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20 January 2021

From the NS archive: Our debt to Ronald

25 November 1983: How President Reagan has been misunderstood and undervalued by the left

By John Kenneth Galbraith

In this long read from 1983, the Canadian-American economist and public intellectual John Kenneth Galbraith assessed Ronald Reagan’s contribution to America as an unlikely saviour of the left. Republican Reagan gave black, minority ethnic and women voters a reason to come out and vote in higher numbers than ever before; his contribution to the environmental movement was “a superbly orchestrated exercise in political education”; the recession of the early 1980s and the resulting suffering it brought about taught a valuable lesson: “No experience could have better served to extrude the idea of a monetary magic from the public mind.” Reagan’s greatest achievement, Galbraith wrote, was to bring about “an hitherto unparalleled unity on the liberal left”. This, however, left those on the left with one crucial question when it came to Reagan’s re-election: “Should they as liberals, recognising their debt to an avowed conservative who knows so well how to motivate liberals, vote conservative to advance the liberals’ cause?”


A third of a century ago – 36 years, to be precise – American liberals, broadly the American left, gathered in Washington to regroup after the war and to heal the schisms occasioned by communism and Joseph Stalin. The result was one of the more durable of liberal organisations: Americans for Democratic Action.

We – for I was one – looked for allies wherever they might be discovered. Especially we looked, in those days, to Hollywood, where, more than anywhere else in the Republic, liberalism was associated with money – not just money, but easy money, as was it was then called. And there, from 1947 to 1952, one of our notable allies was the youthful head of the Screen Actors Guild, a committed trade unionist, a solid Roosevelt man and a financial contributor to our cause. This was the talented actor Ronald Reagan. He was, geographically and in other ways, a somewhat distant figure. But he was one of us nonetheless.

In ensuing years, we had a certain sense of being deserted. His acting career having diminished, our former colleague began giving lectures for the General Electric Company on the unparalleled virtues of the uninhibited free enterprise system. And, it was thought, he had come to believe what he was saying. He went on to be a Republican governor of California for two terms and, by reputation, a notably conservative one. It was still said in his liberal defence that he was more conservative in principle than in practice, in rhetoric than in tax and expenditure reduction. The chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley told me in later years that he much preferred Ronald Reagan as governor to his Democratic successor, Jerry Brown. I remember his exact words: “When Brown cuts the budget, you have to take it seriously.” Still, it seemed clear that our old co-religionist was gone.

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Now Ronald Reagan has been president of the United States for approaching three years and I, for one, am no longer sure. I’m prepared to argue, not as a liberal, not plausibly as a conservative, but merely as an observer of the American political scene, that, for all this time, Ronald Reagan, in his own most famous words, has stayed the course. Popular opinion is gravely against me; only the evidence is powerfully on my side. It tempts one to believe that Ronald Reagan has been biding his time all these years, waiting to do something for the faith into which he was first initiated. Perhaps this was unconscious. By his own admission and oratory, Mr Reagan is a profoundly religious man. Who can tell, including the president himself, by what inner occult forces he has been kept faithful to his past?

The proof begins with the political, particularly the liberal, dialectic in the United States. A basic and sadly overlooked tendency in our frequently comfortable land is to relaxation. In particular, liberals and those upon whom they depend for support are only slightly stirred by their own efforts, adjurations and oratory, impassioned as these may be; it is only a vital opposing threat to our sedation, real or inspired, that brings us to political life.

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Ever since Roosevelt, liberals in the United States had come to assume the solidity and even the sanctity of their basic positions – Keynesian macroeconomic management of the economy; a general, if at times ticklish, association with the trade unions; social security; welfare support for the helpless and the afflicted; a proper attention to the rights of women and, likewise, to those of the minorities; in principle, a more equitable distribution of income; a major emphasis on protection of the environment; a reasonable and even affluent deal for agriculture; a well-voiced concern for the problems of the big cities. Not all of these efforts had a substantial or even a wholly visible result; however, the rhetoric conveyed the impression of grave economic, social and compassionate concern. It was thus possible for liberals and their constituency to relax with the notion that they were making all possible progress. There having been no noticeable retreat under the three Republicans, Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford, the poor and the minorities, the people most affected by the programmes, were led to the reasonable belief that political parties did not much matter. As a very practical consequence, most of them did not bother to vote.

