In carrying out its reconstruction of the American Way of Life, the Reagan administration was remarkably thorough. Thus the administration’s zeal for deregulation led in the early 1980s to the dismantling of the Federal Home Loan Act of 1932 and the unleashing of Savings and Loan Associations to play with deposits that were insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). To fan the flames, the FDIC coverage was increased from $40,000 to $100,000 per account, something greeted by Reagan with “All in all, I think we’ve hit the jackpot” as he signed a catastrophic bill on S&Ls into law (the Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act). Not surprisingly, one soon had “zombie thrifts” investing in “junk bonds” and outright fraud. To cite Investopedia: “The S&L crisis is arguably the most catastrophic collapse of the banking industry since the Great Depression.” Indeed in ten years (1986-1995) some 1,043 out of the 3,234 S&Ls in the country failed. Big Government was resurrected for a time to pick up the bill, corporate socialism at work.
Reagan’s zeal for deregulation and an antagonism to Science itself contributed to his opposition to environmentalists and their pesky issues like acid rain – foreshadowing Donald Trump, he belittled scientific evidence as it suited him. The AIDS crisis was battering the country in the early 1980s but according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, “he [Reagan] wanted nothing to do with it.”
[Adapertio integralis: et ille Antonius et Publius ipse alumni lycei Regis High School sunt, Anno Domini MCMLVIII]
But, Reagan did attract the support of fundamentalist movements and pastors, currying their favor with opposition to the Theory of Evolution and promotion of teaching Creationism in schools. Such flirtation with fundamentalist religion would never have been countenanced under the WASP Ascendancy – the First Amendment and all that. However, though white and protestant, Reagan was not part of the old WASP world – his mother wasn’t “the right kind of protestant” and his father was an Irish Catholic; for his part, Reagan self-identified as a born-again Christian. Moreover, Reagan began the practice of nominating right-wing Catholics to the Supreme Court which has led to today’s situation where there are no justices raised protestant on the Court at all (Gorsuch is a member of an Episcopal Church now but his background is Catholic including graduation from Georgetown Prep).
Reagan was also instrumental in galvanizing the career of hyper-partisan Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich; Reagan even took Gingrich’s positions as the basic pitch for his re-election campaign – positions developed by Gingrich’s congressional group, the Conservatives Opportunity Society. Gingrich is notorious for bringing to Congress the paranoid partisanship that characterizes today’s Republican party – one more source of divisiveness we can trace back to Reagan. Moreover, the broadcast media can now be dominated by merchants of division like Fox News. It wasn’t always that way. There once was the Fairness Doctrine which required TV and Radio stations to provide non-partisan coverage of topics of public interest, based on the idea that a broadcast license was a matter of public trust. In 1987, the four member Federal Communications Commission (FCC) simply abolished the Fairness Doctrine (three Reagan appointees and one Nixon appointee). Congress attempted to override the FCC decision but the legislation was vetoed by Reagan. The emergence of the late Rush Limbaugh as a purveyor of untruth and conspiracy theories soon followed; Fox News and its ilk came a bit later. As much as anything else, this nullification of the Fairness Doctrine from the top down has created a centrifugal force that has broken the US up into a nation of silos – no wonder “E Pluribus Unum” is no longer the national motto.
Nancy Reagan played a significant role in the Reagan presidency: smart and stylish, a Smith alumna and a Hollywood actress. Ever regal, her first priority was to make the White House a much more glamorous place to live; her spare-no-expense approach did engender criticism but tony publications like House Beautiful and Architectural Digest praised her good taste. In addition to beautifying the White House, Nancy Reagan served as an unofficial advisor to her husband. Her own politics were solidly reactionary – her stepfather Loyal Davis was both a well respected neurosurgeon at Northwestern Medical School in Chicago and someone known for expressing staunch conservative views – socialized medicine being an especial bugaboo. In addition to Nancy, Davis had an influence on son-in-law Ronald Reagan: after their marriage in 1952, Reagan moved steadily to the right and, when the ultra-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater announced his 1964 presidential bid, Ronald Reagan became one of his most fervent campaigners.
Nancy Reagan is also remembered for her Just Say No campaign to reduce drug abuse among the young. She used her position as First Lady to great advantage garnering media exposure (e.g. starring in a two hour PBS documentary) and for political effect (e.g. her address to the United Nations). Though well intentioned and well publicized, it is not clear that the campaign had much of a positive effect in the end.
Her decision making was often abetted by astrological consultation. Her interest in astrology went back many years but was reinforced with the attempted assassination of Reagan in March 1981 which prompted her to engage well-known psychic Joan Quigley. (Keeping it all in the show-business family, Joan and Nancy first met when they both appeared on the Merv Griffin Show back in 1973!) It is all best summed up by a quote from Quigley’s book What Does Joan Say – My Seven Years As White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan: “Not since the days of the Roman Emperors … has an astrologer played such a significant role in the nation’s affairs of State.” When you add in people’s concern for Ronald Reagan’s mental health in this period, the mind boggles.
As this two term presidency ended, the new US power structure built around Big Capital and Big Military was firmly in place; Big Industry was relocating manufacturing abroad; Big Government was in retreat; Big Labor was history and the country was transported back to 1929 as the Wealth Gap took off – today, in the US with ever more tax breaks and tax dodges for corporations and the rich, the situation is eerily reminiscent of pre-revolutionary France where the aristocracy refused to pay anything like their fair share of taxes! And the Zeitgeist kept pace with the reallocation of riches. The Venture Capitalist and the Hedge Fund Manager became culture heroes. Michael Douglas earned an Oscar for his performance as “corporate raider” Gordan Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, the 1987 film that tried to add a new principle to the Protestant Ethic: “Greed is good.”
The depth and scope of the restructuring of America that the “Reagan Revolution” wrought simply cannot be overstated. It multiplied and deepened the divisions one sees in the country today, what with tax breaks and stark income inequality, deregulation and casino capitalism, indifference to the environment and to public health, outsourcing jobs and union bashing, the end of the Fairness Doctrine and partisanship in the media, demagogues and Congressional partisan warfare, new rigid sentencing laws and soaring incarceration, etc. – all of which got kick started in this period.
Spoiler Alert: Things only get worse in the three presidential terms that close out the century.
More to come. Affaire à suivre.