One of history’s great puzzles: what did people ever see in Ronald Reagan and the politics of selfishness?

The United States suddenly changed directions in economic policy about 1980 and in doing so transformed itself from a country that had a fair distribution of wealth to one in which the lion’s share of wealth now goes to a very small number of people.

The sea change affected everything. Our basic ideology changed almost overnight from looking to government to solve problems to distrusting government, from liking government intervention in the economy to preferring a deregulated free market with no government regulation. The “new Frontier” credo of asking “not what your country can do for you” withered, replaced by the politics of selfishness, that absurd notion that if everyone seeks his or her own selfish good, the overall community will prosper.  Seeking the good of the self served as moral justification for lower taxes and the resultant hording of wealth by the ultra-wealthy.

Although historians, such as Judith Stein in Pivotal Decade, have detected the first inkling of the new way in the mid and late 70’s, the election of Ronald Reagan serves as the symbolic turning point, the watershed moment when America became a harsher, less generous, more selfish country.

What made Reagan and Reaganism so attractive? I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately, given the current political environment in which I see Reagan’s disciples preventing the United States from addressing our severe economic contraction. I’ve read a lot of books on the 70’s and the post-war era over the past few years. I also have my memories of living my 20’s during that decade, although as it turns out, because I did not have a driver’s license until 1979 and did not own a car until 1981, I missed the central traumas of the decade, the two energy crises.

Reagan’s economic nostrums had been around for decades, serving as the rightwing’s alternatives to Roosevelt’s New Deal. All the principles of Reaganism were kept alive by the John Birch Society and a few conservative think tanks during the liberal post-World War II era.  It’s amazing to think that the 50’s Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was to the left of today’s Democratic President Barack Obama on economic matters. What a dark time that was for the right.

Why then did the right’s darling Ronald Reagan suddenly seize power in 1980?

A 20th century nation is far too complex to make a sea change for one reason.  I have identified three distinct causes that can help to explain why Americans embraced Reagan and the politics of selfishness in 1980:

  1. As Michael J. Graetz details in The End of Energy, the need to address inflation and two energy crises turned all the U.S. presidents of the 1970’s into scolding nags. Jimmy Carter is famous for turning off the country by blaming its malaise on the people themselves, but Nixon and Ford, too, asked Americans to make sacrifices that they didn’t want to make. By contrast, Reagan was optimistically touting a “brand new day in America,” a rose-colored vision of infinite growth without limits or any inconvenience to anyone. I think after 10 years of being told about the limits of growth, people were ready for the smile and the easy answer.
  2. Corporate America was facing a large increase in the cost of fuel, and was now willing to listen to the anti-union and free trade proposals that the right had broadcast for years. The idea, which Judith Stein details in Pivotal Decade but never comes out and expresses explicitly, is that to offset the increase in energy costs corporations wanted to lower labor costs. Thus the attraction to Reagan’s assault on unions.
  3. Racism, pure and simple. The right had attacked government programs that redistributed wealth for years, including relentless ranting by rural state legislators against the granting of huge sums of moneys by state legislatures to make a public university education exceedingly inexpensive. But once significant numbers of African-Americans began to take advantage of these programs, the attacks gained traction among a larger populace, especially in the South and the suburbs. Suddenly large numbers of voters listened to Reagan’s blather that all government solutions are bad.

In other words, when presented with choices, people chose to be selfish. 

Rather than submit to changes in their wasteful life of consumption, consumers chose to believe Reagan’s lie that they could consume endlessly. And soon their vehicles became larger and their houses more over-laden with gadgets than ever before.

Rather than cut profits, the corporations decided to take back from the workers.  And soon those take-backs felt so good, the execs decided they wanted to keep taking more and more.

Rather than see people they despised or feared get a good education and other basic benefits, many preferred to see those benefits end.  And soon, an ungenerous spirit descended upon the land.

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