How Ronald Reagan Wrecked The American Middle Class, And Came Out Smelling Like A Rose

How Ronald Reagan wrecked the middle class and came out smelling like a rose.

As the father of modern conservatism, Reagan helped create the problems we suffer today. But compared with today’s right-wing nut jobs, he seems reasonable. Photo from www.Screen-WallPapers.Com.

“Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” — Ronald Reagan

February 6th marks the would-be birthday of Ronald Reagan, the much-loved GOP icon who passed away in 2004. The charming, two-term Republican president from 1981-1989 defined the modern conservative movement and became the benign face of a harsh philosophy. For those of you who either don’t follow politics or weren’t born yet, Reagan’s star rose as drugs, crime, and mass unrest in the late 1960’s and 1970’s put liberal policies in a bad light. When Reagan beat President Jimmy Carter in 1980, our country was deeply shaken by the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, rising oil prices, out-of-control inflation, and the never-ending hostage crisis in Iran. Never mind that Richard Nixon, a GOP president, caused the Watergate scandal, and that right-wingers from both parties (back then, both parties had liberal and conservative wings) pushed for the war in Vietnam and for a foreign policy that angered people in the Middle East and all over the world. People were blaming liberals for our woes, and here’s this cheerful, grandfatherly guy telling us it’s “morning in America.” Yeah, Good f*cking morning.

“If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” — CA Gov. Ronald Reagan after sending CHP to “clean up the mess in Berkeley.”

Reagan crafted his political positions as the governor of California from 1967-1975. During his 1966 campaign, he promised to “send the welfare bums back to work” and “clean up the mess in Berkeley” (impose some law and order on those danged hippie protestors). A whopping 57.65% of voters sent him to the CA state capitol. “Clean up the mess” is what Reagan did on May 15th, 1969 — otherwise known as “Bloody Thursday” — when Reagan sent the CA Highway Patrol (CHP) and the National Guard to quell the People’s Park protests in Berkeley. One dead student and a blinded man later, Reagan snapped, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”

The abortion debate had also begun, and although the new CA-Gov. Reagan signed a pro-choice bill, he later came to regret this, and took a “pro-life” position. He also strongly favored the death penalty, but only got to perform one retroactive abortion due to a Supreme Court of CA decision that banned all death sentences. Reagan also famously joked about hoping for an epidemic of botulism when a left-wing group demanded free food for the poor (the group was called the Symbionese Liberation Army, and they later went on to kidnap Patty Hearst).

Thanks, Reagan.

In 1980, Reagan launched a presidential campaign based on “states’ rights” (at the time, a dog whistle for the lynching murder of three activists who were registering blacks to vote in the town of Philadelphia, MS), a strong military, supply-side economics, and his famous cheeriness. By then, he’d learned to cloak his mean views with an easy-going manner and off-the-cuff witty remarks. Reagan won in his renowned landslide (taking 44 states and 50.8% of the popular vote), and became the 40th president of the US. Even many left-ish former hippies-turned-yuppie — like this writer’s father and stepmom — pulled the lever for him. Yes, this writer still holds a grudge, and yes, voting booths still had levers back then.

We now have Reagan to thank for modern woes like income inequality, right-wing Christian nut jobs, Al Quaeda, the homeless problem, and that pesky old deficit the GOP keeps whining about. But he almost never gets blamed because he always was the “teflon president.” By today’s standards, Reagan almost seems liberal … or at least like a centrist. Yet Reagan planted the seeds for the strange, toxic fruits that poison our nation today. Here are six gifts from Reagan that keep on giving.

(1) Supply-side “Reaganomics” widened the gap between rich and poor.

Back in 1980, people were spooked because inflation had soared to 13.5% and the economy was heading towards a recession. Gas sipping Toyotas from Japan were also kicking the U.S. Auto industry’s butts. Ronald Reagan and his band of Ayn Rand-reading, Laffer curve-loving conservative zealots were so danged sure that if we removed all supposed hurdles to growth — like regulations, unions, and taxes — wealthy folks would start investing, and jump-start the economy. In Supply-Side Bizarro World, once the One Percent’s done with gobbling up all the resources, the wealth would somehow work its way through their digestive system and eventually tinkle down trickle down on the poor.

