Pinning the Rise of Neoliberalism on Ronald Reagan Lets Democrats Off Easy

It’s common to credit President Ronald Reagan for ushering in the age of neoliberalism. But doing so suggests that neoliberalism is primarily a right-wing project, obscuring the important role of liberals in subordinating society to free markets.

President Ronald Reagan (left) talking to former president Jimmy Carter at a meeting regarding the sale of planes to Saudi Arabia, in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, DC, October 13 1981. (Gene Forte / Consolidated News / Getty Images)

It was January 1983, and President Ronald Reagan was in trouble. Although he had handily defeated the Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter just over two years prior, Reagan’s approval rating now sat at a dismal 35 percent. His economic policies had not ameliorated the long-simmering recession nor delivered relief for the overwhelming majority of Americans. The country faced additional domestic and foreign policy crises, from the AIDS epidemic to the Lebanese Civil War, from the farm crisis to what Reagan called “the tightening grip of the totalitarian Left” in Latin America and the Caribbean. The uncertainty and misery of the moment did not bode well for the president’s reelection campaign.

But Reagan found a way. In her new book Righting the American Dream, Diane Winston shows how the president harnessed the power of the news media to popularize a new “religious imaginary” and thus to build support for his policies. According to Winston, beginning in Reagan’s first term, the US news media, particularly the newspapers on which her book focuses, “helped normalize a neoliberal worldview — a market-oriented outlook advocating individual freedom and unfettered capitalism.” As a result, Winston argues, Reagan sailed to reelection in 1984, and the “Reagan Revolution” would continue mostly unimpeded well into the twenty-first century. Even Barack Obama “proved more moderate than many of his supporters expected,” Winston laments, “and Reagan’s neoliberal framework remained in place.”

As compelling as this argument might be, it oversimplifies many of the key dynamics and processes that shaped the late twentieth-century United States. First and foremost, Winston envisions neoliberalism as primarily, if not exclusively, a right-wing project that more or less began with Reagan. In so doing, she obscures the role of liberals and Democrats in crafting the economic and political order of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century United States and ignores the continuities between the so-called New Deal and neoliberal eras. Next, the book distorts the very nature of neoliberalism and Reaganism. Winston curiously identifies the contraction of federal power and welfare state retrenchment as vital components of “Reagan’s neoliberal framework,” even though federal power actually expanded in many realms (including poverty governance) during the final decades of the twentieth century. Finally, by concentrating almost exclusively on the Reagan White House and its relationship to the press, Winston overlooks developments unfolding in other sectors of the federal government and at the subnational level.

The Myth of Reagan Exceptionalism

Amid the convulsions of 1983, Reagan — whose background as an actor and corporate spokesman had prepared him to deal with the press as president — sought to advance the “Revolution” supposedly augured by his impressive victory in 1980. He did this, Winston contends, by employing specific narrative frames in the service of a new “commonsense worldview” — a moralistic, individualistic, and market-oriented vision that would eventually supplant the “welfare liberalism” that had reigned since the rise of the New Deal.

Through several case studies, Winston reveals how Reagan presented, and the news media “mainstreamed,” this religiously inflected conservative worldview and thus helped unmake the New Deal order. Winston sets the stage by examining the crises and clashes that defined the United States in the 1970s and into the 1980s — from an economic slowdown to debates about reproductive freedom, from the emerging “Vietnam syndrome” to continuing battles over school integration and the tax-exempt status of “segregation academies.” These developments, Winston asserts, divided Americans, eroded confidence in the existing economic and political order, and created an ideological vacuum to be filled by a new “commonsense worldview.”

In this context, Reagan shared his conservative evangelical vision with a crisis-stricken nation desperate for moral clarity. He cast the intensifying Cold War in Manichaean terms. According to the president, the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” while the US project was righteous and divinely ordained. Meanwhile, through his relative silence on the AIDS epidemic, Reagan allowed some of the country’s most ardent homophobes — including his associate, Reverend Jerry Falwell — to speak on his behalf. With the US invasion of Grenada in October 1983, furthermore, Reagan helped promote a “new patriotism” that would lift him to a landslide victory in November 1984.

Winston’s book hinges on the idea that the “Reagan Revolution” was dramatic, decisive, and had lasting consequences for the country “Under Ronald Reagan’s leadership, the United States changed,” Winston writes:

Americans’ views of themselves, their world, and their responsibilities shifted. Agreed-on notions of personal freedom, individual responsibility, limited government, and a free market supplanted belief in a communal good, a capacious government, and a regulated market.

She continues, “Reagan’s religious imaginary both shaped and reflected the spirit of the times, and it renewed many Americans’ faith in the future.”

Yet historians aren’t so sure — at least not anymore. From the late 1990s until the Obama years, many US historians wrote about the American right under the assumption that they were living in a conservative age ushered in by Reagan. But over the past fifteen years or so, some historians have convincingly argued that “the scholarship about the rise of the Right and disintegration of liberalism has vastly exaggerated the success of the former and the collapse of the latter,” as Julian Zelizer puts it. Indeed, the changes that Reagan supposedly signaled were not as definitive, permanent, or coherent as many twenty-first-century observers might imagine.

Many of the principles and proposals at the heart of Reagan’s 1980 campaign (and eventually his administration) had antecedents in the 1970s and beforehand. The Carter administration pursued deregulation in the transportation and oil and gas industries, and endorsed many of the economic and monetary policies that drove Reaganism. (For instance, Carter selected the austerity hawk Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve in 1979.) Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and other historians have demonstrated that the “New Democratic” model mainstreamed by Bill Clinton predated Reagan’s presidency and therefore cannot be understood solely (or even primarily) as a response to conservatives’ electoral successes in the 1980s.

Winston also seems to take Reagan and his acolytes at their word when she writes that “Neoliberalism, in the name of maximizing individual freedom, advocates limited federal power and an unfettered marketplace, without concern for the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens.” Although Reagan regularly demonized “big government,” he actually presided over an expansion of federal power, especially in the carceral and national security realms. As Colin Gordon observes in his sharp review of Gary Gerstle’s 2022 book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, neoliberalism “had little interest in lifting the heavy hand of the state; it just brought it down in different ways and in different places.” That’s not to say that devolution, privatization, and decentralization aren’t key components of neoliberalism and Reaganism. They are, only selectively.

For Winston, the media-savvy Reagan adeptly “wrapp[ed] neoliberalism in religion and morality” and “made hyperindividualism and consumer capitalism seem less like rampant greed and more like organic outgrowths of God-given freedom.” Reagan’s neoliberal framework became normative and commonsensical, Winston affirms, paving the way for “President Bill Clinton’s cuts to welfare programs, President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and presidential candidate Barack Obama’s appeal to Black Americans to take responsibility for their lives.”

Yet as important as Reagan is, he can only explain so much. Clinton’s reconfiguration of the welfare state had as much to do with Reagan as it did with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “culture of poverty” thesis and the welfare “reform” efforts first undertaken in states like Wisconsin. Bush’s disastrous, preemptive war in Iraq had as much to do with Reagan as it did with President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic attempt to “make the world safe for democracy.” And Obama’s embrace of “respectability” and “personal responsibility” had as much to do with Reagan as it did with the politics of “uplift” and “excellence” endorsed by black leaders since emancipation, as Danielle Wiggins illustrates.

In understanding the origin of neoliberalism, we should resist the pull toward monocausality. When we decenter Reagan and his “Revolution,” a different story emerges — a story that defies neat partisan categorizations and attempts at historical periodization. That story is more complex, but it’s one worth telling.