Tag Archives: ronald reagan

Legacies

Antonin Scalia – the justice who gave us so much unnecessary contempt while handing down dismissive and even capricious decisions – died on Saturday. While many have focused on the astounding kerfuffle that’s developed, in which Senate Republicans apparently are going to avoid confirming a Supreme Court Justice for eleven months, I’m more interested in taking a moment to remember Scalia before his prominence in this “originalist” era begins to gather dust.

Justice Scalia was a man that’s easy to dismiss as a motley of contradictions. He demanded that LGBT people remain a criminalized class in the name of preventing governmental tyranny. He argued that Black people should receive lesser educational opportunities in the name of their own well being. He cheerfully supported the limits to election spending being the size of your donors’ pocketbooks in the name of free speech. Underneath these baffling justifications, so easily torn down – often delightfully by Ruth Bader Ginsburg – is a kind of stunningly consistent judicial logic. His guiding principle seems to have been that the powerful could define how things were and should be, and that he was very glad to hold an appointed life-long position of power.

At times it’s been presented as a bastardization of his own claims to “textualism” that he supported such a deeply anti-democratic view of politics and the world. That of course involves a certain rosey look at the past that Scalia elevated into an all-encompassing justification. The writings he, and for that matter his colleagues on the court, pour over and cite either were written by or derived from the works of slave owners engaged in genocidal campaigns of colonization. Might makes right isn’t that much of an importation really. What set Scalia apart, even from other conservatives on the court, was his dogmatic insistence that the framers were literally never wrong.

Scalia was a product of an often forgotten era – of Reagan’s shining city upon a hill. The 1980s saw the sudden emergence of an almost mythic devotion to a historically murky period, drawing phrases from a 1630 sermon and connecting them to institutions born from a 1787 political convention. Reagan gave a voice to a conservative backlash to what for some was a frightening new world of LGBT liberation and the Civil Rights Movement. It didn’t matter if they were nonsensical appeals to an inconsistent and complex past as long as they served those suddenly on the defensive as a source of comfort. Scalia’s constitutionalism was to some degree little more than an intellectually buttressed version of the same argument from historical authority in the name of authority itself.

The term-less appointment to the Supreme Court let Antonin Scalia sit as a reminder of that time period even while Reagan gave way to Bush, then Clinton, and ultimately Obama. Anthony Kennedy, a centrist alternative put forward after Robert Bork had made it too clear what power for power’s sake looked like, never so fully encapsulated what that Reagan-era moment in history looked like, and has had a judicial career that lived beyond it. Scalia was there alongside him of course, writing more dissents and opinions than almost any other justice in history, but his judicial outlook seemed frozen in time compared to Kennedy’s. At the end of the day, he could only shout at the slow but steady advancement past that Reagan-era reaction or align himself with the positively Macchiavellian rightwing adaptations to that new climate.

Even as people politically opposed to him – again there’s always Ginsberg – mourn him, there is some recognition in liberal circles that what has passed is not just this man but the era that produced him. Far more than former Chief Justice Rehnquist’s passing of his position to current Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia’s death portends a new structural alignment on the court. Any nominee from Obama, even a comparatively centrist one, is going to tip the fragile balance further to the left on most issues.

A Republican blockade against sitting any appointee from the president is the perfect procedural issue to fire up the liberal vote in the 2016 races, and an almost guarantee that another Democratic president would issue their nominations to a more friendly Senate in 2017. Insisting that no one be seated is a complaint with essentially no point, since the anger is that an era is over. Republicans might as well direct those complaints at the demographic shifts in the country, at the transformation of their social wedge issues into liabilities, at the failure of their promised prosperity to manifest for most.

Much like how liberal appointments in the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for the Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s, the growing liberal bloc on the Supreme Court is a reflection of what has followed Reagan – Clinton’s and Obama’s two-term administrations. The Supreme Court serves as a sort of record of what came before, softly echoing the presidency and to a lesser extent congress. Part of what died on Saturday was the tangible impact of Ronald Reagan, and the political party which still holds debates at his presidential library doesn’t seem to be taking it well.

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The long shadow of Apartheid

TW: racism, Apartheid

Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95 years. For many South Africans he occupies an interesting political space – as both something of a founder of their present democracy and the embodiment of its limitations (namely to challenge the economic disparities created under Apartheid rule). From within US and UK politics, however, the present remembrance of Mandela exists in a different awkward context, with almost all figures lionizing Mandela, even those who worked against him and with the Apartheid government for decades. Although Reagan is no longer a living part of that number, there is a largely forgotten history of his and others’ support for that repressive, racist government:

The story doesn’t end there, but rather continues to include Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, and then his selective and incomplete enforcement of it after congress blocked his veto with vote margins unimaginable today. There are many reasons why the perpetual idolization of Reagan by many White, straight, and cisgender Americans is profoundly unsettling for others, but his insistence on negotiation with the settler colonial regime in South Africa should clearly be near the top of that list.

