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Posted by on Nov 5, 2008 in At TMV, Politics, Society | 25 comments

The End of the Reagan Revolution

I’m tempted to write about a historical parallel between this moment and Reconstruction. I’ll be teaching about Reconstruction to my 19th century US history students later today, and we’ll surely discuss the “arc of history” between then and now.

But for now I want to focus on something far more recent: the political era that began in 1980 and ended yesterday. It’s been surreal watching conservative commentators insist that we are a “center-right” country and that Obama won only because he moved to the center. Indeed, there is some truth to those remarks. We are more culturally-conservative than, say, Western Europe. And we are more wedded to free market capitalism than they are. Obama did, indeed, appeal to the center (even center-right) with his talk of tax cuts and his post-partisan rhetoric.

But consider the messenger. No, not the Democratic messenger of “hope and change” but the conservative messengers lauding the “centrist” campaign of Obama. Just 24 hours earlier these same commentators insisted that Obama was the most liberal member of the Senate, a quasi-socialist with radical leanings, an apostle of Saul Alinsky and the New Left. And yet he won.

I firmly believe that the Republican Party made a grave mistake in hyping the ideological stakes in this campaign. By painting Obama as a far-left liberal they have essentially validated left-liberalism in its moment of victory. And yet they knew this could happen.

Why did the GOP raise the stakes so much? Do they really believe that Obama the far-left radical is suddenly a centrist? Were they just going through the motions when they called Obama a left-wing extremist?

If we take them at their word, Barack Obama just ended the Reagan Revolution. Much as conservatives will insist that conservatism never fails — people only fail conservatism — the reality is that the electorate heard the conservative message about Obama loud and clear and rejected it. For the first time in recent memory the public trusts the Democrats on taxes more than the Republicans. Small government conservatism at the core of McCain’s campaign was repudiated.

In fact, the only areas where McCain succeeded were those that embraced Bush-style big-government conservatism: the rural South with its Wal-Mart voters who want populist economics and cultural conservatism. The Mormon-Dixie alliance is the last rump of the GOP, and its defining element is not small-government Reagan Republicanism but Christian militancy and cultural retrenchment. Goldwaterism, which had its strength in the suburbs of America, lost everywhere.

Look at the suburban vote totals – even the outer suburbs – and you can see just how much the Reagan Revolution has ebbed. Even in the Sunbelt, where the Reagan Revolution first took root, the GOP’s margin of victory has contracted. Orange County, California only went for McCain by 51-47. If Reaganism faces defeat in Orange County, where is its last redoubt? In 2004, Orange County voted 60-39 for Bush. The 4-point margin there is, by far, the closest margin in history.

The Reagan Revolution was as much a governing philosophy as a political movement. Based as it was in the expanding white suburbs, it dominated American political life for 28 years. The failures of Bush and demographic changes undoubtedly demoralized and defeated small government conservatism in the Orange Counties of America. And Obamacons like Andrew Sullivan will insist that these votes for Obama were more a protest against DeLay/Rove-style big-government conservatism than an actual shift away from small government conservatism itself.

Without a doubt that’s true for many voters. But I suspect some Reaganites are whistling past the graveyard here. A whole new generation has come of age and has no memory of Jimmy Carter, the Great Society, the urban riots of the 1960s, the 90% marginal tax rates, or 1970s-style bureaucratic bloat. The Reagan Revolution successfully put an end to that era. It did its job. But now it has yielded to a new era. Republican talk of big government and bemoaning “sharing the wealth” and “socialism” simply does not resonate anymore. America is not the same country it was in 1980.

The Democrats can certainly lurch too far to the left. I suspect there will be pressure to do so. And they must be vigilant to guard against overreach. But they should also not fool themselves into thinking that the silent majority still embraces Reaganism. It doesn’t.

