Ronald Reagan- The Politics of Symbolism By Robert Dallek

Ronald Reagan- The Politics of Symbolism By Robert Dallek


In Ronald Reagan- The Politics of Symbolism, Robert Dallek evaluates the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the trends in his career. Dallek tries to answer why Reagan adhered to old, traditional beliefs, and how this ideology came about. The theme is one of criticism, as Dallek attempts to show Reagan’s presidency as a showcase of symbolic politics rather than actual action for the country. Symbolic politics is defined as public goals that satisfy psychological needs as much as material ends (11). He asserts that we must explain Reaganism by looking at the conditions in which he grew up to become a president, as Reaganism is not merely an “aberration” that will disappear with the end of the his presidency (vii). Dallek defines Reaganism to be a return to “old-fashioned republicanism”- tax cuts for the rich, weaker stance on civil rights, less control on industry, and an “emotional rhetoric on the virtues of hard work, family, religion, individualism, and patriotism” (vii). It must be noted that the book was published in 1984, with just three years of Reagan’s presidency observed. While Dallek believed that this was sufficient in order to conclude on his performance, it effects his analyses.

In Part I, Dallek attempts to asses Reagan’s life before his presidency, including his childhood and career in Hollywood to his entrance into politics. Dallek asserts that Reagan’s strong attachment to old values is rooted to his small town upbringings as well as the modern culture of the time. He preferred to play the hero in movies- Dallek relates this to his need to be independent and have control over his own fate (16). In Part II, Dallek discusses Reagan’s presidency in which Reaganomics, or supply side economics was key.  Dallek develops his thesis here where he illustrates how symbolic politics were used in all domestic aspects, from education, security, to civil rights (e.g. While weary of civil rights, he visited the Butler family in Maryland who were effected by the KKK to give symbolic comfort to African Americans [81]). His fear of a failed government and determination to unite his party led him to actions that would, in Dallek’s opinion, prove to hurt the country. In Part III, Dallek analyzes Reagan as an international leader. Dallek believes that symbolic politics again comes into play as Reagan grew up with an anti-Soveit sentiment, becoming the only leader of the time that refused to have a give-and-take relationship with Moscow (189).  He used the Soveit Union as a symbol for all that America should not lean towards, picturing them as the “other”. Contrary to his campaign slogans on government and spending, the Reagan era saw the most increase in military buildup- a contradiction Dallek effectively observes. Reagan’s “obsession” would prove minimal advancement in world relations, or “counterproductive”, according to Dallek (194).

Dallak in general carries a critical, and often a blunt tone towards Reagan, emphasizing how the “inner personal grievances” that the president and his conservative administration had were turned into “political concerns” (194). For example, he opinionates that Reaganomics was a “selfish program” aimed at the wealthy, or “Reagan’s class” at the expense of the poor, and that the program is the product of “special interest, or group interest politics than of concern with the national interest” (104). While Dallek’s discussion of symbolic politics is one way to address Reaganism, the fact that he makes his assertions after three years into Reagan’s term makes the book limiting. In 1984, the year the book was published, Reagan won the election comfortably, and his second term was defined by foreign policy as the Cold War started to loom for the future. Dallek’s emphasis on personality of presidents is notable, as he is able to use examples to illustrate the dynamic attitude of Reagan. Tying psychological and the political agenda together as Dallek has accomplished can be useful in observing other presidents of our modern era where personality politics are coming increasingly into play.

Flexible Citizenship By Aihwa Ong

Flexible Citizenship, Ong Response
Saying No to the West

In Flexible Citizenship, Ong discusses the rejection and incorporation of liberalism (e.g. the West) at the same time in Asia. Ong’s discussion follows with Huntington’s prediction that in the future (today), it will be culture that dominates international tensions. But Ong also reminds us that economics will certainly take over discussions either way, as it brings the most tangible consequences. Asian countries reconcile by using liberalization to build competitive economies, and at the same time hold on to an identity that in some ways rejects the West. Ong states that this is an irony- that as globalization takes place, we are one again looking at Oriental societies and civilizations as “rival cultural regimes” (186).

Asian economies reject the idea that the East and West will eventually come together, and rather critiques the West as they use its economic ideologies. Unlike the West, the East needs government intervention- their “nurturing” of the middle class is “essential” to economic competitiveness, while at the same time participating in global capitalism(198).

This reading reminded me of a paper I read titled Anomaly as a Method: Collecting Chinese Micro-Theories of Transition by Chih-yu Shih (2009) in which he argues that China has embraced capitalist ideas for their progress, but transition remains questionable as they are trying to hold onto their cultural beliefs that are also tied strongly to socialism. I think Ong might agree with this, as he also shows that while the East, like China has used liberal rationalities that has evolved with the West since WWII, they have purposefully (or inevitably?) not completely reached Westernization. Is “sphere of individual liberty” as Huntington emphasizes possible at all in countries like China given its economic history? Will globalization actually lead to countries looking back to their original civilization as a way to identify themselves rather than fully embracing Western norms?

Does globalization then always have to mean modernization, and thus implying Westernization? It would seem that the answer is no, seeing as how many in the East, like Malayans depend on their government’s participation in the market and private sphere while rooting for capitalism. Rather, the East is showing the rest of the world that it is possible to separate Western economic and social ideologies.

(For SOC 309)

Patterns of Regime Change Operations by the U.S.- How It Has Remained Constant in the Past Century

For political science class, as a response to:

Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow. New York: Times Books, 2007.

