James’ post about Bill Gates v. Ronald Reagan reminded me of this recent review in the Claremont Review of Books by Michael Barone of a book entitled Reagan’s Victory: The Presidential Election of 1980 And the Rise of the Right .
Barone begins: “American liberalism died in 1980”. Our readers may wish that it would lie down. But Barone makes an important point. Liberalism was “… the conventional wisdom from the 1930s clear up to the end of the 1970s.”
The liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society, of Keynesian economics and Phillips Curve manipulation, was, we were told, the only rational way of governing a large industrial society. And after the apparent failure of the American effort in Vietnam, we were lectured that conciliation and negotiation were the only rational means of managing foreign policy in a world heading toward convergence of our system and that of our adversaries.
But by 1980 liberal triumphalism had changed its tune to more depressing notes and a somber score. Keynesian “fine-tuning” had led to stagflation. We lost the Vietnam war. The Soviet Union was on the march, in Africa, Afghanistan, the Middle East. It was building a massive arsenal of SS-20 missiles, and our European allies were looking for face-saving surrender options. Put simply, the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War, or was doing a very convincing imitation.
Khomenei took over Iran and we endured more than a year of international humiliation, followed by the farce of Carter’s botched rescue attempt. I can remember like yesterday that fat Iranian mullah in a turban, prodding the charred corpse of one of our dead aircrewmen with his toe. Jimmy Carter capped off this season of misery with his famous “malaise” speech, and told us not to put up Christmas lights. This reflected the liberal view that the future was one of limits, of austerity, of defeat.
As I type these words I feel once again in my guts the hatred I had for Carter all those years ago.
As Barone discusses, the American people were not interested in this false message of doom. Carter’s reelection team tried to reassemble the New Deal coalition, and couldn’t do it. I grew up in liberal Massachusetts. The Bay State went for Reagan. To this day, that is an amazing fact. But the liberalism of Massachusetts in 1979 still had a heavy admixture of blue collar, union, ethnic, Catholic, patriotic sentiment. These people were ready to see Iran destroyed, and they came to despise Carter for his weakness, because they knew from their daily life that it is weakness that invites attack. The response to the Olympic hockey team was an embarrassment to liberal opinion of the day. But it was a better gauge of where the American heart and mind still was. The world is a game of US against THEM and we want US to win.
Barone quotes Reagan:
They tell us they’ve done the most that humanly could be done. They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities. My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.
Reagan was right. The US economy came back. The Soviet Union went into the garbage can where it belonged. His actions transformed the international landscape. Reagan broke up the New Deal coalition, after 48 years. He changed the rules of American politics forever. The Democrats still don’t know what hit them.
I dont’ think Bill Gates is remotely on the same scale historically. We hereabouts are generally libertarians or libertarian-minded conservatives. We like the creative and productive businessman, we don’t much like the politician. Businesspeople do all kinds of important things. And, generally, in the aggregate, what they do is more important than what politicians do. It is certainly more productive, pretty much all the time. However, on some matters, relating to victory or defeat in war, or the direction of the entire country, sometimes a politician makes a major difference, for good or ill. Reagan was one who made a major difference.