In all the recent back and forth on Reagan and race, the million dollar question seems to be “so what?” Assuming Reagan skeptics like Krugman are correct, what are the implications? Indeed, I suspect many Reagan defenders (including Brooks and the always-thoughtful Douthat) are less receptive to these arguments in part because they fear the implications of acknowledging Krugman’s point. Because the “so what?” seems to be driving the debate, that’s the question I want to focus on (particularly in light of the GOP presidential candidates’ endless Reagan invocations).
Reagan defenders’ primary fear seems to be that attacking Reagan on race is simply a backdoor attempt to discredit legitimate policy differences. Douthat explains it well:
One reason conservatives are defensive about the race issue is that any concession on the subject is immediately seized on by liberals as proof that conservative policy on any issue related to race (which is more or less the whole run of domestic issues) is so irredeemably tainted that it need not even be argued against.
Obviously, there’s a kernel of truth here, but I think that’s not really what’s motivating most progressives. For me anyway, the goal of discussing Reagan’s record is not so much to taint conservative policy, or even to demonize Reagan. It’s to provide a more balanced and informed picture of Reagan – one more proportionate to his actual virtues and vices. I simply want to throw some cold water on the lionization.
And there’s a substantive, non-petty reason why I try to persuade people to see Reagan rather than Saint Reagan – namely, the lionization of Reagan has modern political and policy implications.
Whatever you think of him, it’s pretty undeniable that Reagan’s record has some rather repulsive elements (much like other Presidents). Race particularly stands out, given the systematic hostility that Reagan and his agencies had for civil rights efforts. But there’s also Iran-Contra, and Negroponte’s death squads in Central America, to name a few. That said, Reagan got some things right too. Marginal tax rates, for instance, were too high for some income brackets in 1979.
The point is not that Reagan is irredeemably evil, but that he doesn’t deserve the deification he receives not only from Republicans, but from the public as well. His race record doesn’t discredit his entire administration, but it does mean that we shouldn’t name airports after him.
More substantively, the lionization of Reagan distracts us from historical reality, and prevents us from coming to terms with his failures and misjudgments. If we had come to terms with them – if we had looked at Reagan’s record with clearer eyes – we could perhaps have prevented the same problems from re-occurring today.
Take executive authority for instance. Many of the “executive unbound” arguments we hear today in support of anything within 25 words of “terrorism” played a central role in Iran-Contra. Hell, even the same cast of characters was involved. Then Congressman Cheney (and his aide, the loathsome David Addington) argued that Reagan wasn’t bound by such trifling things as constitutionally-enacted laws. Ideally, Reagan’s record should have triggered a broader debate about the dangers of excessive executive power. In 2001 and beyond, we should have looked back at the Reagan record as a warning. But we didn’t. We named National Airport after him, along with every third building in DC, and just ignored the rest.
Same deal with race. Modern race policy arguably turns on whether federal interventions remain necessary in light of the state-sponsored interventions of the past (which had been around, oh, 350 years or so). To me, the fact that the President of the United States from 1980 to 1988 successfully exploited race – and so actively opposed civil rights initiatives – is itself evidence that we’re not there yet. Indeed, the problem is not solely Reagan, but that Reagan reflected public opinion. If the public thought “welfare queens” and Philadelphia campaigns were ok, then that’s further evidence that we’re not there yet.
The upshot is that a honest appraisal of Reagan’s racial record would inform modern policy debates. But if we lionize him – and whitewash his record by repressing the negative in favor of a “Morning in America” narrative – then we lose sight of that record.
And those that forget the past… continue to employ David Addington and John Negroponte.