Ronald Reagan has shaped American politics for 40 years. Prior to Reagan’s ascent to the presidency, the country had been transformed by over four decades of liberal policies, starting with FDR’s New Deal and culminating in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The modern social welfare state was established and expanded, and the reach of government expanded with it. By the end of the 1970s, the coalition that had supported these changes had come undone, and Reagan rose to power promising to reject the assumptions of liberalism. Government, long the solution to our problems, became the problem itself. Reagan and his three Republican successors would commit to this prevailing view. His two Democratic successors would be hamstrung in their attempts to fight against it.
But the core promise of the Reagan Revolution was never realized. Reagan’s vision of cutting taxes and spending proved half-popular, so instead of lower taxes and less government we got lower taxes and larger deficits. Most domestic program cuts were political non-starters. Republicans found they could roll back funding for domestic initiatives incrementally, episodically and at the margins, characteristically pushing program cuts by using arguments about fiscal responsibility against Democratic presidents committed to containing the deficits their Republican predecessors had created. The big ticket items proved too popular to budge. Social Security and Medicare are still with us. The Affordable Care Act — created by a herculean effort in a political climate still dominated by Reagan-era assumptions about big government — has also proved too tenacious to uproot through legislative action.
That’s because even people who dislike government in theory don’t like to give up benefits in practice. George W. Bush declared that he would use the political capital he amassed through his re-election to partially privatize Social Security. That idea dissolved upon contact with reality. The more Bush campaigned for it the more unpopular it became. The overlooked story of Reaganism is that its rhetorical effectiveness far outpaced its legislative accomplishments because Republicans never succeeded in convincing the public to abandon their attachment to programatic liberalism. It turns out people also think an effective government is pretty good to have in a crisis. Bush never fully recovered from his bungled reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
No Republican president of the Reagan era would accept the political cost of a governing agenda that aligned completely with Reagan’s rhetoric. Until now. In the wake of a once-in-a-century pandemic, the position of the Trump White House is that you’re on your own. Governing as though we are operating under the Articles of Confederation, the Trump administration has left the states to fend for themselves. There is no national plan for testing, no coordinated effort to provide critical medical supplies where they are most needed — no federal response of any kind, except to promote demonstrations by fringe groups who conflate public safety with freedom of assembly and a public relations effort to convince people that the death and disease they’re seeing in front of them really isn’t all that bad. This is Tea Party governance, Reaganism distilled to its essential core.
It gives Trump too much credit to say he is doing this out of an ideological commitment to protecting individual liberty, because Trump has never demonstrated a commitment to anything but himself. Still, even as the product of laziness, ineptitude and disregard for facts that contradict whatever he wants at any particular moment, as an attitude it is compatible with the philosophical underpinning of a movement committed to dismantling government. Trump, after all, was elected because he promised to break things, so he has no second thoughts about going where Reagan himself wouldn’t and couldn’t have gone.
For the next six months, we are going to experience an unprecedented political experiment. We will live through a crisis with an administration determined to spin its way out of accountability for not doing the work people have come to expect from those elected to protect us. In the process, we will see what an absentee federal government looks like. Then we’ll vote. If Donald Trump is returned to power, he can claim a victory that even Reagan couldn’t have imagined — a victory over the public’s long-entrenched embrace of programmatic liberalism — and he will use it to shape a new era of right-wing politics that will reach far beyond where any president of the Reagan era was free to tread. It will be a mandate for radical individualism, a Tea Party paradise.
But to arrive there, Trump will need more than the support of a loud minority, and it will be the hardest sell of his life. Already, he is failing to take the country with him on his “nothing to see here” public relations fantasy. Americans are overwhelmingly unwilling to go along with Trump’s rush to re-open the economy. Support for how he is managing the crisis is underwater and falling, while the public is instead rallying behind governors who are attempting to use public authority to save lives. Trump is experiencing erosion among seniors — his most loyal, important and vulnerable constituency — over his insistence that it is safe to return to normal. Try competing in Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona without seniors.
As Trump pushes government aside, Democrats have a rare opportunity to push aside the prevailing assumptions of the Reagan era and permanently change the terms of political debate. Crises like the one we’re living through tend to be clarifying. They illuminate society’s stress fractures and expose the failings of political ideas. The pandemic is exposing the shortcomings and inequities of our health care system, economy, climate policy and electoral process, to name a few, and speaking to the need for reforms like universal health care, universal basic income, the Green New Deal and universal vote by mail, which just a few months ago were being derided even among Democrats as too impractical or expensive. As the philosophy of limited government delivers a broken government unwilling to come to the aid of the people it is supposed to represent, Democrats will find it easier to prosecute the case that the time has come to replace it with something different — not for one election cycle, but permanently.
The pandemic will expose the limits of going it alone and the costs of forty years of undermining government, and create an opening for the rejuvenation of a governing vision that was squeezed out of the mainstream decades ago when a majority of the country felt liberalism had nothing left to offer but pandering to special interests. Now, as often is the case at the end of a regime cycle, the dominant party is devoid of ideas and its challengers are brimming with energy. As it was at the dawn of the Reagan era, the question Democrats will ask in November is “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” With a majority of the country poised to answer no, Democrats will ask for a mandate to move in a dramatically different direction. If they are successful, they will get the chance to reshape America atop the smoldering embers Trump leaves behind. The Reagan era will have been extinguished by the realization of Reaganism in its most pure form.