The Book Club

Reaganism Is Dead No Matter What

Dear Sean,

I think we are already in a transitional phase, whoever wins this November. It started with the Bush administration’s failed crusade to restructure Social Security in early 2005, gained momentum in the wake of Katrina six months later, and is now confirmed by the mutual collapse of the “Axis of Evil” strategy and the U.S. dollar (giving us $4-a-gallon gas). In explaining the end of the age of Reagan in your book, you stress the overreaching and now the exhaustion of the conservative establishment—a parallel to the bankruptcy of the liberal establishment in 1980. I would add that our country has changed dramatically in the last quarter of a century, and so has the world around us. One of the myths of Reaganism was that there existed an idealized 1950s America to which we could somehow return. That myth is now meaningless to most Americans.

This year, voter lists include people who were born after the Cold War and whose parents were just kids at the end of the Vietnam War. This is also a far more diverse country than the one in which Reaganism took root, and it is destined to become even more so. By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that “non-Hispanic whites” will make up barely 50 percent of the U.S. population. Cultural conservatism (which I see as a more central part of Reaganism than perhaps you do) fed off the anxieties caused by the great social changes of the 1960s. There is evidence that this reaction may be running out of steam. Last week’s decision by the California courts to permit same-sex marriages was met with nowhere near the controversy that greeted the Massachusetts courts’ similar conclusion in 2004. Younger Christian evangelicals, who are increasingly drawn to green and social-justice issues, may become a less dependable part of a conservative coalition.

And economically, though the United States remains an innovative powerhouse, we do not dominate international markets as we once did. Meanwhile our dollar is sinking, in part, because the world does not have the same incentives to prop up our profligacy as it did during the Cold War. (There are other investment safe havens.) These facts will force more Bush “41”-Clinton fiscal realism on future administrations. Finally, two of the greatest national security challenges facing us—terrorism, especially nuclear terrorism, and global warming—are essentially transnational. Effective counterterrorism requires multilateral police and intelligence cooperation, and, of course, no one country controls the atmosphere. These facts will demand more creative, multilateral, “reality-based” foreign policy.

My confidence in the likelihood of transformative political change, however, is not matched by any clairvoyance as to what will follow the current transition. A coherent philosophical alternative to Reaganism hasn’t yet appeared in either party, as your book makes clear. The Democratic Party hasn’t embraced a vision since the Great Society proved not to be great enough, fast enough, and John Maynard Keynes lost his mojo. [Bill] Clintonism, it seems to me, was less a philosophy than a strategy of governing in a conservative era. And Republicans appear to be debating first principles again.

The new era probably won’t see the big-time return of income redistribution, protectionism, and trade unions (the U.S. steel industry, for example, is enjoying a resurgence, but its payroll is not), and monetarism is still holding up. Meanwhile, the Roberts Court—the most lasting legacy of Reaganism—will likely force the states and Congress to lead the way in accepting social change, but that does not mean social change can be stopped. Besides a predictable comeback for concepts like Good Government, multilateralism, energy conservation, and a social safety net (redefined to mean universal health care), though, we should anticipate a new take, especially from the emerging Web generation, on social justice and responsibility in a time of info-globalization. But, then again, who knows for sure when any of this might happen? After all, an Indiana Jones sequel featuring sinister Soviets and a ‘50s model community is currently dominating the box office. Thank goodness we are not social scientists!