In November 1982, during a time of recession and 10 percent unemployment, American voters punished President Ronald Reagan and the Republican party, expanding the Democrats' majority in the House of Representatives by 27 seats.
Reagan is no ordinary President. He is our most ideological chief executive since Franklin Roosevelt, and he intends as consequential a revision of our political economy as did FDR. [...]The starting point for Nuechterlein's effort to divine that fate is his review of a pair of books published shortly before the midterms. The first, by a Heritage Foundation analyst and former Time Magazine writer named Burton Yale Pines, forecast the emergence of a "traditionalist" movement that would, Pines predicted, transform American culture as much as its politics (click here for a New York Times review of the same book). The second appears to have represented an interesting moment in the evolution of Kevin Phillips, the Nixon strategist who has since become a vehement critic of the right.
[Reagan's] political fate will resonate through our political culture with an urgency that no American will be able to disregard.
a revolt against dominant modernist liberal values in virtually every area of public and private life: economics, politics, education, family relations, religion, crime and punishment, and the intellectual world. He means defense of private enterprise; advocacy of growth over redistribution ... preservation of the nuclear family as a cultural norm (which implies, among other things, anti-feminism and repudiation of gay rights); defense of religious orthodoxy and opposition to secular humanism... and an overriding skepticism and fear of government plans to build, by rationalist enterprise, the good society.The mass evangelical re-entry into electoral politics had only begun recently, during the Carter years, so we might not be surprised that it apparently doesn't quite occur to Pines or Nuechterlein to give this phenomenon the label we know it by today: the Christian Right.
there are crazies, zealots, and fanatics on the right, and there is no greater obstacle to the progress of a responsible conservatism than the perception ... that the Right is inhabited only by inadequate and unhinged personalities.He criticizes Pines for the latter's "popular-front mentality" - the idea that "there are no enemies on the right." Conservatives will ruin themselves, says Nuechterlein, "if they do not distinguish themselves from the know-nothing fringe." One hardly need point out the irony of the fact that "no enemies on the right" was the concept behind the "11th Commandment" devised to protect Ronald Reagan himself. For the time being, at any rate, Nuechterlein takes comfort in the "apparent failure of right-wing dogmatists to achieve their objectives" in the '82 elections - especially given how organizations like the Moral Majority had inspired liberal fundraising efforts. The message he wants to reiterate is that "a conservative is not at all the same thing as a radical of the right." Twenty-five years later, unfortunately, that message is not so clear.
Reagan's program of budget cuts, monetarist restraint, and reduction in marginal tax rates ... held little attraction for the populist Right. That group was more interested in reductions in property taxes - the Proposition 13 phenomenon - than in progressive income tax rates, and its anti-business instincts ... made it suspicious of monetarism. [...]Phillips's pessimism lies in how he predicts this contradiction will resolve itself: with Balkanization, radicalization, and "revolutionary conservatism" demanding massive but illiberal government intervention in the economy, leading even to joint government-business central planning. Thus the European-style corporatism he fears, bearing the possibility of authoritarian politics along with it. What Phillips refers to is, essentially, a variety of fascism.
Moreover, the populist Right's generalized animus against big government did not preclude its expectation that the federal pork barrel would remain accessible to itself. While Reagan's middle-class supporters wanted cuts in welfare, Phillips argues, they were not prepared for the widespread reductions in social programs that the administration's policies called for.
Reagan has already brought a good deal more coherence into American politics than it has experienced in recent years. He has, first of all, united the conservative movement and turned the Republican party into a vehicle of that movement.And anyway, if social conservatives dislike the president's economic policies, there's no other place for them to go - certainly they won't turn to the Democrats, and any third party would be a waste of their time. Ronald Reagan, according to Nuechterlein, would remain firmly at the head of the conservative coalition. And there was no reason to believe that the project would fail:
The Reagan administration may wind up in ultimate frustration, but Phillips's Chicken-Little analysis simply comes to early in the game for us to believe it is anything but predetermined.Looking back, certain things do in fact seem to have been predetermined - not by Phillips's analysis, but by economic and political reality. Reagan achieved no consequential revision of American political economy - to echo Nuechterlein, the so-called Reagan Revolution ended in no realignment, no repudiation of the New Deal. As Michael Kinsley has described,
Federal government spending was a quarter higher in real terms when Reagan left office than when he entered. As a share of GDP, the federal government shrank from 22.2 percent to 21.2 percent—a whopping one percentage point. The federal civilian work force increased from 2.8 million to 3 million [even excluding Defense Department employees]. [...]For context, Kinsley compares this record to that of President Clinton, under whom the federal civilian workforce shrank, and federal spending grew at half the rate in real terms - and was reduced as a portion of GDP by twice as much - as it had under Reagan. Even during Reagan's term, monetarism was abandoned and Laffer Curves were quietly put away. All in all, Reagan managed some modest cuts in non-defense discretionary spending, but made no dent on entitlements and ultimately racked up massive deficits which forced his successors to raise marginal tax rates, thus wiping out the one Reagan legacy that conservatives have been able to cite as a great triumph of supply-side economics. And, of course, the rise in marginal tax rates under Clinton only fueled the economy.
And taxes? Federal tax collections rose about a fifth in real terms under Reagan. As a share of GDP, they declined from 19.6 percent to 18.3 percent.