Sean Wilentz

The Age of Reagan

VTR Date: September 4, 2008

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz discusses 1974-2008.


GUEST: Sean Wilentz
VTR: 09/04/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and every once in a while at this table, I’m privileged to share with you my enthusiasm for a book I’ve just read, an intriguing person I’ve just met – perhaps a sense of our distant or recent past I’ve newly encountered, agree with it or not.

Well, that’s surely the way I feel about my guest today, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, and about the many provocative insights of his superb chronicle of our times just published by Harper Collins…”The Age of Reagan … A History, 1974-2008″.

His earlier histories have earned my guest both the Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association and Columbia University’s prestigious Bancroft Prize…made him a Pulitzer Prize winning finalist, as well.

A contributing editor at the New Republic, Professor Wilentz also writes widely on music and the arts, has received a Grammy nomination and an ASCAP award for musical commentary. Clearly a man for all intellectual seasons!

In “The Age of Reagan”, however, my eclectic guest writes that here he has NOT “been motivated by a wish to discover the deep cultural, economic, social or psychological factors that might explain recent history, although all three factors do come into play”.

Instead, here Sean Wilentz wants simply, in his own words, “…to provide a fresh, succinct, and accessible chronicle of American history, focused on political history, after 1974”.

And that he does – brilliantly…starting with, I presume, because my guest seems to see everything after Nixon as all of a piece, starting with 1974. Is that the case, Professor Wilentz?

WILENTZ: Well, I …

HEFFNER: That you do see things that way?

WILENTZ: Well I think that, the fall of Richard Nixon was a turning point in American political history and in American history generally.

You know American politics has its waves, has its periods of Conservatism, periods of Liberalism, Reform, counter-Reform.

1968 marked one … the beginning of one of those periods of counter reform. And had Richard Nixon succeeded in his various plans and plots, I might have written a book called “The Age of Nixon”.

He failed. And his failure marked, I think, the second part of a one/two punch that hit the country hard. First was the Vietnam War and all of the divisions about the war which effectively divided the Democratic Party in two.

And Watergate. Because what Watergate did was to blow the center out of the Republican Party. Gerald Ford did the best he could to keep it together. But he ultimately failed. Although he did better than some people remember his doing. He didn’t lose by that much in ’76.

But thereafter, what had been an old Republican establishment to which Nixon had kind of battened himself on to, was in pretty bad shape. And I mean there had been talk after Watergate of the Republican Party changing its name. I’m not sure what they would have called themselves, but the Capitol Hill Club, which is the big Republican watering hole on, in Washington, you know, almost went bankrupt.

This was not a good time for the old establishment. And in enter Ronald Reagan, who changed everything. So I think that Watergate was very important in terms of setting up the possibilities for the rise of Ronald Reagan and with him the beginnings of what I take to be the longest Conservative ascendancy in American political history.

HEFFNER: When you say, “longest Conservative ascendancy”, do you see it in terms of “that was it, now we move into a different phase?”.

WILENTZ: Well, I do think we are at, at the end of an ear. I do. I’m not sure what’s to come. I’m not … I’m a historian, not a … you know … a medium. But I do think that that Conservative era has lost … is run out of gas … it’s lost a lot of steam. It actually began 20 years ago.

But these shifts in American politics, they seem as if they’re very sudden. But in fact the suddenness only occurs after a fairly long period of unraveling. And I think the unraveling began back in 1988.

But I do think that … yes … both parties have their difficulties … still. And some of the volatility of this political year, I think is precisely because neither party has its act together quite yet.

But I do think that the kind of Conservatism that some Republicans are still talking about as the wave of the future, is very much the wave of the past. (Laugh)

And we’re going to see something different. What it is I don’t know, but it’s going to be different.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting, talking about Nixon’s loss of prestige, of position. Do you think that Nixon would have begun the Age of Reagan had he not …

WILENTZ: I don’t think so … (LOUD THUMP) … I think, well, there are many differences between Ronald Reagan and, and Richard Nixon.

I mean Richard Nixon was not a Conservative ideologue to the extent that Ronald Reagan was. Ronald Reagan was not simply a Conservative ideologue, but he was … that was a big part of him.

