Reagan: From Liberal to Neocon

Here is an early speech given when Ronald Reagan was still a liberal Democrat.

What he says in this speech still applies today. The odd part is that the gist of his criticisms apply equally to the results of his own trickle-down economics and union-busting. How did Reagan go from being a union leader who fought for average Americans to becoming a cynical neocon who undermined the ability of the working class to have a voice in politics? Working class people are worse off in that their manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas and their wages have decreased. Did Reagan ever care about helping people or was he always in it just for the power?

This isn’t a partisan criticism. I’m genuinely bewildered by Reagan’s motives. He is the only union leader to be elected as president, but he wasn’t even your average union leader. He was elected 7 times as a union leader. He originally defended the New Deal reforms. How does someone like that become a corporate spokesperson?

Chomsky has commented about this quite often.–.htm

There was an article in Business Week last week describing some of the consequences of the American state’s vicious anti-labor activities. Illegal firings for union organizing have gone up sixfold, it reckoned, in the past 25 years. In particular, thousands of union organizers have been illegally fired since the start of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981.

According to the US Labor Department, the destruction of the unions as been the main factor in the decline of real wages that has continued since the Reagan era. Health and safety standards in the workplace have also deteriorated: there are laws, but they’re simply not enforced, so the number of industrial accidents has risen sharply in the past ten years. Then there is the effect of the decline of unions on democracy: the unions are one of the few means by which ordinary people can enter the political arena. Finally, there’s a psychological effect. The destruction of the unions is part of a much more general effort to privatize aspirations, to eliminate solidarity, the sense that we’re all in it together, that we care for one another.

But why did Reagan turn against working class people and become a corporate spokesperson? Why did he, as a union leader, turn against his own union members? Why did he become involve in the commie withchunt which was one of the darkest periods of American history?

The young Reagan was a staunch admirer of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (even after he evolved into a Republican) and was a Democrat in the 1940s, a self-described ‘hemophilliac’ liberal. He was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947 and served five years during the most tumultuous times to ever hit Hollywood. A committed anti-communist, Reagan not only fought more-militantly activist movie industry unions that he and others felt had been infiltrated by communists, but had to deal with the investigation into Hollywood’s politics launched by the House Un-Amercan Activities Committee in 1947, an inquisition that lasted through the 1950s. The House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of Hollywood (which led to the jailing of the “Hollywood Ten” in the late ’40s) sowed the seeds of the McCarthyism that racked Hollywood and America in the 1950s.

In 1950, U.S. Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-CA), the wife of “Dutch” Reagan’s friend Melvyn Douglas, ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate and was opposed by the Republican nominee, the Red-bating Congresman from Whittier, Richard Nixon. While Nixon did not go so far as to accuse Gahagan Douglas of being a communist herself, he did charge her with being soft on communism due to her opposition to the House Un-Amercan Activities Committee. Nixon tarred her as a “fellow traveler” of communists, a “pinko” who was “pink right down to her underwear.” Gahagan Douglas was defeated by the man she was the first to call “Tricky Dicky” because of his unethical behavior and dirty campaign tactics. Reagan was on the Douglases’ side during that campaign.

The Douglases, like Reagan and such other prominent actors as Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, were liberal Democrats, supporters of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal, a legacy that increasingly was under attack by the right after World War II. They were NOT fellow-travelers; Melyvn Douglas had actually been an active anti-communist and was someone the communists despised. Melvyn Douglas, Robinson and Henry Fonda – a regist

The world we live in today is the vision of Reagan. The administration of George W. Bush and the downfall of the economy was the final culmination of the policies of Reagan. We now have a country with 1 in 200 citizens in prison and a wealth disparity comparable to developing nations. The permanent deficit we now have was created by Reagan. Fiscal conservative? Small government?

What exactly is this vision that Reagan helped to create and promote?

The United States, said Ronald Reagan, “is engaged in a war on terrorism, a war for freedom”

How familiar it all sounds.

Merely replace Soviet Union and communism with al-Qaeda, and you are up to date.

And it was all a fantasy.

The Soviet Union had no bases in or designs on Central America; on the contrary, the Soviets were adamant in turning down appeals for their aid.

The comic strips of “missile storage depots” that American officials presented to the United Nations were precursors to the lies told by Colin Powell in his infamous promotion of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction at the Security Council in 2003.

