A distinguished center-left historian surveys U.S. politics over the past 35 years and pronounces Ronald Reagan, like it or not, the era’s dominant figure.
In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the McGovernite Congress elected in 1974 appeared to restore liberalism to its accustomed place as the dominant force in American politics. In fact, the victory disguised years of Democratic Party confusion and intellectual decay. This, plus a growing network of conservative think tanks, institutes and media voices, and the feckless Ford and Carter presidencies, prepared the ground for conservatives to take over the Republican Party and then the country. The movement to shrink government, reduce taxes, reverse the country’s moral decline, keep the military strong and fight communism found its perfect champion in the smiling personage of Reagan, who so transformed the terms of political debate that no successor has been able to conduct business without accounting for him. Wilentz (History/Princeton Univ.; Andrew Jackson, 2006, etc.) correctly calls for Reagan to be treated seriously by professional historians. He’s wrong, though, to think his own political proclivities have not colored the analysis here. The author pays only grudging respect to Reaganism, tellingly defining it as a “distinctive blend of dogma, pragmatism, and, above all, mythology.” He attributes Reagan’s signal achievement—ending the Cold War without bloodshed—as much to Gorbachev. He treats the rest of the Reagan legacy—gutted regulatory agencies, regressive tax policies, politicized judiciary, polarized citizenry—as a set of indisputable, unfortunate facts that the Clinton interregnum barely disrupted. Wilentz declines to predict whether Bush II will revise and extend conservatism’s reach or spark a liberal resurgence. Still, the very fact that a historian of Wilentz’s credentials and liberal disposition willingly deals seriously and at such length with Reagan means, in a Nixon-to-China sense, attention must be paid.
An insightful analysis of the rise and reign of Reagan; a somewhat less successful explication of the meaning of Reaganism and its implications.