The Man Who Sold the World

Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America

by William Kleinknecht

Nation Books, 2009, paperback


Ronald Reagan, when the layers of myth are peeled away, was arguably the least patriotic president in American history.

He laid the foundation for a new global economic order in which nationhood would gradually become meaningless. He enacted policies that helped wipe out the high-paying jobs for the working class that were the real backbone of the country.

Ronald Reagan, when the layers of myth are peeled away, was arguably the least patriotic president in American history. He laid the foundation for a new global economic order in which nationhood would gradually become meaningless. He enacted policies that helped wipe out the high-paying jobs for the working class that were the real backbone of the country.

... Reagan propelled the transition to hypercapitalism, an epoch in which the forces of self-interest and profit seek to make a final rout of traditional human values. His legacy - mergers, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, globalization - helped weaken the family and eradicate small-town life and the sense of community.

The same government policies that fueled corporate mergers in other sectors propelled the increasing concentration of the media, which has resulted in a shallow and homogeneous presentation of the news that runs no risk of offending advertisers.

[Ronald] Reagan['s] constant attacks on the inefficiency of government, a rallying cry taken up by legions of conservative politicians across the country, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more money that was taken away from government programs, the more ineffective they became, and the more ineffective they became, the more ridiculous government bureaucrats came to be seen in the public eye. Gradually government, and the broader realm of public service, has come to seem disreputable, disdained by the best and brightest college students planning their careers. And the image of government has been dragged down even further by the behavior of politicians, who, imbued with the same exaltation of self-interest that is the essence of Reaganism, increasingly treat public office as a vehicle for their own enrichment.

[Ronald Reagan] disenfranchised the average citizen by inventing the soft-money machine that made large corporations the real power in Washington. He weakened the enforcement of labor laws and inspired union busters across the country by firing the more than eleven thousand striking air-traffic controllers and breaking their union in 1981. He empowered corporate executives to abandon the concept of loyalty to employees, shareholders, and communities and weakened the bargaining power of labor. He presided over the slow creep of commercial values into virtually every sphere of American Life.

Our nation was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment, the idea of a society based on reason and democracy, not the perquisites of monarchs and aristocrats. The Progressive era and the New Deal rested on those principles. They brought intellect to bear on the most serious problems of society. Reaganism replaced Enlightenment thinking with a corrupted Romanticism that portrays freemarket purism as an article of religious faith that is the real meaning of America. The answer to any of the economic challenges of the twenty-first century is to do nothing. Cut taxes, eviscerate all regulation of private enterprise, and trust the market to guide our fates.

With Reaganism has come an abandonment of all faith in reason and progress, and it has accrued manifestly to the detriment of the average America.

Our nation was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment, the idea of a society based on reason and democracy, not the perquisites of monarchs and aristocrats. The Progressive era and the New Deal rested on those principles. They brought intellect to bear on the most serious problems of society. Reaganism replaced Enlightenment thinking with a corrupted Romanticism that portrays freemarket purism as an article of religious faith that is the real meaning of America. The answer to any of the economic challenges of the twenty-first century is to do nothing. Cut taxes, eviscerate all regulation of private enterprise, and trust the market to guide our fates.

Reaganism replaced Enlightenment thinking with a corrupted Romanticism that portrays freemarket purism as an article of religious faith that is the real meaning of America. The answer to any of the economic challenges of the twenty-first century is to do nothing. Cut taxes, eviscerate all regulation of private enterprise, and trust the market to guide our fates.

With Reaganism has come an abandonment of all faith in reason and progress, and it has accrued manifestly to the detriment of the average America.

[Ronald] Reagan ... became an FBI informant... Reagan was so busy an informant in the next few years that the bureau gave him a code name, T- 10.

