Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Reagan's Legacy

I'm abit behind on the bandwagon here (give me a break, I started the blog today!) but I think Reagan's death represents a unique oppurtunity to reflect on the legacy of Reaganism which now dominantes the Conservative Right. A wise man once said that Reagan was "Easy to hate but impossible to dislike," and that may be true (I was too young to feel Reagan's impact directly). However, Reagan's undeniable influence over American politics is still being felt today, and in the face of an outpouring of efforts by politicians of every stripe to align themselves with "Reagan's legacy," its important to examine what exactly that is.

The Washington Post pointed out on June 9th that Reagan's economic policies are responsible for our current budget deficit predicament, culminating in VP Cheney's famous quote "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." Did Reagan actually prove that? Well,the article points out
The fiscal shift in the Reagan years was staggering. In January 1981, when Reagan declared the federal budget to be "out of control," the deficit had reached almost $74 billion, the federal debt $930 billion. Within two years, the deficit was $208 billion. The debt by 1988 totaled $2.6 trillion. In those eight years, the United States moved from being the world's largest international creditor to the largest debtor nation.
To some economists, the impact was clear. Interest rates rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the economy slowed, then slipped into recession, and productivity barely advanced. Americans feared their nation had slipped into the shadows of Japan and Germany.
Reagan's "economic policy . . . was a disaster," University of California at Berkeley economic historian J. Bradford DeLong wrote this past weekend on his Web site. "The tax cuts made America a more unequal place, and the deficits slowed economic growth in the 1980s significantly."

The problem with these deficits isn't just economic. Professor Niall Ferguson of New York University's Stern School of Business notes that America's massive military might is underwritten by foreign capital, largely European (including the reviled French) and Japanese. 'This could make for a fragile Pax Americana if foreign investors decide to reduce their stakes in the American economy, possibly trading their dollars for the increasingly vigorous euro,' he writes. (Quoted from the Straits Times, May 5 2003, "Even an Imperial Colossus Needs Friends and Allies"). The problem of deficits is that they make the US dependent on whoever we owe the money too. We see the same sort of problem with our trade imbalance with Japan, and our betrothel to OPEC even when we know that our oil money is flowing directly into the hands of terrorists.

Reagan also unfortunately contributed to the deep polarization of America. If Reagan re-energized the Republican party, it was by exploited racial tensions in the south to convert the Dixiecrats permenantly (everyone, especially african-americans, knows how he kicked off his presidential campaign with a ringing endorsement of "states rights"). In addition, Reagan's adminstration's first response to the AIDS epidemic was to mock gays and lesbians. Finally, Reagan's political base was a significant realignment from the traditional Republican stronghold. Businessmen of all stripes and "Rockefeller Republicans" were replaced by neo-conservatives and religious activists. The rise of Reaganism can be seen as the direct cause of the fall of the centrist wing of the Republican party.

Reagan's values also represented the epitome of "politics over principle." It could be said that Reagan had no principles at all aside from acceding to the popular will. The New Republic wrote on January 9th 1989
"Critics of Reaganism have to come to terms with this fact. Reagan's greatest political skill was his obedience. Conservatives who puzzle over why he failed to cash in his popularity chips for real policy changes have simply gotten it the wrong way round: Reagan produced the policies for the popularity chips. When Americans wanted him to cut taxes, he did so. When they wanted him to stand up to the Soviets, he obliged. When they hankered for détente, he offered them Geneva, then Reykjavik, and finally Moscow. The only crisis of his presidency came when he traded arms with people Americans profoundly distrusted. Even then, like a nervous, otherwise exemplary employee caught engaged in creative accounting, his instinct was to tell his bosses--and to believe--that he hadn't done it.
On almost all the issues on which Americans disagreed with him, Reagan caved. On social conservatism--on abortion, women's rights, affirmative action--he yielded to popular edginess. Even acts of daring were by popular demand: Grenada an attempt to push the polls up after the Lebanon debacle; the Libya raid an attack on an enemy no one could support. Only on protectionism and Central America did Reagan resist the ratings, and even then it was spirited retreat. When real presidential conviction met real congressional opposition and public indifference (over the contras), Reagan's instinct was to push the matter out of politics altogether--and leave it to the devices of Poindexter and North."

