The Age of Reagan

What Will Arise From the Wreckage?
New books dissected over email.
June 3 2008 2:47 PM

The Age of Reagan

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Dear Tim,

A year ago, it looked as if the Republicans were in total disarray and would fight over the nominee all the way to the convention, while the Democrats would quickly unite around a nominee, probably from the center-left, and go into the fall elections heavily favored. So much for the smart money.

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We've learned instead that the Democrats still suffer from some of the same class and ideological divisions that surfaced 40 years ago and helped to usher in the Age of Reagan. Many starry-eyed Democrats either don't care about those divisions or, oddly, welcome them. The left wing of the party has been dreaming of a new winning coalition of affluent liberals, college students, and African-Americans for, it seems, forever. It's always failed. But having come close to winning the nomination yet again, the Democratic left will try once more.

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I've been hearing about the advent of a new "transformational" politics ever since I reached voting age (which is longer ago than I care to remember). I am aware that some experts say the demographics have shifted, that the time has finally come for a new party coalition. Yet many of these same experts have been saying for a long time that key to any new Democratic majority is the rapidly expanding Hispanic vote (which has largely abjured the Barack Obama stampede), and not a revamped version of the McGovern and Dukakis base of 1972 and 1988. I could be dead wrong—but forgive me if I remain unmoved by a media-hyped movement of self-regarding people who proclaim that they are the change the world's been waiting for.

Now, having gotten that off my chest, I agree with you that the Age of Reagan is over and will be even if John McCain wins the White House. Just because the Republicans actually had the sense to nominate their only viable aspirant for the presidency hardly means that their party is not in a state of crisis, for all the reasons we talked about in our first exchange.

Even more important, as you emphasize, there are severe structural constraints that demand a fresh departure no matter which party wins the presidency. The cumulative wreckage inside the federal bureaucracy that began under Reagan and greatly worsened under George W. Bush—a hollowing out caused by neglect, corruption, partisanship, and cronyism—badly needs repair. Our health care system is a huge drain on productivity. In foreign affairs, whatever the transnational or multilateral imperatives facing American policymakers, and whatever specific policies are adopted regarding Iraq, we need to jettison right-wing and neoconservative bellicosity and intrigue and restore the basic concepts of strong diplomacy backed by credible deterrence if we are to escape from the morass now epitomized by the Iraq debacle.

But how successfully any of this will unfold, and at what pace, is still a mystery to me, as is the shape of the coming political era. The Age of Reagan could be defined as a prolonged period beginning with Nixon and Watergate, when the center fell out of American politics. The efforts by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to restore different versions of moderate politics failed—and, thanks partly to the tiniest of majorities on the Supreme Court, we have had to endure the most radical conservative presidency in modern times, and perhaps in all of American history. One political era has died, but the next one is struggling mightily to be born—a bafflement that might be endlessly fascinating if it were not so worrisome.

My best,
Sean

Sean Wilentz is a professor of history and director of the program in American studies at Princeton University.

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