As head of the Screen Actors Guild, [Ronald Reagan] began to promote the agenda of Hollywood executives as much as the rank and file of his union, beginning with his efforts to keep communists from gaining influence in the motion picture industry. In November 1947, at the SAG meeting that elected him to his first full term as president, he supported a resolution requiring that no one hold office in the union without signing an affidavit denying membership in the Communist Party. He also joined forces with Louis B. Mayer and other studio executives to stave off government meddling in the motion picture industry by making sure Hollywood cleaned its own house of communist influence. Reagan's partner in is effort was Roy Brewer, a powerful Hollywood labor leader and rabid anticommunist who had succeeded John Wayne as president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, formed in 1944 to oppose not only communism but the New Deal, labor unions, and civil rights groups.

[Ronald] Reagan has denied that he ever named names before Congress or participated in blacklisting. He was always insistent that no blacklisting ever occurred (which might explain how, in 1984, he could justify appointing Brewer, whom a Los Angeles Times reporter once called the "darkest figure of a dark age," to a key labor post in his administration). But the release of [Ronald Reagan's] FBI file in the 1980s and other documentation ... suggests that he played a major role in driving "subversives" from the [movie] industry. With Brewer, Reagan served on a committee within the Motion Picture Industrial Council responsible for "clearing" those accused of communist ties, which of course meant laying the ground for the banishment of those who could not be cleared. His FBI file notes approvingly that Reagan told an agent that "he has been made a member of a committee headed by L. B. Mayer, the purpose of which allegedly is to 'purge' the motion picture industry of Communist Party members." Reagan appeared as a "friendly witness" before the House Committee on Un-American Activities ... and parroted the official statement of the producers that the government could make Hollywood's job easier by declaring the Communist Party an agent of a foreign power and banning its members from all occupations in this country.

[Ronald Reagan] shifted his core beliefs depending on what he became convinced was in his own self-interest at the moment. He was a leftist until he felt duped by Hollywood communists and became an FBI informant. He was a committed labor leader until his own interests required self-serving deals with management. He was a New Dealer while the philosophy was benefiting him personally, but switched to Republicanism when the social welfare tab was coming out of his taxes. Since his mind disdained nuance and complexity, he could believe passionately in whatever one-dimensional viewpoint he held at any given time, and his boyish enthusiasm and disarming manners had a way of winning over doubters. The man who saw big business as an unalloyed evil and government as the savior of the people could believe the complete opposite a few years later without ever entertaining the possibility that the truth might lie somewhere in the middle.

[Ronald] Reagan on the campaign trail in 1980 was indeed a true believer in a set of political ideas that vindicated his enmity toward government, accrued to his own personal wealth, and won him the admiration and financial backing of the Southern California country club set. The close-knit group of Sun Belt tycoons who bankrolled Reagan's rise in politics... They had little interest in social issues like abortion, affirmative action, or school prayer. Most were not even particularly passionate in their anticommunism. They viewed Reagan quite simply as a potential liberator for the entrepreneurial class... The rising class of entrepreneurs in the service sector, who wanted deep cuts in their taxes and government regulators out of the way.

Everything that was ostensibly part of Reagan's domestic agenda - ending handouts to the welfare queens, outlawing abortion, promoting school prayer, controlling crime, nurturing family values - became secondary issues whose value was mainly to divide the nation and distract attention from the coup d'etat that the rich were staging in Washington. While some of the traditional goals of the conservative movement would be achieved over the next two decades, they were not the central focus of the Reagan White House. The real business of the [Reagan] administration ... was business. And the way to carry out that business was to implement a plan for the disembowelment of the public sector.

The real business of the [Reagan] administration ... was business. And the way to carry out that business was to implement a plan for the disembowelment of the public sector.

Ronald Reagan ... tried to take America on a journey back to a Shangri-la that never existed. The Millionaire Backers, who knew that his presidency was just a money grab by the upper class, may have chuckled to themselves at how gullibly he bought into the lines he was reading. But Reagan was a true believer. His idea that America's greatness would be restored only if freed from the shackles of government unleashed one of the great philosophical misadventures of modern history... it brought seismic changes to American society, undermining our democracy, cheapening our culture, and reversing a seventy-year trend toward social progress.

