In his first career, Ronald Reagan was a mediocre film actor. Never able to crack Hollywood's "A-list," Reagan was relegated through the 1930s, '40s and '50s to roles in a string of mostly forgettable "B-movies," including one—Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)—that cast him ingloriously opposite a chimpanzee costar. When Reagan later became a prominent politician, his relatively undistinguished Hollywood background led many of his opponents and detractors to dismiss him as a political lightweight. They were dead wrong.
For in his second career, Ronald Reagan became one of the most important and influential political leaders in modern American history. Over the course of the twentieth century, only Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency (1933-45) equaled Reagan's in social, ideological, and political impact. Even though Reagan's presidency ended twenty years ago, it's no exaggeration to say that the Reagan Era continues on to this very day. While some Americans will celebrate Reagan's influence on national life while others lament it, it's fair to say that we're all still living in Ronald Reagan's America.
Reagan's huge impact on American history was, in part, a matter of good timing. Like Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 at a moment when much of the American populace felt a deep discontent over the state of America's economy, society, and politics.
The 1970s were a trying time in the United States. The nation's economy, which had enjoyed its greatest and longest period of sustained prosperity from the 1940s through the 1960s, stalled out after 1972. Real wages stopped climbing, corporate profits and stock values tanked, and unemployment and inflation both soared. For the rest of the decade, ordinary Americans who had come to expect constant improvements to their standard of living found themselves instead facing rising unemployment, falling wages, and higher prices. At the same time, they had to endure the painful conclusion of the Vietnam War, which finally ended in 1975 with the ignominious defeat of the United States and its South Vietnamese allies. Fifteen years of conflict and more than 57,000 American lives had seemingly been sacrificed for nothing. Meanwhile, deep cultural conflicts unleashed by the countercultural social revolutions of the 1960s continued to roil the land, and bitter racial acrimony (fueled by government policies on school desegregation and affirmative action) spread beyond the South to engulf much of the country. The cumulative effect of overlapping economic, social, and military setbacks was a dark nationwide sense of malaise, a pessimistic feeling that perhaps America's brightest days lay in the past rather than in the future.
By the end of the 1970s, profound discontentment with American life had created the opportunity for a transformative moment in American history. The bedrock principles that had structured American politics since the establishment of Roosevelt's New Deal Order in the 1930s seemed to have failed, and many Americans were ready to try something radically different. Thus the timely ascent of Ronald Reagan, who preached a hopeful doctrine of conservative populism, fundamentally realigned American politics. The "Reagan Revolution" that followed ushered in a period of conservative domination of American politics and society that would last for a generation.
Still, Reagan's successes cannot be explained away as nothing more than the product of good timing. Potentially transformative moments in history don't automatically lead to profound change. Presidents Richard Nixon (1969-74) and Jimmy Carter (1977-81) both took office in circumstances similar to those that faced Reagan, but neither Nixon nor Carter possessed either the personal charisma or the compelling ideological vision to realign American politics like Reagan did. Ronald Reagan, unlike Nixon and Carter, possessed the political gifts to seize his moment of opportunity by changing, definitively, the course of American history.
Reagan's lasting legacy was to recast traditional American conservatism—which had been a minority viewpoint throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century—as a new mainstream populism for the contemporary era. The first key to Reagan's success was his genial personality; the president's sunny disposition and optimistic outlook did much to deflect liberal charges that conservatism was a philosophy of callous meanness and reckless militarism.
The second key to Reagan's success was his ability to distill complex ideological positions into simple aphorisms that sounded like common sense: "Government is not the solution to our problem," Reagan declared in his first inaugural address. "Government is the problem."9 This was merely the first and most famous of the many Reaganite assertions that have since become widely shared American assumptions about how the world works: Government is the problem. The free market solves problems better than politicians can. Lower taxes create economic growth. Welfare perpetuates poverty. Peace is only attainable through military strength. America is always a force for good in the world, its enemies an "Evil Empire." These are the core assumptions of the Reagan Revolution; these are the core assumptions that continue to shape our world.