Reagan and Thatcher and How We Feel When They Die
The high emotion evoked by the death of Margaret Thatcher doesn’t surprise me. I never even lived in Britain and I grew up with songs and t-shirts and graffiti hating on Margaret Thatcher. When I heard she had died the first thing I thought was what I always think when I hear her name: “Stand down, Margaret,”
The anger that Thatcher’s death has evoked makes me wonder why we there wasn’t a similar catharsis in America when Ronald Reagan died. After all, Glenda Jackson’s impassioned catalogue of the damage that Thatcherism did in Britain is a familiar list for Americans.
It was in the Reagan years that we started seeing people sleeping in doorways in the town where I grew up. That was when the government drastically cut programs for the mentally ill and disabled, then kicked them out of state-run institutions, at the same time that our city, like cities all over the country, was closing all the low-rent downtown apartments in the hope of “re-invigorating” the area. Like Thatcher, Reagan fiercely fought the labor unions as soon as he took office, starting a downward spiral of pay stagnation and lost worker’s rights that continues today. And like Thatcher, Reagan’s promise that these seemingly cruel policies would eventually be the best thing for everyone proved to be wrong. Mentally helpless people still sleep in our doorways, and the boom and bust and boom again has siphoned more and more money to the richest among us while the rest of us work harder for less pay.
So why wasn’t there celebration when Reagan died?
One answer is that there was, but the internet was younger then, so we didn’t know about it. Ronald Reagan died in 2004, before Facebook and Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, when 4chan was just one year old. It was less than a decade ago, yet we relied much more heavily on broadcast media at the time. The public learned about his death on television and the radio and in the papers, and these establishment voices dominated the discussion much more than they do now. Like many people, I felt a strange unreality in the blanket positivity in the media’s remembrances at the time of his death. It is right to honor the dead, and Reagan was certainly important, whatever one might have thought of him, but there didn’t seem to be any space for talking about his mistakes. Things are different now. Although it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, the voices of those outside the establishment are a larger part of the discussion than they were in 2004.
Another reason for the difference is a cultural one. Americans may lack the social graces in many facets of life, but when it comes to politics we are notoriously polite. The lively, no-holds-barred debates seen in the British Parliament are a form of public discourse (and entertainment) that we can only dream of for our own government. There are, of course, plenty of pundits who are not polite in the least, but their form of rowdiness usually lacks much in the way of thoughtful argument, and in any case is usually in support of that thin segment of society that has done quite nicely under the economic rules that Reagan championed. To be impassioned yet rational about the common good was and still is a rare thing in American broadcast media.
And then there’s the matter of personality.
The message of Reagan and Thatcher was virtually the same: The wealthy are the generators of economic growth and government should free corporations and investors from any restrictions on increasing their wealth. If a person is poor or uneducated, they’re not trying hard enough, and the way to get them to try harder is to reduce the assistance that the government provides them. The working class should rely exclusively on individual initiative and should be prevented from joining forces in labor unions. More control of unions, less control of corporations. More subsidies for business, fewer for the poor. All these things will lead to a smaller government, and thus greater economic growth, and one day everything will be better for it.
Reagan was as likely as Thatcher to use ugly, divisive language. He implied that anyone who wasn’t born to privilege was lazy or innately incompetent, talked about “welfare queens”, laughed that people who went to bed hungry could use to lose a little weight. The two leaders were very similar in writing.
It was in person (or on video or audio) that the two of them differed drastically. Reagan delivered his message with a friendly smile. He seemed kind of stupid. He seemed to wish the best for everyone, or to at least have the grace to pretend he did. This cannot be said of Margaret Thatcher. Her personal style of speaking and behaving was just the sort of style people do not like. She didn’t seem stupid at all. She seemed actively hostile. Reagan’s charm served him better than anything he said or did. There’s a little pinch of pity in our feelings about him, even when we hate most of what he said and did. The ubiquitous anti-Reagan graffiti I remember from when he was president largely portrayed an empty-headed company man, stuck in the nineteen-fifties, sinister because he was so oblivious. Part of you wonders if he was just a dumb, well-meaning guy who screwed up. And since he happened to be the president of the United States, we’re still feeling the damage thirty years later.