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Ronald Reagan redefined politics like no one since Franklin Roosevelt. His impact is so encompassing, so lasting, that pundits have even coined a phrase for it: the "Reagan revolution." There is widespread agreement on the meaning of that revolution: Reagan convinced us that government was not the solution, it was the problem. Taxes were too high, social programs were counterproductive, regulations were stifling entrepreneurial energy, and the United States was failing to prosecute the cold war in a vigorous manner. Two issues lay at the heart of the revolution: economics and foreign policy. It began in 1980. It continues to this day.
In truth the Reagan revolution began in 1966, and it was not primarily about economics or foreign policy. Reagan's stunning, out-of-nowhere victory in the California governor's race against two-term incumbent and Democratic giant Pat Brown marked the arrival of the Right in postwar American politics. Reagan's leadership of that movement is perhaps his most enduring legacy. It is also a story that has never been properly told.
In the mid-1960s revolution was in the air. Leaders of the New Left spoke of revolt against the Establishment; leaders of the Far Right echoed them in talk of toppling the liberal order. Media images were filled with violence: frightened National Guardsmen brandished fixed bayonets in Watts, where burned-out buildings lay in ruin; angry activists marched on military bases; protests erupted against segregated hotels and businesses; students turned out by the thousands to fight for free speech on campus; anticommunist leaders held rallies and workshops to teach people how to defend their homes and schools against the red menace. This was a time of stark contrasts, nowhere more so than in California. The much-discussed New Left activists of the '60s were offset by an equally impassioned group on the other side. For every organizer from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) there was a John Birch activist; for every civil rights marcher there was an anticommunist rally-goer; for every antiwar protester there were several more who sympathized with American aims in Vietnam.
Ronald Reagan's race against Pat Brown -- the real Reagan revolution -- began as a debate about retaking control of a society in chaos. What Ronald Reagan stood for above all was law and order.
Reagan and Brown clashed on every issue, major and minor, of the day. Understanding the collapse of the liberal order and the rise of the conservative movement requires understanding how Reagan and Brown, during the several years leading up to 1966, came to embrace such bitterly opposed visions of government and society.
Reagan was a card-carrying conservative, Brown a proud liberal. For Reagan, opposing communism was paramount. For Brown, anticommunism was but one issue in foreign affairs and a nonissue at home. Reagan saw the welfare-state policies of recent decades as a slippery slope toward socialism. Brown viewed governmental programs as the best way to achieve a "great society." Reagan denounced moral decline on campus; Brown thanked God for the spectacle of students protesting. Brown seized an opportunity to lead the civil rights movement into the new frontier of fair housing; Reagan believed that even the 1964 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. Faced with urban riots, Brown looked to government to help eradicate poverty; Reagan vowed zero tolerance for criminals.
Prior to 1966, Reagan's views on all of these questions were considered extreme, not least by Brown and his followers. In 1962, Reagan was indeed part of a marginal movement; in 1964, Barry Goldwater led the movement in a national election, but suffered a stinging defeat. Reagan could not possibly have beaten Brown prior to 1966; only civil rights, Berkeley, Watts, and Vietnam made it possible. It was Reagan's promise to arrest moral decline that won him a million-vote victory over the popular incumbent, who had beaten Richard Nixon in 1962 and seemed destined to usher in California's progressive future.
Tomes have been written about Reagan, chronicling the dominant events of his life and career. They detail his early years in Illinois, exploits as an athlete, rise to fame in radio and film, and of course his two terms in the White House. Former aides have produced a stream of memoirs, and biographers have examined the main features of his presidency, from his victory over Jimmy Carter to his supply-side economic program to his role in Iran-Contra. Yet even the biographers rarely spend more than one or two chapters discussing his rise as a politician in the early and mid-1960s. Reagan's official biographer, Edmund Morris, passes over the 1966 election in a few short pages, his narrator explaining that he was not in California at the time.
Politics is about ideas, but it is also about the people who champion those ideas. How Ronald Reagan and Pat Brown came to embody two utterly contrasting sets of ideas is a fascinating story of two men who mirrored each other in many ways. Each came from a troubled home with a father who struggled with alcoholism. Each had his own conversion, Brown from Republican to New Deal Democrat, Reagan from New Deal Democrat to anticommunist Republican. Each became a pioneer in his political party: Brown was only the second Democrat to win statewide office in California in the twentieth century, and he was the leading voice of liberalism in the state. Reagan made the conservative movement legitimate for the first time, both in California and later in the nation.
In 1966 these two titans faced off in a battle of worldviews. Law and order was the hinge on which an era turned, yet the particular strategies involved were crucial. For the first time, the conservative movement was able to distance itself from the anticommunist fringe. For the first time, the conservatives learned how to push the right buttons on key issues, from race and riots to war and crime. Reagan successfully linked the liberal social programs of the '60s with disorder in the streets, and offered an alternative vision of what government should and should not do. The Reagan revolution would prove so lasting because the formulas developed in the heat of the moment -- pro-social order, pro-individual liberty, anti-government meddling -- had a lasting appeal. Americans, like most people, crave peace and prosperity. The Reagan revolution has come to be associated with the free market. Yet at its origins, and perhaps still today, it is equally about social order.
Copyright © 2000 by Matthew Dallek
Introduction: The Critical Years
ONE The Giant Killer
TWO The Anticommunist
THREE "Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, a Liberal?"
FOUR "Run Ronnie Run"
FIVE "You've Got to Get Those Kids Out of There"
SIX "A Bunch of Kooks"
SEVEN "Charcoal Alleys"
EIGHT The George Wallace of California
NINE The Search for Order
TEN Prairie Fire
Posted July 30, 2011
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