Austin Dispatches
No. 143
June 28, 2011
e143fig3 This year’s centenary of Ronald Reagan has been a source of dissatisfaction to me. Most analyses or commentaries seem to miss the point, and the rest are still somehow off. That’s persisted for years.1 My previous attempts to assess him and his times, works, and legacy are especially insufficient.2 This issue is a new attempt to address some aspects of Reagan I think have been underexamined.

Reagan as Family Choice

The 1980 presidential election was the first I followed. Reagan was the overwhelming choice among the adults on both sides of the family. Reagan was one of the few politicians the family’s ever esteemed and the only one to garner such broad support.3 

In retrospect, Reagan took positions on the issues of the day that jibbed with my family’s, socially conservative and essentially libertarianistic in outlook, and articulated those positions better than my relatives, all of whom could express themselves quite well.4 They also liked that Reagan was good with a quip.5 My relatives grumbled about the state of a union beset by stagflation, social decay, and international weakness, created by the corporatist warfare-welfare, managerial-therapeutic state, and presided over by “that damned Carter,” as my paternal grandfather called him with amused disdain during a large family gathering in the axial summer of 1980.6

This developing familial consensus contradicted what I’d been gleaning all year from the media, school, and the general gestalt in my social democratic-leaning town in a social democratic-leaning state, at least among the “right-thinking” sort.7 And yet everywhere I went, in town or elsewhere, I saw a profusion of Reagan bumper stickers and lawn signs.8 My family eschewed the campaign paraphernalia, weren’t the type to be animated about politics, but they also clearly weren’t among the “right-thinking” sort, in a gleefully defiant manner. A family anecdote goes that an in-law to-be on Mom’s side of the family met the Baltimore relatives and remarked, “I never met so many Archie Bunkers in my life.”9

“What’s so bad about President Carter, anyway?” I asked as I accompanied Dad, my grandfathers and an uncle on a walk to a nearby store. The question prompted a polyphonic denunciation of Carter’s record

“Weren’t you and GrandMary New Deal Democrats?” I asked my maternal grandfather. 

“Yes, but people do change their minds with changing circumstances and new evidence,” he said. After a pause, he laughed. “Also, these government programs don’t seem like such a good idea when I’m the one who has to pay for them.”

Characteristically, John Updike captured this mood:
On the porch, when they’ve settled on the aluminum furniture with their drinks and Janice is in the kitchen starring at the dinner, he asks him, to show him off, “How’d you like Carter’s energy speech?”

Charlie cocks his head toward the rosy-cheeked girl and says, “I thought it was pathetic. The man was right. I’m suffering from a crisis in confidence. In him.”10 
Repeated across the country, this was a partial basis for Reagan’s massive victory.11 But that was just the prelude.

Reaction to Reagan

e143fig4 From Election Day 1980 through summer 1981 Reagan smacked the proponents, minions and beneficiaries of the corporatist state worse than Angie Dickinson in “The Killers.”12 The sting has lasted to this day and they’ve never forgiven him for it.13 The way they go on, you’d think they were seized in the night by some death squad, shot and left in a ditch somewhere. But the way they describe the era is not the way it happened. In reality, they were put on the defensive, forced by failure and defeat to justify their views and themselves to us, and forced to come up with new ideas.14

The vitriol directed at the administration and the era is understandable from the corporatists, who often had something tangible to lose in the changes. Intangibly, Reagan made them seem wrong, irrelevant, and worst of all, unfashionable. They lost touch with the Zeitgeist, and to fully acknowledge that required them to adjust, which in turn required them to question and thus demolish their pre-existing worldviews.15 

Criticism also emanated from a disparate collection of dissenters with less stake in the old status quo, including William Burroughs,16 Ishmael Reed,17 Frank Zappa,18 Gore Vidal,19 and Murray Rothbard.20  They provided trenchant social criticism during the premature fin de siècle of the 1970s, criticism that prefigured some important cultural-political themes of the Reagan years. But to maintain cultural cachet, or having succumbed to the Kultursmog,21 they were obliged to denounce Reagan and all he stood for, or supposedly stood for, even when it contradicted their own views.22 Maybe they didn’t think through the implications of their dissents.

