Was the Reagan Revolution Really Reagan’s?
How broad was the California tax revolt of the 1970s? Broad enough to stretch from Ronald Reagan to the Black Panthers.
The Panthers’ position is mentioned only briefly in Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland—just a single sentence meant to get across how widespread dissatisfaction with the state’s property taxes had gotten. But if you start poking around at that spot, you’ll find a deep rabbit hole just waiting for you to explore it. With “most tax increases,” proclaimed the Panther slate in Oakland’s 1973 municipal elections, “the poor always suffer and Black people, in particular, suffer most.” The candidates went on to decry everything from the property tax to the business license tax, and along the way they complained about how much money was spent on police pensions and downtown businesses. They also grumbled that black Oaklanders were being taxed without representation, since the levies were imposed “by the all-white Oakland City Council.”
Reaganland is 914 pages long, not including its extensive endnotes, and nearly every one of those pages could send you down an equally fascinating rabbit hole. This is the fourth and probably final volume in Perlstein’s series of books on recent American history, and like its predecessors it is both informative and entertaining. Perlstein is an engaging storyteller with a talent for juggling multiple narratives, and he is able—not always, but usually—to write empathetically about people he fundamentally disagrees with, a useful skill for a liberal historian describing a country’s turn to the right.
That shift is Perlstein’s big subject, a fact he signals by subtitling the book America’s Right Turn, 1976–1980. The combination of title and subtitle might prompt a double take, since Reagan did not become president until 1981. For the bulk of Reaganland, the man in the White House is not Reagan but Jimmy Carter.
Yet the title isn’t an error. One of the book’s chief themes is that America’s move rightward began well before Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office. Its cover shows Reagan and Carter seated together in the back of a limo—two rivals riding the same car. Their destination: Reagan’s inauguration.
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A familiar metaphor—often attributed to Reagan, though its origins are cloudy—calls conservatism a three-legged stool. In its idealized form, the three legs are free enterprise, a strong national defense, and traditional moral values. In practice, “free enterprise” is often a cover for protecting or subsidizing business interests, “national defense” for global intervention, “moral values” for moral panic.
However you define them, each leg grew stronger as the ’70s melted into the ’80s. They gathered this strength not just within the organized right but outside it. These weren’t three legs of a stool so much as three sweeping trends that at times combined to form the conservative movement but were quite capable of operating independently too.
The social conservatives were concentrated in a network known as the New Right. The New Right’s boundaries are not easy to define, but three overlapping developments were at its core. One was a set of high-profile grassroots right-wing rebellions in the early ’70s, notably the anti-busing riots in Boston and a dispute over textbooks in West Virginia. Another was Christian conservatives’ growing willingness to enter the political realm—and to work across denominational lines—to battle secularism. (The most important causes here were the fights against legalized abortion and against an effort to strip segregated religious schools of their tax-exempt status.) The third element was a group of money-savvy activists, many of them based in the world of direct mail, who set out to weave those organic backlashes into an organized political force.
Perlstein is at his best covering these culture wars. The lead-up to the National Women’s Conference of 1977, a battleground between feminists and traditionalists, is rendered here as a series of vivid set pieces told from multiple points of view. Perlstein’s political sympathies are with the feminists, but he’s attuned to the reasons many working-class women felt alienated from the most visible feminist groups. “Feminist leaders tended to be lawyers, professors, and foundation executives. No wonder they viewed working outside the home as fulfilling,” he writes, summarizing a ’70s study. “The same survey found that most antifeminist activists who worked were unmarried, had menial, deadening jobs, and 90 percent had no college degree. In the world as these women experienced it, marriage was what rescued you from work.”
Perlstein is similarly sensitive when describing that conflict over tax exemptions for segregated schools. Most modern accounts see this as little more than a batch of racists trying to preserve their privileges, but Perlstein notes that the new rules really were poorly crafted: The institutions whose representatives descended on Washington to protest the change included not just segregation academies but schools that made good-faith efforts to recruit black students. They just couldn’t afford the procedural hurdles the rules would impose. After hearing many hours of testimony along these lines, the Internal Revenue Service revised the proposal to take some of these complaints into account.
That’s not to say the dispute was a mere misunderstanding, easily resolved. For many Christians, that compromise wasn’t enough; there were deeper ideological battles, and not just the one over race. To the proposal’s most radical opponents, the key question was whether the government could dictate orders to religious institutions in the first place. “T
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