Iran-Contra was, by far, the worst example of the type of moral duplicity made in the Reagan administration (and who's ghost seems to be the best manifestation of the "Reagan Legacy" in the W. Bush admin). Selling weapons to an arch-enemy in order to undermine democracy in Latin America. Reagan miscalculated (he thought the US would support the contras as generic "anti-communists"), but the effort was clear: Even democracy itself could be sacrificed in order to look "tough on communism." Today, the Bush administration prostrates itself to such illiberal nations like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Russia, and others in order to bring the maximum rhetorical force to its claims its fighting terror.

This is not to say the Reagan was the sum of all evil in politics. Reagan undoubtedly had a significant role in ending the cold war, he made people proud to be American's again, and for all his faults he did seem to make a geniune effort, as has been often said, "to make sure his adversaries never became his enemies." However, a proper reflection on Reaganism needs to include its faults as well as its glories, and the fact remains that Reaganism is a dangerous political ideology that caused far more harm than good.


One of the purposes this blog was created for was to share some of the best arguments I've heard on various issues, for use both by the general populace and by debaters. Those who debated with me knew that one of my favorite issues was US Hegemony. Posts such as these, which seek to provide various arguments on a broad topic area, will be updated frequently (or whenever I find a new article I find particularly compelling). So, without further ado, some of the best arguments, statements, claims, etc on US hegemony.

Lee Kim Chew wrote a superb article in the Straits Times on May 5 2003 that makes alot of good points. I especially like the quote from Josef Joffe
'The aim should be not only to prevent but also to pre-empt hostile coalitions by undercutting the reasons for their formation. The point is to make other powers willing participants in the American system.'

Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay of the Brookings Inst. write in the New York Times on May 10 2003:
"An empire built on international cooperation, alliances, and law...is the only way to reassure countries fearful of American dominance and to keep them from using their diplomatic and economic power to contain the United States. As the Iraq war underscored, the United States' great power enables it to act alone and still achieve many of its goals swiftly and effectively. But over time such a unilateral exercise of power will breed more and more resentment abroad to the point that other states may decide to work together to obstruct the chosen American course. Then the United States could stand alone, a great power frustrated in the pursuit of its most important goals."

Benjamin Barber, Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland and author of "Jihad vs. McWorld" writes in his article Declare our Interdependence!
"Yet nations that have long cherished their independence, or recently struggled to achieve it, are learning the hard way that there is neither freedom nor equality nor safety from tyranny - nor security from terror - on the basis of independence alone. In a world in which ecology, public health, markets, technology, and war affect everyone equally, interdependence is a stark reality on which the survival of the human race depends. Where fear rules, and terrorism is met by shock and awe only, neither peace nor democracy can ensue...
Where once nations depended on sovereignty alone to secure their destinies, today they depend on one another. In a world where the poverty of some imperils the wealth of others, where none are safer than the least safe, multilateralism is not a stratagem of idealists but a realistic necessity. The lesson of 9/11 was not that rogue states could be unilaterally preempted and vanquished by a sovereign United States, but that sovereignty was a chimera - that HIV and global warming and international trade and nuclear proliferation and transnational crime and predatory capital had already stolen from America the substance of its cherished sovereignty well before the terrorists displayed their murderous contempt for it on that fateful morning."

New York Times Columnist Thomas L. Friedman as spoken of the "Godzilla Effect" in Foreign Policy. This occurs when the global hegemon (IE, the US) acts in such a manner as to make other nations feel that they don't have any influence in the international system, especially over decisions that directly impact their daily lives. When that mood becomes prevelant, countries tend to take actions to make their voices heard, and in a situation where the dominant power has virtual total control over political, economic, conventional military strength and communicative channels, that response tends to come in the form of terrorism. Not only that, but the immense conventional power gap between the hegemon and those who wish to resist it means that terrorists are unlikely to contain themselves to "traditional" guerilla warfare. Rather, they will seek to use Weapons of Mass Destruction, nuclear, biological, and chemical, to equalize the playing field so as to make the US view them as a true and viable threat. Already, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, fearful of what happened to WMD-less states such as Yugoslavia and Iraq that became victims of US military intervention, have become more aggressive about obtaining WMDs and accelerrating pre-existing programs. They view these weapons as the only true check against an otherwise omnipotent United States which does not feel constrained by international law, multipolarity, or even the UN.

