The Real Reagan Revolution
In 1980, the throngs that packed the annual County Fair in Neshoba, Mississippi, the area made infamous with the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964, buzzed with excitement at the prospect of a speech by their special guest, Ronald Reagan. From the time he and Nancy arrived at the nearby Meridian airport, he was greeted as a conquering hero. Thousands of whites lined the road and cheered his motorcade from the airport to the fair grounds. The Deep South was Reagan country, and white Mississippians regarded Reagan as their native son.
In appearing at the fair, Reagan did something that neither conservative Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater or President Richard Nixon did. He was the first presidential candidate in the near century that the fair had been held to speak at the event. Indeed, he deliberately and calculatedly chose the Neshoba Fair to kick off his presidential campaign. When Reagan took the stage, with dozens of Confederate flags festooning the fairground, the crowd chanted, "We want Reagan." A beaming Regan shouted back, "There isn't any place like this anywhere." There was thunderous applause, and rebel yells.
Reagan then got down to business. He tore into Washington bureaucrats, i.e. the Democrats, big government and welfare. He then shouted the words that everyone wanted to hear, "I believe in states' rights. I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to the federal establishment."
The Reagan revolution didn't merely return America to a world in which God, patriotism, rugged individualism, militant anti-communism and family values ruled supreme. There was the ugly, and dark subtext; unspoken but understood, and indeed anticipated, that the Reagan revolution would roll the clock back to the pre-civil rights days when blacks, minorities and women knew their place.
Reagan, far more adroitly than Nixon, parlayed the forgotten American sentiment and a sanitized image of the past into a powerful conservative ideological movement. White Southerners joined with blue-collar ethnics who were fed up with bussing, affirmative action and crime (always seen as committed by African-Americans) to desert the Democratic Party in even bigger numbers than during Nixon's campaigns. Reagan appealed to their fear that society was spinning out of control and that the Democrats did not have the answers, and their hope that a telegenic, conservative Republican could fulfill Nixon and Goldwater's promise to reinstitute law and order, clamp down on "permissiveness" and restore prosperity.
But Reagan upped Goldwater and Nixon's ante. His first task was to eliminate the remnants of the Great Society programs assailed by many whites as government handouts to blacks. He didn't totally succeed. But he crippled funding and further eroded public enthusiasm for social spending. During Reagan's first four years federal expenditures on education and training, social services, public works, civilian research and development plummeted forty percent.
Reagan fixated white Middle Americans on the government as pro-higher taxes, pro-bureaucracy, pro-immigrant and especially pro-welfare and pro-rights of criminals. He painted government as a destructive, bloated, inefficient white elephant, weighting down the backs of Americans. He claimed that government entitlement programs that benefited the poor were a crushing drain on the budget.
Though the big winners were the rich and corporations, and it racked up towering deficits, many whites believed that Reagan tax cuts delivered them from big government and big spending, and were a hammer to pound the Democrats for supposedly selling out to "special interests" which came to mean blacks, the poor and women.
Even though the Reagan revolution masked its racial appeals in code words, and subtle messages, race was never far from the surface. In his autobiography, My American Journey, Colin Powell called Reagan "insensitive" on racial issues. Reagan's attack, though unsuccessful, on affirmative action programs, his refusal to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, his attempt to reduce the power of the Civil Rights Commission over employment discrimination cases, his opposition to the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Reagan Attorney General, Ed Meese complained that the bill discriminated against the South) were huge signals that the assault on civil rights was a prime goal of his administration.
Reagan's frontal attack on government, social programs and civil rights insured Republican wins in national elections and tightened the Republican party's iron-grip on the South. President Bush more than the other Republican president has benefited mightily from Reagan's Southern and unforgotten man strategy.
In the 2000 presidential election, he bagged the electoral votes of the Old Confederate states, and secured the granite like backing of America's heartland.
Polls show that white males by whopping margins favor Bush over Kerry, and that's not likely to change in November.
Civil rights, civil liberties, women's groups and liberal Democrats regard the Reagan years as the most disastrous in modern times for civil rights and social programs. But conservatives revel in the era and aura of Reagan. They should. His Southern strategy, forgotten man pitch, and happy grin style of politics, guaranteed that Republicans will dominate the South and mid-America for years to come.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.