Commentary: Time for America return to 1980s can-do populism

President Ronald Reagan signing Voting Rights Act legislation in the East Room of the White House on June 29, 1982. National Archives from Collection: Reagan White House Photographs
President Ronald Reagan signing Voting Rights Act legislation in the East Room of the White House on June 29, 1982. National Archives from Collection: Reagan White House Photographs

The populist conservative movement known as the New Right enjoyed unprecedented growth in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Its greatest salesman was  Ronald Reagan. It appealed to evangelical Christians, anti-tax crusaders, advocates of deregulation and smaller markets, advocates of a more powerful American presence abroad,  disaffected white liberals, and defenders of an unrestricted free market.

The rise of this “New Right” had it’s nexus in the so-called Sunbelt, a mostly suburban and rural region of the Southeast, Southwest and California, where the population began to expand after World War II and exploded during the 1970s.  Many of the new Sunbelters had migrated from the older industrial cities of the North and Midwest known as the “Rust Belt”. They did so because they had grown tired of the seemingly insurmountable problems facing aging cities, such as overcrowding, pollution and crime. Perhaps most of all, they were tired of paying high taxes for social programs they did not consider effective and were worried about the stagnating economy. Many were also frustrated by what they saw as the federal government’s constant, costly and inappropriate interference.

During and after the 1980 presidential election, these disaffected liberals came to be known as “Reagan Democrats.” They provided millions of crucial votes for the Republican candidate, the personable and engaging former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, in his victory over the incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. Reagan won 51% of the vote and carried all but five states and the District of Columbia.

Reagan’s campaign cast a wide net, appealing to conservatives of all stripes with promises of big tax cuts and smaller government.  He advocated for industrial deregulation, reductions in government spending and tax cuts for both individuals and corporations, as part of an economic plan he and his advisors referred to as “supply-side economics.”

Rewarding success and allowing people with money to keep more of it, the thinking went, would encourage them to buy more goods and invest in businesses. It changed America financially and, as Reagan said “a rising tide raises all ships.” Through the 80’s every socio-economic class saw in increase in income.

American’s root for the underdogs because we are a nation of underdogs that fought and rose to greatness.  We celebrate America’s success not because it was easy but because it was hard. We have done it before, we will do it again.

Just as Reagan was the political poster boy of the 1980s, American manufacturing and industry had one of her own. Lee Iacocca was the mastermind behind the Ford Mustang and the straight-talking captain of Chrysler’s historic U.S. rescue and 1980s turnaround. He earned  acclaim as America’s most famous CEO and car salesman. His optimistic enthusiasm and vision saved the Chrysler Corporation with a return to the basics and a marvel of marketing and engineering, the K-car.

“I think America is getting an inferiority complex about Japan,” Iacocca lamented before a group of Chrysler executives in one late 1980s TV commercial. “Everything from Japan is perfect. Everything from America is lousy … now that’s got to stop.”

In the early 1980s, with the U.S. auto industry on its heels amid soaring gasoline prices, inflation and rising Japanese imports, Iacocca’s optimism and fierce competitive spirit helped revive Chrysler and renew Detroit’s fortunes.

“The most amazing thing about the guy is that he just never gives up,” the late Ben Bidwell, a Chrysler vice chairman, once said of Iacocca. “Every day he gets up and every day he attacks. You get discouraged yourself. But he just never, never, never gives up on the company, on its products, on whatever.”

Iacocca was hailed as “Detroit’s comeback kid” in a March 1983 cover story in Time. Two years later, when asked to name the person they most admired for a 1985 Gallup Poll, Americans ranked Iacocca third — behind President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. The next year, Iacocca placed second in the survey, behind Reagan and ahead of the pope.

The 1980’s were the era that defined American politics and psyche for the next 40 years. Two salesmen drove the vision: Reagan politically and Iacocca in manufacturing. Iacocca saved Chrysler and led a new focus on exceptionalism in American manufacturing. What we need today is another 1980’s style revival of political and financial faith in American values and the American worker. We are great, America. What we lack is self confidence. What we lack is a desire to not give up when things get difficult.

Just as in a game of chess one must look ahead to see the potential best moves in a game to insure success; so must we plan and look forward in the American political experience. We must be like Iacocca and Reagan and never give up. We must understand that we can no longer afford to succumb to a victim mentality. American’s root for the underdogs because we are a nation of underdogs that fought and rose to greatness.  We celebrate America’s success not because it was easy but because it was hard. We have done it before, we will do it again. Are you with me, my America?