Blue-collar workers were likewise indifferent. Women, as ever, went along with their husbands politically. The surviving farmers moved back into their earlier Republican faith. Conservationists and environmentalists, if not entirely placid, spoke, advocated and opposed in a highly predictable way. In organisation, membership and money, they had reached a plateau. Liberal intellectuals gave speeches, wrote books and supported seemingly acceptable candidates; these gave the illusion of power and were deeply satisfying to the liberal conscience. Here, too, a mood of relaxation and contentment. So it was until, as once in Scotland, a man – another accomplished horseman, no less – came out of the west.

Had Ronald Reagan been an ordinary liberal governor coming to Washington, he would have accomplished nothing against the general condition of liberal torpor. It was the genius of our old friend and ally that, far better than others, he knew how to arouse and restore people to his ancient faith. Not the Kennedys, not Lyndon Johnson, certainly not Jimmy Carter, did so much. One must consider the facts.

Reagan has bestirred the black people and the minorities by political action approaching genius and, on balance, more by words than by deeds. Affirmative action to guarantee jobs and promotions to black people and women was, he made clear, no longer to be stressed – nor civil rights action generally. Tax exemption for two conspicuously segregated southern colleges was sought – a highly symbolic step. The central cities and black unemployment were taken off the agenda on which they had never quite been. Mr Peter Grace, a highly articulate businessman appointed by Mr Reagan to advise on how to streamline the government, wrote off the nutritionally urgent food stamp programme as a Puerto Rican romp – and got real attention when he sought to apologise.

The effect of these efforts is now clear. Black people and other minorities are registering and turning to the polls in unprecedented numbers. Nearly 200,000 additional black voters, many of them young, added themselves to the Chicago rolls prior to the recent city election there; there was also an important turnout of Spanish-speaking voters and an estimated 87 per cent of them voted for Harold Washington, the black mayoral candidate. Had it not been for Ronald Reagan, Washington would never have made it in Chicago, nor, probably, would Mario Cuomo, who was also helped mightily by minority support, have become governor in New York. A similar minority turnout across the country in the next election is now a prospect; all – virtually all – of the newly registered vote will be for liberals; the effect on the traditional political balance could be astonishing. For years, liberals have been asking for increased minority participation in what scholars call the political process. Ronald Reagan has brought it off.

As he has promoted political activism by minorities, so the president has done wonders with women. In opposing ERA – the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution – and abortion, and with the help of two Pre-Cambrian Senators, Jesse Helms and Orrin Hatch, he has stirred hitherto quiescent women into action and caused some of them, for the first time, to vote in their own economic, social and sexual interests. In the 1982 off-presidential year elections, 48.5 per cent of eligible women went to the polls, up from 45.3 per cent four years earlier. Not wonderful, but a trend. This increase, too, greatly favoured liberal candidates.


The president’s contribution to the environmental movement is conceded, a superbly orchestrated exercise in political education. Until he brought one Ann McGill Burford to Washington, the only Americans who had heard of industrial waste disposal sites, one or two spectacular cases apart, were those who lived next door to them, or, at most, a few hundred yards away. Now, it would appear, there is scarcely a citizen outside our big cities who does not wonder if someone is dumping dioxin in his local aquifer and causing acid rain to fall in his local lake. In September 1981, a New York Times poll showed 45 per cent of the citizenry wanting environmental improvement “regardless of cost”. By April of this year, the proportion so motivated had risen to 58 per cent. “Publicity about EPA and sweetheart deals with industry is the best thing that could have happened to us,” the Wall Street Journal quoted a Texas community environmentalist as proclaiming a few weeks ago.

Professor Kenneth Geiser, who teaches on these matters at Tufts University near Boston, has noted: “Environmental advocacy during the 1970s was usually done by professionals, civic activists, students and scientists . . . [The] new national movement is based in middle- and working-class communities.” Traditional liberal advocacy could never have accomplished anything like this.

