Ever since Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1967, we have relied on two native informants about his time in power: Joan Didion, of Sacramento, and Mike Davis, of the San Bernardino Valley.
For Didion, a onetime “Goldwater girl,” Reagan was one of the few Americans of his generation to experience something approaching luxury socialism. As a ward of Hollywood, which rented and furnished his homes; then of US corporations such as General Electric; and finally of state and federal governments, Reagan, for most of his life, never lived in anything resembling everyday America. As Didion reported, Nancy Reagan carried cash only when she needed to leave the house for a manicure. “I preferred the studio system to the anxiety of looking for work in New York,” she recalled in her memoir.
For Mike Davis, one of the country’s most formidable working-class intellectuals, the critical components of Reagan’s ascent were economic and geographical. Reagan was the herald of the new business class of the American West and Southwest, much of whose profits came from war-related industries. Long predating recent epiphanies on the American Right, such as that of Christopher Caldwell, Davis saw that the crucial innovation of the Reagan strategy was to give up on the Goldwater dream of shrinking the US state and instead mobilize it to transfer wealth upward and a launch a Vernichtungskrieg against unionized labor.
Reagandland is the final installment of Rick Perlstein’s history of the postwar American right. It is a tribute to his skill as a writer that he combines Didion’s determination to pin down the aura of the Reagan era with some measure of Davis’s capacity to explain its material components. Examining Reaganism at both the molecular and stratospheric levels, Perlstein attends as much to its underlying dynamics as to its spectacle. Like Davis, he reminds us that much of the action took place offstage, with “Ronald Reagan” serving as the vehicle for a new band of conservatives and social movements not content to be hemmed in by the old Republican order.
One of the tonics of this rare combination of historical narrative and structural analysis is how much it throws the Trump years into relief, allowing for a more sober consideration of the past half decade. The sense of recklessness that corporate Republicans, including the Chamber of Commerce, imputed to Reagan recalls their successors’ treatment of Trump in the lead-up to his winning the Republican nomination. The fervor of today’s Trumpists was even exceeded by the most ardent Reaganites of yesteryear. When a group of Situationists stormed the 1980 Republican convention and distributed copies of J.G. Ballard’s short story “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (“In assembly kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection”), with the title page replaced with the presidential seal, they got nowhere. The pamphlet was taken in stride by the faithful: just another position paper outlining the advantages of their candidate.
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But perhaps the largest service Perlstein has rendered in Reaganland comes in its form. The book refuses to travel the endlessly repaved road of presidential biography, with personal psychology and moralizing at the center. To a greater extent than in Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein surveys the wider political landscape of which Reagan himself is but one feature. Reaganland not only teems with political operatives and hustlers—on the right, center, and left—but also suggests that the most potent forces of American political change lie outside formal politics. All the more striking is that this message comes when the American left is more invested in electoralism and its promise than at any point since the 1940s.
In the arena of American political writing, Perlstein’s oeuvre presents a dissent from the Great Man theory of history that reached its contemporary apogee in the work of Robert Caro, in which figures such as Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses make history through their unyielding will and have the tragic dimension, the singular essence, that Caro also attributed to his first biographical subject, Ernest Hemingway.
The trouble with such a method is less that it simplifies historical change than that it lends itself to a further mythologization of American power. If the hubris of American democracy has been borne by the occupants of its highest office, then the country can correct its future by simply finding worthier figures to fill it. Perlstein is more interested in how an administration inherits a set of problems and develops an ideological response to them. Whereas Caro locks himself into the bobsled of biography, Perlstein prefers to skate around the ice and to bump up against all manner of mobilizations and movements that, in mass-market books about American politics, typically exist only on the margins. Reagan is the face and voice of a radical right vanguard in Perlstein’s account but not its beating heart.
Appropriately, Perlstein devotes much of Reaganland to a figure who belongs to the territory as much as Reagan himself: Jimmy Carter. For it was Carter, the most conservative Democratic presidential candidate since John W. Davis in 1924, who revised the New Deal coalition of the Democratic Party—drastically cutting the federal budget, turning away from détente with the USSR, scaling back the urban jobs program, and ending labor law reform—and opened a Pandora’s box of political innovations of which Reagan was the ultimate beneficiary. A Southern Baptist who retreated to the biblical mountaintops to make big decisions, Carter also proved that evangelicals could take power.