Of course, the story is not merely one of former officials who supported the Apartheid government who are with us only in memory, but familiar faces that remained in power long after casting votes in favor of inaction in that conflict and even the replacement of that state with another that actually allowed the vast majority of its population the right to simply vote.

Many prominent Republicans come to mind, but none more than Dick Cheney, who continued to serve in the Senate for three years after his vote towards the end even advancing to Majority Whip, a leadership position. Following that, he was promoted to Secretary of Defense under President George Bush (the first one). He spent most of the 1990s a well-regarded lobbyist, but returned, with minimal criticism, to politics as Vice President for eight years. He has within conservative circles remained so positively received that his daughter was taken as serious contender in a Senate race for no other reason than her relation to him. While it’s a bit early to tell, her campaign may ostensibly stay afloat purely as a result of his connections and still intact reputation.

Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan during Reagan's presidency
(Guess that was another thing these two have had in common?)

In short, he has never been held accountable for his role in working against resistance to Apartheid rule. Unshockingly, that lack of accountability has led to him feeling that he was not in fact in the wrong on that, but all along was right in his course of action. Even now, Cheney stands by his record that Mandela and the ANC were “terrorists” and that any restriction on the government most directly opposed to them was to be delayed, hindered, or stopped.

Reagan famously explained his position on the sanctions against the Apartheid government as being motivated by an interest in opposing the government responsibly and not too rashly. If that’s the case, then why is this part of his and Cheney’s history so rarely discussed? Why was Mandela still listed as a terrorist by the US government until 2008? Why are defenses of Apartheid specifically and (neo-)colonialism in Africa more broadly still so prevalent among conservatives in the United States?

The United States (among other countries) has never examined its role in maintaining and supporting Apartheid rule. This is the fallout of that – that wide swathes of our country’s politicians and even many citizens still support that system built on the idea of White supremacy and Black servitude. So far, that reality has been inadequately challenged. Let’s change that.

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Is Obama the next Thatcher?

TW: Apartheid South Africa, Pinochet-era Chile, class inequality

Throughout today I’ve been preemptively greeting people with facts about the United Kingdom’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to stave off any eulogizing or other fond memories of her. For instance, did you know she called the African National Congress (the popular movement that eventually toppled the Apartheid government of South Africa) a “typical terrorist organization“? Because after all, the brutally colonial governance of an indigenous population by somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the whole population is such a noble political situation. And maintaining it was key in the battle against communism. Likewise, concerning renowned Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Thatcher explained her support for his regime on the basis that he was “bringing democracy to Chile“. As we all know, nothing says democracy like a coup that killed thousands and forces thousands more the flee the country in terror. But at least the democratically-elected socialist wasn’t in charge of a country in another hemisphere entirely from Britain.


(There’s a reason these sorts of events have been popular for years. From here.)

It’s common for critics to compare her with her US contemporary, former President Ronald Reagan, but I think another comparison might be called for today: that of her and current President Barack Obama. Both of them cracked a glass ceiling, but seem dishearteningly to more represent a new spirit of inclusion and openness than actually embody it. For the past few months, the unemployment rate among Black Americans has averaged twice what it is among White Americans. Obama’s governance doesn’t seem to have made any significant dent in racist hiring and firing practices within the United States. While many major media outlets were narrowly focused on the risk of US-supplied weapons ending up in islamists’ hands, they overlooked the meaning behind that – the Obama administration had continued to supply weapons to undemocratic regimes throughout the Arab world even as the Arab Spring mounted and anti-protester violence grew more endemic.

Most recently, Obama has put forward a plan to switch from standard to “chained” inflation adjustments for social security and similar government assistance programs’ payouts. That this comes now, after years of slowing wage increases mere symbolizes how tidily Obama’s governance has fit into many larger economic trends in the US. He hasn’t been disruptive, but rather a great facilitator… of the same underlying principles in US politics that had been unquestionable to the point of invisibility.

I wonder if we’ll remember Obama the way many Brits are remembering Thatcher today: as being remarkable merely as a symbol that their group could occasionally have access to controlling a destructive political system. Will both be remembered as history’s tokens?

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