Even Rothbard, the savviest among them, missed the mark about Reagan in his numerous feuilletons in the ‘80s.23 The thing to remember about Rothbard is that he makes a lot of sense – for someone who believed anarchy is viable.24 

e143fig5 The inability to zing Reagan wasn’t restricted to politics. Some of the best comedy purveyors, e.g., Mad magazine and “Saturday Night Live,” had also lost touch with the Zeitgeist in the early ‘80s.25 On this issue, Stephen Paul Miller wrote “If Reagan was a much less memorable target than Gerald Ford, it should be remembered that at times Reagan seemed more cutting-edge than ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”26 

The best-know category of critic was also the least politically incisive. The stereotypical Boomer yuppies of the ‘80s, several of whom I actually met during that time, navigated the Zeitgeist shift with aplomb, partly by invoking Reagan as a convenient excuse for their behavior, while their generational contemporaries used yuppies as convenient devil figures to “feel virtuous while reveling in the new decadence. In fact, guilt also became commodified, with the right amount of agonizing supposedly indicating depth.”27 I mean, these are the sort of people who acted snooty because they ate arugula salad.

Reagan as Radical

The variety of reactions delineated above show where the standard criticism fails, because most derive from the erroneous paradigm of “the left” (kratic and anarchic).28 

Such paradigm has much in common with that of the corporatist state and with orthodox Marxism, to where they’re mistaken for each other, although conflict between the three gave Reagan space to win political power.29 Steven F. Hayward has pointed out that the corporatists in the ‘60s were equivocal, defensive and insecure about their system compared to explicit socialism.30

Therefore, valid criticism of the Reaganites comes from their “right” (akratic and archic).31 In short, the Reaganites didn’t reduce the size and scope of government enough.32 

The administration’s record is, of course, mixed.  Moreover, at least two instances – the Military Cooperation With Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act of 1981, which weakened statutory prohibitions on using the U.S. military for domestic law enforcement,33 and the Iran-Contra blunder  – merited Reagan’s impeachment and removal from office.

Nevertheless, at their best, in word and deed, Reagan and his administration confronted not merely the Soviet Union and international communism,  but also the entrenched corporatist state in America, as only those with political power can.34

The corporatist state outlasted communism in part because several components, notably big business and the Republican Party, accommodated the Reaganites, and vice versa. The accommodations bought corporatism a few more years, but they were fragile and didn’t disguise the distress corporatism’s experienced since the late ‘60s.35  The distress is even more visible today and we may yet see its collapse in our lifetimes.

But Reagan wasn’t a bad guy, for a pinko.36 He pissed off the right people, including his corporatist supporters, and most of my teachers.37 He did about as well as someone still carrying the baggage of a New Deal Democrat could at a job for a libertarian.38 

Reagan as Tastemaker

Much of the animosity toward the dominant politics of the era from the groups mentioned above actually stems from misdirected cultural complaints. I’ve even read and heard people committed to the old order denounce the ‘80s with implications of some shadowy conspiracy, as though the Reagan campaign met secretly with couturiers, graphic designers and record labels to overturn the cultural style from the shabby, gross excesses of the ‘70s.39 

The denunciation extends to facets of the ‘80s whose practitioners thought they were opposing Reagan, though only they seemed to have seen it this way and got blamed regardless. In fact, much of the warp and woof of ‘80s style dates from the late ‘70s, but really started becoming noticeable to regular Americans by mid-1980. True, Warner Communications Chairman Steve Ross hired Drew Lewis, Reagan administration Transportation secretary, to run Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, which oversaw MTV, but that was after the ‘80s esthetics had been established for several years.40

And back then, a lot of people, not just opponents, expected Reagan would try to return the country to the 1950s. In one sense he did, because so many focused on that past, they ignored the distinctiveness of the present. 41

No, the cultural and political shifts coincided as they hadn’t for a while, for which Reagan gets the credit or blame without having done anything but been elected president.42

Reagan as Godfather of Punk

One cultural phenomenon where Reagan did have some thematic influence was in post-punk music, particularly hardcore punk. This has been underacknowledged, then and now, just because most people don’t know about it.43 

For every claim about the hardcore scene as a hotbed of cultural opposition to the Reaganite Zeitgeist, an equal counterclaim can be made that the punks were just the street-level Reagan Revolution in action, smashing their predecessors in popular culture like a rotting vegetarian quiche.44 Regardless of the myriad anti-Reagan ditties, the standard ‘80s punk was just as aggravated by aging flower children and their post-hippie New Age lifestyle, and by extension, the corporatist state they succumbed to, as anything associated with Reagan. Even more so, from my first-hand observations.