Now, even pro-business thought leaders like Forbes magazine admit that jobs aren’t created by wealthy investors, jobs are created by consumers buying lots of sh*t. Reagan and his Republicans went straight to work dismantling regulations and cutting taxes. As written in Wikipedia, “During Reagan’s presidency, federal income tax rates were lowered significantly with the signing of the bipartisan Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 which lowered the top marginal tax bracket from 70% to 50% and the lowest bracket from 14% to 11%.” On top of that, there was the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 (DEFRA), which lowered the capital gains tax to a maximum rate of 28%, and “freezing the minimum wage at $3.35 an hour, slashing federal assistance to local governments by 60%, cutting the budget for public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies in half, and eliminating the antipoverty Community Development Block Grant program.” Oh, yeah, and Reagan loved busting unions, too.

(2) Ronald Reagan ushered in the rise of the Christian right.

The outsized influence of these science-hating, women’s and gay rights-denying, racist creationist, poor-bashing Christian right-wingers can be directly traced to the 1980 election, when Ronald Reagan formed his strange alliance with Baptist Pastor of Disaster Jerry Fallwell and his Moral Majority — which came before the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and other scary groups devoted to lies, ignorance, and hate. As Jerry Falwell declared when he disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, “Our goal has been achieved…The religious right is solidly in place and…religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.” The Christian right’s immense sway and ability to get out the vote helped Reagan take the White House, and has played a huge role in getting Republicans in office ever since. I mean, when you have an army of brainwashed followers who will think and do anything you tell them, how can you lose? I mean, how many other groups are able to convince people that the earth is only 6,000 years old? Bringing in the Christian Right was easy, because it was merely an extension of a “Southern strategy” that the GOP already had in place for over a decade. The Southern strategy involved luring”yaller dawg Democrats” from the south (who were so staunch, they would rather vote for a yellow dog than for a Republican) who opposed civil rights legislation.

(3) Ronald Reagan’s military armed and trained what would become Al Quaeda.

While the Vietnam War was a fustercluck that we slowly muddled into and couldn’t muddle our way out of because we hadn’t yet learned how to declare victory and move on, Reagan’s over-aggressive foreign policy set the stage for George W. Bush’s “preemptive warfare” in Iraq. In a stunning reversal from the more hands-off policy of détente — as architected by the normally murderous statesman Henry Kissinger and pursued by the Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Carter administrations since 1971 — to escalate our cold war with the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Back then, most Americans were terrified of the possibility of nuclear war between the United States and what we then called “Russia” (but which was much bigger than it is now) and many folks still had fallout shelters in their basements.

The right wing wanted to take them out, while those on the left wanted to pursue peaceful options. Reagan beefed up our military, ramped up weapons production, deployed the Pershing missile in West Germany with Nato, stopped all passenger airplane service between the two countries (in response to the Soviets shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983), and providing covert assistance to anti-Soviet movements. This led to our illegal sale of arms to Iran to fund the contras in Nicaragua’s civil war (and the Iran-Contra scandal), and to our furnishing weapons and training to Afghanistan’s future Taliban and Al Quaeda operatives — who were then Mujahideen resistance fighters — to help them break away from the USSR. While Reagan’s bellicose strategy appears to have been validated — the USSR didn’t have the resources to keep up with our arms race and ultimately collapsed in 1991 — it also could have backfired.

Just in case you missed the last sentence in the previous paragraph, let me repeat … Under the Reagan Administration, the United States provided weapons and military training to Mujahideen resistance fighters (Arabic for “Muslims who struggle in the path of God”) during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Many of these men wound up joining Al Quaeda and using our firearms and knowledge against us, as explained by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010.

(4) Ronald Reagan helped create the homeless problem.

Oh, and remember how we all of the sudden started seeing tons of homeless people living on the street starting around … oh … 1985? That’s what happens when you empty out the mental hospitalscut funding for mental health services, housing, and related services; and blithely ignore urban problems the way Reagan did. In 1978, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget was over $83 billion. By 1983, HUD’s budget had been reduced to a paltry $18 billion. And despite the name, HUD serves rural and suburban areas as well as urban ones.

