The Dawn of Darkness

November 4 should be a day of mourning.

This Wednesday marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of one of the great tragedies in American history, a moment of indelible shame, a choice that harmed so many in this country and around the world: the defeat of President Jimmy Carter at the hands of right-wing former California Governor Ronald Reagan.

It was a result that never should have happened, a result that (in the view of legendary progressive radio host Thom Hartmann, among others) was borne of chicanery. In any event, Ronald Reagan’s election nearly destroyed this country.

As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow noted in 2010, the Reagan years put us on the path to extreme income inequality:

Reaganomics was a spectacular success in some ways. It was a spectacular success for the richest Americans in the country who benefited the most from President Reagan‘s historic debt-exploding, budget-busting tax cuts.

In 1980, the top one percent of Americans earned wages about $110,000 a year. By 1990, after about 10 years of Reaganomics, the top one percent had seen their wages rise by 80 percent.

Trickle-down economics, though, right? What‘s good for the rich is good for all of us, right? Not quite. Here‘s the average wages in the rest of the country in 1980 and here is what happened for the rest of the country after about 10 years of Reaganomics – flat. A whopping three percent rise in wages in 10 years.

The richest people see their fortunes go up like the Matterhorn. Everybody else, nothing. This is what family income growth looked like during the 1980s. Look at that. The richest one percent of Americans had an awesome decade. They saw their family income skyrocket by 74 percent.

Everybody else, not so much. In fact, the poorest Americans saw their income shrink by more than 10 percent. That was Reaganomics. That‘s what Reaganomics did. That was the impact of Reaganomics. That was the result of this experiment called trickle-down economics.

The rich did great. Everybody else [is] still waiting for the trickle.

Reagan’s economic agenda literally took from the poor and gave to the rich. His race-baiting on the 1980 campaign trail and his demonization of civil rights as president laid the foundation for reckless Republican rhetoric on race during the Obama era. His illegal wars in Central America and his irresponsible invasion of Grenada served as the model for George W. Bush’s Iraq misadventure. His scorn of environmental concerns put us on the painful path to a climate crisis.

Sometimes you have to wonder if the folks who cast their ballot for Reagan on that horrible November night really knew what they were doing. Did they realize what sort of ideology they would inflict upon this country and world over the course of the next thirty-five years? Did they understand that they were, in effect, voting to hold back the hopes and diminish the dreams of their children and grandchildren? Did they recognize that they were turning on a machine that would wreck our economy, our environment and our ethical standing as a nation?

This Wednesday, think about how much ground we have lost as a country since Reagan defeated Carter—how much more racism and sexism and religious hatred we have, how much more carbon pollution we have, how much more political extremism we have. Think about how much stronger we would have been if Carter had been given the honor and the privilege of a second term. Think about the tragedy of November 4, 1980…and ask yourself: are you better off than you were thirty-five years ago?

UPDATE: From 2009, Maddow on Reagan’s use of racially charged language. From 2010, Maddow on the recklessness of Reaganomics. Also, from 2013, Maddow on Reagan’s race-driven hatred of Nelson Mandela.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.