Reagan as Gray Champion

Reagan also received less ambivalent support from the young overall during this era, especially the two-thirds of our generation spared from the abortionist during the Kinderfeindlichkeit of the ‘70s.45 The 1980 campaign season began at the low point for a country whose inhabitants expected everything to get worse, and talked constantly of it.46 It was an outlook irritating to a child. If everything would only get worse, where did that leave us? At the time, Reagan and his adviser Milton Friedman were the only ones who spoke to the young, of the possibility of changing circumstances for the better.47 Many libertarians, including young libertarians, have difficulty with this message.48  

Reagan as Recession to National Retrospection

Curiously, the beginning of the Reagan years coincided with a decline of general interest in the Progressive Era, spurred by the Bicentennial49 and the the crisis of the ‘70s,50 with the 1981 movies “Reds” and “Ragtime” as sort of a period double-feature finale.51 During the ‘80s, the only people with continued interest in the period that spawned the corporatist state were hardcore libertarians and sympathizers.  But Reagan, derided as backwards looking, seldom referred to it.52 

The Reagan Legacy

At the end, the corporatists would prefer not to mention Reagan, either. Most of his administration’s successes were reviled and reversed by its successors, who seem to have regarded their constituents as the Davos crowd, rather than the American people.53 

Several analyses credit Reagan with saving and reinvigorating the Republican Party, but the GOP establishment has never forgiven him for it.54 I encountered this my first term in college – in the waning days of the Reagan administration. Then, I was a young Republican, though not a Young Republican. My only contact with them was breakfasting with them every morning in our dorm (and incidentally dating the best-looking woman in the group, but that's another story). After a while, I told them, “There's something I don't understand.”
“What's that?” the chairman asked.
“I've been listening to you guys on the issues, and I don't understand why you're Republicans.”
“What do you mean?”
“You guys sound like Democrats.”
A long, embarrassed silence followed, punctuated only by the clinking of tableware.55

Perhaps Reagan should’ve considered more seriously a proposal by conservatives in the mid-‘70s to head a new party built from the shell of the discredited Republicans.56 Throughout the ‘70s, it was easy to believe the GOP was dying.57 The corporatist state is still with us.

I set out to puncture the centenary hype of this dead harp politician from 30 years ago.58 During his tenure, I thought he was a weak-willed trimmer. But in retrospect, Reagan’s the only president in my lifetime who’s been worth a damn.59

