The Search for a Progressive Reagan
We’re still waiting.
By CHRYSTIA FREELAND
July 15, 2014
What do a lesbian grandmother in Ontario, an extreme conservative professor of economics in Virginia, a right-wing politician in England who admires Putin and an Italian-American municipal politician from Brooklyn have in common?
This isn’t the first line of a weak Borscht-Belt-style gag. It is a string of recent examples from both sides of the Atlantic of politicians who have understood that the post-2008 political environment is dramatically different from the era that preceded it. The leaders—on both left and right—who figure out how to take advantage of these altered circumstances will be the ones who win.
Barack Obama was one of the first to see this change coming and to put himself forward as leader of the next wave. He told us that in his infamous 2008 meeting with the Reno Gazette-Journal op-ed board, when he described Ronald Reagan as a transformational president whose achievement he hoped to emulate.
The political Kremlinology of the time read these remarks mostly as an implicit dig against the Democratic giant of his lifetime, Bill Clinton, whose wife happened to be Obama’s chief rival. That personal slight was probably intended.
But Obama was also making a broader point. Here’s how he put it: “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. They felt like with all the excesses of the 60s and the 70s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think he tapped into what people were already feeling.”
After 30 years of Western politics dominated by that Reagan/Thatcher revolution, and the left’s accommodation to it, Obama was hinting that another political wave of similar consequence was coming, and putting himself forward as its architect and champion. This is what was really audacious about all the hope Obama once represented.
For all his transformational accomplishments—getting elected, as a black man, in the first place, introducing near universal health care, bizarre and inefficient though this American version of it seems to the rest of us—Obama hasn’t delivered on that gear-shifting promise, a sort-of failure for which his most ardent early supporters can’t forgive him. He’s no liberal Reagan.
But Obama was right to see a big political shift coming. Now that the 2008 financial crisis, and the global recession it triggered are receding, the nature of that change is becoming clearer, and smart and lucky politicians are starting to capitalize on it.
What we are seeing, in both Western Europe and North America, is the end of the Reagan/Thatcher era and of the political ideas that created it.
The Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal revolution happened because, after 30 years, the postwar social consensus and the shared economic boom that had fueled it petered out. We tend to think of the three decades after the Second World War as a time of small ‘c’ conservatism, the kind that was lived but not preached—the era when father knew best, the American South was still segregated and homosexuality was illegal.
But when it came to the politics driving the economy, it was a period of remarkable social solidarity around policies that by today’s lights we would judge to be strongly progressive, if not downright socialistic. In North America and across Western Europe, the state was strong, trade unions were powerful and respected, taxes at the very top were high and CEO compensation was shrinking relative to that of the average worker. This was the age of big government projects — America’s interstate highways, the war on poverty, the socially transformative GI Bill, Britain’s National Health Service.
For three decades—thanks, you could argue, to the pent-up demand generated by World War II as much as due to any specific policy—it worked. The economies of the West grew year after year, and the increasing prosperity was widely shared.
But in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, that surge began to peter out. We remember that time largely because of its social upheaval—Flower Power, protests against the war in Vietnam, les soixantes-huitards. When it comes to social and cultural mores, the ‘60s revolutionaries won—a victory some conservatives still cannot forgive or accept.
Yet underlying all the social swing was a new, terrifying economic reality: stagflation. Economic growth sputtered, inflation soared, unemployment rose. And the victorious response to this unbalanced slowdown was neoliberalism, whose most vivid champions were Reagan and Thatcher.