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  • AustinRoth

    I have to disagree. The election of Obama was driven more by a combination of the sense of history of his candidacy, and repudiation of Bush and his administration. It wasn’t a macro-economic mandate, as a low percentage of the electorate could even articulate the difference between Reagan Conservatism, Bush Conservatism, McCain’s economic policies and Obama’s economic policies. All that came across to them were the sound bites – taxes. It is too easy to overlook when you live and work within an intellectual peer environment that not everyone else understands nor cares about the bigger picture.

  • Marlowecan

    “. . . .they have essentially validated left-liberalism in its moment of victory.”

    Elrod, I would argue that you are wrong in this respect.

    Note, for example, Joe Windish’s excellent post, in which he notes how gay marriage proposals were widely rejected . . . based significantly upon African-American votes against gay-lesbian unions. Also, Affirimative Action was outlawed in other jurisdictions.

    Obama’s victory was historic . . . but social liberalism took a body blow in this election. (I say this as a conservative supporter of gay-lesbian marriage) .

    The “Family Values” conservatism that was ushered in with the Reagan Revolution appears alive and well . . . even in California!
    As well, the “anti-tax” political culture engendered by Reagan bound Obama throughout the campaign . . .and even Obama did not dare depart from the Reagan-era script of “middle class tax cuts”.

    The Reagan Revolution remains alive and well, fortunately or unfortunately, across the vast fields of the Republic.

  • GeorgeSorwell

    I’m inclined to agree with AR and Marlowecan about this.

    This election is more a repudiation than an embrace.

    Obama and the Democrats will have to accomplish something useful, or at least popular, to be transformational.

  • Ricorun

    Excellent article Elrod. I especially liked this part: A whole new generation has come of age and has no memory of Jimmy Carter, the Great Society, the urban riots of the 1960s, the 90% marginal tax rates, or 1970s-style bureaucratic bloat. The Reagan Revolution successfully put an end to that era. It did its job. But now it has yielded to a new era. Republican talk of big government and bemoaning “sharing the wealth” and “socialism” simply does not resonate anymore. America is not the same country it was in 1980. I believe it is true. I believe that what is often described as a political pendulum is actually a political spiral. It doesn’t swing back and forth in one liberal/conservative dimension, but spirals through the multi-dimensional arc of history. Reagan’s message was that government should not dominate business. As a result of the K-Street scandals, the politicization of administrative posts in all kinds of agencies that should be watchdogs not lapdogs, and of course the financial melt-down, a new message is becoming clear, that business should not dominate government either.

    If we really want change we have to start thinking in different ways. I think Obama realizes that. I hope he succeeds to some kind of reasonable extent.

  • Guest

    Over analyze all you want.
    Carville, love or hate him, said it best: “It’s the economy stupid”

  • Ricorun

    I disagree with AR and Marlowecan, because I think they’re defining “left” and “right” as if the definition exists in one dimension. As Marlowecan points out, the fact that African-Americans, for example, are inclined to vote against gay-lesbian unions, and yet are also the most reliable Democratic bloc out there, rather indicates that “left” is not a single dimension. Similarly, fifty years ago “social conservatism” was not an essential feature of what was then “modern” conservatism. Things change. And because they do, allegiances and coalitions can change. We don’t live in a cartoon.

    • Marlowecan

      Ricorun . . . I hope that I was not uni-dimensional in my analysis.
      Could you expand on your point? How do you see change happening in future?

      Reaganism was complex . . . and I think many of its strands have actually been reinforced by this election.
      (I am conservative and liked Reagan, but . . . growing up a working-class punk whom wealthy conservatives tended to release their hounds on 🙂 . . . you will understand I was never a supporter of social conservatism).

      To be honest: I am very surprised at the numbers of African-Americans voting against gay marriage in CA . . . ESPECIALLY after Jerry Brown worded this as a vote against equality rights.

      An ironic election in many respects. Liberating for some . . . and a dark day for others.

  • kritt11

    I think I’m going with the crowd. Obama won because of the disasterous 8 years of Bush/Cheney, the WS/mortgage mess, a superior fundraising and GOTV organization and a concilliatory message. He’ll have to govern towards the center or he will be one-term.