On foreign policy, Carter cleared the ground for his successor. The Reagan administration effectively domesticated Carter’s human rights agenda and employed it as a Cold War battering ram. (Trump, too, far from dismissing human rights, simply emphasized different ones—the right to religious freedom, for instance.) Finally, and most decisively, Carter undid the postwar Keynesian pact between capital and labor that had made full employment a loudly utterable priority in Washington. By appointing Paul Volcker as his Federal Reserve Board chair to fight inflation by the most draconian means possible, Carter virtually guaranteed the very recession, along with its accompanying explosion of unemployment, that buried his chances for reelection. It was a spectacular instance of political self-sabotage undertaken in a fit of what Carter was convinced was fiscal responsibility.
Reagan’s real electoral competition was the array of seemingly more plausible candidates for the 1980 Republican nomination. As Perlstein notes, Reagan regularly led the polls, but much of the press and pundit class expected a more vigorous Republican competitor to knock him out of contention. The establishment scion George H.W. Bush promised to anchor the GOP in donor-friendly harbors. But Reagan faced a more serious threat from John Connally, the former governor of Texas, who was favored by the US Chamber of Commerce and the business contingent of the Republican Party. Connally was effective on the stump and was a bruising phrasemaker: “They just put speeches in front of Reagan to read,” he told The New York Times, and dismissed Bush as “a bed-wetting Trilateralist.”
As Perlstein shows, Reagan was the most skilled politician on the campaign trail. He also experienced considerable good fortune. Bush made the mistake of trying to reinvent himself as a populist; the man once known in Congress as “Rubbers” for his patrician enthusiasm for birth control became an unconvincing convert to the anti-abortion cause. Bush’s international experience—he’d headed the CIA and served as ambassador to China—also made him vulnerable to being tarred as a proto-globalist. In the kind of detail that mysteriously escaped Jon Meacham’s attention in his 400-page memorial for Bush, Perlstein tells how Bush used his diplomatic ties to Beijing to score a deal for his private oil company to prospect on China’s coasts, back when Beijing’s idea of the national interest was rather different from what it is today.
Connally detonated his own chances against Reagan on the unusual terrain of foreign policy. In order to gild his credentials in that sphere, he put forward an anodyne plan for Middle East peace that included restraining “Israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank.” Reagan’s aides had deleted such a phrase from a Reagan op-ed earlier in the year out of fear of a backlash. They were well advised: Within days, Connally was being lambasted by the right wing as well as the liberal press, with The New York Times comparing him, in unfavorable terms, to Jesse Jackson.
A great merit of Reaganland is how Perlstein examines which foreign policy questions impinged—and which did not—on Reagan’s rise. One stubborn myth he dismantles is that Carter missed out on a second term because of his performance during the Iran hostage crisis. But an NBC poll at the height of the crisis showed that 72 percent of Americans approved of Carter’s handling of it. “The 17 percent of voters who cited the crisis in Iran as the most important issue preferred Carter by a heaping margin of two-to-one,” Perlstein writes. “Carter won the hostage issue.”
As for Reagan, the man himself, Perlstein upends the conventional liberal wisdom that he was a Hollywood automaton plugged into a teleprompter and delivering tinselly right-wing talking points. “Reagan had won practically every debate he had participated in,” Perlstein writes. In 1967, after being outfoxed by Reagan in a debate, Robert F. Kennedy ordered his staffers never to have him face off against “that son-of-a-bitch” again. In the 1980 campaign, Reagan easily triumphed over the limber locutions of William F. Buckley Jr. in a television debate about the fate of the Panama Canal.
The coup de théâtre on the campaign trail took place in a small gymnasium in Nashua, N.H., where the Reagan campaign team deceived both Bush and the local newspaper into thinking they were about to participate in a two-person debate. Having paid for the event himself, Reagan and his team surprised the audience and the organizers by surreptitiously inviting all of the other Republican candidates to the gymnasium. When the moderator, Jon Breen, sensed foul play and tried to have Reagan’s microphone switched off so that Reagan would stop making the case for including all the candidates, he seized the mic and, mimicking a scene from the 1948 Frank Capra movie State of the Union in which Spencer Tracy’s character delivers a righteous speech, intoned: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green [sic]!” The audience, either familiar with the film or simply delighted with the prefab entertainment, exploded in raucous celebration. It was remarkable not only how adroitly Reagan performed his lines but how he recycled a dewy Hollywood moment with what appeared to be actual political passion.
