In which John Green teaches you about what is often called the Reagan Era. Mainly, it covers the eight years during which a former actor who had also been governor of the state of California was president of the United States. John will teach you about Reagan’s election victory over the hapless Jimmy Carter, tax cuts, Reagan’s Economic Bill of Rights, union busting, and the Iran-Contra among other things. Learn about Reagan’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives, and even a little about Bonzo the Chimp.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course U.S. history, and today we’re going to talk
about the guy who arguably did the most to shape the world that I live in. NO, Stan not
Carrottop. No, not Cumberbatch although he did do the most to shape the Tumblr that I
live in. I’m talking about The Great Communicator: Ronald Reagan.
Reagan is a fascinating president because he was, in lots of ways, straightforward.
His presidency was called the Reagan Revolution but it’s a bit odd that he gets so much
credit for changing America because he was one of the least hands-on of all presidents
and as you know here at Crash Course we don’t really indulge in great man history. So we’re
going to talk about Reagan but we’re also going to talk about the forces that predated
his presidency that led to the so-called Reagan Revolution.
Mr. Green? Mr Green? I remember some of this stuff. It’s like almost interesting.
I’m glad to be almost interesting me from the past. Someday maybe you’ll be almost
The Reagan era began, unsurprisingly, with his election to the Presidency in 1980. Now,
anyone could have beaten Jimmy Carter, but Reagan succeeded largely by pulling together
many strands of conservatism. Reagan emphasized his belief in “states
rights” and he condemned “welfare cheats.” He also condemned busing and affirmative action.
And he won the support of religious conservatives, including the newly formed Moral Majority,
by standing for family values, even though in fact he was the first U.S. president to
have been divorced. Also, he once acted with a monkey. And there’s
nothing “family values” about that. Stan just informed me that Ronald Reagan did
not in fact act with a monkey. He acted with a chimp. I apologize to all the primate rights
people out there. Good lord! Now Reagan also appealed to the so-called
white backlash, working class white people who resented the advances that African Americans
had made during the 1960s and the 1970s. And economic conservatives liked his anti-union,
low taxes, free market positions, and anti-government crusaders and libertarians liked his assertion
that government was not the solution to problems, but was itself the problem.
Then there were the Cold War hawks who liked his militant anti-Soviet rhetoric and his
desire to spend more on the military. Now that’s a big coalition but it turned
out to be just barely a majority coalition. Still Reagan won in 1980.
He even carried the traditionally Democratic states of Illinois and New York proving that
Jimmy Carter truly was profoundly unelectable. A lot of Reagan’s policy ideas weren’t
all that popular at the time, but he truly was a great communicator.
I mean Reagan’s was a former actor and he knew how to talk to people without them feeling
condescended to. Reagan’s most famous campaign advertisement
proclaimed that it was “morning in America” again, and that relentless optimism (I mean
at least if you’re a morning person) was a welcome contrast to Jimmy Carter being like
“you should wear sweaters inside to save fuel.” Sorry Jimmy this is America!
Ronald Reagan used the word “freedom” more than any other president in American
history, but it’s interesting to think about what he meant by the word “freedom.”
Because as we’ve seen in American history freedom has meant lots of things to lots of
people. Is freedom, freedom from government tyranny?
Or is freedom government protection from hunger and homelessness and military attacks?
Do governments ultimately restrict freedom or provide it?
Now there’s no question that the federal government that Ronald Reagan inherited would
have been absolutely foreign to the people who founded this country.
I mean Social Security, Federal Income Taxes, the National Endowment for the Arts.
But some people would argue that the America of 1980 was much more free for more Americans
than say the America of 1790 when after all slavery was legal.
And in fact in the early 19th century many slave owners said that the government was
taking away their freedom to own slaves. Ultimately, the question for how we should
imagine freedom and how we should allow for it, is at the center of American history.
And a big part of Ronald Reagan’s vision of freedom was economic freedom, which he
laid out in his Economic Bill of Rights. It would curtain union power, reduce federal
regulation of industry and the environment, and most of all lower taxes.
All these ideas were a big part of the Reagan Revolution. But as we know much of what he
proposed had been brewing for years during the rise of conservatism.
So what aspects this Economic Bill of Rights actually ended up happening? Well, his main
accomplishment was lowering taxes: in 1981 Reagan persuaded Congress to lower the top
tax rate from 70% to 50%. In 1986, Congress went even further with the
Tax Reform Act that lowered the top income tax rate to 28%.