With his simple pledge to "get government off the backs of the American people," Ronald Reagan set in motion a tidal wave of deregulation and privatization that has transformed the nation.

Reaganism, to the degree that it was anything but a coup by the rich, was perpetrated not in the name of facts and analysis but in the name of ideology, an ideology that our most revered national leaders - Lincoln, Wilson, the Roosevelts, Truman, and Kennedy - had long ago regarded as obsolete and downright disastrous when allowed to guide national policy.

[Bill Clinton] had pledged in his campaign to put people first, and end the Reagan-Bush neglect of the public sector. But he ended up buying into the Reagan mantra of deregulation... He quickly developed a rapport with [Reagan-appointed Alan] Greenspan, giving the free-market guru even more influence over White House policy than he had enjoyed in the Reagan-Bush years. And he made his chief economic adviser Robert Rubin, the former cochairman of Goldman Sachs and Company, a man who saw the world through the prism of Wall Street. Rubin, who was head of the White House National Economic Council in Clinton's first term and treasury secretary in his second, became fast friends with Greenspan, the latter once joking that the longtime Democrat was the best Republican treasury secretary ever. Together, the two men ensured that Clinton stayed the course of Reaganism on economic matters.

the fall of 1999, with the Clinton administration's backing and the enthusiastic support of Senator Phil Gramm, chairman of the Banking Committee, Congress approved the Financial Services Modernization Act, commonly known as the Gramm-Leach-Biley Act, which repealed Glass-Steagall. On the day his negotiators and Republican leaders reached an accord on the law, Clinton issued a statement predicting that consumers would be among the winners. "When this potentially historic agreement is finalized," he said, "it will strengthen the economy and help consumers, communities and businesses across America."

... The repeal of Glass-Steagall, the culmination of an effort that the Reagan administration had begun in its first months in office, did not turn out to be a boon for consumers or the economy, as Regan, Greenspan, Rubin, and Clinton had predicted. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prizewinning economist who had chaired Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in 2003 that his was a lonely voice in the administration opposing the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and his concerns proved to be on the money.

... Within two years after the repeal of Glass-Steagall, companies were inflating their earnings by billions of dollars. Brokers were happy to manipulate their analyses of these companies and lure in unsuspecting investors because millions of dollars in fees were flowing to their firms' investment-banking divisions.

... [At] the dawn of the George W. Bush era ... the ethos of Reaganism was once again enshrined as holy writ, so the stock market implosion of the millennium would not give rise to new banking regulation. Instead, the financial press continued to deify Greenspan, Rubin, and Reagan, and the country plunged headlong into the subprime mortgage scandal. Without the repeal of Glass-Steagall and other aspects of financial deregulation in the post-Reagan era, the financial supermarkets like Citicorp and Merrill Lynch would never have been allowed to engage in the kind of reckless mortgage lending that set off such a historic economic crisis.

The antecedents of the subprime mortgage crisis clearly lay within the Reagan administration.

The ideology that Adam Smith originated, Milton Friedman rejuvenated, Ronald Reagan made the new American consensus, and Alan Greenspan carried into the twenty-first century: the belief that the "invisible hand" of the market is never wrong.

In industry after industry in the post-Reagan era: Consumers are bought off with pennies - or led to believe they have saved money - while mergers cost thousands of people their jobs, wages plummet, service declines, and navigating American commerce becomes a daily affront to human dignity.

Any survey of the damage resulting from the deregulation of America is remiss without a word about the Reagan administration's moves toward removing all government controls over broadcasting, cable television, and telecommunications. Here we find the beginning of a movement that would pick the pockets of American consumers, penalize rural communities, and reduce radio and television to commercial drivel. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, a grand hoodwinking of the public that promised more competition and diversity in the media but instead wiped out whatever diversity was left, was the culmination of a process the Reagan administration set in motion in 1981.