Whereas Powell’s lies paved the way for the invasion of Iraq and the violent death of at least 100,000 people, Reagan’s lies disguised his onslaught on Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

By the end of his two terms, 300,000 people were dead.

In Guatemala, his proxies – armed and tutored in torture by the CIA – were described by the UN as perpetrators of genocide.

There is one major difference today.

That is the level of awareness among people everywhere of the true purpose of Bush and Blair’s “war on terror” and the scale and diversity of the popular resistance to it.

In Reagan’s day, the notion that presidents and prime ministers lied as deliberate, calculated acts was considered exotic.

Reagan displays none of his storied optimism here. There’s no “Morning in America,” no soaring talk about making “a new beginning.” Instead, he warns that America is on the verge of an apocalyptic doom. It is a bleak speech, verging on despair, that unabashedly employs the most extravagant historical and philosophical comparisons—“Should Christ have refused the cross?”—to denounce our moral weakness and warn of our imminent demise. It is one of the great role player’s darkest roles.

The Speech is disturbing because it shows the paranoid, millenarian side of American conservatism, unleavened by Reagan’s Main Street sunniness. But it is also disturbing because it presents that right-wing vision in its pure form, unsullied by history. The Speech predates Reagan’s entry into the world of politics, with its compromises and accommodations. As president, Reagan ended up backing away from some of his most cherished ideals. He raised taxes, reached agreement with the Communists, folded his cards in the face of terrorism, increased the federal deficit, and expanded the federal government. Reagan never abandoned his rhetoric of good versus evil, but it turned out not to apply to the real world. The Speech allows us to imagine an alternative Reaganist future, in which he lives up to his words—a world where he really does bomb the Soviet Union, get rid of Social Security, and end the progressive income tax. The Speech is a kind of distillation of Reagan’s Platonic right-wing essence. Like Keats’s Grecian Urn, it freezes him, an immortal figure from a strange, lost part of the American id, eternally raging against communism, big government, and liberal traitors.

That future never happened, but Americans think it did. That’s one reason that New Right conservatism continues to wield a disproportionate influence in American life. But the other reason has to do with the inchoate anxieties, wishes, and fears to which The Speech appealed then, and to which the dream it spoke for appeals today.

The Speech tapped into the primordial American myth: untrammeled individuality. There must be a territory for Huck Finn to light out to, a promised land where authority—or government—does not reach. In this always-beckoning frontier, all the hindrances that drag Americans down are left behind. Businessmen can run their businesses as they like, free from the plague of do-gooder bureaucrats. White people need not carry the spurious cross of racial guilt. Unruly and ungrateful minorities—pinkos and softies and degenerates and pointy-heads and uppity women— are shown their place. Above all, the profoundly destabilizing specter of relativism, of compromise, of moral ambiguity, is banished. No longer need Americans accommodate themselves to evil. A divine certainty stretches from sea to shining sea.

This is as much a metaphysical wish as it is a political platform. It is a sermon as much as a speech. And it is in the gap between those two things—the space between the dream of absolute freedom and the reality of a fallen world—that America forever stumbles

What happened around the middle of last century that caused such insanity? How did the entire political system get flipped on it’s head?

Reagan was the first great neocon. The necons were the progressive liberals who became disenchanted with the New Deal and so became cynical-minded progressive conservatives. Looking back, it all seems very strange. The working class was smashed under the heel of corporate power and corporations gained a stranglehold on Washington politics. The American idealism was turned into a dark dream of power for the ruling elite. A movie actor and corporate spokesperson was elected president and he spun inspiring propaganda.

Sadly, there was disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Reagan preached values ideology and free market rhetoric. Government was part of the problem, Reagan told Americans. What Reagan gave Americans was a permanent deficit, an even stronger military-industrial complex, decreasing wages, shrinking middle class, outsourcing of good manufacturing jobs, and a growing wealth disparity.

Eventually, Americans elect George W. Bush who campaigned on the same Reagan neocon vision and gave America the same failures. After Bush is out of office, the Tea Party is taken over by people once again selling the same message of values ideology and fiscal responsibility. More of the same. Endlessly, more of the same. Libertarian Goldwater led to neocon Reagan. Ron Paul libertarians led to the Tea Party. It’s the same pattern repeating. Why? What does it all mean? And why don’t the American people see through the charade?

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