Reagan was a Union Member – Visiting his Library as an exercise in Civil Politics

Yesterday, in a strangely appropriate thing to do for President's Day weekend, I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.  When I first got there, I had this idea that I might need to keep a low profile considering my liberal leanings and when I told a docent there that I was from Venice Beach, I projected a liberal-conservative frame upon him, as I took his information that General Electric had given them a grant to bus kids from Los Angeles to the library as partisan gloating, even as I've myself wondered why Republicans care about our president addressing our children.  If I'm honest, there is not much difference and school children should be able to do both.  Perhaps visiting his library is an opportunity to remove myself from partisan frame and try and understand someone with a different worldview than myself.

Perhaps the most important thing I got from his visit is that I realized that Reagan was a far more complex, sincere and likable person than I might have thought.  As someone who actively seeks to promote civility in politics, this was an opportunity to practice what I've often espoused.  I was born in 1974, and so perhaps was too young to have any direct ideas about Reagan, instead relying on the caricatures of his persona from the current political discourse.  These caricatures are map onto the below graph of data where strong liberals report being disgusted by conservatives and believe that conservatives are generally not good people (compared to the midpoint of the scale on a 1-7 disagree-agree scale). Vice versa, strong conservatives may believe that liberal democrats disgust them, are anti-country, and also are not good people.  Note that these effects hold for "strong" partisans rather than slight partisans.

On visiting the Reagan Library, I learned a number of things that add depth to my impression of Reagan as a likable person, even if I disagree with much of his worldview.  Among the things I learned were that:

  • Reagan was the "first president of the United States to hold a lifetime membership in an AFL-CIO union".  While he may be famous for firing the air traffic controllers, who imperiled national safety for fairly ambitious demands, I didn't get the impression that he would resolutely support Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union busting ethos.  Reagan's first political experience was actually in solidarity with students who wanted to strike to protest cuts at their university.

  • Reagan actually was a Democrat in his early career.
  • While governor of California, he actually signed legislation increasing the affordability of homes for low income individuals and funding grants for the disabled, meaning he was hardly as extreme as either liberals who villainize him or strong conservatives who hold him up as an example, make him out to be.
  • Reagan appreciated nature in that he spent a lot of time outdoors in his spare time, and praised the government of Sri Lanka for it's "dedication to preserve God's gift of nature.

Civility does not mean that I have to agree with his policies, but rather that I am open to appreciating that he genuinely meant well for the country, was a good person, and was not someone to be disgusted by, in contrast to the above graph.  Of course, there were many points where I disagreed with the focus of the exhibits.

  • The cold war was portrayed as a struggle between good and evil, whereas much moral psychology would suggest that pure evil is far less common than we might think.  Indeed, while "peace through strength" is a common theme of exhibits, it is Reagan's friendship with Gorbachev, not  force, that ultimately seemed to be the breakthrough in the cold war.

  • Reagan's belief in unrestricted free enterprise and supply side economics seems to me like an exercise in motivated reasoning, in that people don't like to make tradeoffs between helping the poor and rewarding those who produce more.

Still, my overall impression of Reagan was improved by my visit and perhaps a civil thing to do would be for all partisans to visit a presidential library of someone of the opposite party as familiarity breeds liking, and in these hyperpartisan times, we could all use a bit more appreciation for our friends across the aisle.

– Ravi Iyer