A Critical Look at America’s Favorite President.
I grew up in the 1980s. For the majority of my childhood, Ronald Reagan was my president. Like the rest of the country, I admired him. He had the welcome presence of a grandfather, the statesmanship of some bygone era, and an aura of dignity that seemed to elevate how we viewed ourselves and our nation.
As I grew up, however, I realized the picture was more complex, if not completely staged. Our image of Reagan did not always match the legacy of his presidency.
In light of Donald Trump’s manipulation of the American voter, it’s become evident how few of us understand the Reagan administration - and how it changed the course of the free world.
Journalist and bestselling author Chuck Klosterman posed an interesting challenge in his latest book, But What If We’re Wrong? He considers the present as if it were the past, visualizing modern America from the perspective of future generations.
Without our current biases, the picture is quiet different, and our hero worship of Ronald Reagan is at odds with his presidential record:
“He was factually a bad president… Reagan was…obsessed with only one truth: if people feel optimistic about where they live, details don’t matter. But here’s the thing, you need to have an active living memory of Reagan for any of this to seem plausible. You need to personally remember that the 1980s felt prosperous, even when they weren’t. Every extension of mainstream popular culture expressed this. The 1980s felt prosperous, even if you were poor… a fact-based perception, just like those currently unborn historians who will dictate reality in the year 2222. Those historians will look back at the 1980s and presume the US populous must have suffered some mass delusion, prompting them to self-destructively lionize a president who factually made the country worse…[but] was so emotionally persuasive that 25 years after he left office, his most ardent disciples sincerely suggested his face be carved in a South Dakota mountain. And that will make no narrative sense.”
Let’s face it – narrative is everything these days. It’s the reason we go to the movies, and it’s why we buy certain cars, or clothes, or branded electronics.
Narratives provide the story.
When it comes to marketing and advertising, these stories are often used to deceive - to make us feel good about ourselves, or show us who we’d like to be.
Reagan could sell a story because he was a trained actor.
In Tear Down This Myth, journalist and political analyst Will Bunch explains the allure of Reagan’s story:
“Reagan was a transformative figure in American history, but his real revolution was one of public-relations-meets-politics and not one of policy. He combined his small-town heartland upbringing with a skill for storytelling that was honed on the back lots of Hollywood into a personal narrative that resonated with a majority of voters, but only after it tapped into something darker, which was white middle-class resentment of the 1960s unrest.”
Donald Trump may only be an imitation of an actor, but he took a page from Reagan’s playbook, helped along by eight years of race-based animosity toward Obama. It didn’t matter that most of Trump’s claims were outright lies, he was only concerned with moving his followers emotionally.
This is why stories are so powerful, why Reagan employed them, and why we have such adoration for him.
Remember the famous “Morning Again in America” TV spot? In it Reagan introduced Madison-Avenue marketing tricks to the populace – and into US politics. Through narrative, he appealed to emotion in order to sell a product. That product was himself. And absent were any facts. (Reason #1)
Reagan never cared much for facts anyway, having once said, “Facts are stupid things.” In his defense, he was misquoting John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things.” It was a Freudian slip if there ever was one.
The use of emotion over facts continues to pervade American advertising, be it for Pop-Tarts, panty hose, or another political figurehead appealing to populist rage.
Even his White House Public Relations staff specialized in dodging legitimate concerns. Instead, they shifted focus to sales pitches crafted by in-house spin-doctors. For instance, when two thirds of America disapproved of Reagan’s education policy, instead of changing it, the White House launched a series of PR events in schools until the poll numbers reversed. (Reason #2)
Today’s agenda involves mythologizing Reagan by primarily clinging to his misleading narratives. This includes inflating his role in international achievements, flat-out forgetting his failures, and denying the disasters that resulted from his policies.
In 1997 anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist launched “The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project,” a guerrilla operation under his Americans for Tax Reform umbrella. This lobbying group proceeded to rename airports and streets after the 40th president and promote a Reagan myth that denies most of his tenure.
