Magazine | September 12, 2016, Issue

Mourning in America

Reagan led a healthy society; ours is fragmented and decaying.

I was 15 years old when Ronald Reagan won his reelection campaign, and after all these years I still remember his legendary “Morning in America” campaign ad. Looking back at it even in this cynical age, one can recapture the feeling. The music seems maudlin, the voice a little too grandfatherly, but the ad told a true story. America was back.

It was back in a very specific way, however, one that in some ways now seems quaint. Yes, the ad speaks of jobs, inflation, and interest rates, but also of homes and marriages — boasting that on that very day 2,000 families would buy new homes and 6,500 men and women would get married. It was painting a picture of an American ideal — of the nuclear family, employed and hopeful, optimistic about the future.

To say that the ad — and the associated campaign — worked is an understatement. Younger Americans can’t comprehend a true electoral landslide. They’ve never seen one. Reagan’s victory was breathtaking in scope. He won 49 states and almost 59 percent of the popular vote — a margin of almost 17 million out of 92 million votes cast. In today’s polarized times we can’t conceive of such margins. Donald Trump could commit a grotesque gaffe every day for the rest of the 2016 presidential campaign and still not sink to Walter Mondale levels.

So, yes, it is understandable that Republicans look back wistfully to Reagan. The economy actually grew. America was strong. It wasn’t utopia, of course. America has never been a utopia. But there is not a sensible politician alive who wouldn’t be thrilled to emulate not just Reagan’s economic record, but also his ability to unite and inspire an entire nation.

It’s time, however, for conservatives to turn the page — not so much because there is anything at all wrong with Reaganomics or with Reagan’s vision, but because Reagan’s America is no more. To echo Barack Obama, the nation has “fundamentally transformed.” To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, that country’s gone, boys, and it ain’t ever coming back.

When Reagan came to the presidency in 1981, America was a far more culturally and religiously homogenous nation, with more stable families, than it is today. Its culture was strong, but its politics were weak. Nixon’s corruption, the various OPEC-driven energy crises, and the looming Soviet threat were all problems well within the capacity of conventional politics to overcome — especially when combined with the immense strength of the American people and the American economy.

To put it another way, when Reagan came to office, the culture was primed for resurgence; a good president had only to create the right conditions for success. And now? Our culture is weak, and our politics are weak. Our nation is far less sound — beset with cultural problems that lie far beyond the capacity of any politician to fix.

One needn’t spend much time comparing the regulatory and tax structures then and now. Reagan inherited a much lighter regulatory environment and a much more oppressive tax regime. He slashed taxes, and while they’ve climbed some, they are still nowhere near the crippling rates of the Carter era, when top earners paid a 70 percent marginal rate and inflation kept pushing Americans into higher tax brackets.

As for regulations — there are now about 350,000 more federal regulations than when Reagan left office, bringing the total estimated impact of federal regulation to more than $2 trillion annually. What is more difficult to do — cut tax rates or unwind hundreds of thousands of complex rules sustaining vast federal bureaucracies?

But economic policy tells only part of the story. Reagan was pushing the throttle on an economy still largely populated by intact families — one that had yet to see the maladies of underclass behavior trickle up to the economically vital American middle class.

In 1980, despite the fact that the sexual revolution was well under way, only 18.4 percent of births were to unmarried women, with those births concentrated in the lower economic classes. By 2014, that number had hit 40.2 percent, with those births spreading up into the middle class. The spike represented a combination of increasing birth rates for unmarried women and decreasing rates for married women. Between 1980 and 2014, the percentage of married women who had children dropped from 97 percent to 89 percent.

The differences in outcomes between intact families and single-parent families are so profound that the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector could rightly describe family differences as creating a “two-caste society.” Marriage and education represent the dividing line between prosperity and poverty.

At the same time, Americans no longer agree on many of the most basic tenets of faith and morality. We don’t agree on what’s right. America’s deepest beliefs are shifting, and a largely Christian country is splintering along religious lines. The generational changes are staggering. In a 2013 Brookings Institution survey, a full 78 percent of the “silent generation” — the generation preceding the Baby Boom — classified themselves as religious conservatives or religious moderates. Even Baby Boomers were 70 percent conservative or moderate. Millennials, by contrast, are 45 percent non-religious or religious progressives.

Pew surveys show Christians declining “sharply” as a share of the American population, with the religiously unaffiliated experiencing the greatest growth. Dig deeper into the data, however, and the picture becomes more complex. It turns out that Americans are growing both more religious and more secular. In other words, while the percentage of unaffiliated Americans is experiencing great growth, the number of Evangelical Protestants in the country is also continuing to grow.

This is not a small matter. Contrary to pop-cultural belief, people of different faiths don’t “believe the same things, just with different labels.” Americans have comforted themselves with this nonsense largely because our religious homogeneity taught us to view religious differences mainly as denominational, not categorical. Yet the difference between Muslim and Christian is far greater than the difference between Baptist and Catholic. Atheists share few core beliefs with Pentecostals.

And that brings me to the final point — fracturing. It should surprise no one that a nation increasingly split by faith and family is also growing ever more polarized politically. The data are overwhelming. The Pew Foundation has amply documented the rise in negative feelings between Democrats and Republicans. The net “cold” rating that members of each major party give the other one — do they feel “very” or “partly” cold about the opposition? — has roughly doubled since the Reagan years, and most partisanship is “negative partisanship.” In other words, a person belongs to his party more because he dislikes the other side than because he likes his own. It’s polarization based on antipathy.

The political consequences are obvious enough. Reagan passed his economic agenda — including his tax reforms — through a Democratic-controlled legislature. Yes, he made compromises, and those compromises have long been presented as an argument that Reagan wasn’t a true “small government” conservative — but he implemented the core of his agenda.

President Obama, by contrast, passed his signal reform, Obamacare, over unanimous Republican objection, and there’s no prospect that a potential President Trump would face any less opposition from Democrats in Congress or a President Hillary Clinton less opposition from Republicans. Unwilling or unable to reach compromise, future presidents will be increasingly tempted, like Obama, to resort to executive fiat to implement their policies.

In short, in the new, fundamentally transformed America, political reform isn’t agreed to; it’s imposed. And the measure of a politician is how quickly or thoroughly he can take advantage of temporary majorities or favorable courts to force permanent or near-permanent change on the temporary minority.

Faced with the grim reality of Trump, it’s tempting to wax nostalgic for better days. And a review of Reagan’s speeches is both inspiring and depressing. He knew how to connect with the American people — to call out the “better angels of our nature” — but he was connecting with a different nation. We believe different things now, and live different lives. Not only are many millions of families ill equipped to seize economic opportunity — they’re less likely to agree on what opportunity looks like.

It can be morning again in America, but that morning won’t come primarily through politics. That’s not to say that our economy can’t grow faster — it can. And that’s not to say that the middle class can’t do better — it can. But the kind of renewal and unity our nation experienced in 1984 is beyond our political reach.

Instead, now is the time for mourning in America. The fact that our educated upper class can achieve at the highest levels is cold comfort when the daily lives of the working and (increasingly) the middle classes are burdened not so much by bad politics as by bad choices — choices no political “outsider” can overcome.

Reagan helped unleash the enormous human capital of the American nation. But our nation has spent much of the last 30 years squandering that human capital, in the grip of cultural forces that create problems politics can’t solve. In 1981, America not only had a new leader, it possessed a people who were ready, willing, and able to shed the burden of bad leadership and unite behind a common vision. In 2016, our leaders are different, our people are different, and our loss of national character has become the greatest burden of all.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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