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Reagan's Destructive Revolution

by Walter Williams

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Amid the mountains of praise and the occasional criticism of Ronald Reagan, what may be his most lasting legacy remains hidden. He led a political revolution that radically altered the American system of government and its key institutions.

The revolution began in 1981 under the banner of Reaganism -- Ronald Reagan's anti-government, market-fundamentalist philosophy that now dominates American political thought.

Yet, it is best labeled the "Stealth Revolution" because pundits and the public, after nearly a quarter century, still appear to be unaware of its existence, much less the damage already done. The deleterious changes have stayed under the radar.

Be that as it may, a revolution is in full swing. President Reagan's two terms put it on course; Reaganism sustained it for the next 12 years; George W. Bush, Reagan's disciple, re-energized it with a vengeance.

Following the tenets of Reaganism, Bush has led the most undemocratic American government in the post-World War II era. It well may be the least democratic government since 1789.

The result is that the national institutions created by the Constitution to support representative democracy have been disfigured. America has become an entrenched plutocracy where the wealthiest individuals and major corporations unduly influence government decisions to reap benefits at the expense of ordinary citizens.

A modern-day Rip Van Winkle -- falling asleep just before Reagan's inauguration and awakening today -- would be amazed to find that the political revolution has eaten away much of the foundation of the American republic during his hibernation. The Stealth Revolution has succeeded to an extent unimaginable a quarter century ago.

In "The Great Unraveling," Princeton University economist and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, drawing on Henry Kissinger's 1957 book, "A World Restored," pointed out that what the latter labeled a "revolutionary power" intends to crush the existing structure of governance that it views as illegitimate.

Krugman argued: "One should regard America's right-wing movement -- which now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media -- as a revolutionary power in Kissinger's sense. That is, it is a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system."

At the same time, it needs underscoring that the full implications of the political change can be perceived only when cast in a broader historical context going back to the start of the Reagan administration. The first shots were fired in 1981, not 2001; the Reagan revolution began over two decades ago.

Reagan's unshakable conviction that the federal government was the nation's biggest domestic problem, and his efforts to constrain it, severely reduced that government's capacity to serve the American people and undermined representative democracy.

His commitment to an unfettered free market, deep reductions in the top income-tax rates, and massive deregulation for businesses greatly increased the political power of the wealthiest citizens and corporate America. A straight road to plutocracy lay open.

With Reaganism dominating public thinking during the 20 years before the Bush presidency, the Republicans had in place a solid base to launch the blitzkrieg that firmly entrenched the plutocratic regime. What have they done?

To start with, there is iron political control from the top ensuring far greater White House domination over the federal agencies than at any time in the past. Secrecy and deception permeate the Bush presidency, keeping needed decision-making information from the public and Congress and distorting what is disseminated.

The Republican majority exercises the same autocratic control in the House of Representatives by severely restricting debate and excluding Democrats from conference committees.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has transformed the conference committees, which in the past were restricted to reconciling disagreements between House and Senate bills, into a key means of inserting major changes, not appearing in either bill, during the conference.

Sheer power has been substituted for the deliberations leading to reasoned compromises that James Madison, the father of the Constitution, believed to be central to a flourishing democracy.

Congress no longer placed its constituents' interests over those of special interests -- in this case, the wealthiest, most powerful citizens and corporations. America has ceased to be the world's greatest representative democracy.

Ronald Reagan is dead, but Reaganism, and the Stealth Revolution it engendered, lives on with all its destructive force. And I fear it may be Reagan's most lasting legacy unless the nation wakes up and sees what the Reagan revolution has wrought. Cassandras are not always wrong.

Walter Williams, professor emeritus at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs, is the author of the recently published "Reaganism and the Death of Representative Democracy."

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Albion Monitor June 11, 2004 (

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