But why bother with all the Reagan myth-making?
Creating a faux-Reagan benchmark to rally around shows just how ideologically bankrupt the modern conservative movement has become.
They have no new ideas, so they deify the very “hero” who bankrupted the nation.
“In public policy, as in science, there are truths and there are untruths, and the wrong actions can have dire consequences. It has proven untrue that deeply slashing income taxes promotes investment and creates an increase in tax revenues; it has proven disastrously untrue that deregulating the financial sector benefits the consumer; it has proven tragically untrue that abandoning social-welfare spending and locking up millions of young black men solve the problems of the inner city. The fervency with which Reagan believed these things, and the riches they brought to certain Americans, did not make them true.”
American history is too often viewed through these untruths - deliberately spun myths used to mislead and delude. These narratives are well crafted, even if completely inaccurate.
While Reagan conveyed an all-American sense of loyalty and solidarity, history books will note how he sold off our national parks (Reason #4), ended nutrition programs for children (Reason #5), cut development grants to struggling rural communities (Reason #6), gutted food stamps (Reason #7), and rolled back regulations that created a number of today’s crises.
Reagan “enacted policies that helped wipe out the high-paying jobs for the working class that were the real backbone of this country. (Reason #8) ...was the architect of wrenching social change that swept across the country in the 1980s, the emergence of an eerie, over-commercialized, postmodern America that has left so much of the populace psychically adrift. (Reason #9) ...propelled the transition to hyper-capitalism, an epoch in which the forces of self-interest and profit seek to make a final rout of traditional human values. (Reason #10) His mergers, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, globalization helped weaken the family and eradicate small-town life and the sense of community. (Reason #11) Because of deregulation, trucking concerns, bus companies, and airlines have eliminated much of their service to small rural communities, leaving them isolated and economically depressed in a society dominated by the great population centers on either coast. (Reason #12) Because of corporate consolidation, businesses are no longer owned locally and Main Street is gone. (Reason #13) Companies made over many times by mergers and forced to tailor every decision to stock market prices have little loyalty to communities or people. (Reason #14) Plants are closed and companies are downsized, families uprooted, communities left without anchors… Without his tax, regulatory, and antitrust policies, there would have been no frenzy of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s, no unseemly scramble for overnight fortunes by arbitrageurs and raiders, no destructive obsession with quarterly earnings at the expense of long-term investment, no wholesale abandonment of ethics on the part of corporate executives. (Reason #15) Nor would there have been an Enron or a subprime mortgage crisis… The contagion of free-market purism has infected almost every sector of American life.”
It is because of Ronald Reagan that most of America is underemployed, poor, and left behind in the new global economy.
Instead of correcting the narratives, or even addressing the issues, Donald Trump and the Republican party prefer to exploit the anger and in the process, fully destroy what’s left of small-town America with more of Reagan’s disastrous policies.
To properly understand how these policies wrecked the nation, we need to understand how Reagan got into politics.
THE MILLIONAIRE BACKERS
Reagan was born to Democratic parents employed by FDR’s New Deal programs. But once Reagan started earning Hollywood bucks, he quickly changed his tune, especially after becoming spokesperson for GE and regretting how much of his easy money went to taxes. This disgruntlement only grew as he began to fraternize with other conservative businessmen who shared the same sentiment. These wealthy tycoons were dubbed “The Millionaire Backers” by the press, and they became Reagan’s first unofficial cabinet, promoting their tailored message through Reagan’s celebrity.