And that is not all. Before Mr Reagan named as secretary of the interior the unlamented James Watt, an ardent opponent of environmental controls and of measures to protect the public estate generally, my most aggressively responsible neighbours were sadly indifferent to the issue of oil and mineral exploration in distant wilderness areas and even to oil drilling on Georges Bank in the nearby Atlantic. So was I. But now I am asked about these matters all the time, and I have had to read up on them. The great American conservation organisations – the Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Audubon Society and others – have been shaken out of their institutional stasis and are enjoying an unprecedented boom. According to the former senator Gaylord Nelson, who now heads the Wilderness Society, several have doubled their membership and funds. That was before Mr Watt banned the Beach Boys from the last Fourth of July celebration in Washington and thus brought rock music fans into the conservation camp.

Liberals have long been distressed by the failure of the unemployed to go to the polls. Again, the feeling that it did not matter. A recent New York Times survey showed that here too Ronald Reagan has come to the rescue. In 1982, a still unhealthy 34 per cent of the unemployed voted, as compared with a miserable 27.4 per cent in 1978. Not many of these new votes went to conservatives.

Ronald Reagan may have made progress even with farmers. A friend of mine who runs a newspaper in Illinois thinks that the president came close to breaking Illinois producers away from their conservative faith. Life in the desperate squeeze between high interest rates and (at least until recently) very low corn and livestock prices was too much even for their stalwart convictions.

As to larger macroeconomic policy, American liberals, like the British left, have been contending with the highly attractive theory that the modern economy in all its dismaying complexity can be managed through monetary policy. A firm, expert control of the money supply by the Federal Reserve would combine stable prices with the highest possible employment. Other government policies – fiscal policy (ie control of spending through the budget), an incomes and prices policy to restrain wages and prices, direct action to provide jobs, government investment to encourage or sustain promising industries – were excess baggage. Counterarguments were made; they served as nothing against the glowing promises of the monetarists and Professor Milton Friedman. It was plain that only a trial, however disagreeable, would prove the error. Not in Britain, not in Chile, not in Israel, but here at home.

This trial Ronald Reagan provided, and the resulting pain and suffering were for all to see and many to feel. The recession so caused was, indeed, so painful that the grip on the money supply has now been relaxed, interest rates have been allowed to fall, direct government jobs action has been initiated and Professor Friedman has publicly condemned the apostasy. In consequence, some recovery is now under way. No experience could have better served to extrude the idea of a monetary magic from the public mind.

Also, nothing could have been better designed to persuade liberals themselves to contemplate means for controlling inflation that do not depend on the restrictive forces of unemployment, idle plant capacity and endemic bankruptcy – in other words, some form of direct incomes and prices policy. I am prepared to concede, however, that here Mr Reagan has not been entirely successful. The alternative proposals on economic policy, including those in general of the Democratic candidates for president, are still at a fairly primitive level. Most still rely on the somewhat questionable proposition that God is a liberal Democrat and will look after His own.


More to be acknowledged is President Reagan’s far-from-insignificant service on the matter of supply-side economics. The basic case here was that the rich were not working and investing because they were receiving too little money and that the poor were not working because they were getting too much. The magic word was incentives – incentives for both the rich and the poor. Supply-side policy reflected, in turn, the great asymmetry in our public and political life. An American politician may be in favour of public or private action on behalf of the poor and, indeed, he is often compelled to be; he must never speak openly in favour of action on behalf of the rich. Here both liberals and conservatives must resort to a decent camouflage.

However, supply-side economics was sufficiently transparent for Americans to see through it to the truth. It was clearly a design, imperfectly disguised, by which the affluent were accorded more income to enjoy – as all income is enjoyed. And it was the singular contribution of Mr David Stockman, President Reagan’s director of the office of management and budget, to make this explicit in a famous interview in the autumn of 1981. There is at least a chance that, in the future, voters and their representatives in Washington will react to talk about improved incentives by wondering who out there is seeking enrichment now. This would be a really major gain.

I have been speaking of domestic issues; it would be a grave injustice to ignore the president’s contribution on foreign and military policy. Ever since those summer days in 1945, people everywhere have lived under the threat of the nuclear terror. John F Kennedy spoke of it as the Damoclean sword suspended over our heads and of his determination not to let a day go by without thought as to how the threat might be lessened. Missing in the United States, however, was a massive public concern for the issue. Americans had somehow come to terms with the horror, or, as with the thought of personal death, had resorted to the psychological denial that enabled them to put it out of mind. Arms control had become the undisturbed domain of the small group of nuclear theologians who were presumed to understand the issue, a convocation that included quite a few ardent supporters of the arms race.