(5) Reagan put us in debt to ‘starve the beast,’ and George W. Bush did the same.

Despite his tax cutting hero status, Reagan raised taxes 11 times. But mostly to finance our bloated military, not to help people. Believe it or not, Democratic President Bill Clinton left George W. Bush with a huge budget surplus. Dubya promptly transformed Clinton’s surplus into a deficit with his war and tax cuts for the rich, in accordance with the conservatives long-term “Starve the Beast” strategy — as popularized by Reagan. Basically, Republicans can get rid of earned benefits — like unemployment insurance, social security, and medicare — and other government-run programs that the American people pay for with their taxes by raising military spending, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and then telling voters that the government has no money and we need to pay off our deficit. If Democrats like Clinton and his supporters find a way to create a surplus, the Republicans will just spend it so the federal government’s hands will be tied again.

(6) Reagan allowed HIV and AIDS to spread.

In 1978, Reagan opposed California’s Proposition 6, which would have banned gays and LGBT rights supporters from teaching or working in public schools, stating, “homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles.” Then again, when gay men (along with heroin users, patients in need of blood transfusions, people living in lower Africa, sexual partners of HIV-infected people, health and emergency workers exposed to infected bodily fluids, and others) contracted actual contagious diseases (HIV and AIDS) that spread like wildfire, Reagan didn’t care. Scientists became aware of AIDS in 1981, but — perhaps because it first only seemed to affect gays and drug users — Reagan didn’t even admit that AIDS existed until 1985. And then only to express concern about HIV-positive children going to public schools. Thanks in part to the United States’ slow and stingy response to those first warning signs, HIV and AIDS became a global pandemic. By 1991 — a mere decade since Reagan had assumed office — HIV had spread to 10 million people worldwide, and 36,000 Americans had died of AIDS [AIDS Timeline]. By 1993, the death toll had reached 45,000 per year in the U.S. alone. Although prevention measures have slowed the spread in the U.S., and promising new drugs have improved the life span and quality of life for many AIDS patients, worldwide HIV infection rates continue to rise.

“Honey, I forgot to duck.” — Ronald Reagan to his wife Nancy, after being shot. No wonder he became pro-gun control later in life.

Some see Ronald Reagan as somewhat liberal — or at least reasonable, compared with today’s ultra-right-wing GOP — because he helped preserve social security, appointed the first female judge to the US Supreme Court, and because he came out in support of a big gun control bill. But it pays to recall that Reagan was also doing what worked from a political standpoint at the time.

  • In 1983, Reagan signed a bill to preserve social security (here’s the PDF) and remarked, “This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to social security. ” He also emphasized that the Social Security Amendments of 1983 was a bipartisan effort with late House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) in response to “legitimate alarm that social security would soon run out of money,” so “all of us can look each other square in the eye and say, ‘We kept our promises.”’ Of course, Reagan personally supported shifting social security to private 401K-type accounts, but that dog wouldn’t have hunted back then.
  • Reagan appointed the first woman to the US Supreme Court. Let’s not forget that Ronald Reagan opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, supposedly because women are already protected by the 14th Amendment, but he did appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, on August 19th, 1981.
  • In 1991, Reagan announced his support for the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in his op-ed piece for the New York Times. The gun safety bill mandated federal background checks for firearms buyers, and was named after Reagan’s former press secretary, James Brady, who was shot and permanently disabled during the March 30, 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan. The then-president himself almost died, but was stabilized in the ER. Always quick with a joke, Reagan quipped to his wife, Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” And Reagan was an National Rifle Association (NRA> member! Since people are supposedly only liberal until they get mugged, does the adage also apply to folks who are only pro-gun until they get shot?

Elisabeth Parker Elisabeth Parker is a writer, Web designer, mom, political junkie, and dilettante. Come visit her at ElisabethParker.Com, “like” her on facebook, “friend” her on facebook, follow her on Twitter, or check out her Pinterest boards. For more Addicting Info articles by Elisabeth, click here.