Mark Fowler, Reagan's first chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was the spiritual father of broadcast deregulation. He came into office with a profound disdain for the notion that television and radio airwaves were owned by the public, a concept that had been the cornerstone of communications law since 1934. He felt the airwaves should be the province of corporations, whose competition in the free market would be enough to serve the public interest. "It's time to move away from thinking of broadcasters as trustees and time to treat them the way that everyone else in this society does, that is, as a business," he said. "Television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures. Fowler said he took it as an "article of faith that any successful businessman is meeting a public need." He was fond of cloaking himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, once boasting that he was "not the captive of any industry or industry in general. "I am a captive of a philosophy of government we call Reaganism."

These were not just idle words. In Fowler's six-year tenure as chairman, the FCC reviewed or abolished 89 percent of the regulations governing broadcasting. By 1987, the commission had done away with the fairness doctrine, which required broadcast outlets to cover both sides of public issues; the provision that required broadcasters to allow public figures equal time to respond to attacks; the requirement that politicians be given airtime around elections; and the rule that stations keep a file of all their complaints from the public. Fowler also dropped the FCC's enforcement of misconduct on the part of broadcasting license holders.

But Fowler's most important contribution to the homogenization of news and entertainment was his success in liberalizing the multipleownership rule. Since 1953, the holdings of any one broadcaster had been limited to seven television stations, seven FM radio stations, and seven AM stations. Fowler managed to raise that number to twelve and did away with the rule that stations be held for three years before being sold. This reform was enough to set off a round of mergers in the broadcasting industry, including Capital Cities' acquisition of the American Broadcasting Corporation, the first sale of a major television network. Radio and television stations were soon being traded like any other commodity, making a mockery of their status as trustees of the nation's airwaves.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, a sweeping deregulation of the communications, cable television, and telephone industries, was passed after furious lobbying and a blizzard of contributions to key members of Congress. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the communications and electronic industries gave $23.7 million to congressional candidates in 1995-1996. The result was that a bill profoundly skewed toward powerful interests was passed with hardly any public debate. "I have never seen anything like the Telecommunications bill," one career lobbyist told journalist Robert McChesney. "The silence of public debate is deafening. A bill with such astonishing impact on all of us is not even being discussed."

Sponsors of the law estimated that deregulation of the cable and telephone industries would save consumers $550 billion over a decade-$333 billion in lower long-distance rates, $32 billion in lower local phone rates, and $78 billion in lower cable bills. Instead, cable rates went up by about 50 percent and local phone rates by more than 20 percent, according to a 2005 study by Common Cause.

Even more devastating for our culture and national discourse was the further evisceration of limits on multiple ownership of broadcast stations. Companies had been limited to owning forty radio stations; the law removed any limits, enabling a company like Clear Channel Communications to own twelve hundred stations around the country. The Common Cause study found that $700 million worth of buying and selling of radio stations occurred the first week after the act became law.

The act also did away with the limit of twelve television stations per company and boosted the national share of audience for one company from 25 to 35 percent. In the wake of this provision, the nation saw a frenzy of mergers in the broadcasting industry that left five companies: Viacom, Disney, News Corp, NBC, and AOL-Time Warner-in control of 75 percent of prime-time viewing.

Higher telephone and cable TV rates, vastly increased concentration of the media, the death of local radio, the homogenization and dumbing down of programming, less broadcast coverage of news-all these emerged from the movement begun by Ronald Reagan, the man they called the Great Communicator.

With the gutting of antitrust enforcement, the slashing of corporate taxes, and the new permissiveness at the SEC, all the pieces were in place for an unprecedented consolidation of big business.

... Between 1982 and 1988, more than ten thousand mergers and acquisitions took place in the United States, affecting enterprises that together had in excess of $1 trillion in capital. The mergers swept America's best-known companies into a complex web of ownership that was well beyond the ability of the average consumer to comprehend. Most of the deals were financed with junk bonds and other borrowed funds. The "leveraged buyout," in which the acquirer buys the company almost entirely with borrowed funds and then repays the loan out of the acquired company's assets, became the cornerstone of the hostile takeover movement in the 1980s.

