Ronald Reagan, the second son of Jack and Nelle Reagan, was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. His family frequently moved from town to town, mostly as a result of his alcoholic father’s inability to maintain a steady job, but eventually found their place in Dixon, Illinois. After graduating from Eureka College in 1932, Reagan pursued many opportunities as a radio personality, and would soon land a job as a broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs in 1937. While accompanying the team to spring training in California, Reagan ended up receiving an offer for a contract from the Warner Brothers studios, which he accepted. This contract marked the beginning the long journey that was his acting career, and he eventually went on to be featured in more fifty-five films; one of the most famous being Bedtime for Bonzo, in which he acted alongside a live chimpanzee. Reagan’s Hollywood career came to a pause around the time of World War II, but his on-screen appearances did not cease there. Reagan served as an army lieutenant but, because of poor eyesight, was incapable of participating in field combat. His acting experience made him a suitable option to assist in the production of training films and the conducting of public relations for the military. Reagan later attributed his experiences during the war to the beginning of his realizations toward the downfalls of bureaucracy. In the years between 1947 to 1952, Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, the union of movie actors that fought against communism. Before this, Reagan proudly considered himself a liberal Democrat; however, it was during his time in the guild that “Reagan came face-to-face with Communist activism and became a staunch anti-Communist.”( Hayward 2013). Although Reagan remained a part of the Democratic party for some time after this, his political opinions slowly began to shift more toward the conservative side of the spectrum. Halfway through the senatorial election of 1950, he shifted his allegiance from Democratic Helen Douglas to the Republican Richard Nixon and would eventually go on to deliver almost 200 speeches in support of Nixon’s campaign; however, he did not officially change his political party to Republican until 1962. Reagan became increasingly interested in politics, inspiring him to run against Pat Brown for governor of California and winning by more than a million votes. Not long after, Reagan decided to run against Gerald Ford and became the 40th President of the United States. Elected during a time of national self-doubt, Ronald Reagan would go on to become “Perhaps the second most popular and consequential Republican President after Abraham Lincoln. Like Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, Reagan’s careful rhetorical style proved deeply persuasive to the American people and earned him the name of ‘Great Communicator'”(Hayward 2013). During the years of his political endeavors, Reagan’s conservative policies such as tax cuts, reduction of government regulation, and a focus on returning to “old fashioned” America would revive the national economy and ultimately make him the model to be followed by all modern and future conservatives.
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One of Reagan’s most impactful conservative reforms was his massive tax reductions, focused mainly on income taxes. Early in his first term as governor of California, Reagan implemented a tax increase solely as a way to close the gap on the budget deficit created by those before him. Against popular opinion, he also strongly opposed Richard Nixon’s plan to have the federal government regulate welfare and establish and annual income. Fortunately for Reagan, Nixon’s plan was rejected by congress, which gave Reagan the leeway he needed to implement a welfare plan of his own to deal with California’s current welfare crisis. “California’s welfare rolls were growing by 40,000 a month by 1970. While California had 10 percent of the nation’s population, it had 16 percent of the nation’s total welfare caseload. Unless something was done, Reagan’s finance department told him, a tax increase would be necessary to meet the added fiscal burden”( Baughman 2001). Reagan’s plan required recipients to find jobs or begin training for one which tightened eligibility standards and successfully led to lowering the welfare cases by nearly 800,000, and savings of around $1 billion in just three years. This welfare plan ” became the blueprint for the widespread and successful state-based welfare reform experiments of the 1990s that culminated in sweeping welfare reform on the national level in 1996″(Hayward 2013). While running to become the Republican nominee, Reagan built his following by appealing to the more religious conservatives. He promised many things including mandatory prayer in school and the outlawing of abortion; nonetheless, when running in the actual election campaign, Reagan put those promises on hold and portrayed a more moderate stance as a way to gain a broader range of supporters. While not completely abandoning his original claims, Reagan did focus more strongly his pro-business economic plan. He adopted a version of “supply side” or “trickle down” economics based on the idea that tax cuts and other incentives would stimulate economic growth that would “trickle down” top the middle and lower classes. During his second term, Reagan proposed the Tax Reform Act of 1986. The purpose of this act was to “simplify the tax code, broaden the tax base, and eliminate many tax shelters and preferences. It was intended to be essentially revenue-neutral, though it did shift some of the tax burden from individuals to businesses”(Winfrey 2013). Unfortunately, while taxes were being cut, the government refused to stop spending money which increased the deficit from $25 billion to $111 billion raised unemployment to record highs. Later, after stepping back from strict supply-side economics and a slight tax increase, Reagan had the economy back under control and growing at a steady rate for “the longest peacetime expansion in history”(Winfrey 2013).
In addition to tax cuts, Reagan also aimed to reduce government regulation in industry and business. Because Reagan was such a strong anti-communist, he feared too much government rule would lead to a communist-like America where the people have no power and the government, which was originally created to serve the people, would control everything. Reagan and his supporters wanted to reduce the size of the federal government, for he believed that it was becoming too powerful and taking advantage of its citizens. Reagan believed that “‘Government is not the answer to our problems,’… ‘government is the problem.'”( Hayward 2013). He repeatedly emphasized the idea that the government exists to serve the American people, not the other way around, and had absolutely no issues with pointing out exactly where he believed the government should and should not be involved. While Reagan was head of the Screen Actors guild, he participated in many anti-communist protests which often became violent and potentially dangerous. He was so intensely against the threat of communism in America that, “actor Sterling Hayden, an admitted member of the Communist Party, later said that Communism was stopped in Hollywood by ‘a one-man battalion of opposition named Ronald Reagan.'”( Hayward 2013). Reagan and his followers believed that by eliminating federal involvement and regulations, businesses and industries would be able to return to what they are intended for: producing goods and services to be used by society. Even in his inaugural address, Reagan addressed these issues directly by saying that, “he intended to reverse the growth of government because it shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed”(Winfrey 2013). Over and over, Reagan stressed the idea that the whole basis of our government is the idea that it exists to represent what the people of America want, not to serve its own self interests and ignore the citizens. During his presidency, Reagan cut the budgets of many government departments and relaxed or ignored the enforcement of laws and regulations administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior, the Department of Transportation, and many other agencies. By doing this, he was able to reduce government spending and decrease the size of the federal government by more than 5% by the end of his second term and,
Reagan also developed a deep regard for America’s heritage and the idea of returning to the “old-fashioned” America. While running in the election, Reagan focused less on the promise of specific laws or policies and more on painting the picture of the return to the “old-fashioned’ America. He strongly emphasized the importance of of patriotism, religion, and family values; all of the things he believed America was built upon. Reagan also heavily believed in maintaining a hopeful, optimistic view on the future of America. Glorifying the concept of nationalism and American exceptionalism, Reagan held the seventeenth century writings of John Winthrop, a Puritan from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in high regards. Reagan especially enjoyed his piece titled A Model of Christian Charity in which Winthrop proposes the idea of a “Shining City on a Hill”, which underlined the notion of American exceptionalism and created the idea of a perfect traditional society. Reagan also deeply admired, and often quoted, the famous revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine. He frequently quoted Paine, saying, “We have it on our power to begin the world over again.”(Hayward 2013). Reagan adamantly believed that America could return to its old values of religion, family, and hard work, and maintained a positive, hopeful attitude for the future. Reagan’s “idiosyncratic conservatism”(Hayward 2013) and heightened optimism were
Reagan’s idiosyncratic conservatism, which combined forward-looking optimism that could at times be confused with utopianism with his deep regard for America’s heritage and the idea of American exceptionalism.