    I AM heartened that the country seemed to reject the basest of campaign tactics offered by the GOP and that voters seem to long for more of a unified country.

  • Slamfu

    First off, no one was buying the Obama as left wing radical except ditto heads and Hannity fans. In case you haven’t noticed, neocons refer to anyone who disagrees with them as left wing radicals and/or traitors. We all know actual examples left wing radicals, they stick out like sore thumbs, and Obama just isn’t one. Second, we were tired of the GOP telling us they know what they are doing when the evidence is piled up over the last 8 years that they clearly do not. People don’t have that much faith in the Dems, but we are convinced that the GOP is running this country into the ground.

    Obama has run a campaign that has said what I have wanted a politician to say for so many years. A moderate voice, and one that appears to be less beholden to special interests than any I can remember. Also one who seems to understand that in the real world actions have consequences, you can’t just apply American Exceptionalism to any moral quandry and expect things to work out and to hold your head up as the greatest country in the world. No doubt I’m in for some disappointment over the next 4/8 years, but it beats the certain disaster that would have come with a GOP victory.

  • AustinRoth

    I just read a funny (to me) quote over at Powerline (probably the most rabid right-wing site I visit):

    Always look on the bright side. Barack Obama’s victory almost certainly means that neither Hillary Clinton nor Al Gore will ever be president of the United States.

  • centrist

    I agree that the election of Barack Obama was a repudiation of the previous Bush administration more than anything else. I honestly believe Hillary Clinton would have had a greater margin of victory than Obama, although African-American voters would not have been as energized. The Democrats have done a masterful job
    of cultivating their voting blocs, namely African-Americans, Latinos and Jewish-Americans, and they will always have a built-in advantage, for better or worse, in any
    nationwide election. The strength of the Democrat’s hold on their voting blocs is noteworthy, as Jewish-Americans voted in mass for Obama despite his vague
    “Islamic” ties.

    The Republicans, on the other hand, have only Evangelical Christians and gun owners as voting blocs, both of which get pummeled regularly
    from multiple sides. As it is, It will exceedingly difficult for any Republican to win nationwide office unless something extraordinary happens to change the dynamics.

    The change from a right-of-center to a left-of-center government is a cyclical thing generally, so I think it is disingenuous to say that Obama is not “liberal”. Rather,
    it seems more honest to say that the nation has chosen to go in a more “liberal” direction, and it will continue to do so until this direction proves to be a failure.
    (Witness Reagan-Bush I – Clinton – Bush II- Obama….) This particular “liberal” revolution, and I agree that liberalism for many is situational, will probably last longer due to the solidification of the Democratic voting blocs, so I also agree that the Reagan Revolution is dead, for now. Eight years from now, who knows?

  • McCain was not small government.

  • Obama ran and won on a message of change. We’ve had rightwing rule for nearly 30 years. Do you think the electorate defines change as merely a better managed version of what we’ve already had?

    I don’t believe that for a second.

    Polls are pretty clear. The country has embraced liberal visions of health care reform, foreign policy (withdrawal from Iraq being the main plank), and economic management with more regulation and accountability.

    I appreciate that Republicans and centrists are trying to box in Obama, but hopefully it won’t work.

    I’d also like to add that I think for the majority of the country I don’t think it’s about strict ideology, it’s about results. The people clearly seem to want major change, and they’ll be happy if it works.

    • AustinRoth

      “We’ve had rightwing rule for nearly 30 years.”

      Clinton as a right-winger? Man, you really have to be part of the far, far left to make that statement.


      p.s. – Carter fits into your window as well. A well known Bircher if there ever was one.

  • Clinton was far more to the right than Obama, and he was constrained by a Republican Congress. And perhaps 30 years was too inexact. I simply meant since Reagan.

  • Slamfu

    “Rather, it seems more honest to say that the nation has chosen to go in a more “liberal” direction, and it will continue to do so until this direction proves to be a failure.”

