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Wednesday, 11 December 2013 06:03

Chris Matthews and the Reagan Myth

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MSNBC's Chris Matthews has been doing an over-the-top job of self-promoting his new book, Tip and the Gripper: When Politics Worked. Matthews has been with MSNBC for quite some time but in this past year he has become a true attack dog against the Tea Party/GOP (and regular readers of mine know that I see no fundamental differences between them on policy, just on style). And for that, for me it is fun to watch him, which I do on a fairly regular basis. But as for this book, ah well, that is another story.

Matthews could not have been too happy with the review his book received in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, by one David Greenberg. To quote from it:

"Ever since our national politics dissolved into a miasma of polarization and strident punditry — which means either the Clinton pseudo-scandals or the John Adams administration, depending on your historical reference point — Washington pontificators have waxed wistful for gentler times. In the glow of nostalgia, even ideologues and scoundrels come to resemble civic-minded statesmen who put aside partisanship to broker compromises. This romantic tendency usually makes for bad history. . . . The 1980 elections made Ronald Reagan the most conservative American president since before the New Deal . . . . Protecting Social Security, the progressive tax code and other fixtures of the postwar economy fell above all to O'Neill, a corpulent, old-style, steaks-and-cigars Boston Irish pol. The conceit of 'Tip and the Gipper' is that for all their ideological differences, Reagan and O'Neill liked each other enough to put politics aside at 6 o'clock . . . and strike deals in everyone's interest. It's a nice idea for a book, if only it were true."

And boy, is it not true, which is what the rest of this column is about --- revisiting, in brief, Reaganism. For a complex set of reasons which we shall not go into here, regardless of which party has been in the White House, it has been the controlling political ideology in the U.S. since the Reagan Presidency. It is true that Social Security made it through the Reagan Presidency. (In fact its base was strengthened during that time, and if the current GOP were not so hell-bent on destroying it, it could be re-secured by following steps very similar to those taken back then.) But the progressive tax code, to the extent that we had one then, has certainly been weakened. And then we get to the following list of dominant features of the Reagan Presidency that still dominate the politics and economics of the United States. (For more detail on the elements of this list, please go to the linked earlier column of mine).

* Reagan firmly established racism as the center of the modern Republican electoral strategy, confirming that the Nixon "Southern Strategy" of 1968 would be permanently ensconced there.

* Reagan firmly established anti-choice as the Republican position of choice in the matter of belief as to when life begins. This was something new for mainstream Republicans who up until then had made much about keeping government out of private matters to the largest extent possible.

* The Reaganites introduced ahistoricity into American politics for good. The Tea Party and, for example, its conception of what the Constitution really says (e.g., for them the Preamble begins with the words, "we the citizens of the separate states" [it doesn't], the First Amendment guarantees the integration of church and state [it doesn't], and the Second Amendment reads "and citizen can own any firearm he wants to, without regulation" [it doesn't]), are only the most recent examples of this approach to history).

* "Reaganomics" created the myth that tax cuts can lead to prosperity and reduced federal deficits. All of the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding this remains at the center of GOP economic thinking.

* Reagan established the modern Republican approach to federal spending: cutting it on everything they possibly can, except that which directly benefits the Corporate Power.

* Reagan established meanness, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost, as the central moral value of a significant portion of the electorate.

* With Iran/Contra, in violating the "Boland Amendment," Reagan established the precedent that (Republican) Presidents can break Federal law and get away with it. Bush's policy on torture, for example, extended that to the violation of the Constitution (in this case Article VI, which provides that treaties, like the UN Convention Against Torture, become the "supreme Law of the Land.")

* One of Reagan's first acts when he became President was to cancel, to the extent he could, all Federal government contracts for the development of energy sources alternative to fossil fuels. With the GOP global warming deniers now in full control of U.S. energy policy, the United States is now about 30 years behind where it could have been in dealing with the oncoming disaster that threatens to destroy our species.

* Reagan significantly accelerated the de-unionization of American labor by firing the Air Traffic Controllers. Is it any wonder that the gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of us continues to grow at a remarkable pace and that we now face the prospect of a Permanent Army of the Unemployed which, among other things, guarantees that there will be no resurgence on US trade-unionism for the foreseeable future?

Almost all of this took place during Tip O'Neill's Speakership, which came to an end in 1987. "Two old Irish pols working things out?" (Actually, Mr. Greenberg points out, Reagan was barely even nominally "Irish.") Well, hardly. It was rather a man who earned his first political spurs by informing to the FBI on the politics of Hollywood colleagues of his as McCarthyism got underway, going on to fulfill the tasks that his oil-industry backers had set him up for in the beginning: getting the counter-attack on the New Deal and its modest gains for US workers fully underway. Further, it was Reagan who set the stage (if I may use that phrase) for the development of the Republican Party into what The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman has termed "The American Faith Party."

(Photo: Wikipedia)


Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for [email protected] he is the Editorial Director of and a Contributing Author to The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy. Dr. Jonas' latest book is The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right Took Control of the U.S., 1981-2022: A Futuristic Novel, Brewster, NY, Trepper & Katz Impact Books, Punto Press Publishing, 2013, and available on Amazon.