What Reagan did accomplish, however, should not be underestimated. While his own actions were not necessarily consistent, he firmly established a new tone and ethos in national politics. The mask of equanimity was ripped off American politics, and the winners in our society were finally given permission to publicly gloat. All of a sudden it was socially acceptable to denounce the poor, to blame the victims, to celebrate and even promote inequality. It was hip to be mean. The golf shirt, martini and cigar replaced the lunch bucket and a cool Bud as the icons of American workaday culture. Reagan’s legacy is best embodied not by the mistaken notion of him as a Strangelovian, bomb-dropping cowboy, but rather as the obedient radio and TV pitchman for General Electric. Fifty years from now, Reagan will be remembered not for lobbing a few missiles at Qaddafi or for funding the contras, but rather for presiding over the most radical transfer of wealth, upward, in the 20th century.
Breaking the federal Air Traffic Controllers Union, as Reagan’s first act in office, flashed a glaring green light for the trickle-down notions of social justice that still dominate our body politic two decades later. While Reagan didn’t shy from more centrist and pragmatic options when it befitted his own political survival, he nevertheless implanted the rhetorical and ideological sidelines of an economic and political playing field that has been shifted far to the right.
Reagan didn’t accomplish this shift all on his own. Nor was it a mere result of the clever, calculated and conspiratorial machinations of his colder-blooded handlers, ranging from Mike Deaver to "Mommy" Nancy. To a great degree, Reagan’s rise also reflected what had been an accelerating drift in the national Zeitgeist. Ronald Reagan would have been an impossible construction if it had not been for the stark failures of American liberalism — failures crystallized in the limp politics of Jimmy Carter. Reagan was carried to power as blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" from decaying cities and frayed suburbs defected in legions to the GOP. And they weren’t simply angry white men lured by cheap campaign demagoguery. Their hearts and souls were, instead, wooed and seduced by a candidate and a movement that was unabashedly bold and daring, that brimmed with new (and mostly bad) ideas, that was — at least in American terms — revolutionary, and that foamed with an oxygenated optimism of the sort that has become a dead language for liberals. On Ronald Reagan’s death, it is a lesson in politics that seems ever more urgent for the left to assimilate — lest it wants its great-grandchildren 50 years from now to still be supine before the manufactured mythology of the Gipper.