The Age of Reagan A History, 1974-2008 by Sean Wilentz
When did America become a nation dominated, politically, by conservatives? A powerful and popular narrative is that the Nixon administration marks the turning point in American political history – with a backlash by a “silent majority” of white evangelicals and business reacting against the “excesses” of 1960s liberalism. Wilentz seeks to revise that narrative by pushing it back to the Reagan years – where the New Deal order collapsed and a new conservative “Age of Reagan” arose in its place.
In Wilentz’s view, the Nixon years were just a prologue to the more fully transformative Reagan years. It was during the Reagan administration that the elements of modern conservative government were fully in place – tax cuts, a prominent role of Christian evangelicals, deregulation, and perennial corruption. While in practice Reagan’s actual list of conservative accomplishment is rather short and he was forced to compromise with a Democratic Congress (i.e. raising taxes), it was during the 1980s that the dam holding back conservatism broke. When Reagan ambled off the national stage in 1988, the next 20 years of American political history would be dominated by the conservative agenda.
From this view Wilentz presents a revisionist account of the Clinton years. From Wilentz’s pen, Clinton becomes not a neo-liberal or DINO, but a liberal leader desperately fighting to preserve what he can of the New Deal and Great Society. Here welfare reform becomes not a great conservative victory but an attempt for Clinton to salvage a vital legacy of the days when liberalism reigned. Wilentz argues that the “Age of Reagan” reached both its pinnacle and nadir in the years of George W. Bush. Here the elements of conservatism, noted above, played out to the point of farce. While Bush and his allies scored massive victories, more than Reagan was able to accomplish, the coalition of business, Christian evangelicals, nominal libertarians, and neo-conservatives was coming apart under the pressure of two wars, economic collapse, rampant corruption and environmental devastation.
This book has two large problems. The first problem is that much of this book is a large-scale apologia for the Clintons. Wilentz’s account of the Clinton year is far from open-minded and detached, he never misses an opportunity to portray Bill Clinton as a true liberal making the best of a difficult situation, damn the facts. A serious discussion of neo-liberalism is not to be found in these pages. Secondly, the 2008 election hangs heavily over this book. Wilentz wrote it in the most intense days of the Clinton/Obama Democratic primary and thus the shade of Barack Obama looms large. Wilentz’s casts Jimmy Carter as a proto-Obama “anti-politician” who failed because he refused to work the political process and sought to be a transformative leader outside of traditional political channels – a project doomed to failure. Contrast this with the ultimate politician Bill Clinton (who stands in here for his wife) who mastered the traditional levers of power and thus saved the legacy of the New Deal from extinction. This false contrast goes beyond presentism (which I have few problems with) and becomes a polemical mess.
TIE-IN: Wilentz’s book contrasts (somewhat) with Thomas Surgue’s assessment that the origins of conservatism can be traced to the 1940s and 1950s. It directly contrasts with Judith Stein’s argument that the pivotal decades are not the 1980s but the late 60s and early 1970s – the 1980s were just a product of liberalism’s failures in the earlier decades. Wilentz covers some of the same ground with his evil dopplegander – Donald Critchlow’s The Conservative Ascendancy.