This, for a democracy, was an appalling delegation of power, a surrender of the power of decision over death that would never have been made if the decision were over taxes. Here again, with much help from his subordinates, the president has come to the rescue. Talk of limited nuclear war, of protracted nuclear war, of “prevailing” in nuclear war, of civil defence and the shovels that would save us in a nuclear attack and the brilliantly prolonged debate over the basing of the MX missile have awakened Americans as never before to the perils of the world in which they live. For a long time, with others, I have been speaking and attempting to persuade on the subject of arms control, including, for the last several years, on the notion of a bilateral nuclear freeze. The effort was deeply discouraging; at times, as when we brought the freeze to a vote at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, we were thought slightly eccentric.

Now, arms control is perhaps the most urgent political issue of the day. And concern will, I think, survive the setback from the Korean plane disaster. A freeze resolution passed the House of Representatives earlier this year with a wholly safe majority. Much of the specific credit belonged to Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, and his ability on any average day to promote a little panic. But Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States and the man ultimately in charge. It is he who must be thanked.


A not insignificant contribution of the president was in affirming Dwight D Eisenhower’s classic warning about the danger lurking in the prospective power of the military-industrial complex. That this power had obtruded could not have been better dramatised than by the appointment to the positions of navy secretary and assistant secretary of defense of exceptionally well-paid and eventually well-publicised arms lobbyists – consultants is the modern and possibly more damaging designation. Partly in consequence of this and the arms buildup in general, slightly more critical attention is now being accorded the defense department budget than in earlier years. There could, with advantage, be much more.

President Reagan’s effort on behalf of the liberal left is not one of unbroken success. I live in close proximity to the university world; there, he has not succeeded in provoking the students to political action as one might have expected, though it is not for want of effort. The move to deny aid to those who had not registered for the draft did not reignite the earlier opposition to conscription. The intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua has stirred a measure of response, and there could be yet more ahead – a reference by the president to a domino effect in Latin America was an inspired reminder of Vietnam. Still, as compared with earlier times, the campuses have been quiet – something that can be attributed to the effect of conflicting policies. Set against the steps that might have aroused the students was the monetarist experiment and, as observed, the severe recession. These caused students to worry about their jobs and careers. So, instead of rallying to the opposition as they did in the Sixties, they have been preoccupied with their prospects in medicine, business administration, dentistry, law and veterinary science. A modest failure.


President Reagan has, however, one further achievement to his credit, perhaps the most impressive of all. He has brought about an hitherto unparalleled unity on the liberal left. In past times, black people, women, the trade unions, the environmentalists and the peace groups have all had their special agendas. This, reinforced as always by the vanity of their leaders, kept them apart and on occasion at odds.

This summer, on 27 August, all of these groups submerged their special concerns and came together, 200,000 strong, for the great march in Washington under the common banner of Jobs, Peace and Freedom, the latter being the code word for civil rights and equality. All who observed this convocation were impressed by the way in which parochial concerns were submerged for the day and, most thought, for the months ahead. And some were not above giving credit where credit was due. Andrew Young, the one-time aide to Martin Luther King Jr, one-time United States representative at the United Nations and now the mayor of Atlanta, was specifically generous. “There is no question,” he said, “that Ronald Reagan was the organising factor that pulled this coalition together.”

The president’s contribution to the causes of his old friends and to the correction of their faults has been remarkable, and the obvious question for American liberals is whether, having discovered that Ronald Reagan, in the more reticent part of his personality, has been on their side all these years, they should join to vote him another term in office. Should they as liberals, recognising their debt to an avowed conservative who knows so well how to motivate liberals, vote conservative to advance the liberals’ cause?

Here I waver. The cost of the Reagan education, in suffering and social division, has been too severe. The social contract which seemed to accord most Americans a decent chance for survival in the system will be exceedingly hard to repair. Also the damage to the morale of the public agencies that were responsible in a motivated way for job safety, the public estate, the environment, education and diverse help to the poor. Also, and above all, there is the need to get back from the nuclear brink and to end intervention in Central America and such enterprises as the descent on Grenada. The Reagan remedy for liberal lethargy and contentment had best not be extended for another four years.

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