An interesting question: what now amid the wreckage can be seen as the legacy of "conservative" governance over the past 38 years (from the time of Reagan's ascendance) - what did it accomplish? The answer that begs to be spoken: not much. Or maybe: too much (destruction).
By standard measures the record looks poor. While the stock market is higher than it was in the 1980s, a good deal of its rise was the result of the fiscally responsible Clinton 90's. The national mood is about where it was at the end of Carter's term. Military morale is likely higher than it was when Reagan took office, but it's not soaring, and military families are bearing the huge brunt of our "war" against terror. More or less unlimited abortion remains the law of the land - though the actual numbers of abortions dropped during the Clinton presidency. Meanwhile, our culture is coarser, more baldly pornographic and replete with sarcasm. Most young people get their news from "The Daily Show" or the "Colbert Report." Many of America's major industries - banking, airlines, automobiles, and most of its manufacturing base - is catatonic. Oil prices - while they have dropped in anticipation of our descent into a new Depression - remain historically high, and will rise again when economic activity reasserts itself, since the fundamental story remains supply constraint and the growth of China and India. We import a far greater percentage of oil for domestic consumption now than when the "conservative era" began: approximately 28% in 1981, compared to 67% now. Recall that one of Ronald Reagan's first official acts upon assuming the Presidency was to tear down the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had had installed. The size of government has everywhere increased; the national deficit is larger than ever; our indebtedness to foreign nations is massive; housing foreclosures are rampant, housing values are plummeting, and people are more insecure than I've seen in my lifetime. We are on the verge of witnessing the largest government bailout of "private" industry in the nation's history, an act being urged by a "conservative" President and the barons of Wall Street.
But still - we will be told that THE great legacy of conservative governance, and Ronald Reagan especially, was the defeat of the Soviet Union. Well, yes. But really - did we win? For twenty years we have crowed about the fall of the Soviet Union, and it was right to celebrate its demise. But did their defeat really constitute our "victory?" The story is that Reagan defeated the Soviets by massively increasing defense spending, resulting in their effort to keep up and subsequent financial strains that could not be sustained. To achieve this end, Reagan increased spending without cutting significantly elsewhere in the budget, committing us to years of deficits that were momentarily brought under control by Clinton. At the same time, he abandoned Carter's commitment to make us energy independent from "foreign oil" (read: oil), setting up our current military engagements in that area of "vital national interests" - the Middle East. That money pit is draining billions of dollars from our national pockets, a legacy of what was once quaintly called "the peace dividend."
However, this narrative may not even be quite true, as I've written about previously. A number of analysts (some with solid conservative credentials) have argued that what actually defeated the Soviets was America's ability to persuade the Saudi's to flood the markets with oil, thereby leading the Soviet's resource-based economy to collapse. If so, this was likely a Pyhrric victory, since current constraints in Saudi production (accelerated by the overproduction in the 1980s) are helping to make those same natural gas and oil reserves in Russia immensely valuable. Their increasing wealth - dominated by a small cadre of strong nationalists - is supporting a reassertion of national power and international ambitions (e.g., their recent "deal" with Venezuela). They have proven that we can't do anything about their sphere of influence (Georgia) but that they can play in our backyard.
One thing is certain: the American century is officially over. It may be the Chinese or the Russian century, or the beginning of the second Dark Age. But yesterday we saw clearly that we've all been fiddling while America drowned.
What must Vlad be thinking as he watches America's financial collapse and its own descent into socialism? Perhaps he is reflecting on the vaunted Russian sense of history, its understanding that nations rise and fall, and that Russia was never to be counted out. Perhaps he is paging through old clippings of American leaders declaring victory, crowing about a "uni-polar" world, the "indispensable" nation, the new Rome (perhaps he smiles, "how fitting"). Regardless, from his perspective - and ours - one rightly wonders about the legacy of the rise of a peculiar "conservatism" that was defined by a kind of Emersonian optimism, financial profligacy, disregard of conservation, neglect of culture in the name of "freedom" and individualism, the dismantling of jobs done by hand, and a disregard of history. It is breathtaking to consider.