Nixon wasn’t that way. Nixon believed in Nixonism. Which is a strange amalgam of, of, of factors or of elements. But, but it’s primary purpose is to advance the image and self-image of this supremely resentful person … Richard Nixon.

Extremely talented politician. A man who had some interesting ideas along the way. But who basically wanted, and this became clear during the Watergate scandal, wanted to try and reshape the American government, the executive branch, in particular, but the entirety of the Federal government … in his own image.

He wanted to make it a Nixonian government. Which would have meant a very strong executive … would have reclaimed a lot of the power that he thought that Congress had taken away from the President. But, but ideologically would not have been anywhere near as definitive or as clear cut as what Ronald Reagan brought in … in 1980.

HEFFNER: You know, back in the fifties, in the early fifties when I published my Documentary History of the US …


HEFFNER: … and I wrote about, as so many people in the field did, the permanent Roosevelt Revolution.


HEFFNER: When Nixon came I didn’t feel that I had to retract that particularly. But now I do, what made those of us who are so much older than you …


HEFFNER: … so foolish as to think …


HEFFNER: … there could be a permanent …

WILENTZ: I’m not so sure you’re as foolish as you’re letting on. The fact is that Ronald Reagan changed … moved American politics to the Right. No question.

But let’s remember what Ronald Reagan did not accomplish. Going back to the 1950’s and 1960’s Ronald Reagan had stood for the … if not the abolition, at least the virtual abolition of Social Security.


WILENTZ: A keystone of the New Deal. He stood for changes in Medicare and Medicaid, which was a cornerstone of the Great Society, which was a continuation of the New Deal.

A great deal of the New Deal is still with us. Both institutionally and spiritually. So Reagan, you know, hit a, hit a, hit a, hit a wall … he could go so far and no further.

One of the interesting things about Reagan as the first Reagan Democrat himself … there’s a great picture … George Will, in fact, was telling me about a picture he had come … he had seen at the Reagan Library … I think it was the Reagan … no it was at the Truman Library … it’s a picture of Harry Truman in 1948, giving a speech somewhere in the country, and on one side predictably, were Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but on the other side was the man who had introduced them … Ronald Reagan.

HEFFNER: Cheering him on.

WILENTZ: Absolutely. And he continued to support Democrats even … in 1950. So he was the first Reagan Democrat in many ways.

But he understood how to govern in a way that say the current incumbent does not. That is to say he knew about compromise, he knew when to back off, he knew when to retreat in order to advance. I mean these are the basics of American government. Ahemm, ahemmm, you don’t have to be a genius, you just have to be very good at doing it. And that takes a special kind of genius.

And Reagan had that. Reagan could do that. So that meant that he didn’t undo a lot of what FDR had put into place.

For that matter he didn’t undo a lot of what was put in place in the 1970’s … after, you know, the Democrats had really fallen on hard times. I mean Roe v Wade exists to this day. He realized fairly early on … well, at least by the end of his first term, that a Constitutional Amendment banning abortion, was not going to get through the Congress let alone through the, the Amendment process. So he backed off.

You know he did more to pay lip service in fact to the religious Right in many ways … not entirely … he did certain things. I’m not trying to say that he wasn’t effective … an effective advocate for that in some ways. But he didn’t get anything really big.

HEFFNER: But on the mantra of the Reagan and Gingrich and others …


HEFFNER: … mantra … deregulation, deregulation, deregulation …


HEFFNER: … don’t you see that as something very basic in the Reagan years … from then on?

WILENTZ: Absolutely, I mean I don’t mean to say that he did nothing (laugh) (WEIRD SOUND) … he did a lot. And I think a lot of it was very damaging.

But there are two things above all, even before deregulation I think what, what was most … what most drove Ronald Reagan in terms of the business agenda was to cut taxes.

I don’t mean cut taxes … because he actually raised taxes, too. Was to cut the top marginal rates and to lower them. I mean when he was President the top marginal rate was about 70% … 69% … 70%. By the time he left, it was less than half that. Now that … to me … if, if, if there was a revolution that Ronald Reagan perpetuated, that was it.

HEFFNER: And we’re back now to our arguments over the same issue.

