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Print view: Your leaders continue to dumb you down, exposing a mythical myth
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IS/WAS REAGAN POPULAR? Your leaders continue to dumb you down, exposing a mythical myth: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2011

Concerning the death of the liberal class: Yesterday, eschewing pre-game frivolity, we stole away to our local Barnes & Noble to review Chris Hedges’ newest book, “Death of the liberal class.” (Hedges is so eager to start explaining that he even eschews the word “the.”)

Who or what killed “the liberal class?” We won’t attempt to summarize Hedges’ argument, which basically starts around World War I. But here’s the start of the synopsis provided by the publisher:

NATION BOOKS: For decades the liberal class was a defense against the worst excesses of power. But the pillars of this class—the press, the universities, trade unions, the Democrats, and the liberal church—have collapsed as effective counterweights to the corporate state. In its absence the needs of the poor, the working class, and even the middle class no longer have a champion. The death of the liberal class has permitted the rise of a new and terrifying political configuration. In his devastating new book, Chris Hedges chronicles the gradual corruption and decline of the liberal class, which no longer provides an institutional check to mitigate corporate control of politics, education, labor, the arts, religious institutions, or financial systems. Without any impediments, the corporate state is dismantling the last vestiges of protection for ordinary citizens once put into place by the liberal class.

It’s “a lucid and disturbing look inside America's fallen liberal institutions,” the publisher gloomily says.

Again, Hedges describes a long, slow death—a death which begins around World War I. We were especially interested by his treatment of the professoriate, whose general uselessness we have long noted and puzzled about. That in mind, we’ll mention a second current book, this one concerning the state of the universities. That would be the poorly titled “Higher Education?” by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. (Some of Hedges’ critique of the academy dove-tail with the complaints lodged by Hacker and Dreifus.)

We haven’t read the Hacker/Dreifus book; to examine its web site, just click here. But on two occasions in recent months, we’ve watched a book event by the authors on C-Span. We were fascinated both times. To watch this event, just click here.

We’ve often discussed the lame, limp work which issues from the “liberal” world. With that in mind, we think Hedges’ gloomy critique is well worth examining, especially as he describes the way liberal careerists of various types get purchased by the plutocrats. Hedges is currently showing on C-Span too. To watch that event, just click this.

(Welcome news! In his discussion of the art world, Hedges quotes, at length, the painter Rob Shetterly, a friend of ours from college.)

HOWLER HISTORY! IS/WAS REAGAN POPULAR (permalink): Yesterday, President Reagan turned 100. This anniversary has produced various discussions, including one on the liberal web in which Kevin Drum disagreed mildly with Paul Waldman about Reagan’s popularity.

Was/is Reagan popular? Drum and Waldman didn’t even seem to be working within the same time frame. (Waldman discussed Reagan’s popularity while in office; Drum discussed his standing today.) But for the record, this is the passage in which Waldman referred to Reagan’s popularity as a bit of a myth:

WALDMAN (2/1/11): Here's the thing about Reagan, though: The myths abound.

There's the myth that Reagan never compromised his conservative beliefs, though in fact he did all the time—the fact that Reagan raised taxes would get him kicked out of today's GOP. Then there's the myth that Reagan was stunningly popular, when in fact his approval ratings were middling—his average approval of 52.8 percent puts him ahead of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, but behind Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon Johnson, among others.

Why do myths like these about Reagan persist? Obviously, there are people who are very invested in them and work to make it so. But as with the Time magazine article, the myths get repeated by journalists.

Was Reagan “stunningly popular?” It’s fairly easy to win a debate when you get to load up the language like that—and when you get to pick a statistic which tends to help your case. But Waldman ignored an obvious historical basis for “the myth that Reagan was stunningly popular”—his overwhelming election victories, first in California, then in his two winning campaigns for the White House.

Was Ronald Reagan popular? People of a certain age will recall how depressing this era was. Since we pseudo-liberals now seem intent on forgetting all such matters (History begins in 2003!), it might be worth recalling how thoroughly Reagan swamped the field in his major campaigns.