In essence, Reagan was recruited by corporate interests who realized his ready-made sales potential. (Reason #16)
“The image of Reagan as a man who never wavered from the small-town values that he absorbed during a simpler, more wholesome period in American history is far off the mark. His values were actually quite malleable. He shifted his core beliefs depending on what he became convinced was in his own self-interest at the moment. He was a leftist until he felt duped by Hollywood communists and became an FBI informant. He was a committed labor leader until his own interest required self-serving deals with management. He was a New Dealer while the philosophy was benefiting him personally, but switched to Republicanism when the social welfare tab was coming out of his taxes. Since his mind disdained nuance and complexity, he could believe passionately in whatever one-dimensional viewpoint he held at any given time, and his boyish enthusiasm and disarming manners had a way of winning over doubters. The man who saw big business as an unalloyed evil and government as the savior of the people could believe the complete opposite a few years later without ever entertaining the possibility that the truth might lie somewhere in the middle.”
Reagan’s Millionaire Backers were new money.
They weren’t like the East Coast establishment who previously ran the Republican Party. They hadn’t worked their way up through some Fortune 500 company. They didn’t come to their money through family or an Ivy League education.
The Millionaire Backers were ranchers, Texas oilmen, and Southern and Western developers whose fortunes were made in the postwar period. They built their overnight success in the Sun Belt, which created an entitlement not unlike the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age.
“The families who made up the eastern Republican establishment may have cherished their tradition of noblesse oblige, but this new class of capitalist had no appreciation for altruism. They believed the best way to help the masses was to set an example of thrift and hard work, not to endow the arts and education or establish foundations for the poor… Thus, the power base of the Republican Party went from old-money industrialists of the East to new money tycoons of the Sun Belt."
This financial backbone of Reagan’s rise to the presidency became the new face of the GOP. (Reason #17)
Which brings us to the beginning of the unraveling of campaign financing, and the corporate takeover of our government.
“His campaign effectively undid the campaign finance reform that had been put into place after the Watergate scandal…a blatant contravention of the effort by Congress to insulate American democracy from the illicit influence of wealthy donors [that] eventually paved the way for the fund-raising scandals of the 1990s and the widespread sense among the public that Washington was for sale. (Reason #18) The campaign accomplished this by ferreting out a loophole in campaign finance law…as a way to get around the legal limits on contributions, setting up an operation to pour money into the states…Corporate money had been banned from federal elections for decades, but now donors could achieve the same result by giving money to local parties, which in many states had no such limitations. (Reason #19) And the business interest that filled Reagan’s campaign coffers got what they paid for. More than any president before him, Reagan reached into the boardrooms of America’s corporations to fill top positions in his administration. (Reason #20) But it was in the government regulatory apparatus that Reagan’s tutelage of business interests was the most egregious. The people newly entrusted to prevent corporate law breaking were in many cases representative of the worst and most avaricious elements of their respective industries. Their mission was clear: reduce the number of regulations, slash the budgets, and weed out the most aggressive and effective staff members; in short, eviscerate the regulatory agencies that had been a thorn in their sides when they were in the private sector.” (Reason #21)
Such regulation slashing was most detrimental to the Middle and Lower Classes, as explained by law professor Ian Haney Lopez in Dog Whistle Politics:
“The middle class suffered from economic deregulation, particularly in the banking industry, which led to massive fraud (Reason #22) and the collapse of the savings and loan sector. (Reason #23) In a harbinger of financial deregulation’s effects following 2008, the ensuring economic meltdown slowed the economy and led to widespread unemployment that endured for years. Beyond economic deregulation, the Reagan administration also began a sustained campaign against environmental regulation, freeing large polluters from government oversight. (Reason #24) Justifying this hands-off approach, Reagan infamously belittled the whole idea of controlling pollution by quipping that trees cause more pollution than automobiles.”
To be clear, both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton oversaw more deregulation during their presidencies. However, this fact is misleading. Reagan simply ordered his bureaucracy to stop enforcing regulation that already existed. To do this, he filled the government with people who didn’t interfere with the private sector. Executive inertia was preferred over costly legislative battles. This changed the role of government from watchdog to lapdog without even consulting Congress. (Reason #25)
What does deregulation, defunding, and no oversight look like?