WILENTZ: Well precisely. Because it’s, it’s unstable. It creates great deficits. Reaganimics doesn’t work. From the standpoint of creating, you know, increased revenues for the Federal government.

I mean, again, you don’t have to be a genius to say if you cut taxes you’re not going to be getting as much money in … and economic growth is not going to make up for it.

HEFFNER: You say you don’t have to be geniuses, are you saying the American people … are not that smart?

WILENTZ: No, I think the American people feel overtaxed. Many of them feel overtaxed. I think the American people feel as if they were being taxed and not getting their money’s worth.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

WILENTZ: Well, in the 1970’s, in the aftermath of Vietnam when inflation was going up, when unemployment was going up and yet taxes were still very high, government services really did seem to decline.

Both at the national level, and at the local and municipal level … state level. The city we share … New York City … I mean it was rough in the seventies, we nearly went bankrupt. It really seemed to be a time when there was a crisis in the Liberal world view that Liberalism could not solve.

I mean how do you explain “stagflation”? John Maynard Keynes could not explain “stagflation”. Ronald Reagan gave him an answer. He said, “Well, this is what you have to do.”

And in the end, Americans, I think, were so fed up with long gas lines, with all the things that we associate with the 1970’s … they were saying, “All right, we’ll give this guy a chance because he doesn’t seem as crazy as some people say he is.” And then we had, you know, the eight years of Ronald Reagan.

Now, you know, in terms of the fine points about taxes, I think that in the absence of an effective Federal government, people say, “well, look, I’d rather have it myself because I’m not getting any services.”

So it’s not that they were stupid. It’s just that they were, you know, being …what shall we say … they were looking to some kind of solution to better their lives. And they didn’t see the Federal government as being able to provide it. So let’s not take my money away. And that’s what Ronald Reagan appealed to in many, many, many Americans. In the end, you know, the solution to that … the counter to that is not raising taxes. It’s to figure out a way … to say well, we’ll have to do that, but you’re going to get a lot better government in return.

And the Democrats had a lot of difficulty doing that. Or at least persuading people that was what they were going to be able to do, at least until 1992.

HEFFNER: You sound as though you believe it can be done.

WILENTZ: Well, I think that there was a change, there was a shift in 1992. I mean I think Clinton really did try to square the circle, some people say. But try to up-date Liberalism.

I mean Liberalism, like Conservatism needs to be … if, if it’s to live … has to be constantly up-dated. Has to be constantly revised. You can’t … you can’t continue the New Deal by continuing the New Deal … if you understand what I’m saying.

You have to understand that history changes. Conditions change. And in Clinton’s case … but I think Clinton did understand … was that in the aftermath of Reagan, not only in terms of his ideological appeal, but just the situation he left the country in … a certain kind of New Deal Liberalism … the orthodoxy of New Deal Liberalism had to be questioned.

That was true in terms of fiscal policy … first and foremost. He realized he was going to have to balance the budget or at least bring the deficit down. He became a deficit hawk. And he realized you could do that in a way that Ross Perot wasn’t, wasn’t suggesting. That you could do it … you could do it through economic growth, but you had to do it through targeted economic growth and you had to do it in a way that he and Bob Rubin and others managed to figure out how to do it … and creating the largest surplus is an American history, by the time he left office.

He also, I think, questioned … or … yeah … questioned certainly orthodoxies about social provision. Welfare was the big example, which really got a lot of old line New Dealers and a lot of the Left Wing of his party very upset.

HEFFNER: When he brought about change.

WILENTZ: When he brought about change. And when he questioned what had been … what had become a kind of stale orthodoxy and that had allowed Republicans, on the cheap, to racialize politics, by talking about welfare cheats … I mean going back to Ronald Reagan saying all of this stuff … and, and, and demagogue the issue in a way that was completely phony, but stoked, stoked a lot of passion. A lot of resentment.

You know, the Republicans are very good at resentment. That’s one thing, from Richard Nixon to the present … they’re very, very good at understanding what people’s resentments are … in part because they’re closer to the people than the Democrats are. But …

HEFFNER: Hadn’t the Democrats been excellent at that back in the late 19th century?

