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Still the Age of Reagan: Long Waves in American Politics

John Peeler: I suggest that as bad as things are, economically, politically, socially, they are not bad enough to permanently shift the way we think, to force changes in what we consider to be common sense. Such a fundamental reshaping of the political landscape has occurred only a few times in our history.
Ronald Reagan

The Age of Reagan

Not every big wave transforms the landscape. The one we are now experiencing (many Republicans riding high, many Democrats wiping out) is largely a result of short-term conditions such as a stubbornly bad economy, and some questionable decisions by the Democrats in power. Moreover, the resurgence of the Republicans after successive Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 is to be expected in what remains fundamentally a two-party system. The small but decisive minority of swing voters, after all, will swing.

But why weren’t the elections of 2006 and 2008 markers of a durable shift that would have put liberal Democrats in a dominant position like they last held in the mid-1960s? I suggest that as bad as things are, economically, politically, socially, they are not bad enough to permanently shift the way we think, to force changes in what we consider to be common sense. Such a fundamental reshaping of the political landscape has occurred only a few times in our history.

The classic case of such a shift was the political transformation wrought by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Before 1933, a broad consensus supported free market capitalism with minimal government intervention. Republicans were the dominant party, but most Democrats supported the consensus. Indeed, such dissent as there was came more from Progressives within the Republican Party than from Democrats. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat elected with a minority of the vote in 1912, did embody some of the features of the Progressive movement, but on the whole the Democratic Party, based in the segregated South and the immigrant-filled northern cities, was not a notably progressive force.

Roosevelt got credit for saving the country from the worst depression in its history, and he did it through a massive expansion of the government’s role in the economy and society. For the next thirty years, until Johnson’s Great Society programs of the late 1960s tackled the unfinished business of the New Deal, it was common sense that the government ought to actively address social injustice, to improve the lot of the least fortunate among us, especially African Americans and other racial minorities. When the Republicans controlled the government under Eisenhower (1953-1961), they worked within this broad consensus, the common sense of the Age of Roosevelt.

We can discern several previous periods when a particular mode of thinking predominated over decades. The Federalist period began with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, revolved around the idea of a propertied elite governing with the consent of lesser citizens. The long Jefferson-Jackson era affirmed that the common man was as good as the wealthy elites. The opposition, centered on urban and commercial interests, devolved from the Federalists to the Whigs. The latter held the presidency on several occasions, but could never upset the fundamental presuppositions of the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian order.

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The Civil War fractured both major parties and cleared the way for the Republican Party to gain dominance. Initially, the Republicans drew their identity from the War itself and the crusade to save the Union and end slavery. That Civil War Era lasted until the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Thereafter, Republicans continued to be the normal governing party, but they were increasingly identified with emerging urban industrial interests. The Gilded Age arguably lasted all the way to Franklin Roosevelt, notwithstanding the Progressive challenges to the industrialists under both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

The Age of Roosevelt, then, was a major departure from the common sense of the Gilded Age, precipitated by the Great Depression. Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy can now be seen as marking the beginning of a conservative insurgency that rejected the common sense of the Roosevelt era, and pushed for a return to the old verities of a small state and a free market. Were it not for Nixon’s folly in the Watergate affair, his administration might have marked the beginning of a new conservative era. As it was, we must see the 1970s as a period of transition, when Democrats could still believe that they remained the normal majority and liberalism remained the common sense. That illusion ended with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Reagan forthrightly rejected the central verities of the Age of Roosevelt and promulgated instead a new conservative orthodoxy of small government and free enterprise.

We are still in the Age of Reagan. Notwithstanding the many shortcomings of both Bushes, we still live in a time when most voters think it makes sense that government spending in a major recession makes things worse. Both Clinton and Obama have had to deal with that conventional wisdom, so completely contrary to what was common sense in the Age of Roosevelt.

What will it take to end the Age of Reagan? One ingredient is a crisis worse than what we are experiencing now. When the newly emboldened, militantly conservative Republicans recapture control, perhaps they will provide us with that. A second ingredient is a commitment of progressives to a long-term strategy of both organizing politically and challenging the conservative conventional wisdom, again and again, for however long it takes. We thought we had the third ingredient in Obama: a leader like Roosevelt or Reagan who can crystallize the issues and inspire the majority to see the world anew. We still have some time to wait.


John Peeler

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University