- It looks like safety violations and cozying up to big business, as in the BP oil spill and Virginia coal mine explosions. (Reason #26)
- It looks like FEMA’s response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Reason #27)
- It looks like Enron, the California electricity crisis, and rolling blackouts. (Reason #28)
- It looks like the credit-default swaps and predatory lending of the financial sector. (Reason #29)
But that’s not all that declined under Reagan’s watch.
THE GREAT COMPRESSION
The post-war period of the 1940s to 1979 is known in America as The Great Compression, when differences in incomes and living standards were compressed.
Inequality was at record lows, and this created our notion of the American Dream and the belief that each generation would be better off than the rest.
But all of that changed in 1980.
THE GREAT REGRESSION
It was marked by an increase in inequality, the decline of social mobility, and the death of the American Dream. (Reason #30)
“That era from 1947-1979, where all classes of Americans saw their incomes grow together, ended. A new era where only the wealthy amongst us got rich off a booming economy commenced. According to census data, a typical hourly wage for an American worker increased a mere $1.23 over the past 36 years after counting for inflation. (Reason #31) The poorest 20% of Americans meanwhile saw their incomes decrease by 7% between 1979 and 2008. In the 30 years prior, their incomes had grown by 118%. (Reason #32) Meanwhile, the top 1% have seen their incomes increase by 275% since Reagan’s election, and it’s much higher for the top 0.1% and massively higher for the top 0.01%. Today, workers’ wages as a percentage of GDP are at an all-time low, yet corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are at an all-time high.” (Reason #33)
During the 1980s, as Reagan and George H. W. Bush reigned, those in poverty soared to 35 million…Following the Great Recession that marked the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, over 46 million Americans were in poverty. (Reason #34)
It is because of this wealth redistribution that we now have such low social mobility.
In Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, The Nation editor Christopher Hayes states that the U.S. is now less mobile than nearly every other industrialized democracy on the globe. (Reason #35)
- Germany is 1.5 times more mobile.
- Canada is 2.5 times more mobile.
- Denmark is 3 times more mobile.
Much of the safety net woven over the 20th century to help struggling communities was left in tatters by Reagan’s budget cuts: housing assistance, food stamps, and legal assistance for the poor were all cut to the bone. (Reason #37), as were the programs that promoted rural economic development. These were sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and were cut by 69% from 1981 to 1987, going from $1.67 billion to $490 million.” (Reason #38) This is one of the key reasons the Rust Belt is still suffering.
Reaganomics drastically reduced tax rates for the moneyed class. (Reason #39)
“Governor Mario Cuomo of New York related the problem in memorable fashion as keynote speaker at the 1984 Democratic National Convention: ‘President Reagan told us from the beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest…[that] we should settle for taking care of the strong, and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest. Make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class.’…In 2009, the 1% paid 5.2% of their income in state and local taxes, while the poorest 20% paid 10.9%. States penalized the poor with impunity." (Reason #40)
As a result, Americans now work more hours on average than in any other developed nation. (Reason #41) In a world where corporate downsizing always lurks in order to impress Wall Street, employees remain at their desks far longer than in previous years.
While Reagan cut the top tax rate on millionaires and billionaires from 70% to 50%, then to 28.6%, and drastically reduced the taxes of corporations, he only gave regular folks a 1% tax break. (Reason #42)
It’s no wonder the wealthiest in this country celebrate the myth of Reagan - they’ve became exactly what our forefathers tried to prohibit: a rising oligarchy.
The Reagan tax cuts were the largest income tax cut in the country’s history (for the wealthy) while simultaneously being the most massive increase in the country’s history (for the working classes). (Reason #43)
While the government lost a considerable amount of income from these tax breaks, (Reason #44) Much of Reagan’s spending simply disappeared, as more than 130 members of his administration were investigated, indicted, or convicted for criminal activity. This historic record surpassed Nixon, Harding, and Grant’s administrations. (Reason #45)
To put this in perspective, the Obama administration has had 1 investigation. (Clinton)
Furthermore, during Reagan’s tenure, the Pentagon paid $643 for a hammer, $640 for a toilet seat, and $2,043 for a bolt/washer. Mind you, these prices are not adjusted for inflation. (Reason #46)
How did Reagan pay for everything if the government was losing tax dollars?