Corporate raiders and arbitrageurs, like Ivan Boesky, T. Boone Pickens, and Carl Icahn, became the new robber barons, preying on companies whose stock had been devalued by the straitened economy and scrappy overseas competition, so that they were ripe for takeovers. These predators would snatch up controlling interests in the companies and use them as gambling chips, flipping them for quick profits or even selling them off piece by piece like buying a car and selling it for parts... The predators of Wall Street walked away with huge fortunes acquired through pain to employees and
and communities as plants closed and many of the less successful buyouts ended in corporate bankruptcy.

Reagan's abandonment of antitrust enforcement, his corporate tax cuts, and his neutering of securities regulation only helped accelerate big business's growing reluctance to invest in America... Rather than sink capital into new factories and products that could compete with overseas industrialists, American business leaders preferred "paper entrepreneurism," the illusion of profitability through accounting, tax avoidance, financial management, mergers and acquisitions, and litigation.

Proponents of Reagan policies argued that mergers and acquisitions displaced inefficient management and created wealth by enhancing shareholder value in the acquired companies. But all this deal making was largely benefiting a small group of players on Wall Street, institutional investors, and savvy corporate executives... But small shareholders, small employers, and communities - that is to say, the part of America that Reagan often professed to care about - were the losers.

The predatory actions of the corporate raiders that the Reagan administration encouraged in the 1980s had made earnings and market share the central concern of nervous corporate executives... Company executives in the 1990s resorted to a quick and easy way to maintain market share: by acquiring other companies. Each of the acquisitions enabled the acquirer to create the illusion of increased earnings, which inflated market share and yielded new capital for the next acquisition.

But after the stock market bubble burst, these towers of speculation and accounting chicanery came tumbling down. The falling stock market revealed the inherent instability of huge companies hastily put together by mergers.

The merger of AOL and Time Warner was spectacular failure. On the day the merger was announced, the combined market capitalization of the two companies soared from $222 billion to $318 billion. Unfortunately, the succeeding two years brought nothing but plummeting income and shares. By the end of January 2003, the media giant's market capitalization stood at $62 billion, and it was paralyzed by huge losses and $26 billion in debt.

Ronald Reagan completed the mission that his Millionaire Backers laid out for him ... the infusion of commercial values into virtually every sphere of American life. Big corporations now have a sway over our culture that would have appalled Adam Smith or Calvin Coolidge, perhaps even Ronald Reagan himself.

Reagan acted as if the 1980 election, in which he gained only 50.7 percent of the ballots cast, in the lowest voter turnout in thirty-two years, gave him a mandate to grant big business an unprecedented entrée into the lives of Americans. It was not just the tax cuts and deregulation that gave corporations new power. The administration adopted a series of policies that received little attention at the time but served the express purpose of giving corporate America a much larger sway over our culture.

Americans now work more hours on average than our counterparts in any other developed nation, for reasons closely linked to the Reagan Revolution: the stagnation of middle-class wages and the insecurity of corporate employment.

In Reagan's speeches, the plan for corporate hegemony was always hidden behind paeans to the good old-fashioned inventiveness and entrepreneurial instincts of Americans, as if we were still a nation of artisans and small-scale capitalists, not the epicenter of a global oligopoly where corporations have no real allegiance to any single country.

Cyrill Siewert, the chief financial officer at the Colgate-Palmolive Company

The United States does not have an automatic call on our resources. There is no mindset that puts this country first.

From his days as the governor of California, Reagan had been harping on the idea that sustaining the poor and healing the sick should be the responsibility of private interests, not the government.

... Nonprofit institutions, many of which were on the brink of insolvency because of the [Reagan] federal budget cuts ... lined up to press corporate America for handouts.

.. Increasingly, nonprofit institutions, particularly those acting as the custodians of our culture, began to see corporations as partners, and corporate values bled into their activities. Commercialism and corporate advertising became a standard accoutrement of cultural events.