    Replace the term liberal with competent and you are dead on. The dems are going to pull us out of a crap war, balance the budget, and work on making more money for americans despite higher taxes by having a strong economy, hopefully without a major financial blowout from industry leaders every few years. Anyone think it mere coincidence we took on an anti-regulation administration then bounced from MCI Worldcomm -> Enron -> Banking meltdowns, with all attendant secondary repercussions, under it?

  • rudi

    AR What is the difference between Reagan’s and W’s versions of Voodoo Economics?
    Both pushed tax cuts without matching spending cuts, pumping up the deficit. W continued Reagan’s silly idea of Star Wars. Even at this time the technology isn’t quite there. Both Ronnie and W pushed for deregulation and less over sight.

  • centrist

    “Rather, it seems more honest to say that the nation has chosen to go in a more “liberal” direction, and it will continue to do so until this direction proves to be a failure.”

    Perhaps I should have said “unless” instead of “until”. I don’t know that it will be a failure, I was just pointing out that it is the direction we have chosen; we will
    continue in that direction until or unless it doesn’t work for us anymore.

  • DLS

    Are you still wrongly obscessed with 1980?

    Small goverment, like the bailout of Wall Street? Conservative, McCain?

    When will you ever learn?

    * * *

    Obviously Americans have spoken in large numbers — saying [I’ll keep it clean] “NO to the GOP.”

    We have our first black President. “Touchdown! The Eagle has landed.”

    Dems didn’t get all their dreams fulfilled (no sixty-plus seats in the Senate), but they’ll settle for doing better than they have in ten or more years. As I correctly said before, Shaun Mullen was wrong; Obama had coattails (this was not solely, though it was mainly, a negative vote against the GOP).

    The media and lefty talk radio (cousins) are largely doing okay, not being too overly emotional or gushing (would that some on here would grow up, as well). Perhaps they’re as surprised as the rest of us at the extent of the no-confidence vote on the Republicans and the size of the Dems’ victory.

    Obama apparently isn’t wasting time forming a Cabinet. He could, should he wish, take a holiday between now and January, but he’s not doing that. Normally there’s a delay before getting started forming a Cabinet and making plans for post-inaugural acts. Not this time.

  • DLS

    Austin Roth — I’ve read the far left actually call Carter as well as Clinton “warmongers.”


    Meanwhile, I hope Obama does remain sane — for example, may he not flirt with idiocy and that doofus wanting us to “correct” our “food policy.”

  • DLS

    “McCain was not small government.”

    And we haven’t been ruled by the Right (much less the mythical Far Right) for three decades. The latter is simply a case of regressivity (thinking the failed earlier decades were wonderful, based on models like the bloated UAW and Carefully Managed Big Paternalistic Corporations Providing Lifetime Employment And Sharing In Cradle-To-Grave Entiitlement-Based Security) and persistence (what dinosaurs!) of hatred of Reagan. To this day you can hear such things on the frequently illogical (it is leftist, after all) Thom Hartmann Program on the radio. (“… Then _along_came_Rrrrrrrrrrrrreagan! …”)

  • DLS

    “McCain was not small government.”

    That has also been true about the GOP in Washington for a long, long time. That is one reason much of the public saw little value in it. Who cares about Dems Lite (and a dysfunctional party, too), when there is the real thing at hand?

    But we are seeing all kinds of delusion, still, being repeated here — and likely will see much of it until the kids get over the giddiness and swooning.

  • Ricorun

    Marlowecan: Could you expand on your point? How do you see change happening in future?

    Thanks for asking. 🙂

    My basic premise is that “modern conservatism” sees government as a fundamental bogey man rather than a legitimate player. Reagan once said, “Government isn’t the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” In his day government certainly was a problem. But since then the idea has metastacized into the notion that government should be reduced to the size where you could drown it in a bathtub (to paraphrase Grover Norquist). I believe more people are coming to reject that idea as well, because they have seen how dysfunctional an unregulated free market can be. Lead in toys, salmonella in spinach, mad cows, ecological catastrophes represented by so superfund sites that never should have been… the free market doesn’t deal with those things very well. Over time the free market also has a tendency to develop monopolies. In fact, one could effectively argue that the recognition of that back in the early 20th century (and championed by unlikely allies such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woody Wilson) helped to redefine both conservatism and liberalism — or at least establish a different dynamic (which is really the same thing).