The government began borrowing money in obscene amounts. (Reason #47) In essence, Reagan was chief architect of American’s budget deficits – and growing debt, which we will likely never pay back. All of this borrowing made the Fed nervous about inflation, so it kept interest rates artificially high, so the government paid more interest. (Reason #48)
Reagan left office with trillions in debt. (Reason #49) Because the 1% still pay record low taxes, our debt practically doubled by 2000. (Reason #50) Add in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the debt doubled again to over 10 trillion dollars.
Big Business made off like bandits during the Reagan years, and they continue to do so today.
“Many large companies with huge profits, like General Electric, would pay zero taxes over the next several years, or even get money back from the federal government. (Reason #52) By 1983 the portion of federal tax receipts deprived from corporate income taxes would drop to an all-time low of 6.2%, down from 32.1% in 1952 and 12.5% in 1980. The government would be drowning in red ink. Supply-side theory, which promised that a reduction in taxes would spur investment and actually increase tax revenues, turned out to be a fallacy. The president who had promised to reduce the size of government had instead produced unprecedented deficits that would dominate fiscal decision making for the next two decades.” (Reason #53)
Unfortunately, anyone seeking to educate and better himself in Reagan’s America now pays a heftier price. The mounting debt of college education makes it no longer feasible for the cash-strapped. (Reason #54)
THE RISING COST OF COLLEGE
Today’s student aid mess has its roots in the 1980s. According to Devin Fergus at The Washington Post:
“In 1981, the Reagan administration, with a coalition of congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats, pushed through Congress a combination of tax- and budget-cutting measures. No federal program suffered deeper cuts than student aid. Spending on higher education was slashed by some 25% between 1980 and 1985. In raw dollar figures, cuts totaled $594 million in student assistance and $338 million in Pell grants. Students eligible for grant assistance freshmen year had to take out student loans to cover their second year. For middle-class families, eligibility was changed as well. Low-cost, low-interest, subsidized federal loans were limited to families with household incomes of less than $32,000, regardless of family size. Effectively, these changes shifted the federal government’s focus from providing students higher education grants to providing loans.” (Reason #55)
This should come as no surprise, since Reagan, as Governor of California, called for an end to free state college tuition (Reason #56) and demanded a 20% across-the-board cut in higher education spending by declaring the state will no longer “subsidize intellectual curiosity.” (Reason #57)
Reagan not only demonized campus protestors as “brats,” “freaks,” and “fascists,” but even demanded legislative investigations into communism and sexual misconduct at California universities in order to punish the “hippies, radicals and filthy speech advocates.” (Reason #58)
Reagan must have had equal disregard for healthcare services.
Insurance providers like Blue Cross and Blue Shield were formerly nonprofits, which meant they just passed on the actual cost of health insurance to employers.
Under Reagan’s deregulation of the healthcare industry, insurance providers could now earn profits off denying coverage to the sick and dying. Within a decade, the entire industry fell apart for everyone but the super wealthy. (Reason #59) Hospitals became for profit and started charging higher rates. (Reason #60)
Because of Reagan’s lax merger-and-regulations laws, drug companies bought out their competitors in order to monopolize prices.(Reason #61) Pharmaceutical companies proceeded to gouge customers and became the most profitable business in the U.S.