WILENTZ: Ahemm, well … the late 19th century …

HEFFNER: Well, I’m thinking about … I’m thinking about the Granger movements, I’m thinking about the Greenbackers, I’m thinking about the Agrarian …

WILENTZ: Sure … oh sure …

HEFFNER: … angry, angry agrarians …

WILENTZ: The angry farmers. And the populace, you know, ultimately. Yes, I think they understood that. But, you know, there’s a difference between grievance and resentment.

HEFFNER: Tell me.

WILENTZ: A grievance is when, you know, you see something is going wrong, you’re getting basically screwed over by somebody and you, you propose a policy which is going to change … for the better … the opportunities opened up to those people who are getting screwed over. That to me is what a grievance is.

And you, you know, going back to the American Revolution. Right? You petition over your grievances.

HEFFNER: (Laugh) Right.

WILENTZ: A resentment is something that is simmering. It doesn’t have a particular policy attached to it. It’s simply an emotional response to a, a feeling of persecution. A feeling of being … a feeling of being screwed over. Some of it may be true, there’s always a kernel of truth to any of that stuff. But it’s tapping … when one taps into resentments, one doesn’t necessarily have any reason to try and redress those resentments. In fact, you have every reason not to.

HEFFNER: You mean you want to hold on to them.

WILENTZ: Well, you want to keep them going because they’re good for business … in the political business. And the Republican Party has been very good at that. Or was very good at that, I don’t think they can do it any more … I think the country’s changed. But, but I think there is that basic difference.

The, the, the Democrats … you know, look there’s a point at which the two begin to blur. And you know, I mean, the classic … I don’t know … New Deal … cartoon, if you will of a Fat Cat Capitalist with a cigar sticking out of his mouth and dollar bills coming out of his top hat … I mean that, that played on social resentments as well as grievances.

That’s called political propaganda. Sure. But I, but I think that the Democrats lost in ability after ’68 to talk with conviction about what had been, up to that point, what had defined the Democratic Party since the New Deal.

Why that happened is complicated. I mean it happened for good reasons and it happened for reasons, that were, I think less … notable or less, less worthy.

HEFFNER: What were the good reasons?

WILENTZ: Well, the good reasons were that … you know … what, what FDR could count on was the White South. And the White South was not going to vote for a Republican … period.

All through his, his term … FDR was better, actually, on civil rights in part because of his wife … but, but, you know … he appointed judges. He saw this as a slow process … he was a gradualist, if you will. In an era before a wide … large scale civil rights movement.

I mean one existed, but it was pretty small. I mean it was A. Thorpe Randolph saying “Mr. President, we’re going to march on Washington.” Not to diminish A. Phillip Randolph at all … it was extraordinary … he was, he was a trailblazer … BUT … the politics … the political situation was different.

Now, beginning in 1948 when Strom Thurmond bolts the party … right through and Hubert Humphrey gives his great speech defending the civil rights plank in the, in the Truman platform … and Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Forces … right through to 1964, there was this unraveling … this gradual unraveling of the Democratic Party around the racial issue. And by 1964, when a Southern Texan Liberal … Texas Liberal … Lyndon Johnson … signs the Civil Rights Act … I mean it wasn’t that it was so sudden … there had been a lot going on before, but that really, that really did it.

HEFFNER: And as you said, “did in” the Democratic Party in the South.

WILENTZ: Exactly. So, so in that sense the Democratic Party was different than it had been. And that’s one of the good reasons, because the Democratic Party, in effect, took over the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, they became the party of Lincoln.

The not so good reasons were that the splits over foreign policy resolved themselves in ways that I think that were, were destructive for the Party.

For one thing the anti-War wing of the party never … or did not convey … a convincing sense of what America’s foreign policy ought to be in a Cold War world. It was one thing to object to the Vietnam War, but where were you going to go with that? How are we going to re-formulate a, a policy that was post-containment, that was post deterrents? They had no … they had no answer to that.

So the Party lost some of its credibility on that ???? [National] Security right then. Not because the War was popular. The War was not popular. But the Democrats … that wing of the party because they had no sense of what was going on internationally … I mean they … they were patriotic … all the rest of it … George McGovern was a great patriot, I admire him greatly. I agreed with him about the war in Vietnam, but the parties at large did not manage to recreate a foreign policy.