But where Perlstein really hits his stride is when he passes from the surface of Reaganism to its sinews and Reagan himself fades from view. If there is a motor of history in Reaganland, it is the direct-mail campaign pioneered by Goldwater veteran and Reagan campaign strategist Richard Viguerie. Viguerie not only operated a shadow mediasphere of personalized newsletters for voters’ mailboxes for decades; he also discovered a way to raise enormous sums of money outside the usual channels. Reagan did not need to go hat in hand to corporations to nearly the same degree as Bush and Connally. Viguerie used the mailing lists to Venn-diagram their various supporters. Different conservative groups—the World Anti-Communist League, the National Right to Work Committee, the National Rifle Association, No Amnesty for Deserters, Citizens for Decent Literature, George Wallace followers—could be built off one another exponentially and corralled into the Reagan camp via pseudo-intimately worded letters to their members. By 1980, Viguerie was so successful that the largest conservative political action committee, Citizens for Reagan, could reap a significant portion of its $9 million from donations smaller than $25. Reaganland makes a persuasive case that the right’s ideological triumph in the 1980s was as much a technological one.
When it comes to the overall phenomenon of Reaganism, Perlstein hesitates to offer too strong of a theory. A longtime Chicago resident, he must be familiar with the scene from a certain 1980s crowd-pleaser in which the despondent third wheel in a Red Wings jersey stares for too long at a Seurat painting at the city’s Art Institute. The pointillist canvas of Reaganland is mesmerizing, and Perlstein feels obliged neither to provide a hierarchy of causes for Reagan’s ascent nor to weigh up the chief components of Reaganism.
This panoramic perspective has its advantages. At its best, Reaganland is a history of interlocking and abutting mobilizations, a study of the social forces at the end of the 1970s. In discrete mini-histories of Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment and Anita Bryant’s antigay crusade, as well as of opposing ones—Ralph Nader’s highly successful consumer protection movement (where is the Netflix miniseries on this?) and Harvey Milk’s organizing in San Francisco—Perlstein wants to stress how forces outside the formal party matrix were in many ways more important than those within it. Power is diffuse in Reaganland, and Reaganism was the field where disparate interests could join together.
Alongside his empirical prowess, Perlstein does stake out the substance that distinguished Reagan and his backers from their right-wing predecessors. If Nixonism was characterized by the traditional exercise of state power and Keynesian management of the economy—“We have learned at last to manage a modern economy to assure its continued growth,” Nixon declared in his first inaugural address—Reaganism was distinguished by its desire to cover itself in an aura of extragovernmental activism and to incorporate the instability of the economy into its governing dynamic. Under Reagan, the US state continued to grow, but worrying about the deficit was for losers. The underpinning for this assumption was what the influential Reagan apparatchik Jude Wanniski called the “Two Santa Clause Theory.” The idea was that, even as Carter and the Democrats became fiscal hawks modeled on the Republicans, the Republicans grew content to ignore mountains of government debt in order to enact tax cuts while leaving the deficit-pruning to their foes. Unlike the postwar Keynesians, the Reaganites were explicit about not caring how, or to what ends, capital was allocated, if at all, as long as the GOP’s upper-class loyalists amassed more of it.
It is on the relationship between Reaganism’s political and economic policies and its engagement with various right-wing social movements that Perlstein ventures to present a theory, though one common enough among left-wing observers. As Perlstein sees it, Reagan’s overall economic policies were not popular in themselves, and so they required a cultural component to make them more palatable to the public. Toward this end, Reagan and his cadres of supply-siders and corporate lobbyists embraced the right’s culture war. As Reagan strategist Paul Weyrich pointed out, “sex” was the “Achilles’ heel of the liberal Democrats,” and Reagan and his Republican allies were prepared to bet that the electorate was still much more traditional than liberals were willing to allow. They concocted lurid fantasies of gay public school teachers corrupting the young and a netherworld in which women worked all day while their infants were wards of the state. Such stuff was nothing new, of course, for the Republican Party. What was novel was the efficiency and magnitude of the funding available to push cultural nightmares into the mainstream media and the public realm.