... The values of the Reagan administration made it socially acceptable for corporate executives and board members of cultural institutions, even those not losing federal funding, to see their destinies as intertwined.

an analyst of corporate philanthropy told the New York Times

Higher education and the arts are visible, uncontroversial and closely lined with the class interests of those giving out the money. But what can a homeless hungry person do for a corporation? He doesn't work at the company, he doesn't buy its products and his good will won't do the corporation much good. That's the real reason why most corporate money doesn't go to poor people.

Reagan bore direct responsibility for the corruption of the nonprofit sector now intertwined with for-profit affiliates and suffused with commercial values that its mission of serving the poor, providing health care, or upholding our culture is often hopelessly compromise Many spheres of American life that by tradition had been painstakingly shielded from commercial manipulation would increasingly be subject to the caprice of the marketplace desperate for funding in the wake of Reagan's deep budget cuts, major nonprofit institutions across the country answered the siren call of the corporation. in the Darwinian struggle for survival that followed the Reagan administration's budget cuts, a huge number of nonprofits closed their doors, and too many of those that remained inevitably absorbed the private-sector values of their new sponsors often at the expense of their core mission.

Large nonprofits are now often indistinguishable from for-profit corporations with huge executive salaries, sprawling office complexes, and high-priced lobbyists. Many of their operations are wedded to for-profit affiliates, and yet they are still exempt from taxes.

An exhaustive study by the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1993 found the nation's nonprofit hospitals devoted only 6 percent of their expenditures to caring for the poor, while diverting hundreds of million of dollars into commercial affiliates like hotels, restaurants, health spas, laundries, marinas, and parking garages.

Charity care in hospitals has declined dramatically even as beds go unfilled, and medical equipment and personnel sit idle. A 2001 study found that 350,000 hospital beds, or one-third of the nation's total, are empty on an average day, while millions of people are denied charity care.

It took Ronald Reagan only a few short years to reverse decades of efforts by reformers to bring honesty and accountability to the federal government... The right-wing ideologues and former corporate executives who larded the top layers of government in the Reagan years made a mockery of his promises to reduce government waste while preserving programs for the "truly needy." They were not wired to think in terms of democracy and the common well-being of Americans. Like their patron, they worshipped at the altar of self-interest. They had grown used to rationalizing their greed as the sacred ground of free-market economics. In their view, men like themselves had built this country with their relentless acquisitiveness, and they saw no reason to change their ways once they were appointed to public office. They would simply use government as an extension of their business interests.

Their mind-numbing disregard for the people of this country is well documented, although it seems to have disappeared from the public discourse and it is inexplicably never mentioned as part of Reagan's legacy.

By the end of Reagan's two terms, 138 members of his administration had been convicted, indicted, or investigated for criminal activity, a record of graft that far surpassed even the Nixon, Harding, and Grant administrations, Reagan's closest competitors in the sweepstakes for the most corrupt presidency.

Behind the scandals that enveloped the federal government in the 1980s was a new breed of public servant that [Ronald] Reagan ushered into public life, one whose interests lay in serving not the public but the coterie of Republican contributors and wealthy businessmen who really mattered to the Reagan Revolution.

The ethos that Reagan transported to Washington was the contempt for government and exaltation of self-interest.

Reaganism [was] the movement that decried government waste while allowing dishonest public officials and their corporate allies to squander billions of dollars of the public money.

[The Reagan] administration may have been the most scandal-ridden ever, his policies may have offended JudeoChristian values by blatantly favoring the rich over the poor, his aides may have lied to Congress, circumvented the Constitution, and regularly uttered phrases brimming with bigotry and contempt for democracy. And yet Reagan continued to be regarded by a large portion of the public as a man of pristine values.

By the very words that he repeated throughout his first campaign - "Are you better off than you were four years ago?' [Ronald Reagan] exhorted Americans to think of themselves, not their country. He also transmitted that ethos to the people who made up the Washington establishment: the elected officials, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and reporters. And ultimately the ethos bled into society at large. It is no accident that what is known as the Decade of Greed coincided with the Reagan presidency.

