Two Historians, One Hard Task: Unraveling the Riddle of Reagan

The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan, by John Ehrman. Yale University Press, 296 pages, $27.50.

Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980’s, by Gil Troy. Princeton University Press, 417 pages, $29.95.

Although their desire to honor him still stops on a dime, even his detractors concede that Ronald Reagan was the most consequential President of the United States in the second half of the 20th century. Reagan dominated the national conversation, reviving Americans’ patriotism and their optimism about the future. He legitimized and institutionalized conservative policies and politics.

But was he great? Did the “Reagan Revolution” make the nation more secure and prosperous, or less just and more unequal? Did the “Man from Glad” just happen to be there when oil prices plummeted, liberalism ran out of gas and communism collapsed?

Concentrating almost exclusively on the economy, John Ehrman, author of The Rise of Neoconservatism (1995), argues that in substance as well as in style, Reagan was a vast improvement over his predecessors in the White House. A pragmatic incrementalist, reluctant to challenge the limits of his popular support, Reagan advanced internally consistent and coherent free-market ideas. They helped usher in a highly competitive, technologically oriented society, an increase in real income that was twice as great as economists believed at the time, and a rise in consumption that “brought more enjoyment and comfort into people’s lives.”

Inheriting stagflation from Jimmy Carter, Reagan slashed income taxes and capital gains, supported the tight money policies of Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker even when they induced a recession, and deregulated large sectors of the economy. With the House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats, he left middle-class entitlement programs largely intact. Uncertain about the impact on the economy of tax cuts, Mr. Ehrman is rhapsodic about deregulation, shrugging off the savings-and-loan debacle as bad execution of a basically sound policy. The breakup of A.T. and T., he claims, laid the foundation for the boom in telecommunications. I.R.A.’s and the deregulation of brokerage houses sent stocks up, up and away. Most importantly, through the threat of merger, acquisition and increased competition, deregulation of the market for corporate control promoted efficiency, capital investments in technology and greater productivity. Between 1980 and 1988, the American economy generated 18 million new jobs, many of them well-paying, while losing only two million. The economy produced $20 trillion of new wealth. Ballooning deficits, which made a laughing-stock of the supply-siders’ Laffer Curve, Mr. Ehrman suggests, didn’t matter all that much. Reagan’s re-election, therefore, “was not a triumph of slick and empty showmanship”; voters responded rationally to Reagan’s program of prosperity through lower taxes, regulatory restraint and technological innovation.

Like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Ehrman spends most of his time in the winner’s circle, with well-educated suburban professionals. He lists those left out of the economic expansion-union members, manufacturing employees and middle managers-and then maintains that the 1980’s workplace “almost always treated most people more fairly than in the past.” He acknowledges that the poor didn’t gain ground during the decade, then hurries on. He doesn’t qualify his encomiums to the workplace by analyzing the grotesque-and still growing-disparity between the income of C.E.O.’s and those of entry-level employees, by far the largest in the industrialized world. Nor does he dwell on the increasing concentration of wealth: In 1989, the top 1 percent of households in the United States were worth more than the bottom 90 percent.

The Democrats pounded away at “the fairness issue,” but couldn’t get traction because tens of millions of Americans were better off then they had been eight years before and had no interest in glum “zero-sum” solutions. Since they were not nearly as blue as the Democrats, they turned Republican red and looked more to markets and less to government to address their needs. Mr. Ehrman concludes that Reagan’s stewardship didn’t actually amount to a revolution-but that the changes in the economy, society and politics of the United States were far-reaching indeed.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, agrees that Reagan “earned the bragging rights” for the boom of the 1980’s. He “helped restore an idealism and entrepreneurial can-doism central to the American spirit.” To be sure, Paul Volcker was a Carter appointee; Alfred Kahn had deregulated the airlines and trucking in the 1970’s; tax revolts were spreading in the states, starting with Proposition 13 in California, before the Gipper’s glamorous inauguration; and-no thanks to the President-OPEC provided fuel for high-octane, low-inflation economic growth. Without his image makers, Mr. Troy adds, Reagan “would have sunk under the weight of his rhetoric.” Nonetheless, in the domestic arena and on the world stage, “it takes great skill to turn dumb luck into lasting good fortune.”

With a year-by-year analysis of the 80’s, set in the context of popular culture, Mr. Troy measures the social and cultural consequences of Reagan’s free-market agenda. Optimism, individualism, consumerism and even hedonism promote prosperity. But they can-and Mr. Troy believes they did-dilute a sense of community and civic virtue, devalue a nation’s social capital, and accelerate the descent into alienation and cynicism.

Mr. Troy’s Reagan presided over a tug of war between libertinism and traditional morality, and did little either to arrest the decade’s drift, decay and decadence, or to allay the anxiety of Americans seeking assurance that eternal verities could survive the ravages of relativism. Tough talk about crime, drugs and abortion boosted the President’s approval ratings, but, “to the conservatives’ dismay, Reagan dodged most of the cultural fireworks.” In fact, by undermining collective mores, he actually advanced some of the 1960’s values he loathed.

Mr. Troy credits Reagan’s individualism with encouraging tolerance and diversity. However, combined with 60’s-generated antipathy to authority and tradition, unfettered individualism “became particularly toxic.” This was the lesson of Donald Trump and Gordon Gekko: Look out only for No. 1. According to William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute, Reaganism encouraged “the view that hunger in America is merely anecdotal, that the homeless are homeless by choice, and that only the morally unworthy have been hurt by the Administration’s policies.”

Those who succumbed to the President’s charms, who benefited from the boom, who bought Jane Fonda’s exercise tapes, still worried that it wouldn’t last. Where as John Ehrman observes a “striking” absence of discontent in the 80’s, Gil Troy notes that Americans felt overworked, isolated, on a treadmill: 59 percent of them experienced stress at least once a week; 60 percent felt alienated and powerless; 82 percent admitted they would engage in insider trading of stocks. Meanwhile, deregulation unleashed shrill, polarizing, pornographic “shock jocks” like Howard Stern, and the “infection spread from low culture to high,” further undermining the nation’s moral discourse and institutions.

Ronald Reagan didn’t invent the 1980’s, and in his zeal to be balanced, Mr. Troy isn’t always certain when to give credit, when to blame him and when to wrap him in Teflon. “Most of the problems troubling America in the 1980’s predated Reagan,” he notes, “and outlasted him.” Reaganites will surely dissent with the second half of this proposition; and Reagan-nots with the first half.

An amiable but remote man, a great communicator who reconciled apparent contradictions, a skilled politician who delegated too much, a Cold War hawk with an olive branch in his mouth, a right-wing ideologue who looks like a centrist when viewed from behind the Bushes, Reagan remains our national Rorschach test, a good guide to what we think about the issues of our time.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.