In the splendor of the Central Coast of California, Ronald Reagan’s ranch, Rancho del Cielo, has become a monument to our 40th president. Reagan was often there while in office, saying, “No place before or since has ever given Nancy and me the joy and serenity it does.” The ranch since has become hallowed ground for conservatives. The Young America Foundation, an organization dedicated to memorializing the Reagan legacy, explains at its website its mission to “preserve and protect the ranch as a campus to teach young people about individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values.”
With a climate of anti-government sentiment pervasive in today’s political zeitgeist, it is important to remember its inception in the last half-century.
No one line in Reagan’s repertoire may be more remembered than one from his 1981 inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” What is seemingly forgotten is what he said next: “From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people.”
Although Reagan later said that he was not calling for the end of federal government in this speech, his indictment of national government could not be more diaphanous than when he said, “All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.” Perhaps in the last half century, no other single speech has set such a tone for how modern American society should be governed. And at exactly the same instance how we as a nation must perceive our democracy and coagulate our compassion.
From 1980 to the present, the right wing of the Republican Party, emboldened by the conservatism that Reagan offered the country, has made its mission to shrink the size of government, cut funding for social programs for those less fortunate, and advocate for an exaggerated military defense where spending seems to have no limits. Today the Republican Party and its sometime sidekick (when politically expedient) the Tea Party have gone to great lengths to preach the virtual demise of the U.S. unless deficits are lowered and spending on almost everything (except defense) goes through a slash and burn process.
With this historical foothold of the Reagan presidency, there is no mystery that today Paul Ryan delivers a budget that makes draconian cuts in poverty programs even as poverty continues to rise or that there are cuts to the SNAP (food stamp) program even though this food security not only helps those who are food insecure but stimulates the economy by giving people purchasing power to buy from businesses. And with the rise of fanatic, ideological candidates, suddenly programs that were legislated under Democratic presidents, Social Security and Medicare, despite their unqualified success are under siege.
Republicans will use the myth of the Reagan presidency to advance a conservative agenda that is filled with partisanship. Despite the facts that as President Ronald Reagan increased the deficit to nearly $3 trillion — roughly three times as much as the first 80 years of the century had done altogether — raised taxes 11 times in his administration, and presided over an economy that according to David Leonhardt of the New York Times disproportionately taxed the poor and middle class. Leonhardt noted, “Since 1980, median household income has risen only 30 percent, adjusted for inflation, while average incomes at the top have tripled or quadrupled.”
Still, what may been Reagan’s legacy for conservatives was his philosophy on what individual states had the power to legislate over American citizens. Basically, he advocated that if a state (even if it was controlled by one party) chose to infringe on liberties supported by the three branches of national government, it had every right to do so. By the words of his inaugural address, Ronald Reagan unleashed an antigovernment sentiment that plays a defining role on individual liberties today. From a woman’s right to choose, to gay marriage, to having complete access to vote, state legislatures (mostly Republican and/or Tea Party) have taken a Machiavellian approach to governing their residents.
Since Reagan characterized the federal government as the problem, several states have practically eliminated abortion despite Roe v. Wade, have focused on limiting voting periods in an effort to discourage the young and minorities from voting, and have denied Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act when the federal government is subsidizing the program. They’ve made the “united” in “United States” a description of a bygone era.
Like Reagan, I find California’s Central Coast to be an oasis of beauty and unparalleled tranquility. Yet the Reagan de-revolution has in the last 35 years given rise to an unsightly and oftentimes lamentable period in our nation’s history and has put America on a bifurcated path for years to come.
Jeffrey R. Moualim lives in Santa Ynez. He is treasurer of the Committee of Ten Thousand, a national grassroots advocacy organization for people with hemophilia, HIV, and HCV, based in Washington, D.C., and Santa Barbara.