In 1966, Reagan massacred California’s incumbent Governor Brown, winning the State House in a major landslide. (Reagan received 58 percent of the vote, in a first gruesome sign of a rapidly changing political era.) In 1970, he was re-elected handily, by an eight-point margin. And things got worse when he ran for the White House. In 1980, he defeated Jimmy Carter by ten points in a three-candidate race, winning 44 states. Four years later, he won re-election in a massive landslide, defeating Walter Mondale with 59 percent of the vote.

Reagan won 49 states that year—out of a possible 50!

Could these facts help explain the myth of Reagan’s popularity? In part, Reagan’s “average approval of 52.8 percent” reflects the low approval ratings in his first two years in the White House, when the economy floundered badly. (Obama’s ratings are amazingly high considering the mess we’re in.) But Reagan’s giant success at the polls was part of a deeply depressing era, in which it began to seem that Democrats would never win the White House again. In 1988, George Bush won Reagan’s third term, defeating Michael Dukakis by almost nine points, winning forty states in the process. With that election, Republicans had won five of the past six White House campaigns, four of them in major blow-outs. Democrats had only won the post-Watergate race of 1976—and even then, Jimmy Carter only managed to win by the barest of margins.

This was a very depressing era. Reagan’s giant wins help define the age—and help explain the weird persistence of that puzzling myth.

Jehosophat! Is there anything we in the new “liberal” world aren’t willing to kid ourselves about—preferably by telling ourselves that it’s all just a press corps invention? After quoting a passage in which Drum disagreed with Waldman’s emphasis, Steve Benen did the obvious: He said he agreed with both these liberal made men, then offered his own explanation for “the myth among Republicans that Americans simply adored Reagan.”

Despite himself, Benen said something accurate, if incomplete, in this post. He noted the way the conservative world has worked to burnish Reagan’s legacy down through the years:

BENEN (2/3/11): That said, Kevin's right about Reagan's current standing. Indeed, he's far more popular now than he was when he was actually president.

And that, to me, is actually the more interesting area of exploration. Reagan is unique in modern political history, because he's the only former chief executive to have an aggressive, well-financed, highly-motivated public-relations campaign work on his reputation after leaving office. Generally, presidents are either remembered fondly or they're not. Their public stature either improves or doesn't.

With Reagan, Republicans weren't willing to take any chances—Americans might not remember Reagan fondly, so GOP activists sought to make sure we remembered him the "right" way. It gave birth to the creepy Reagan Legacy Project, pressuring officials nationwide to name buildings, highways, schools, etc. after the former president. It's gotten to the point that the Republican National Committee has quite literally referred to him as Ronaldus Magnus.

Is Reagan “far more popular now than he was when he was actually president?” We’re not sure we know what that means. But Benen goes on to describe the way the conservative world has worked to build and maintain Reagan’s image. Presumably, these efforts may help explain the way Reagan is viewed.

Alas! Kissing keister and building career, Benen forgot to mention an equal-and-opposite historical fact. He forgot to mention the way the “liberal” world has conspired, over the years, in the aggressive denigration of various major Democrats. Even as conservatives lionized Reagan in the 1990s, liberals were hiding in the woods as both Clintons, then Gore, were torn to shreds in the mainstream press; those who weren’t hiding in the woods were playing active roles in the denigration. This conduct extended right through the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, when many liberals expressed their preference for Candidate Obama by reciting familiar crackpot tales about his rival, Candidate Clinton. People who worked to denigrate the Clintons and Gore are still honored atop the “liberal” world; this nonsense was still underway just a few weeks ago, as Rachel Maddow offered several tortured attempts to contrast the brave work of Hero Obama with the vile compromises of the rodent Bill Clinton. But you know how those career liberals work! Fellows like Benen would jump off a bridge before they’d ask revered liberal figures to explain their past ridiculous conduct—before they would mention the ludicrous ways the “leaders” of the “liberal” world have behaved in the past twenty years.

Hey rubes! Steve is there to agree with Kevin and Paul—and to tell you that Reagan’s popularity is or was some sort of a myth. Beyond that, he’s unwilling to discuss the way your leaders sold you out in the past.

While conservatives made a saint of Reagan, major “liberals” trashed the Clintons, then Gore. But those people remain key players in the current “liberal” world. Steve is there to kiss their keisters—and to tell you the pleasant tales that just keep dumbing you down.

Was Ronald Reagan popular? Or is this claim a big silly myth? The analysts thought of a way to decide: Will someone go ask Walter Mondale?