These costs have been passed on to the employers, who in turn have passed the cost on to the employees. (Reason #62)
“In 1980…70% of Americans who worked at companies with 100 or more employees got health insurance coverage fully paid for by their employers. But from the 1980s onward, employers began requiring their employees to cover an increasing portion of the health costs. Other employers dropped company-financed health plans entirely, saying they could not afford them. Many small businesses made employees pay for all, or most, of the health insurance costs… By the mid-2000s, only 18% of workers were getting full health benefits paid by their employers. Another 37% got partial help but had to pick up a large part of the tab themselves. The rest (45%) got no employer support.” (Reason #63)
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, David Cay Johnston, in The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use Plain English to Rob You Blind:
“After spending more than 40% of all the money in the world devoted to health care, we rank 37th in the quality of our health care, and [the United States] still have roughly 50 million people without health insurance… In 1981…per capita health-care costs equaled 23% of the average salary of the bottom 90% of Americans. By 2007 it had risen to 49%, with all signs pointing to a growing share of the economy going to big, inefficient, but stunningly profitable health care companies.”
Despite all of these national tragedies, perhaps Reagan’s most self-destructive blow was to how the public perceived government.
THE ANTI-GOVERNMENT AGENDA
Like Trump, Reagan exploited Middle America’s anger, frustration, and vulnerability by targeting the government. (Reason #64) Both repeatedly stumped using what researcher and author Tamara Draut calls a “trifecta of conservative philosophy”:
- The government is the problem (myth)
- Tax cuts and free markets are the engines of growth (myth)
- Individual responsibility is the cornerstone of democracy
Reagan allied himself with corporations and political interests that sought to hoard their income and discontinue investing in their country. (Reason #66)
“[Reagan’s] constant attacks on the inefficiency of government, a rallying cry taken up by legions of conservative politicians across the country, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Reason #67) The more money that was taken way from government programs, the more ineffective they became, and the more ineffective they became, the more ridiculous government bureaucrats came to be seen in the public eye. (Reason #68) Gradually, government, and the broader realm of public service, has come to seem disreputable, disdained by the best and brightest…and the image of government has been dragged down even further by the behavior of politicians, who, imbued with the same exaltation of self-interest that is the essence of Reaganism, increasingly treat public office as a vehicle for their own enrichment. (Reason #69) [Reagan] disenfranchised the average citizen by inventing the soft-money machine that made large corporations the real power in Washington. He weakened the enforcement of labor laws and inspired union busters across the country by firing the more than 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers and breaking their union in 1981. (Reason #70) He empowered corporate executives to abandon the concept of loyalty to employees, shareholders, and communities and weakened the bargaining power of labor. (Reason #71) Instead of public policy’s influencing the corporation to fit the needs of society, society shaped to fit the needs of the corporation.”
How much were public services slashed during Reagan’s tenure?
How willfully blind must we be to think “character was king” when it came to our 40th president?
That is the power of the narrative.
And we haven’t even covered the root causes of America’s staggering homeless population.
A hallmark of the Reagan years was a rise in homelessness, an issue that wasn’t even on the political radar at the start of his presidency, but is easily seen in any movie filmed in 1980s New York.
“The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill that started in the 1970s added to the homeless problem, but so did federal policies. Some of the programs that Reagan did succeed in shrinking in real dollars were those that might have ameliorated the numbers of people in the streets, including aid to cities and several low-income housing programs that were slashed even as the poverty rate rose.” (Reason #79)
Under Ronald Reagan’s governorship in the 1960s and 1970s, California led the nation in deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill, (Reason #80) moving them out of state-funded hospitals and into for-profit board-and-care homes. (Reason #81)
The executives of companies that provided these homes were none other than Reagan’s friends and fundraisers. The living conditions in these homes, often in crime-ridden neighborhoods, were so poor that many began to leave. (Reason #82)
To quote Reagan on the homeless, “They make it their own choice for staying out there.” (Reason #83)
Clearly Reagan didn’t understand the mentally ill, or either he simply didn’t care. As psychologists have discovered, the wealthier you are, the less empathy you have for the poverty-stricken.
It’s in large part because of the influx of mentally ill people on the streets that crime rose so high in major US cities. (Reason #84)
Which brings us to...