[The] disdain for ethics is a huge part of [Ronald] Reagan's legacy... The scandals of his administration were almost entirely ignored in the reminiscences of his presidency that appeared after his death. The question all the commentators should have been asking was quite simple: Could Reagan really have been a good man, deserving of the reverence he has been given by so many Americans, if his administration was steeped in such a miasma of corruption?

Washington was once a cordial place where politicians from rival parties respected each other's views and socialized at the end of the workday. But the Reaganites brought a new breed into the capital, whose credo was to mock the enemy and win at all costs.

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The election of Ronald Reagan opened an era of mediocrity in the Congress. Dozens of candidates whom all of Washington recognized as unfit for the job were elected as senators and representatives on Reagan's coattails. And a handful of incumbents well known for their political extremism or slippery ethics, like Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and Jesse Helms, suddenly had enormous influence, key committee chairmanships, or both. The new crop of lawmakers were so slavish in their devotion to Reagan's policies that they were dubbed the "Reagan Robots.

Anyone looking for the antecedents of the Red State-Blue State divide in America need look only to the style of governance Reagan introduced in his first term. To convince rural and blue-collar whites to support his elitist agenda, Reagan relied on a politics of paranoia and distraction, establishing what would become known as wedge issues as a cornerstone of conservative rule. In his stump speeches Reagan never mentioned his real plans for the country: the selling of national parks, tax cuts skewed toward the rich, the deregulation of the financial industry, the gutting of environmental enforcement, or the promotion of mergers between companies. Instead, he spoke broadly of attacking big government and, more than any president before him, distracted attention from his real agenda by focusing on controversial issues that his handlers knew would drive a wedge between traditional Democratic constituencies.

Progressive commentators have often marveled at how gullible Americans are in not seeing through [the] blatant manipulation of their prejudices.. But they underestimate the power of the propaganda that the Reagan administration unleashed on the country. The first plank of this strategy was an effort to sharply curtail the people's right to know. The Reagan administration moved on a wide number of fronts to reduce the amount of information that the public receives from the federal government.

While reducing the level of information available to the public, the [Reagan] administration went further than any previous administration in its efforts to deceive and manipulate the press... Reagan's loathsome treatment of the press, his blatant scripting of events, his endless falsehoods, and his constant distortion of reality were out in the open and forever changed the way press relations would be handled in the capital.

Reagan's presidency was the first to fully adopt the corporate model of public relations in its communications with the public... no administration before Reagan's extended these techniques beyond the campaign and into the realm of governance, packaging its message and selling its programs in precisely the same fashion that a corporation might push cars or toasters.

Leslie Janka, a deputy White House press secretary under Ronald Reagan

The whole thing was PR. [The Reagan Administration] was a PR outfit that became president and took over the country. And to the degree that the Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget, run foreign policy and all that, they sort of did it. But their first, last and overarching activity was public relations.

In the Reagan White House, the engineering of consent was accomplished in part by manipulation of the press. Michael Deaver, David Gergan and other media strategists made it their goal every morning to control that day's story. They would develop a "line of the day" and push it at the press corps, usually scheduling a highly visual event that would please the television networks. The effort was extremely successful in setting the agenda for the media, which spent little time analyzing the implications of Reagan's sweeping transformation of federal policies.

Michael Deaver in his memoirs

Ronald Reagan enjoyed the most generous treatment by the press of any president in the postwar era. He knew it, and liked the distinction.

The last thing [the Reagan Administration] wanted the public to find out was that Reagan, by the time he was elected president, could articulate few political ideas beyond his disdain for communism, taxes, and big government. But it was the very simplicity of those beliefs that made him the perfect pitchman. Thus we have Ronald Reagan in his speeches speaking in simple platitudes that often cloaked the real intentions of the administration, intentions that he never completely understood. He would not tell the American people that his administration planned to gut environmental protections or drastically reduce business taxes or set off a rash of corporate mergers.

