From Nixon to Reagan

Richard M. Nixon was the one broke up the Democratic New Deal coalition and forged a Republican majority.  But it was Ronald Reagan who forged a conservative Republican majority.

Nixon in 1968

Reagan made it respectable to be anti-union, anti-environmentalist and anti-government.  He planted memes that continue to this day – that the secret of prosperity is to cut upper bracket taxes, that it is more important to cut taxes than balance the budget, that government as such is bad and should be resisted.  He broke the air traffic controllers’ strike, ridiculed environmentalism and sought to abolish governmental regulation of prices.

This wasn’t how Nixon governed.  When postal workers engaged in wildcat strikes in 1970, the Nixon administration negotiated an agreement which recognized the right of postal employees to bargain collectively.  He supported and signed the Environmental Protection Act.  He responded to the threat of inflation by imposing wage and price controls (interestingly, I don’t recall his Constitutional right to do this being challenged.)

Reagan in 1980

Nixon’s political achievement was to convince white working men that the Democratic leadership was more concerned with the kinds of people George Wallace called “the exotics” than with everyday average citizens.  But he hesitated to touch the New Deal programs that benefited working people.

Why was Reagan able to do what Nixon didn’t?  Partly it was that Reagan was more of an idealist while Nixon was more of a pragmatist.  Partly it was because corporate business was more politically assertive in 1980 than it had been in 1968.

But I think the key factor was the Jimmy Carter administration coming as a transition between the two.  President Carter, like President Obama, was a moderate conservative who was perceived as a liberal.  Carter anticipated the Reagan agenda – cutting taxes on capital gains, setting in motion the deregulation of the trucking and airline industry – and so undercut the ability of Democrats to object to Reagan doing the same things.  At the same time most people thought of Carter as a liberal, and his perceived failures discredited liberalism and validated conservatism.

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