1 Hayward, Steven F. The Age of Reagan, Vol. I: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980. Roseville, Calif.: Forum, 2001: xvii.
2 AD No. 19 (July 2000); AD No. 68 (Jun. 21, 2004); AD No. 136 (Aug. 10, 2010); Troy, Gil. Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 2005: 2.
3 Troy, op. cit., 37.
4 Doherty, Brian. Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. New York City: PublicAffairs, 2007: 418; Hayward. The Age of Reagan, Vol. II: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989. New York City: Crown Forum, 2009: 12-13; Reagan, Ronald Prescott. My Father at 100. New York City: Viking, 2011: 204; Shirley, Craig. Rendevous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2009: 21-23, 234-235; A Time for Choosing: The Speeches of Ronald Reagan, 1961-1982. Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1983: 183-201.
5 R.P. Reagan, op. cit., 197; Troy, op. cit., 76.
6 Dallek, Matthew. The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics, 1st ed. New York City: The Free Press, 2000: 241; Edsall, Thomas Byrne, and Mary D. Edsall. Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, rev. ed. New York City: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992: 101, 135-136, 202; Hayward, op. cit., I, xiv, xxvi-xxix, 497, 515, 519, 609-612; II, 12, 27-29; Shirley. Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Current, 2005: xxvi-xxvii; Shirley, Rendevous, op. cit., 4-5, 42-47, 53-54, 306, 542-543.
7 Dallek, op. cit.; Edsall & Edsall, op. cit.; Hayward, op. cit., I, xxvii, xxxii-xxxiii, 52-53, 55-57, 105, 130, 253, 292, 308; II, ix, 11-12, 55, 80; Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 497; Troy, op. cit., 35, 74-75.
8 “Invasion of the Brain Snatchers.” Saturday Night Live. NBC-TV, 19 Apr. 1980.
9 Eisler, Dan. “Young, Gifted, and Libertarian.” E-mail to Angela Keaton, 28 Sep. 2001; McCrohan, Donna. Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria: The Tumultuous History of All in the Family. New York City: Workman Publishing, 1987; The Wit & Wisdom of Archie Bunker. New York City: Popular Library, 1971.
10 Updike, John. Rabbit Is Rich. 1981. Rpt. Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy. New York City: Everyman's Library, 1995: 707-708.
11 Hayward, op. cit., I, 711-717; II, x-xi, 21, 24-26; Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 568-583.
12 Dallek, op. cit.; Hayward, op. cit., I, ix; II, 3, 49, 156-166, 182; Smith, Hedrick. The Power Game: How Washington Works. 1988. Rpt. New York City: Ballentine Books, 1989: xx; Stockman, David A. The Triumph of Politics: How the Reagan Revolution Failed. New York City: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986: 229; Troy, op. cit., 52-53.
13 Hayward, op. cit., II, 23-24; “The Reagan Legacy” The Nation 28 Jun. 2004: 3-5; Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 590-591; Troy, op. cit., 9.
14 Hayward, op. cit., II, 5, 24, 81; Troy, op. cit., 166.
15 Eisler. “The Chomskyites.” E-mail to Keaton, 13 Jan. 2002.
16 Conversations With William S. Burroughs. Ed. Allen Hibbard. Jackson, Miss.: U of Mississippi P, 1999: 177, 191-192.
17 Reed, Ishmael. The Terrible Twos. 1982. Rpt. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1999: 27.
18 Zappa, Frank, and Peter Occhiogrosso. The Real Frank Zappa Book. New York City: Poseidon Press, 1989: 298-299.
19 “The Second American Revolution.” 1981. Rpt. The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal. Ed. Jay Parini. New York City: Random House, 2008: 373-398.
20 Raimondo, Justin. An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000.
21 Tyrrell, R. Emmett Jr. The Conservative Crack-Up. New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1992: 155-157, 162-163.
22 Eisler. “Re: Austin Dispatches No. 39.” E-mail to Keaton, 2 Aug. 2002.
23 Hayward, op. cit., II, 3; Rothbard, Murray N. "Are We Being Beastly to the Gipper? Part I." LF Feb. 1982: 1-4+; Rothbard. "Ronald Reagan: An Autopsy." Liberty Mar. 1989: 13-22.
24 Doherty, op. cit., 268-270.
25 Hill, Doug, and Jeff Weingrad. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. 1986. Rpt. New York City: Vintage Books, 1987: Ch. 34-44; Reidelbach, Maria. Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991: 174-175; Shales, Tom, and James Andrew Miller. Live From New York: An Uncensored History of “Saturday Night Live”, rev. ed. Boston: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown & Co., 2003: Ch. 3.
