Ronald Reagan is the first president I remember. Nixon was president when I was born, and my mom tells me that when I was eight or nine, I’d watch the evening news and tell her what Carter had to say that day. But I don’t remember anyone before Reagan.
Reagan’s legacy is complicated and interesting. On the one hand, he clearly was instrumental in ending the Cold War with us victorious over the Soviets. He did a good job of refocusing our nation after the blurry, misdirected, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate state we were in in the 1970s. He also helped end the nuclear arms race.
On the other hand, he crippled organized labor, was complicit in, or blissfully unaware of, Iran-Contra (and both those states of mind would be problematical on his part), failed to understand the issues of AIDS and homelessness, expanded the military to an obscene degree, expanded the drug war, massively increased the federal debt and budget deficit, and gave us trickle down economics, letting them American public know what it’s like when the rich “trickle” onto them.
And, importantly, he made it acceptable to truly hate the American government.
Ever since the days of FDR, people had been able to look to the government for help in times of crisis. Starting with the New Deal and moving on to things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, FEMA and the like, people knew that if they were down, they could get help. They knew that if they were on the verge of starvation, they could get food. They knew that if a tornado ravaged their home, someone was there to help. They knew that when they were old, they wouldn’t need to worry about a lack of money and medical care.
So what was Reagan’s viewpoint on this?
In his views, nothing seemed to be more evil than the federal government. You know, the government of the people, by the people and for the people. The government he so desperately wanted to be a part of, he ran for president three times. He truly was one of those who claimed that the government was the source of all America’s problems, and then went out of his way to prove it.
I think it’s important that we as a people remember this about Reagan. Here was a man who become a politician and government employee who went out of his way to tell us, often and loudly, about how evil government was and how terrible politicians are. He really set the national stage for this kind of mental disconnect, and in doing so, opened the door for the Tea Party and their ilk.
Reagan legitimized these people, and as Bill Maher said, he paved the way for the Tea Party and for what the Republicans have become. Reagan was a good politician in the sense that he shaped the future. But because of what he shaped it into, we need to stop lionizing him.