Ronald Reagan, Fictional Character.


Yesterday, Brendan Nyhan took Time magazine to task for asserting without any evidence that Ronald Reagan "transformed Americans' attitude about government" (see also follow-ups by Matt Yglesias, Jonathan Bernstein, and Greg Sargent). Here's the thing about Reagan, though: The myths abound.

There's the myth that Reagan never compromised his conservative beliefs, though in fact he did all the time -- the fact that Reagan raised taxes would get him kicked out of today's GOP. Then there's the myth that Reagan was stunningly popular, when in fact his approval ratings were middling -- his average approval of 52.8 percent puts him ahead of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, but behind Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon Johnson, among others.

Why do myths like these about Reagan persist? Obviously, there are people who are very invested in them and work to make it so. But as with the Time magazine article, the myths get repeated by journalists. One partial explanation comes from an article called "The Myth of Ronald Reagan's Popularity," by Michael Schudson and Elliot King, which was written probably 15 years ago (sorry, can't find a copy online). Schudson and King suggested that reporters were so awed by skill Reagan's handlers displayed at creating photo-ops and manipulating coverage that they assumed it was working. Look at that spectacular staging, they'd say, without bothering to ask whether the public was actually persuaded.

Reagan successfully took the idea that perception equals reality to a level not seen before his presidency. He wasn't the first president to utilize the medium of television, but he understood it better than his predecessors, for instance. And over time, Reagan's rhetorical consistency -- always saying that government can't do anything right -- gets remembered as policy consistency, when it was anything but. Republicans' unadulterated worship of Reagan plays into this too, by sending a message that Reagan was successful in everything he did. So if you remember him as a popular, consistent president who accomplished everything he wanted to, then it just feels right to assert that he convinced Americans to hate government. It feels so right, you don't even bother to check whether it's true.

-- Paul Waldman

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