throughout the decade of the 1950s, he became a public speaker and a paid company ambassador for the huge industrial conglomerate, General Electric. He would reprise this role later as President, being a spokesman for corporate America as opposed to just GE. Reagan also spent this time on a frenetic round of giving speeches at conservative, fundraising events. He spoke against the spread of communism, the increasing interfering role of ‘Big Government’ and the need for economic individualism. Profit, private property and freedom were inseparable. Importantly this period also brought him to the attention of a group of western, wealthy, conservative businessmen who were prepared to fund the political campaigns of proponents of this new conservatism.

During the 1970s one very potent theme that the New Right played on during the Carter presidency was the perceived weakness of America, internally and on the international stage. A narrative developed (or more accurately was deliberately contrived) that the country was in decline and could be entering a terminal malaise. It wasn’t just that the economy wasn’t working well which a dose of low taxes and deregulation would fix; it was more profound. Something was wrong with America itself; crime was becoming rampant, schools weren’t as good as they had been, discipline in society was lax. There really wasn’t much hard evidence for any of this but it was effective in convincing people that it was time for radical change. In fact, there was an underlying background of reality to this myth. After the Second World War, the US economy grew continuously but this had stalled in the early 1970s and the increasing costs of legislation tightening up on environmental standards, labour rights, consumer protection, etc. could no longer be easily absorbed. Market confidence began to drain and corporate America started to get interested in the advantages of small government. Formerly it funded both Democrats and Republicans but now donations became more explicitly tied to pro-business agendas. Reagan as the standard bearer for the Republican right became a recipient of this. On the International stage, two issues particularly rankled. The proposed return of ownership of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1977 was met with dismay by the right wing of the Republican Party even though it met with a bipartisan consensus and both corporate America and the military establishment were comfortable with it. For the activists, it was given as a concrete example of a third-rate country pushing around America and taking advantage of Carter’s weak leadership. This was exacerbated by the taking of American embassy staff in Tehran as hostages by the Iranian students in 1979. This proved a particularly fertile grievance to cultivate as it played on popular patriotism.

Populist rhetoric

Reagan and his conservative allies used another tool very effectively to persuade American workers of the validity of his case and to win them over to his cause. This was a populist rhetoric aimed specifically at a very important section of the working class; ethnic white voters. This part of the electorate had traditionally voted Democrat (although Nixon had successfully tapped into them in 1968) and thus converting them was a very powerful election tactic. A major effort was made to convince these workers that they had an interest in and would benefit from a well-run capitalist economy; a variant of the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats fable. Reagan tapped into their discontent. High taxes were portrayed as unfair and as stealing from what had been honestly earned by hard work. He claimed reducing taxes would benefit workers. It was continuously implied that money was being transferred from hard-working whites to undeserving minority groups although Reagan was careful never to overtly stray into racism. In that sense, he craftily used his knowledge of identity politics to divide workers into white versus black, men versus women, gay versus straight, northern versus southern and to play one section off against the next. Simultaneously with this strategy, the evils of inflation, unemployment, high energy prices, were said to impact on minorities more than mainstream America. So Reagan could claim his low tax, small-government agenda was in fact progressive in some way. He was helped in this deceitful ruse by the fact that traditional class consciousness was never as strong in the United States as in Europe and many workers vote on where candidates stand on single-issue social affairs and not on economic issues.

Reagan further courted the labour vote by reminding them that earlier in his career he had been ‘a union man’ and that he could help them. He did receive endorsements from some labour leaders and organisations. He did that time-honoured right-wing routine of saying that the Democratic Party had strayed from its roots and while at some unspecified time in the past it may have been good to support them, this was no longer the case and they had been taken over by extremists and special-interest groups. He exploited the innate patriotism of many American workers by making a big play that America needed more ‘defence’ spending to ensure peace, and claimed ‘world peace’ was something he desired more than anything else and could be obtained by increased Pentagon budgets to deter potential aggressors.

What message for us?

Apart from its detailed analysis of the power-play in American politics more than 40 years ago, what message does the book have for socialists? As workers in Europe and other western countries, we are constantly being told how fortunate we are to live in democracies while our less fortunate brothers and sisters have to endure totalitarian conditions in countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia etc. Of course, we do enjoy fundamental political freedoms in the West but as the book highlights, the situation is not that straightforward. Classically in democracy, people with political ideas engage in debate with their fellow human beings to outline their views and persuade them of their merits. This of course does occur in politics under capitalism, where candidates for office speak at public meetings, get interviewed by journalists and engage in televised debates. Reagan himself did this throughout the 1970s. But as the book outlines in detail, the real key activity to ensure electoral success lies elsewhere. These are the meetings with the moneymen (ie, the wealthy funders of political campaigns), the political fixers, the party power brokers, the campaign strategists with their advertising gurus, the proprietors of important media holdings and the nationwide opinion formers. Money is key and raising large amounts of it meant you could hire people to carry out the political ground war, pay for newspaper and TV advertisements, pay for promotional pieces in the media, etc. That gave you momentum and in turn meant that you could set the agenda for the campaign.

The book thus illustrates the relationship between capitalism and politics. The Socialist Party has never bought into the conspiracy theory where corporate leaders select their preferred candidate who then progresses through a wholly bogus electoral process. They too cannot control the uncertain outcomes of mass politics with the universal franchise. However, they do wield significant influence behind the scenes and their role is important. They may have no specific positions on particular policy matters but they do want candidates who can engender a stable business and investment climate. In America they have funded Democratic (left) and Republican (right) politicians at various times in the past because both (whatever the minutiae of their policy planks state) fundamentally support capitalism. Corporate leaders do not care about candidates’ positions on social issues as mostly these do not significantly affect the business climate and profitability. In fact, the very large corporations do not tend to align themselves with individual candidates. Rather they fund think-tanks and foundations that support and promote capitalism as the best system and do not have a position on the transient affairs that constitute the culture wars of identity politics.

Summing up, the book tries to explain how a staunchly right-wing figure like Reagan became electable in that period as the mood of the American people changed; or more accurately was encouraged to change. However, the book also has a general message for all countries to illustrate the somewhat fraudulent nature of elections under capitalism and highlights the phoney nature of many political campaigns. To the election strategists, the electorate is nothing more than an amorphous entity, consisting of a large number of individuals, each who have an asset (the right to vote) that must be harvested. Campaigns are only judged by their success in achieving the desired outcome and genuinely important matters such as the debate of ideas, the argument over rival policies are just a transient and insignificant means to obtain the important outcome. Thus an ‘anything goes/winner takes all’ philosophy prevails in the design and execution of an election and campaign promises can be freely discarded as soon as the polls close. Ronald Reagan wasn’t the first and won’t be the last capitalist politician to achieve an election victory using these means.


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