    To me, the best state of affairs is achieved when government serves as balance for the free market, and vice versa, in such a way that neither dominates the other. IMO, the government is an essential counter force to prevent market forces from ossifying, and keep them dynamic. The traditional liberal notion is that the government should be intrusively ubiquitous to the point where they control, support, or even operate industry. That’s socialism, and I reject that. But I also reject the modern conservative notion that government should simply get out of the way. Too often that metamorphoses into a situation where industry controls, supports, or even operates government. In fact, I’d say that state of affairs is all but guaranteed if government gets too small and/or incompetent. We’ve seen shades of that in the Bush administration, but many Latin American countries provide much clearer examples. In contrast, I think the proper role of government is to stimulate, not maintain, and regulate not obstruct: to keep markets churning and preventing excesses by way of entrenchment or by way of narrow disregard for their externalities. It seems so very clear to me. But I can’t say either party has embraced the concept. And thus it seems to me a redefinition of one or the other party platforms is in order — perhaps even inevitable. And in fact, on the basis of some of the things Obama has said, and the kinds of people he has gathered around him, I think he understands that. I truly don’t believe he’s “liberal” in the “traditional” sense (which is really to say in the current, or “modern” sense). To loosely borrow terminology from Kurt Vonnegut used to describe his character Billy Pilgrim in the novel “Slaughterhouse 5”, Obama is very much “unstuck”. He is unstuck genetically, culturally, intellectually, and hopefully temperamentally. He has the makings to be a truly transformative figure. Whether or not he proves to be one remains to be seen. But to be one he can’t be unstuck in time (like the original Billy Pilgrim). He has to understand (unlike Bush) that he cannot create a new reality out of wholecloth. He can only nudge it, a little at a time.

    And by the way, that goes for any and all things besides just “economics” in its classical definition. To me everything is transactional — be it monetary, racial, cultural, class dynamics, whatever. Even the interaction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome is transactional. But I believe that in each and every one of those facets there exists a sweet spot somewhere in between the extremes where things work best. And I believe that Obama appreciates that. And fortunately, I also believe he possesses a far more prodigious intellect than I do. And that will be necessary. Because in order for him to succeed he will have to withstand the slings and arrows from both sides. It seems to me that both liberals and conservatives seem to be projecting into him that which they want to see on the basis of what their self interests are, not that which is. I hope that which is proves to be enough to withstand it.

  • pacatrue

    Several thoughts popped up while reading this and the comments. First, the most important:

    With Dems in charge across the board (depending on how you want to categorize the SCOTUS), the very first thing that leadership should do is strengthen the ethical rules governing the administration and Congress as much as possible. Power always corrupts on all levels, and the easiest thing in the world to bring down the Dems in 4 to 8 years is a series of corruption scandals. I view this as perhaps step 1 before anything else.

    Now, going more towards the post and “the meaning of the election”, I too am not sure this is truly an abandonment of Reaganism, but there’s more to it than a repudiation of the last administration. The repudiation wasn’t ideological (except perhaps in some of the demonization politics) but largely practical. A lot of the ideas tried over the last 8 years simply didn’t have the desired outcome.

    People who started the administration without health care ended it without health care. We made almost no progress on a federal level on alternative energies or the environment. Fighting climate change has occurred in fits at best. And more important than all probably, the real income of most Americans stagnated with clear prospects for decline in the next year. People want these real issues to be solved and most don’t care how it’s done.

    Obama held out hope that something really would happen, and so a bunch of people went his way. But if a Reagan had held out a completely different method of solving these problems with the inspirational message he frequently had, people would have voted for him as well.

  • Pacatrue is exactly right.

    But I’d rephrase it more simply and a little differently:

    Reaganism is dead – right now – because it doesn’t offer solutions to our current problems.

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