HEFFNER: And you see a repetition of that now?

WILENTZ: Well, you do. And this is … and one of the reasons why people like Scoop Jackson and others were so angry. Now, that was part of the problem. The other part had to do with cultural issues and other questions that they never managed to find a way to keep … what shall we call it … the, the sense of shock at all of the social changes that were occurring that hit their traditional working class base very, very hard. They found no way to keep it together.

On certain issues they could … equal pay for women, I think working class women thought that was a good idea. Right? It is a good idea. And in fact, it’s been working class women who’ve kept the Democratic Party alive as far as I can make out, over the last 40 years. Their votes have been crucial. They and the Black vote have been crucial to keeping the Democratic Party alive.

But, you know, that split was there and it was profound and it was not healed in any kind of convincing way. The Democrats did think that they were going to be able to recreate a new political, democratic political era after Watergate. Another reason why I begin with the Watergate.

You know Watergate was their manna from heaven … boy oh boy … Richard Nixon turned out to be just as bad as Democrats had said he was. Even worse. So with his downfall and with the Republican Party in disarray, many Democrats assumed, “we’re in like Flynn” for the foreseeable future.

The problem was the country didn’t exactly agree with them. The country wanted effective government. Now the Democrats promised that, Jimmy Carter promised that, he was a man of high ideals … believed in technical expertise, believed in shifting American foreign policy. He actually did have a foreign policy, it was a policy of diplomacy. Which came undone, or was overwhelmed, shall we say by certain realties that proved to be unfortunate … like the Soviets invading Afghanistan and …


WILENTZ: Iran. So, you know, so once again there was a feeling … “Aww, the Democrats aren’t doing it”. And, you know, that election, 1980 was important, not simply for the election of Ronald Reagan, but for how many Liberal Democrats in the Senate went under, including … including McGovern. I mean that was a real watershed. You had a more Republican Senate than you, than you had had before. Democrats still ran it, but it was … not as much.

And it was much more … you know a lot of Liberal lions … you know, aside from Ted Kennedy … had been, had been, had been, you know, removed from power. And that was a real shift.

HEFFNER: But you know … in two and a half minutes left to this program … I understand what you say about the beginning of the Age of Reagan … you begin in ‘74. Why do you end it in 2008?

WILENTZ: 2008. Well, I think that the last eight years has seen the radicalization of the Reagan era by the Bush Administration, in particular. But with collusion from the Republican Congress for the first six years of the Bush Administration.

Remember Reagan always had a Democratic Congress to restrain him. The elder Bush was really a center Right figure anyway, I believe. But he, too, had a Democratic Congress. It was only … you know, we only got a Republican Congress thanks to Bill Clinton. But, but in 19 … in 2000, 2001, you know, George Bush was coming into power with (laugh) the slimmest of margins … one vote … on the Supreme Court …

HEFFNER: Yes. Not a popular vote.

WILENTZ: Not a popular vote. He’d won one … the only person to win by one vote. I say that semi-facetiously. But nevertheless proceeded to govern as if he’d had the biggest mandate since FDR in ’36 or LBJ in ’64. And it turned out that he was not the compassionate Conservative that he had, that he had promised he would be, that he campaigned as being. He turned out to be much, much more Conservative.

I think the tip-off was the appointment of John Ashcroft. Throughout … I mean I’ll telescope it all … the travails of the … and the failures of the Bush Administration, which are familiar, have lead to the highest or the steepest decline in, in popularity ratings. He’s going to go out with the longest disapproval, sustained disapproval in all of modern American history.

The failures are, are familiar from the difficulties in Iraq … I think Katrina actually was a turning point …

HEFFNER: And that brings an end to the Age of Reagan.

WILENTZ: I think it does because what you see is now the country … that kind of Reaganism having been able to be pushed so far to the Right has lost touch with the American people and has become intellectually exhausted.

HEFFNER: And as you said at the beginning, Professor Wilentz, now we have to wait to see what happens next.

What happens next now is that we’ll take a break, it’s the end of this program. And thank you for being willing to sit and do a second program.

WILENTZ: My pleasure, Richard. It’s great.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.