Every president who followed [Ronald] Reagan would be squired by image consultants and pollsters; the Washington press corps would not be informed of the government's real activities but distracted and manipulated; speeches would be filled with meaningless drivel; and the public would come to regard politicians as no more worthy of trust than used-car salesmen.

The last two decades have seen a rollback of civil liberties and a dramatic empowerment of police in the name of lighting criminal threats that seem to shift with every political season. Reagan pledged to take government off the backs of the people, but for many Americans, that government is more intrusive than ever.

With right-wing politicians and their media allies regularly stoking the public's paranoia over drugs or carjacking or kidnapped children or abusive day-care centers or terrorism ... citizens are frightened into giving up liberties jealously guarded by previous generations of Americans.

The entire landscape of criminal justice in America was shaped by Ronald Reagan. The prison-building boom, the exponential increase in the number of Americans behind bars, the billions poured down the drain in the so-called war on drugs, the racial-profiling scandal on the nation's highways, the attacks on habeas corpus and the exclusionary rule, the exaggerated hero worship of the police officer - all of these can be laid at Reagan's doorstep. The law-and-order debate in America has always been a spawning ground for demagoguery, but the forces of reason and dispassion had the upper hand for much of the middle decades of the last century. Reagan helped make sure that criminal justice questions would close out the century steeped in hysteria. Since he established crime as a potent wedge issue, politicians across the country have been falling over one another to press for tougher criminal statutes, whether they make sense or not.

[George HW Bush] escalated Reagan's war on drugs, hiring thousands of new federal agents and, for the first time, creating a federal death penalty for crimes having nothing to do with national security. Bill Clinton also recognized a political winner when he saw it and adopted the Reagan-Bush approach as his own.

John Adams

Commerce, luxury, and avarice destroyed every republican government.

The discrediting government as a legitimate and) meaningful presence in the lives of Americans, Reagan repudiated the very concept of national leadership. By exhorting Americans to place self-interest above all, he undermined the spirit of sacrifice and the possibility of a common effort to solve our most pressing national problems.

The proportion of American families living in poverty in the United States dropped from 17.9 percent in 1963 to 10.9 percent in 1970, the period encompassed by Johnson's Great Society programs. In the early 1960s, few among the poor and elderly had health insurance, but Medicaid and Medicare have brought medical care to hundreds of millions of Americans. Johnson steered federal aid to local school districts for the first time and made higher education possible for millions of poor and working-class students with the help of federal grants and loans. Public broadcasting, funding for the arts, environmental enforcement, Head Start and child nutrition programs, millions of acres of national parks, and the National Institutes of Health are all part of the Great Society legacy.

Franklin Roosevelt

If [a government program] fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

[Ronald] Reagan was unsuccessful in gutting all of the New Deal and Great Society programs - he criticized almost every one of them at one time or another in his career - but he ensured the failure of any proposals in Washington over the next two and a half decades to improve the lives of the poor.

[Ronald] Reagan's broad swipes at the federal budget created a momentum that would last long after he left office. He virtually took Washington out of the business of promoting the welfare of its citizens. No subsequent administration has proposed any serious programs to rebuild the cities, house and educate the poor, or shore up the nation's infrastructure, let alone adopt an industrial policy.

The Age of Reagan will not be erased by empty promises of change followed by business as usual. It will have passed only when our leaders regain a sense of national purpose and contemplate real public investment in science, infrastructure, education, and job training-investment in the people of America.

... It seems vaguely utopian to speak in such terms, but that only shows how far Reagan pushed the country to the right. Not long ago these were the enunciated policies of the federal government, fully accepted by centrist politicians, not just those on the left. Reagan's demagoguery was so skillful that these policies were virtually banished from public life.

Something went horribly wrong on election day in 1980, the day our country was turned over to mean-spirited religious zealots, thinly veiled racists, law-and-order extremists, warmongers, and a class of people shamefully willing to act as handmaidens of the wealthy at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

Ronald Reagan page

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