Reagan on the ballot

The Devil's Advocate

Ronald Reagan entered California politics in the 1960s with the University of California, and the Berkeley campus in particular, as political targets. A recent article in Dissent Magazine argues that Berkeley “provided the most useful political foil” for Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign, “crystallizing all of his ideological themes into a single figure for disorder, a subversive menace of sexual, social, generational, and even communist deviance.”

True to his word, Reagan did much to transform the university during his tenure as governor. He swiftly forced out UC president Clark Kerr, the mastermind of California’s commitment to make a college education accessible to all qualified students — the Master Plan for Higher Education. In 1969, Reagan called in the National Guard and crushed student protests with overwhelming force. And perhaps most importantly, he took aim at the UC budget and set the stage for a tuition-based financing model — and for the creeping privatization that has now characterized California’s higher education policy for years.

Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s temporary tax increases to fund education, presents Californians with the chance to fundamentally change the trajectory of public higher education in California. It would be a political miracle for Californians, who already pay some of the nation’s highest tax rates, who ignited national tax revolts in 1978 by passing Proposition 13 and who are still experiencing double digit unemployment, to raise their sales and income taxes by popular referendum. But if Prop. 30 passes, Californians will have decisively repudiated the pattern of budget cuts and perpetually increasing tuition that has become the new normal for public higher education in the Golden State — and that arguably has its roots in Reagan’s tenure as California governor.

The passage of Prop. 30, in other words, would not merely be a historical parenthesis. It could well represent an inflection point in California’s higher education policy — the beginning of real and sustained popular resistance to the privatization of the state’s public universities.

Voters around the country face a parallel ideological choice at the national level, where Reagan also casts a long shadow. As U.S. president, Reagan led — or at least encapsulated — the conservative backlash against the New Deal coalition that had dominated American politics for a half century. He attacked unions, cut taxes sharply and deregulated industry. His presidency began what some historians now call “the age of Reagan” — a period of conservative ascendancy that has persisted for the last 30 years. Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz has grouped Reagan together with Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as one of the few figures in American history “who for better or for worse have put their political stamp indelibly on their time.”

In Barack Obama’s first term, he has attempted to open a new era in domestic policy, one that rejects the central premise of Reagan’s conservative revival: the notion that “government is the problem.” Obama signed the Affordable Care Act — the first major piece of federal social legislation since the Reagan era began. He started to reverse the trend toward deregulation of the financial sector with the signing of the Dodd-Frank Act. If Obama wins, he will have the chance to strike a “Grand Bargain” deal on taxes, entitlements, military spending and the deficit that will favor progressive priorities for a decade — and possibly even give way to “the age of Obama.”

If Mitt Romney wins, Obama’s major achievements will be gutted or repealed. Romney and the Republicans would expand on Reagan-era policies, turning Medicare into a voucher system, cutting taxes for the wealthy and dramatically reducing discretionary spending. The tide of conservative politics of the last several decades would continue unabated and likely strengthen.

Reagan’s transformative politics did not come out of nowhere. In California, Reagan’s rise was no doubt facilitated by the chaos, recklessness and radicalism of the ’60s at Berkeley. Nationally, he came to power against the backdrop of a sense of liberal excess — or, as Obama himself once described it, “government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating.”

But now, I think the tides have turned. I think Californians are tired of a seeing their world-renowned public university system squeezing out the middle class as it is savaged with cuts year after year. And I think Americans at large have had enough of the age of Reagan in national politics, which has led to unprecedented income inequality and culminated in a catastrophic financial crisis. The most trenchant critique of American government is no longer that it is bloated or unaccountable but that it favors the wealthy.

In my view, the age of Reagan has run its course, in California and in the country at large. Tomorrow, we will find out if voters agree.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @jawillick.