THE WAR ON DRUGS
The first “War on Drugs” began under Richard Nixon. According to his domestic-policy adviser, and Watergate co-conspirator, John Ehrlichman:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The Republican Party, led by President Reagan, continued this policy.
There was no drug crisis in 1982 when Reagan laid out his anti-drug campaign. Marijuana, heroin, hallucinogens, and first-time cocaine use was down or had leveled off.
So where did the 80’s drug war come from?
From Reagan’s communist paranoia, more or less.
Reagan ordered the CIA and National Security Council (NSC) to do whatever necessary to support a small band of anti-Sandinista guerrillas (AKA Contras) in Nicaragua. Reagan feared the Sandinistas were Soviet stooges fomenting a revolution. After funneling nearly 20 million dollars through the CIA to the Contras, Reagan signed a secret order authorizing Contra aid to depose the Sandinistas. The only problem was coming up with the money. They couldn’t get it from Congress. The Contras suggested trafficking cocaine into California to provide enough profit for armaments. The network was already in place, from the Medellin and Cali drug cartels in Colombia, to the money laundering in Panama by Noriega, to the landings strips in Costa Rica with little radar detection, to the drug warehouses outside San Salvador. The only problem was US law enforcement guarding key entry points. Easy fix: the CIA and NSC could run interference and keep the FBI, US Customs, and the DEA in check. Voila: the US became saturated with cocaine, except Contra wholesalers repackaged it into rocks of ‘crack,’ which was distributed through the Bloods’ and Crips’ 50,000 gang members.
If you haven’t choked on your jellybeans yet, let me break it down for you:
The crack epidemic was engineered by the Reagan administration to fund illegal arms to the Contras. (Reason #85)
The irony of this debacle would be amusing if the result wasn’t so catastrophic for African Americans. (Reason #88)
Most crime could be attributed to the crack epidemic, but the administration’s priorities were clear: imprison the drug users, don’t worry about rehabilitation or prevention. (Reason #90)
If Reagan had really wanted to end the drug war, he wouldn’t have focused only on the criminal aspect of drug use by increasing funds for the FBI and DEA and by cutting funding for the National Institute on Drug Abuse from $274 million to $57 million as well as cutting the Department of Education’s anti-drug funds from $14 million to $3 million. (Reason #89)
The War on Drugs was the ultimate dog-whistle issue – the perfect way to instill fear in the populace and distract the public from the corporate agenda. (Reason #91)
“Portraying the poor as criminals would also help win support for curtailing social welfare programs, one reason Reagan made spending on law enforcement one of two areas of government – the other being national defense – that would be exempt from budget cuts… Rather than fund programs for drug treatment, child care, job training, education, and housing, which might actually have made a difference in drug-abuse patterns, Reagan chose to militarize the cities.” (Reason #92)
One of the greatest consequences of the War on Drugs has been mass incarceration. (Reason #93)
White men behind bars: 1 in 106
Hispanic men behind bars: 1 in 36
Black men behind bars: 1 in 15
Too bad our inmates return to society with no education, no counseling, and no job training, yet they do have plenty of anger and psychological wounds from their prison experience, and far too often become affiliated with gangs while in the slammer. (Reason #95)
For Reagan, the war on drugs was the ultimate symbol of what his party viewed as all that was immoral in American culture: Drugs were associated primarily with a) counter culture (hippies, who Reagan loathed from the free speech days on college campuses), b) the ghetto (i.e., minorities), and c) gay culture.
Which brings us to...
