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Progressive Opinion : Reagan’s Radical Conservative Agenda Haunts The US To This Day

Monday, April 18, 2016 13:22
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The devastating economic and social implications of Ronald Reagan’s radical conservative agenda are as devastatingly evident now, in 2016, as they were in 1981 after Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act. Reagan acted upon his ideological allegiances to “laissez faire”, free market economics almost immediately. When he became President in 1981, individual tax rates were as high as 70 percent. His first tax cut, the previously mentioned Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, slashed the top rate to 50 percent—and then a 1986 tax overhaul brought the top rate down to 28 percent.


Meanwhile Reagan increased social security tax rates from 5.08% to 6.06% focusing on hitting the economics of the most vulnerable working population. These social security increases brought to the treasury over $2 trillion in revenue and almost all of it, may have given away to the richest few in the nation as corporate welfare for the next few decades (not letting any crisis going to waste in order to do that).


During the Reagan years, the debt increased to nearly $3 trillion, which was approximately three times as much as the first 80 years of the century had done altogether. Despite the conservative myth that tax cuts somehow increase revenue, the government went deeper into debt and Reagan had to raise taxes just a year after he enacted his tax cut. As Alex Seitz-Wald described in a 2011 article, “Despite ten more tax hikes on everything from gasoline to corporate income, Reagan was never able to get the deficit under control.”

At the core of Reagan’s brand of economics – now commonly referred to as ‘Reganomics’ – was the idea that increased economic prosperity, which mainly benefited the highest earning echelons of American society, was the key to lifting people out of poverty. His belief in the conceptual argument that the economic pie of America should be enlarged, regardless of how the additional generated wealth was distributed, resulted in Reagan reducing spending on the AFDC and other targeted poverty programs.

Not only did unemployment jump to 10.8 percent after Reagan enacted his much-touted tax cut, but income inequality rose exponentially in the years that followed. In 1980, before Reagan assumed the office of the Presidency and implemented his regime of radical conservatism, the top 1% of Americans on average earned $110,427. By 1990, after around 10 years of Reaganomics, the average wages of the top 1% sky-rocketed up to $198,452.

And yet, while the richest Americans received a greater than 80% increase in their wages after Reagan’s tax cuts and gutting of government spending kicked in, the rest of the country on average earned $21,742 per year having previously earned $21,106. The rich got substantially richer with their wages increasing by over 80%, while simultaneously average American’s saw a mere 3% raise in their annual income levels 10 years after Reagan became President.

The most dangerous implication of the Reagan Presidency is not the short-term rise in unemployment, or the subsequent fall in living standards in the decade that followed. It is the fact that a man who was so fatally unsuccessful in pursuing a conservative’s ideal economic policy has shaped our political and economic dialogue to this day. Hailed as a god by conservatives, and an icon of fear by progressives, Reagan’s influence on American economic and social policy still looms large over the shoulders of legislators today.

In the context of the 2016 Presidential election, Reagan’s injection of his conservative, right-wing ideology into the political mainstream all those years ago, has still impacted the candidates today. The GOP candidates – Kasich, Cruz and Trump – have all individually raced to the media to draw similarities between themselves and Reagan, knowing the help it would offer them among an ultra-conservative Republican electorate. Even more worryingly, Reagan’s unbinding support for reducing the size of government has shaped what the Democratic party is today – a more moderate, less crazy GOP.

Why is that a man who failed abysmally – along with a fellow British free-marketer Margaret Thatcher – to prove the worth of conservative ideals and policies has become such an integral figure in American politics? Following Reagan’s Presidency, the Republican party successfully managed to make the policies pursued by Reagan the norm in American politics, thus moving the political spectrum to the right.

According to any objective political spectrum, Reagan would be situated on the far-right because of his positions on economic, social and foreign policy. And, in truth, in most western democracies today – such as the UK, Germany and France – Reagan’s agenda would be viewed as fringe and radical. Yet, in modern day America, Reagan would merely be a moderate Republican compared to Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

The GOP built on Reagan’s Presidency by making it seem as though extremely low taxes should be a give and the government’s size – as Grover Norquist put it – should be so that it can  be drowned in a bath-tub. Because of the effectiveness of the Republican party’s mainstreaming of right wing demagoguery, Democrats have struggled to ever win elections while running on a left-wing platform, and so have settled on being the more moderate party without displaying an real progressive principles.

The political proof that the Reagan Presidency still haunt us to this day is two fold. It has enabled the GOP to put the mainstream American politician on the center right, and to move towards the far-right themselves in their quest to emulate Reagan. Meanwhile, Reagan’s legacy in terms of how it has influenced progressives is equally as disturbing : he has made Democrats ashamed of their progressive roots – such as the New Deal – and forced them to work within a system where the opposition party has no connection with reality.

Reagan’s weak record of exacerbating inequality and sustaining high levels of unemployment is treasured by conservatives and respected by establishment Democrats. It is our duty as progressives to stop playing politics on the football pitch which was set by Reagan, and that is why Bernie Sanders is so important.

He doesn’t care about the fact that because of Reagan’s actions in the 1980’s the term ‘democratic socialist’ is seen as a oddity. He doesn’t care that the first rule of American politics is that you pledge to lower taxes, not increase them. He has no problem with stating that the US needs to stop continuing Reagan’s legacy and move towards becoming a social democracy like Norway and other Scandinavian countries.

Only when we recognize that Reagan made radical conservative policies acceptable and center-left policies unthinkable can we really make America’s future a progressive one. And if that means that we have to begin implementing some of our more “radical” policies – such as universal healthcare for all, free public tuition and raising taxes on the wealthiest in society – then that is what we need to do. Stop playing politics in Reagan’s arena, start playing it in the arena of reality.

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