"Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." That applause line, delivered halfway through Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address in 1980, embodied the distilled essence of Reagan's greatest lasting contribution to American life. For nearly fifty years before Reagan, most Americans assumed that their government could and should be expected to solve the country's pressing social and economic problems. In the nearly thirty years that have passed since Reagan, however, most Americans have come to believe that the free market, not the government, can best solve the nation's ills. That fundamental shift in Americans' basic worldview, more than anything else, defines the conservative Reagan Era (which continues to this day) and differentiates it from the liberal New Deal Era that preceded it.
Interestingly, Ronald Reagan himself did not always espouse the firm anti-government beliefs that eventually came to define Reaganism. As a young man, Reagan was actually a Roosevelt Democrat. The Reagan family only survived the Great Depression because Jack Reagan, young Ronnie's unemployed father, was able to find a job in one of the New Deal's work-relief programs. A few years later, Ronald Reagan found himself admiring Roosevelt's leadership of America's World War II effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (Reagan joined the military but performed his wartime service in Hollywood, acting in American propaganda films.)
In the years that followed the Second World War, however, Reagan drifted away from Roosevelt's Democratic Party and its liberal policies. (Or perhaps, as Reagan himself put it, the party drifted away from him.) In the late 1940s, Reagan served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, Hollywood's actors' union, a role in which he said he discovered Communist plots to infiltrate and undermine the union and the film industry. Frustrated by what he considered to be the Democrats' softness on Communism, Reagan found himself drawn to the more militant anticommunist stance of the Republicans.
At the same time, Reagan (who made a very good salary from 1954 to 1962 as a corporate "ambassador of goodwill" for the General Electric company) came to oppose the high tax rates that Roosevelt and subsequent Democrats had imposed upon the rich. (For much of the middle part of the twentieth century, the highest marginal tax rate imposed on the wealthiest Americans exceeded 90%; by contrast, the highest tax rate today is 35%.) By the early 1960s, Reagan's political evolution was complete; the onetime Democrat had become an anti-Red, anti-tax, anti-government Republican.
In his personal journey from Roosevelt Democrat to Reagan Republican, Ronald Reagan cut a path that would later be followed by millions of ordinary Americans. One of the most remarkable features of the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s was the "Reagan Democrat" phenomenon, which saw countless members of the old Democratic New Deal Coalition—blue-collar workers, urban Catholics, and southern Protestants foremost among them—abandon their traditional party allegiances to support Reagan's conservative vision. These lapsed Democrats had lost their faith in the central promise of the old New Deal Order—that government programs could improve their lives. Reagan's celebration of the virtues of the untrammeled free market gave them something new to believe in.
In truth, the new ideology of Reaganism that swept the nation in the 1980s wasn't very new at all. There wasn't really much to distinguish Reagan's programs and politics from those of Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican who had been crushed in the 1964 presidential election by the liberal Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Why did voters who had repudiated Goldwater in 1964 flock to Reagan sixteen years later?
In part it was a matter of timing. In the decade and a half that passed between the fall of Goldwater and the rise of Reagan, American liberals led the country through a brutal series of setbacks: Vietnam. Race riots. Culture wars. Energy crisis. Economic stagnation. By 1980 many Americans were more than ready to try something different.
But good timing alone cannot explain the lasting power of the Reagan Revolution. Ronald Reagan was a politician with rare talents, and he used those talents not just to win elections but to transform the prevailing currents of American politics.
As a politician, Reagan used the skills he had developed in his earlier career as an actor to great effect. The persona Reagan cultivated as president—genial and patriotic, simple and optimistic—wasn't much different from many of the inspirational roles he had played in his younger days. Reagan certainly knew how to deliver a line; throughout his long political career, he rarely uttered a word that didn't sound utterly sincere—even if, on more than one occasion, the words he spoke were demonstrably false. In a sense, Reagan approached the presidency as if it were his greatest acting job, portraying himself as an extremely likeable commander-in-chief. (At the end of his presidency, Reagan confided to an interviewer that "there have been times in this office when I've wondered how you could do the job if you hadn't been an actor."10)
Talents cultivated in Hollywood allowed Reagan to earn the nickname, "The Great Communicator." And Reagan used those great communication skills to distill his complex (and sometimes controversial) conservative ideology into a few simple principles that sounded to many Americans like plain common sense: America is good, Communism is evil. Government is the problem, not the solution. Free-market capitalism delivers prosperity. Taxes and regulation strangle business.
Over the course of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan's worldview came to define the ideological parameters of American politics. Most American politicians since, from both parties, have operated within an essentially Reaganite worldview. Perhaps the ultimate proof of the ideological power of the Reagan Revolution came in 1996, when a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, announced plans to dismantle Franklin D. Roosevelt's federal welfare program. Clinton, by far the most liberal president of the Reagan Era, marked the occasion by delivering a thoroughly Reaganite speech: "The era of big government," he said, "is over."