To what degree is Reaganland a contribution, or at least a commentary, on political strategy? In the summer of 2004, Perlstein wrote an article for Boston Review, subsequently published as a pamphlet, in which he called on the Democrats to learn from the success of Reaganism. “Ronald Reagan used to say that there are no easy answers but there are simple answers,” Perlstein wrote. “The Democrats need to make commitments, or a network of commitments, that do not waver from election to election.” He called for a long-term commitment to economic populism, one that needed to be sustained even in the teeth of political defeat. On this point, he was on solid ground. Despite his worshipful falange, Reagan was, after all, never very popular. As Sheldon S. Wolin noted in The New York Review of Books at the time, less than half of the electorate voted in the 1980 election, and among those who did, only 10 percent described themselves as “true conservatives.”
The story of Reaganism, then, is the story of a political vanguard: how a small band of merry supply-siders put on culture-war paint, mobilized conservative social movements to excite the party’s base, and brought about a new economic order and a new political dispensation. While Perlstein’s book certainly presents the fullest picture we have of the Reagan years, its lessons for opponents of Reaganism are far from clear. For even if economic populism is, well, popular, the same is harder to know of some other urgent platforms today, such as the Green New Deal.
Political parties are also not nearly the vehicles for political change they once were. The Democratic Party is even less of an integrated apparatus today than it was when Perlstein delivered his advice to it 15 years ago. These days, it includes awkward groupings of the tech elite and neoconservatives, as well as socialists, many of whom, paradoxically, have come to see their fate bound up with its fortunes. In many ways, the challenge of smashing the legacy of Reaganism is harder than anything solvable by a vanguard schooled in strategic patience. A left version of the Mont Pèlerin Society or the Mises Institute—willing to throw an election away, as the right did with Goldwater, only to return with a vengeance with the next generation’s Bernie Sanders—does not seem as viable when the intertwined crises of climate change, viral disease, and financial capitalism present threats too urgent to wait out. Kamala Harris could be in power until 2036
The ascendancy of Reaganism also requires us to look more closely at the global economic conditions that made it possible than at the local contingencies it seized upon. In the past, Perlstein has been taken to task by some of the best writers on the American left—Peter Frase and Tim Barker, most prominently—for describing Carter and Volcker’s actions as “heroic and self-sacrificing,” when in 1979, they introduced punitively high interest rates to combat inflation, which ultimately ended the recession but delivered a blow to American labor from which it has never recovered.
In Reaganland, Perlstein has tried to correct his sails: The Volcker shock now appears as a comedy of errors that Carter set in motion when he forced his treasury secretary, Michael Blumenthal, to resign for launching a corruption investigation of Bert Lance, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. That sent the stock market into a plunge so steep that only appointing someone with the stature of Volcker—a Chase Manhattan veteran—could soothe Wall Street’s jitters. But despite his nimble navigation through the contingencies of Reaganism, Perlstein does not fully reckon with how the Volcker shock was a response to a much larger, harder-to-avoid iceberg. Volcker was trying to stabilize an American imperial project that had been undermined by its own success: Cold War allies in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere were flooding the global market with goods that undercut American corporate profits. US corporations continued to invest at home in preparation for the next boom. But the Keynesian creed that had governed the American economy in the postwar decades, during which high productivity and growth were taken for granted, was experiencing a dark night of the soul. Volcker’s shock was not meant to expunge the faith; it was a Hail Mary attempt to clear the “dead wood” of the economy (that is, hundreds of thousands of working Americans), to rationalize it, and to create the conditions for another boom.
But the boom never came. At some point during Reagan’s time in power, American capitalists became conscious of the new reality. Their action changed shape: from profit-seeking and industrial production to predation, in Robert Brenner’s recent term. If elites could not capture increased gains from a growing economy through innovation and expansion, they could at least capture them from a stagnant economy through lobbying, legal-suturing, and ideological pressure. In a world of reduced productivity, culture-war-fighting becomes less about class defense and more about caste-marking, since access to the returns on capital is an increasingly political activity. This was the new political-economic dispensation that matured under Reagan, which was always bigger than him, and which now seems to be experiencing a crisis of its own. The mantra of Reaganism—“growth,” “freedom,” “sovereign people”—looks in disrepair today. But we would do well to remember: The rites of a religion can long survive the death of its god.