If you need a sign of how far our country’s political system has fallen in the last three decades, you need look no further than the attempt to reclaim the Reagan legacy…by liberals.
Reagan, a former Democrat, union boss (albeit one who used the position to snitch out commies), and advocate of a moderately sane tax rate, is now being bandied about by Democrats as proof of how completely batshit the latter-day G.O.P. has become. There’s at least a wisp of a point here, but not one you’d want to mount at the end of a strong stick; Reagan was never really the standard-bearer of right-wing ideology so much as he was an amiable puppet through which agreeable chatter could be dispensed on television while his appointees went about the important task of looting the public till. And whatever views of his regarding taxation, regulation, or the public trust that might today qualify as seditious, honestly, fuck Ronald Reagan and his AIDS-denying, union-busting, habitually dishonest administration.
Where we can draw some interesting lessons, at least, is by assessing the degree to which the people who have made him into a phony saint have taken his ideas and honed them to a fine point, or abandoned them altogether. Looking back, it’s really not so much that Reagan clung to a few remnants of the liberal consensus while his cronies were gearing up to hammer the rest of them into powder; accusing the man of believing in anything more meaningful than the power of his own bogus anecdotes gives him more credit for sincerity than he deserves. It’s more that during his presidency, the national mood hadn’t shifted far enough to the right for him to get very far with some of the more heinous prescriptions his handlers were pushing for.
One of the things that’s just making sense in hindsight is that Reagan was the first president of the Information Age, the first post-industrial president, the first president-as-media-creation. There had been ‘businessman presidents’ before (each of them a disaster), but he was the first president who was purely a product of marketing and advertising, the first who wasn’t meant to actually do things but merely represent things. In this and many other senses, he was the first chief executive, not of the business era, but of the corporate era; look how slick, how workshopped, how executive-suite his cabinet looked compared to the crooks, hoods and bunglers of the Nixon regime. As such, he was the first president whose administration was exceptionally adept at the hollow, empty multisyllabic argot we’ve come to know as corporate-speak.
“Plausible deniability” was one of the key phrases of the Reagan administration, as we learned to the point of weariness during the disgraceful Iran-Contra scandal. The idea here is that, despite the best efforts of avuncular pipe-smoking admirals, the buck stops nowhere, with no one. Nobody is ever responsible for anything, and the important thing is to create a tangled reporting structure and a morass of meaningless paperwork to make it clear that everyone who’s actually responsible for some colossal fuck-up can never be shown to be guilty of any misconduct. This particular move has been learned by Reagan’s acolytes with the acumen of the Artful Dodger; they’ve internalized the lesson of putting everything in writing as a flak screen for the dirty deeds that are guided by voices from the comfy back rooms as if it was their personal religion. So deeply is plausible deniability ingrained in our culture that the idea that anyone in a position of power can, should, or will be responsible for institutional misdeeds seems like a quaint social custom of a long-lost fairy kingdom. Its last gasp was the Enron affair, when we at least pretended that someone ought to pay for systemic corruption; since then, corporate and government corruption has overleapt Enron like Superman hurtling the Daily Planet building, but the most we can hope to muster is that some bent financier has the decency to resign with less than half of his eight-figure bonus money.
This, in fact, might be the signature triumph of both Reagan and the Reagan era: the expert handling of the media (the Washington press corps has become so flaccid since the 1980s that [insert Viagra joke]), combined with the softening of public expectations, to the point that no one is ever expected to be responsible for anything. Man-made crimes from the handling of Hurricane Katrina to the botch-job of the Iraq War to innumerable examples of high-finance chicanery and the infinite failures of deregulation aren’t anybody’s fault. This nicely plays in with the Libertarian myth of capitalism as a sort of divine animating force, a holy wind that passes through our institutions and leaves behind boom and bust without reason or motive, and the market as a terrified boy-king who must be sheltered from bad news lest he collapse in a flood of salty tears that will scorch holes in the fertile earth. As long as you can expect no one to care whose fault these gargantuan screw-ups really are, it’s easy to sell that the economy isn’t the product of human beings at all, but something much like the weather.
