February 6 marked the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, whom Republicans and conservatives continue to worship as a political god. GOP presidential candidates may differ slightly on this or that substantive issue, but they can all be reliably counted on to campaign as legitimate heirs to Reagan and his alleged revolution. Invoking the 40th president has become a rhetorical rite of passage for “serious” politicians on the right.Reagan worship, not surprisingly, suffers from serious historical amnesia and denial. Prior to George W. Bush and his gratuitous war in Iraq, Reagan could arguably be considered America’s greatest Constitutional criminal, far surpassing the impressive likes of Richard Nixon, for example. Reagan, recall, presided over the Iran and Contra affairs, so brilliantly documented by Lawrence Walsh, who doggedly pursued the Reagan felons despite—or rather because of—their utter contempt for the law. Stymied by Congressional Democrats, the Reagan junta financed and conducted its own private foreign policy by, among other things, selling weapons to Iran and raising money from oil producing states. The Sultan of Brunei alone reportedly contributed tens of millions of dollars to this rogue government pursuing anti-democratic policies throughout Central America. Reagan and his co-conspirators considered and placed themselves above the law.
To circumvent Congress’s power of the purse destroys the very notion of constitutional government. George Shultz knew how serious these crimes were. He feared that if word leaked out, they would all be hanged. Nothing of the sort happened, of course, and George H.W. Bush later pardoned, in a craven act of political self-interest, a handful of the conspirators. Iran-Contra was not Reagan’s only Constitutional offense. He also orchestrated his own little war, declaring a crisis in Grenada so he could deploy American forces triumphantly in the aftermath of foreign policy disaster in Lebanon.
Reagan’s penchant for domestic lawlessness and imperial violence finds no place in America’s official public memory. As the excessive mourning surrounding his death revealed, he is a figure to be canonized. Reagan’s much vaunted legacy is currently on display in Wisconsin (and other states) where public employees are being scapegoated by Republicans for the country’s economic problems. Reagan famously pronounced that government is not a solution to problems; government is the problem. Twenty-first century Republicans have aggravated Reagan’s legacy by making government workers the problem.Thus Wisconsin’s newly elected governor, Scott Walker, declares a fiscal crisis, passes new tax cuts anyway, and uses the occasion to denounce and attack not only the economic well-being of public employees but their social and political rights as well, more specifically their collective bargaining rights. Walker insists that the country is split in two between “haves” and “have-nots”: public employees and the rest of us, that is, taxpayers. Republicans claim that public employees have to share the collective pain of the country, that is, they have to do their part just like people in the private sector. This is an ugly ethos that passes with little or no comment.Accused of doing well (too well), public sector workers must be made to suffer like the rest of us (but not those benefitting from the Bush era tax giveaways, they don’t count here). Public employees who successfully bargain for wages, salaries, pensions, and health care (routinely making sacrifices for them) are thought to have gamed the system, while bankers and financiers on Wall Street who prosper through financial malfeasance not only keep their ill-gotten gains, they return to business as usual, thereby creating new dangers, while the country they nearly destroyed pays for the results. In the GOP narrative, if you work for Goldman Sachs or other financial players, of if you find yourself among the very wealthiest of Americans, you have somehow “earned” what you’ve got and should be able to keep it, including tax-payer provided bonuses. If you’re a public employee, you can’t be part of the American success story. The private sector represents the production of wealth and social creativity; the public sector is merely parasitical upon it. The National Security state was the one exception to the rule.This free market idolatry found its consummate spokesperson in Ronald Reagan. Republicans, then, not only enjoy a visceral hatred of public sector workers and unions; the people who work for the state and join unions don’t know they’re proper place in the order of things (who remembers PATCO, the air traffic controllers union Reagan gratuitously destroyed his first year in office, firing some 11,000 members and banning them from federal work for life?). The Republican agenda is about money and power, about who has a right to profit and rule, about who should be benefitting from and running things. The GOP is a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate and financial interests and the latter know what’s best for America.
GOP leaders, accordingly, demand that taxes be lowered and business regulation rolled back—ostensibly to reinvigorate the economy. The disconnection between rhetoric and reality is extraordinary. Do they really believe what they say? Or is this just thinly-veiled ideological fanaticism indifferent to consequences? Either way, it’s Reaganism, a struggle of memory and forgetting. Tax cutting and deregulation, paired with huge increases in military spending, didn’t work in the 1980s. They led to brutal redistributions of wealth and income, ruinous deficits, and a climate of corporate recklessness and criminality. George Bush perfected this philosophy in his eight years of disastrous rule. And it is a philosophy. Crippling deficits coupled with reduced revenues starves the state and forces huge, “necessary” cuts. Put differently: Republican dogma did “work,” after all. No wonder John Boehner’s House of Representatives, newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, and Florida, and Republican state legislatures throughout the country promise more of the same. The specter of catastrophic deficits is a Republican dream comes true. They can now demand cuts in much needed spending, especially targeting public works projects (New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Florida); they threaten mass layoffs and the militarization of the public work force (Wisconsin); they long to destroy the rights of the people to organize and bargain (more and more states); they will dispatch armed state troopers to round up dissident Democratic legislators (Wisconsin again) who refuse to cooperate; and they would shut down the Federal government if Democrats do not capitulate to their class warfare.At long last, however, there are broader signs of resistance. Obama’s jejune calls for bipartisanship notwithstanding, democratic forces may finally have realized they have enemies who pursue politics as a bloody undertaking. It’s also worth remembering that PATCO endorsed Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, which did not spare it when he became president and the union declared a strike in 1981 over conditions that were universally recognized as intolerable. Republicans may support striking workers elsewhere, as they did with Solidarity in Poland during the Cold War, but larger geo-political considerations rather than actual concern for working and middle-class people drive such decisions, which never extends to fellow citizens at home. Scott Walker proudly announces he is not “fazed” by the outrage he has engendered. So, by all means, let us remember Ronald Reagan, the “cheerful” patriot of American exceptionalism who embodies a social and political philosophy constituted by a vicious underside. His ressentiment-laden revolution is alive and well, as Wisconsin demonstrates, and needs to be opposed with at least as much vigor as it is prosecuted.