Reagan and the Real America

Mr. Reagan has an imposing vision of the country that he is to lead. He sees an inherent America—an America which is white, and male, and industrial—and a project, of economic growth, by which this reality can be born again. He sees a “spirit” which is “still there, ready to blaze into life” if we “stimulate our economy, increase productivity, and put America back to work.” But his America no longer exists. The pursuit of his vision may lead to an economic crisis and a level of unemployment in comparison with which the events of 1975 and 1980 will appear as the merest disturbances of the compassionate state.

During the election, Mr. Reagan spoke frequently about the American economy, and his words served him well. They had resonance—such is the political charm of the president-to-be—on two quite different levels. First, in policies, projections, and legislative proposals. Second, and far more importantly, in the imagination and in a tableau of American resurgence, packed and repacked in the cardboard of the traveling theater, which journeyed with Mr. Reagan through his seemingly interminable electoral wanderings.

The first level of economic discourse can be dismissed fairly expeditiously. Mr. Reagan said that he would cut income tax by 30 percent by 1983, that he would reduce business taxes in order to stimulate investment, that he would increase military spending, that while he would eliminate waste in government he would not assault the “integrity” of Social Security, that he would in the meantime balance the federal budget, and that his policies would reduce inflation.

The unlikeliness of this enterprise is not hidden by the appointment of a Cabinet balanced between wild tax cutters and men who appear as pillars of fiscal responsibility. We need not doubt the new government’s resolution to kick the poor by eliminating social programs. The Republican policy equation depends, nonetheless, on the assumption of rapid economic growth. Only then would tax revenues be equal to Mr. Reagan’s extravagant schemes.

But such accelerated growth seems unlikely. The United States exports more than 10 percent of its gross national product, and the countries with which it trades are sickly. Industrial production turned down in the second quarter of 1980 in each of the five largest capitalist economies. The world economy may be moving, as Mr. Reagan takes office, toward the synchronous recession of 1981-1982.

The expectation of economic growth thus depends in turn on a further assumption: that some unknown Republican inspiration, some elixir of indigenous capitalist expansion, will intervene to make possible the American regeneration. It is here that Mr. Reagan’s imaginative tableau is of importance.

The scene is of an innate economy, an economy of industrial workers, male, white, neither young nor old, which is to “get working again.” It is the country of the man in the Republican television commercial, standing lonely …

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