These all are arguments for increased US multilateralism and the rejection of the Bush administration's neo-conservative, unilateral tendencies. However, hegemony has its defenders. Zalmay Khalizad of the RAND Inst. writes in the Spring 1995 edition of the Washington Quarterly
"A world in which the US exercises leadership would hold tremendous advantages. First, the global environment would be more receptive to American values--democracy, free markets, rule of law. Second, such a world would have a better chance of dealing cooperatively with the world's major problems, such a nuclear proliferation, threats of regional hegemony by renegade states, and low-level conflicts. Finally, US leadership would help preclude the rise of another hostile global rival, enabling the world to avoid another cold or hot war and all the attendant dangers, including a global nuclear exchange."

Though the dangers of continued US Hegemony have been expounded on at length by liberal commentators, abandoning US hegemony holds significant risks as well. Stephen Rosen writes in the Spring 2003 edition of National Interest
"The US could give up its imperial mission...This would essentially mean the withdrawal of US troops from the middle east, Europe, and mainland Asia...But those who are hostile to us might remain hostile, and much less afraid of the US after such a withdrawal. Current friends might feel less secure and, in the most probable post-imperial world, would revert to the logic of self-help in which all states do what the must in order to protect themselves. This would imply the relatively rapid acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Iran...and perhaps Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and others. Constraints on the acquisition of biological weapons would be even weaker than they are today...The costs of such a world...would not be small. If the logic of American empire is unappealing, it is not at all clear that the alternatives are that much more attractive."

Pledge Case Ruling

The ruling just came down in US v. Newdow, the infamous pledge of allegiance case. It didn't reach a decision on the merits of the issue, rather it threw out the case on standing grounds. Stevens wrote the opinion, Rehnquist and O'Connor concurred in judgment but argued that Newdow had standing and the pledge was constitutional. Thomas concurred in judgment, also agreed Newdow had standing, and claimed that the pledge would be unconstitutional under current 1st amendment jurisprudence. He used that to launch into a diatribe why the current jurisprudence was flawed and the need to override Lee v. Weissman (1992).

A few thoughts:
I agree with Dana Mulhauser when she says the ruling is the best liberals (like myself) could hope for (The New Republic, 6/15/04, "Thank God"). A ruling that the pledge doesn't violate the constitution would be bad for obvious reasons. A ruling that the pledge DID violate the constitution would be bad because it would provoke a backlash similar to the Hawaii Supreme Court ruling which gave gays the right to marry, which spawned DOMA in the federal government and 38 states. The backlash would be even more pronounced here because of election year politics, what better way to motivate conservatives than the imminent threat of a Godless America? The dismissal of the case on a technicality (standing) dodges these harms and gives liberals a chance to fight another day.

All that being said, on a strictly legal basis the ruling is flawed. For the first and undoubtedly last time in my life, I find myself agreeing in part with Rehnquist and in part with Thomas, Newdow clearly did have standing to sue, and under current 1st amendment interpretation the pledge is clearly unconstitutional. Anyone who hasn't done so already should read the original 9th circuit appeals opinion, it presents a very persuasive case for why this is so. Thomas also convincingly argues why it is unconstitutional under current precedent. As to the standing claim, it seems to me that Stevens mischaracterizes the issue. He seems to feel that because Newdow's efforts to protect his religious views conflict with Sandra Banning's (his daughter's mother, with legal custody) efforts, Newdow can't file suit. However, I don't see where the conflict is. Newdow isn't asking for an injunction to prevent Christian influences from reaching his child. He's asking that government not take sides in his religious quarrel. That religion is a personal matter and often the matter of intense personal disagreement is the reason the first amendment exists, to prevent government intervention in something that was outside the purview of an overarching government authority.

The Original

Hey everyone! My name is David, and I am an ex-debater from Bethesda MD. My 4 years of debate has given me a healthy appreciation of the issues that concern America, and a desire to share some of the better arguments on some those issues I've come accross during those years. So hopefully, whenever I come up with a good idea (or stumble across someone else's), I'll post it on here.

See you soon,