Reagan's 'legacy' was built on the anger of white men
June 13, 2004 5:46 am
IF THE REAGAN PRESIDENCY were a film (and why not think of it that way?), it might have been called "Revenge of the Angry White Men."
Most of those pondering the former president's legacy talk about how he reshaped the United States' political landscape and moved the country to the right. "Over time, he converted much of the country to his own views and values. His more important legacy is how much he changed our minds," David Gergen, formerly Reagan's communications director, told Knight Ridder Newspapers.
But it may be just as accurate to say that Reagan gave legitimacy to the feelings of fear and resentment that were rife among certain segments of the American population.
Consider the times. The nation's prestige had been dealt severe blows overseas by military defeat in Southeast Asia and a hostage crisis in Iran. The economy was battered by recession, inflation, and oil crises. And women, African-Americans, and, to some extent, gays had rejected their subordinate status in American society and were openly demanding equal treatment and opportunity.
It was enough to make many white men feel that they were losing their bearings. It was enough to make many of them feel threatened--and angry.
Of course, the "angry white man" phenomenon had been growing for a number of years before Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. In 1968, Richard Nixon had devised a "Southern strategy" that targeted whites in the Democratic South by promising not to back any meaningful social or economic changes in race relations.
But while Nixon's 1968 campaign may have put the GOP on a new course, it was Reagan who mastered the politics of resentment. This had to do largely with Reagan's ability to connect with angry white men while still appearing as the genial grandfather to most voters.
Reagan reached out to angry white men right from the start of his 1980 bid for the presidency. He delivered the first major speech of his campaign in Philadelphia--not the home of the Liberty Bell but the town in Mississippi where racists had abducted and murdered three young civil-rights workers 16 years earlier. In a big wink and nod to angry white men, Reagan used the occasion to proclaim his belief in "states' rights," a phrase that long had been part of the rhetoric of white supremacy in the South.
Once in office, Reagan slashed social programs and vilified "welfare queens," a code phrase understood by angry white men as an attack not only on women but also on poor blacks. Reagan also played to white racial resentment by appointing judges who watered down civil-rights legislation, by opposing a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., and by adopting a pathetically weak stand against South African apartheid.
The Gipper also ushered in an age of reaction against women and gays. He loaded the courts with anti-choice judges and spent most of his tenure ignoring the mushrooming AIDS epidemic, which was viewed by many of the president's angry, Bible-thumping supporters as God's special punishment for gay men.
Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs were vanishing, real wages were falling, and the power of unionized labor was being severely undercut. But many blue-collar white guys were oblivious to all this and backed the Gipper because he was giving hell to the blacks, the feminists, the queers, and the commies.
Yes, it was morning in America, and many folks were too hung over from their anger binge to see that they were voting against their own interests.
The Reagan magic was such that he could take a pop song about working-class alienation and despair--namely Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."--and transform it into a rallying cry for American triumphalism.
For those not lucky enough to have been born in the U.S.A., the Reagan revolution was often experienced as blood-letting and terror.
Reagan made it seem as if brown-skinned commies were poised to cross the Rio Grande and take over the country, whereupon they would kick back with cigars and cervezas and sing ballads about Che Guevara while God-fearing white Americans were reduced to tending their oppressors' gardens, picking their fruits and vegetables, and building monuments to Lenin and Stalin.
To prevent that day from ever coming to pass, Reagan bankrolled killers and torturers who slaughtered tens of thousands of innocents in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras.
Our boys in Central America--the security forces, the mercenaries, the death squads--were good at what we paid and trained them to do. They wiped out entire villages in Guatemala's highlands, killed school teachers in Nicaragua, and raped and murdered American nuns in El Salvador.
But none of this mattered much to Reagan's angry white men--America was standing tall in the world.
While the success of the Reagan revolution could be measured in Central America by the number of mass graves it produced, it was measured here in the States by electoral votes. The Democratic Party was devastated by the defection of their angry white men--who came to be known as Reagan Democrats--and it has spent more than two decades trying to win them back.
A few Democrats, such as Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, have been successful at wooing some of them; others, such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, have made clumsy efforts to do so, and have failed.
The Warners and Deans certainly are right: The Democratic Party must seek the votes of angry white men. But it should do so with inclusive economic populism that doesn't take African-Americans for granted and that reaches out to other progressive voting blocs--such as young, single women.
Reagan taught us that politicians who effectively articulate a few core convictions can build new winning coalitions. If Democrats can rediscover their core convictions and start running on them--instead of running away from them--they may be able to create a sequel to the Reagan era that could be called "The Angry White Men Come Home."
RICK MERCIER is a writer and editor for The Free Lance-Star.