Even though AIDS was first noted by the federal Centers for Disease Control in June 1981, and widely discussed in media the following years, Reagan didn’t concern himself with it or utter the word in a prepared statement until 1987, after thousands of lives had been lost. It was only after his personal friend Rock Hudson died in 1985 that Reagan and his administration began taking it seriously. (Reason #96)
Reagan's press secretary Larry Speakes was so dismissive of AIDS, he laughed when asked about it. You can hear the callous press conference HERE. (Reason #97)
Considering how much money was slashed from social services during Reagan’s presidency, Reagan practically doubled the federal government’s budget spending, mainly on the military industrial complex, and bailing out Wall Street. (Reason #98)
Today, the U.S. has become the largest single seller of arms and munitions on the planet. Since the Second World War, the federal government has spent more than half its tax dollars on past, current, and future military operations. It is the largest single sustaining activity of the government. [It’s] especially lucrative to corporations because it offers a lavish form of corporate welfare.” (Reason #99)
Because of Reagan’s lavish military expenditures, the U.S. is the biggest debtor nation in the world, yet only 40 years ago before Reagan took office, we were the greatest creditor nation in the world. (Reason #100)
“As the Romans and the Soviets and so many other Empires before ours have found out, military spending is the least productive and sustainable way to build an economy. In fact, a quick inspection of previous world super powers reveals that they all met their demise by economic collapse following binges of military adventurism, often after a desperate campaign was launched to protect the last vestiges of their empire. It’s what happened to the romans, and also what happened to the Soviet Union, the last great economic superpower to collapse. After a 9-year military quagmire in Afghanistan, the Soviets found themselves so drained of resources that they had to withdraw their troops to tend to their own collapsing economy. Only a few years after the Afghan war, as Osama bin Laden proudly proclaimed, the Soviet Union was in full meltdown. We didn’t get the memo. And today, at the behest of the royalists, our nation is still fighting more than a decade long war in Afghanistan that’s producing the same empire-destroying consequences that befell the Soviet Union.” (Reason #101)
The most popular Reagan myth is that he ended communism, but the whole “Tear Down This Wall” soundbite was little more than political theater.
For anyone who thinks Reagan singlehandedly brought down the Berlin Wall, think again.
The Soviet Union did not increase its military spending to match Reagan, thereby avoiding exacerbating the defense burden on the Soviet economy. In other words, Reagan did NOT bankrupt the Soviet Union. Many experts think the USSR’s economy collapsed not just because of excessive military spending but because of much deeper structural inefficiencies, as well as corruption. And the last straw may have been a technical advance from here in the US – the personal computer.
The end of communism, much like our entire notion of the Reagan Revolution, has rested on a fallacy.
“Somewhere in the American past shimmers a halcyon era when the masses lived happily and private enterprise flourished without interference from the dead hand of government. Ronald Reagan…a man who made crucial decisions on the advice of an astrologer, who believed in extraterrestrials, who again and again confused Hollywood images with reality, tried to take America on a journey back to a Shangri-La that never existed. The Millionaire Backers, who knew that his presidency was just a money grab by the upper class, may have chuckled to themselves at how gullibly he bought into the lines he was reading. His idea that America’s greatness would be restored only if freed from the shackles of government unleashed one of the great philosophical misadventures of modern history…reversing a seventy-year trend toward social progress. Ronald Reagan set in motion a tidal wave of deregulation and privatization that has transformed the nation. A long list of calamities that have befallen deregulated industries – two stock market crashes, the California energy crisis, the Enron scandal, the savings –and-loan bailout, the Northeast blackout, the rash of bankruptcies in the airline industry, and the subprime mortgage crisis, just to name a few – all rose from Reagan’s misguided quest for free-market purism. All grew out of the evisceration of regulations that a more sensible generation of political leaders had put into place to keep market forces from making a shambles of our economy and culture. All enriched an elite business interested at the expense of ordinary Americans, without achieving what was supposed to be the goal of deregulation: a general increase in the well-being of the nation.”
If your image of Reagan has been tarnished by his actual presidency, you are in good company.
When the PR stunts have faded, and the emotional pull of 80s optimism has receded, it’s hard not to be sobered by the 101 facts of the real Reagan legacy, especially as we continue to pay for them today.
However, if you don’t wish to be confused by the facts, I can’t say I blame you.
After all, facts are such stupid things.