Today is the centenary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, certainly the most significant U.S. President in my lifetime, and the one most responsible for the long, downward spiral in sanity and decency that has marked the last 30 years in the United States.
The Republican Party, before Reagan, mostly kept its crazies hidden away, and mostly functioned as the political arm of the Chamber of Commerce, reliably defending the interests of a prudent ruling class, one that had largely made its peace with the labor movement, with progressive taxation, and with the welfare state.
Reagan changed all that: he turned conservatives into reactionaries; pandered to the most imprudent elements of the ruling class, whose goal was to turn back the Great Society and the New Deal; and set in motion attacks on labor unions, progressive taxation, and the welfare state, that have continued unabated through two Democratic presidencies (Clinton's and, so far, Obama's). He inherited an American economy in recession, and pulled it out of recession through tried-and-true Keynsian methods, namely, massive deficit spending, primarily on the military. (This had the side benefit for the American Right of ultimately driving the Soviet Union into economic and then political collapse, since its dysfyunctional bureaucratized relations of production could not sustain productivity adequate to keep pace in the arms race.) His actual economic policy was concealed behind rhetoric about "less government" and "fiscal restraint," which permitted him to slash taxes on the wealthy, beginning three decades of enrichment for the richest.
The "Reagan revolution" was, like the 1979 Iranian one, a revolution "from the right," a new phenomenon in the modern era. Reagan's represented the triumph of certain ideas, largely hatched (ironically enough) at the University of Chicago, though these ideas (those of Friedman and Lucas and Hayek) triumphed not because of the arguments supporting them (decidedly a mixed bag), but because they justified policies that immediately enriched the richest and most powerful groups in American capitalism, who needed no arguments to see their merit. (The fact that, since that time, the "ideas" of Ayn Rand--the proverbial bean-brain by comparison to the other ideologues of the right like Friedman and Hayek--have come to the fore in the Republican Party is one of the legacies of Reagan's destruction of the public culture.) The two animating ideas of the "Reagan revolution"--that markets 'work' (are efficient, maximize welfare, etc.) and that the best government is the least government--might have been thought refuted by the economic collapse of 2008, and they probably have been in many parts of the world. But the United States--which purged through state force the only meaningful political opposition to the capitalist class in the years after WWII--is so intellectually bereft in its public culture, that these events have had essentially no impact. To the contrary, the major political movement of 2010 was a kind of infantile Hayekianism (dubbed the "Tea Party") that the ruling class could have only fantasized about thirty or forty years ago.
Reagan was a remarkable presence in American political life, comparable in impact to LBJ and FDR. Unlike the latter two, he was much more consistently on the side of the short-term interests of the ruling class, at the expense of the vast majority.
His foreign policy does not merit much comment, since it is not what distinguished Reagan. He supported, of course, dictatorial butchers in Guatemala and terrorists in Nicaragua, but his trail of corpses abroad hardly distinguishes him from any of his predecessors, since to be the President of the United States is almost invariably to be a criminal under international law. Indeed, he has no monument of imperial depravity comparable to the Vietnam of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. His predecessors, however, basically accepted, and expanded, the peace that FDR made between the ruling class and the vast majority; Reagan began to dismantle it. His real legacy is still not determined.
UPDATE: More thoughts here.
ONE MORE: This post from Robert Paul Wolff is also relevant.