26 Miller, Stephen Paul. The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1999: 10.
27 Troy, op. cit., 120-123; Yamasuki, Ju-Ji, and Noël Tolentino. “Yuppies.” Retro Hell, 251.
28 Hayward, op. cit., I, xvii; Mitchell, Brian Patrick. Eight Ways to Run the Country: A New and Revealing Look at Left and Right. Wesport, Conn.: Praeger, 2007: Ch. 2.
29 Cannon, Lou. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power. New York City: PublicAffairs, 2003: Ch. 1, 11-12, 14-18, 20-22; Dallek, op. cit., Ch. 8-10; Hayward, op. cit., I, Ch. 3; The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980. Ed. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1989: Ch. 7-8; Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 235.
30 Hayward, op. cit., I, 55-57, 82.
31 Mitchell, op. cit.
32 Perloff, James. The Shadows of Power: The Council on Foreign Relations and the American Decline, rev. ed. Appleton, Wis.: Western Islands, 1989: Ch. 11; Troy, op. cit., 80-81; 140-141, 176-177.
33 P.L., 97-86, 10 U.S.C. Ch. 10.
34 Hayward, op. cit., II, 51, 193.
35 Hayward, op. cit., II, 2, 5, 7-8, 10; Shirley, Reagan’s Revolution, op. cit., 92; Weaver, Paul H. The Suicidal Corporation: How Big Business Fails America. New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1988: Ch. 17.
36 Siegel, Larry, and Angelo Torres. “Gall in the Family Fare.” Mad Dec. 1971: 47.
37 Eisler. “Re: Let the Centennial Begin.” E-mail to Frank Rossi, 22 Jan. 2011; Hayward, op. cit., II, 22-23, 86-89; R.P. Reagan, op. cit., 9; Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 589.
38 Dallek, op. cit., 32; Doherty, 65; Hayward, op. cit., I, x; Reagan, Ronald, and Richard G. Hubler. Where’s the Rest of Me? 1965. Rpt. New York City: Karz Publishers, 1981:139-140; Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 8, 288.
39 DeCurtis, Anthony. “80’s.” RS 15 Nov. 1990: 59; Shirley, Reagan’s Revolution, op. cit., 89; Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 2.
40 McGrath, Tom. MTV: The Making of a Revolution. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1996: 96-97.
41 Hayward, op. cit., II, 26-27.
42  Hayward, op. cit., II, 29-31; Troy, op. cit., 50-51.
43 Reed, Ishmael. God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays. New York City: Garland, 1982: 125-126.
44 American Hardcore. AHC Productions/Envision Films, 2006; Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History, rev. ed. Ed. George Petros. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2010: 22-23; The Decline of Western Civilization. Spheeris Films Inc., 1981; Eisler. “Re: Has It Been 30 Years Already?” E-mail to Rossi, 1 Jul. 2010; Martin, Bradford D. The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan. New York City: Hill and Wang, 2011: Ch. 5.
45 Hayward, op. cit., 397; Shirley, Reagan’s Revolution, op. cit., 136, 341; Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 589; Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584-2069. New York City: William Morrow and Co., 1991: 324, 326; Strauss and Howe. 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?. New York City: Vintage Books, 1993: 68.
46 Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 289-290; Updike, op. cit., 707-708.
47 Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 10.
48 Doherty, op. cit., 614.
49 Jones, Jessy, and Bruce Elliott. “Bicentennial.” Retro Hell, 16-17.
50 Baritz, Loren. Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. New York City: William Morrow & Co., 1985: 349.
51 Ragtime. Dino De Laurentiis Co./Sunley Productions Ltd., 1981; Reds. Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance/JRS Productions/Paramount Pictures, 1981.
52 R.P. Reagan, op. cit., 4-5, 9, 11, 13, 44.
53 AD No. 141n22 (May 17, 2011).
54 Hayward, op. cit., II, 7-8, 10, 622, 639; Shirley, Rendezvous, op. cit., 12-14, 19, 21-23, 584, 590, 597-598; Troy, op. cit., 298, 308-317.
55 Eisler. “Re: Travis Republicans Concerned about Libertarians.” E-mail to TCLPActive,  26 Jan. 2005.
56 Hayward, op. cit., I, 448-449; Shirley, Reagan’s Revolution, op. cit., 34-38.
57 Hayward, op. cit., I, 505; Shirley, Reagan’s Revolution, 1-4, 28-29.
58 Eisler. “Re: LP Monday Message: How to handle Ronald Reagan?” E-mail to Wes Benedict, 23 Aug. 2010.
59 Eisler. “Let the Centennial Begin.” E-mail to Mike Ford et al., 20 Jan. 2011; R.P. Reagan, op. cit., 10.