Another bit of corporate jargon that hasn’t survived as well since the Reagan era is “message control”, which was almost instantly abbreviated and denigrated to “spin”. Not that the concept hasn’t thrived; in fact, modern Republicans are almost breathtakingly adept, except when sidled with a clown like Mitt Romney, of staying on point. They’ve just managed, thanks to the bottomless pockets of Rupert Murdoch and the evil genius of Roger Ailes, to continue practicing Soviet levels of message control while denying completely that they’re doing it. They’ve also given up to a certain extent the “coded language” grift, having discovered that in our increasingly Balkanized society, the base is perfectly happy to have you spell out your attacks in no uncertain terms, especially when they’re women, Arabs, or union members. It’s almost unthinkable that even a balls-out union-buster like Reagan would have vilified cops and firemen, or implied there was something distinctly un-American about earning a paycheck.
“Compassionate conservativism” was really more a product of the first Bush administration, and you can’t really blame them for dropping it like a hot rock, since they never believed it in the first place; it’s long been supplanted by “austerity” as we are now trained to think of any kind of compassion as a failure or a weakness. Even some of Reagan’s more abstract values have been tossed aside in the attempt to hate-fuck the middle class into the stone age; his legendary budget hawk pose was always just that, and he was smart enough, at least, not to start any wars where people might actually get hurt. His morning-in-America spiel was all well and good when our gravest enemies were fellow white folks and the economy was cranking out jobs like they were Big Macs, but the biggest change of the post-9/11 era was the discovery that it’s easier to scare people than it is to entertain them. And it’s no fun pushing the American Dream anymore when you can fit the entire nation’s middle class into a football stadium, and the rate of home ownership lags considerably behind such economic powerhouses as Bulgaria and Slovenia.
The old man liked to talk a good game about “negative campaigning”, too, but he just meant he found it personally distasteful and left it to his underlings. He knew how well it works, and his inheritors engage in it like it was morning catechism. One of the cutest trick plays his coaches developed was the concept of “shame” — that is, that liberals, hating America as they do, like to imply that their fellow citizens must be filled with it for carrying on the way they do. George H.W. Bush famously went toe-to-toe with Geraldine Ferraro over his invented claim that she said American soldiers killed by tourists “died in shame”, and an echo of his tinny yap sounded into the new millennium this week when Romney implied that President Obama thinks that wealthy businesspeople should be “ashamed of their success”. It’s a special blend of highfalutin nonsense and moralistic finger-wagging, but it doesn’t work that well if you’re weaving it out of clouds and delivering it in the most gutless way possible.
“Accountable governance”, the phrase Reagan used when he was talking to businessmen (he used “stewardship” when talking to evangelists), isn’t anything anyone wants to hear anymore except every so often to affirm its existence as a vague ideal like “flag”; the current do-nothing Congress and the Republican presidency that literally lost billions in Iraq wants nothing to do with accountability. (Not that the blame should be placed entirely at the feet of the G.O.P. this time; Obama’s administration is one of the least accountable in decades, and its support of the security state, extralegal imprisonment and assassination, and hostility towards the likes of WikiLeaks shows you how much they give a shit.) And “consent of the governed”, another one of Reagan’s vaguely technocratic catchphrases, is barely even worth mentioning; the last thing anyone in the modern Republican Party is interested in is the consent of the governed.
The party that calls itself the spiritual descendent of Ronald Wilson Reagan has done its best to extend the corporate dominance of politics into realty and far beyond language. While they may have mastered Larry Speakes’ big lie technique, where the falsehood becomes a truth by virtue of the lie making the front page of every newspaper in the country and the retraction being buried on page 12 a week later, that smacks of an older, more statist kind of propaganda. Their genius is to have learned that Reagan’s greatest lesson wasn’t anything he said or believed; it was the man himself. If you stick an empty suit in front of the voting public and fill it with only the highest quality of hot air, you can start it talking and everyone will pay attention, and forget all about how you’re emptying the vaults behind it. That’s the real Reagan legacy, and come November, we’ll see if its power is still as great.