Oh, it’s time for the mystery document! The rules here are simple…
I read the mystery document, I either get the author of it correct or I get shocked.
Alright here we go. Can I just take a preliminary guess and say that it’s going to be Reagan?
“I will not accept the excuse that the Federal Government has grown so big and powerful that
it is beyond the control of any President, any administration or Congress. We are going
to put an end to the notion that the American taxpayer exists to fund the Federal Government.
The Federal Government exists to serve the American people and to be accountable to the
American people. On January 20, we are going to re-establish that truth.
Also on that date we are going to initiate action to get substantial relief for our taxpaying
citizens and to put people back to work. […] We will simply apply to our government the common
sense that we use in our daily lives.”
It is Reagan!
Stan is telling me that I’m not going to get the check mark unless I guess the correct
Well he talked about January 20th, so obviously it’s not his inaugural address.
It’s either the acceptance speech he gave at the convention or like the speech that
he gave after he was elected. But I don’t think…. convention? Yes!
So the idea that to lower taxes is the best way to spur economic growth is called supply
side-economics, trickle down economics or, if you’re George HW Bush running against
Reagan in the 1980 primaries, voodoo economics.
Sadly, this does not involve zombies or putting pins in dolls. Instead, it’s about high
interest rates to combat inflation coupled with cutting taxes, especially for wealthy
Those rich people then spend more and invest more in private enterprise which creates new
Also, the thinking goes that lower taxes will encourage people to work harder since they
will be able to keep more of their money.
Did this work? Eh. Now we’re getting into the part of history where it depends on your
Initially, the high interest rates definitely provoked a recession in 1981 and 1982. Which
was not ideal.
But, inflation did drop from 13.5% in 1981 to 3.5% in 1988 and after 1982 the economy
And the rest of the Reagan era saw consistent increases in gross domestic product; however,
not everyone benefited from that expansion. While the stock market boomed, wages didn’t
rise very much. And in fact, haven’t risen since.
Now one of the central ideas of supply-side economics is that you have lower tax rates
and you also cut government spending. Because, you know, the government has less money.
Which, yeah, it did not happen. The government is always good at cutting taxes but never
good at cutting spending.
The Reagan era did see cuts to some programs, but the really expensive items: Social Security,
Medicare, Medicaid, they remained largely intact.
And instead of cutting the overall amount of spending it actually went up considerably
because of the defense spending binge that saw the national debt balloon to 2.7 trillion
But Reagan totally did deliver on his anti-union rhetoric. In August 1981, when the unionized
air traffic controllers went out on strike, violating federal law in the process, Reagan
fired more than 11 thousand controllers who refused to return to work..
So as I mentioned before, the 80’s were a pretty great decade for Wall Street generally,
which is why Oliver Stone made a movie about it that immortalized the line “Greed is
In the 1980s it became easier to make money buying and merging companies than actually
like running them profitably. But fortunately we later dealt with that problem….. ugh.
We never fix the problems, we only fix the things that are fine.
One of the reasons that American history is so important to me is that I want us as a
country to like summon the courage to deal seriously with our problems. Sometimes I think
that we’re just so cowardly like we’re the cowardliest country on Earth… alright
Right, but like the merger of RJ Reynolds Tobacco, maker of Winston cigarettes, and
Nabisco, which gave us Oreos, not only created a cancer and heart disease dream team, it
also generated nearly $1 billion for the lawyers and bankers who put the deal together.
But if you were like most of us in the 80’s watching Dallas and Dynasty, working at your
regular job, inexplicably having a carpeted bathroom, than you probably didn’t share
in that abundance.
The 80’s saw a rising economic inequality, although not nearly as dramatic as we see
today. By the mid 1990s the richest 1% controlled 40% of the nation’s wealth, double the share
from 20 years before.
Meanwhile the income of middle class families stagnated and that of the poorest 20% began
And one often overlooked aspect of de-regulation was the closing of hospitals for the mentally
ill. Now, some of these institutions were hellish, but rapid closure of all of these
facilities without replacement services meant that many patients were left to live on the
street. Homelessness increased dramatically.
Now of course Reagan is considered the darling of conservatives today, but by current standards
he was something of a moderate.
I mean yes, he cut taxes, and he cut funding for programs that helped the poor like food
stamps and school lunches.
But during his second term he worked effectively with the democratic congress. There’s no
Also, he left the big New Deal and Great Society programs largely intact.
I mean he was too old to believe in cutting Medicare. He was like “all of my friends
are on this.”
And the 80s also didn’t see the fulfillment of the desires of the Christian Right. I mean
divorce rates went up, abortion continued to be legal, women didn’t leave the workforce.
In fact, Reagan appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court. Are you kidding? We
didn’t have a woman in the Supreme Court until the 1980s? This is the craziest country
Even affirmative action persisted, and Nancy Reagan’s urging of Americans to “Just
Say No” to drugs didn’t convince anybody.
And then we have Ronald Reagan’s reputation as the man who ended the Cold War. The thinking
here goes that Reagan spent so much money on defense that the Soviet Union bankrupted
itself trying to compete.
And there may be a case to be made there but we don’t want to remove agency from the
people who protested the oppression of life behind the Iron Curtain.
So while you can argue that the Reagan administration helped create good conditions for the change
that happened, the people who made the change, made it. Alright. Let’s go to the ThoughtBubble.
In his first term Ronald Reagan took a really hard line against the Soviet Union. He called
it an Evil Empire and even once joked that the U.S. would “begin bombing in 5 minutes.”
That was ill advised. Reagan also sponsored the largest military buildup in U.S history
including the MX missile.
The highlight was his proposed Strategic Defense Initiative aka Star Wars: space-based missiles
and lasers for shooting Soviet missiles out of the sky. This was a fantastic idea, although
it would have violated the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, but anyway it was technologically
impossible to build. The force was not strong with this idea.
Reagan also pressured NATO to put missiles in Western Europe and the war games that NATO
staged in 1983 were so realistic that the Soviets almost scrambled their planes and
Now if that had resulted in nuclear war, we would have a very different story on our hands,
but it didn’t. And Regan’s aggressive nuclear posturing had a couple of positive
First, it boosted the world wide anti-nuclear weapons movement, called the FREEZE movement.
Second, it turned Reagan into the most successful nuclear abolitionist in the atomic age.
There’s nothing like a reasonably close brush with nuclear apocalypse to tone down
your rhetoric a little. In his second term Reagan was much more conciliatory towards
the Soviets and worked to reduce the number of warheads.
In his first term, according to the historian Victor Sebastian, “[Reagan] spent nearly
as much on defense as Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter combined and much more than both
the cost of the Korean and Vietnam wars,” but in his second, Reagan toned down both
the spending and his rhetoric, declaring, “Our constant and urgent purpose must be
a lasting reduction of tensions between us.”
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, Reagan was able to negotiate the first reduction in nuclear
weapons with the new Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986.
In fact, the two leaders might have tried to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether,
but Reagan’s unwillingness to give up his Star Wars initiative made that impossible.
That was a big deal, but the rest of Reagan’s foreign policy was somewhat less triumphant.
For instance, he sent Marines to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping mission, but then withdrew
forces after 241 of them were killed by a car bomb.
And Middle Eastern policy played a key role in the biggest controversy of Reagan’s presidency:
the Iran-Contra Scandal.
This was truly one of the craziest schemes ever hatched up by an American presidential
administration. Which is really saying something.
The Contras were rebels seeking to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
Because they were anti-communists and the Cold War was in full swing, the Reagan administration
wanted to support them. But Congress passed a law saying that they couldn’t.
So two administration officials, John Poindexter and Oliver North, got creative. They hatched
a plan to sell arms to the Iranian government, still technically our enemies, and then funnelled
some of the profits from these illegal arms sales to the Contras.
And Congress would never have to know about it. Except that they found out.
Congressional hearings followed, and we learned a lot about Ronald Reagan’s penchant for
delegating the details of his policy to underlings.
In this case, that served him well as he could plausibly claim that he knew nothing about
the clandestine activities of these two rogue employees.
And this gets to the big point of the Reagan era. I’m not sure that it was really about
Reagan. In fact, I’m not sure that any great-man history is really about the great men that
supposedly spearheaded it.
Whether or not you think America is better off from the rise of conservatism we’ve
seen since LBJ’s great society. It wasn’t really, and it still really isn’t about
It’s about us collectively deciding what we mean when we talk about freedom and equality.
Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
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Thanks for watching Crash Course and as they say in my hometown “It’s morning in America.”
What should I say – “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome”?
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video