Patterns of Regime Change Operations by the United States-

How It Has Remained Constant in the Past Century

Kinzer provides readers with a historical overview of how the American foreign policy has been characterized by military overthrows, especially in the developing world over the past century. Kinzer adopts a critical tone as he goes from discussing the United State’s conquer of Hawaii in 1898 to present day situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. He tries to answer why the pattern of “regime changes” as performed by the U.S. has continued since its came to power. Kinzer states that the periodical overthrows of governments by the North, or the United States has been both a benefit and an impediment for the places trying to develop in the world. Having been a world power since the end of the 19th century, using its power for “regime changes” are not radical acts but rather in accordance with our “long established law of history” (Kinzer, 319). Overthrow is an excellent representative of North-South relations, with the U.S. representing the North- a true fact given our reality today. After all, no other nation has arranged to depose foreign leaders as much as the U.S., for example (Kinzer, 2). Kinzer narrows down the motives of America’s obsession with “regime change” to three reasons- to increase their power, to impose their ideology, and to gain control of resources. In this paper, I will use Iraq as an example to show how these three reasons apply, and in turn how Iraq is not unique-these motives have remained the same in the past one hundred years with the North’s interaction with the South.

The motive of increasing power has definitely played a role in the war that began in 2003 with Iraq under President Bush. His cabinet, comprised of many members that were also in his father’s team saw Iraq as an unfinished business (Kinzer, 286).  Kinzer explains that the administration sought a place in the Middle East to project their power because of their concern for Saudi Arabia’s (the current regional proxy) future stability. Many, especially Rumsfeld felt that a pro-American Iraq would be the ideal replacement. Bush predicted a swift, overwhelming victory, which in turn would then serve as a “powerful warning” to any “real of potential” threat (Kinzer, 293). Iraq would thus be a venue for the U.S. to show its power and how strong it had become to the world.

This showing of power using military might is of course nothing new, according to Kinzer’s observation of history. Kinzer expresses how the U.S. rose to prominence in the international playing field faster than any other empires, thus leading it to be filled with the “exhuberance and self confidence of youth” and a feeling of “unlimited possibility” (Kinzer, 321).  For example, in 1984, Commodore M. Perry used military power in Japan and coerced the signing of a treaty to open up their ports to American traders (Kinzer, 81). Another example is Reagan and his actions with Grenada in which a quick invasion took place with six thousand soldiers- more than double of what was necessary. The action was strongly opposed by many leaders, with one hundred UN members agreeing that it was a “flagrant violation of international law” (Kinzer, 238). However, Reagan brushed aside these criticisms, instead claiming that it was a victory: “our days of weakness are over! Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall” (Kinzer, 238). Clearly, the motive of showing off power is nothing unique but rather an expectation from American invasions into the developing world.

Gaining control of resources is another motive that has reappeared over and over again in American foreign policy history. In discussing Iraq, Kinzer implies that the issue of oil was indeed involved as an intention, though continuously denied by the administration (and one which remains controversial). Kinzer points that the U.S. has been, and will continue to be the largest consumer of energy in the world, and given that Bush came from a background of oil barons in Houston, the connection should not be surprising (Kinzer, 291). Having 10% of the world’s oil, Bush was convinced that the control of their oil sources in Iraq would guarantee a steady flow into the U.S., and thereby ensuring American security (Kinzer, 291). In addition, Kinzer argues that the war also helped many of America’s large corporations. Companies that make weapons such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc. also benefited greatly from the new demands; these companies also happened to be large contributors to Bush’s campaign and the Republican Party. It seemed that with the war in Iraq, national and corporate interests matched conveniently (Kinzer, 292).

Defending corporate power has become an expectation since the beginning of the 20th century. The “regime change” attempt was observed at the beginning of 20th century in Hondurus when the government was deposed in order to give American banana companies the freedom to make profits. In 1954, John Foster Dulles ordered a coup in Guatemala in reaction to the nationalist party preventing United Fruit from exercising their power. United Fruit happened to also be an old client of the law firm Dulles represented. Because these multinational companies, whether Halliburton or United Fruit are large and wealthy, they also gain politic al influence. They identify with the public by saying that they hold ideals of free enterprise, hard work, and individuality (Kinzer, 3). Kinzer argues that these corporations became the “vanguard” of American power; they became the policy makers (Kinzer, 4). Given the pattern of the U.S. to walk away when personal interests are no longer fulfilled, Kinzer attributes much of the poverty and lack of development in Central America, such as in Honduras in part to the U.S. today.

The final motivation factor used by U.S. governments in defending their “regime change” projects is rooted in ideology. We can see how the ideological belief system of the U.S. follows logically of most countries defined as the “North”- Western, modern, usually capitalist societies placing some kind of importance on individuality and rights. As for Iraq, when it was proven that no weapons of mass destruction actually existed in the country, Bush and his administration turned to say that in actuality, they also had a “deep desire to spread liberty around the world” (Kinzer,, 293). Forty three days after the war began, Bush declared the war as “a noble cause” and “a great moral advance” (Kinzer, 298). This argument became the only real justification Bush could use with least amount of criticism, especially since he knew very little about the regional culture and history. He genuinely believed that the Western form of democracy is the best and ideal for every society, and he had a duty to spread it.

Dulles did a similar change in justification as Bush with Iraq with the handling of Guatemala. After admitting that that there were no hard evidences that the Kremlin was manipulating Guatemala’s government, Dulles defended himself by claiming that the U.S. had to act anyway because of their “deep conviction” (Kinzer, 295). These justifications have been used throughout history because they are also easily taken by the public as a good thing. President McKinley used the same reasoning for going into war with Cuba, as the “oppression at our very doors” had to be stopped (Kinzer, 83). President Taft similarly tried to convince the public that deposing the Nicaraguan government was necessary to promote “real patriotism” – the real motivation rather than in expanding American power (Kinzer, 84). These are just some of many examples Kinzer employs to show how the North have relied on imposing their ideologies for military use in the South, often ignoring histories and cultural differences.

The United States is an ideal example of North-South relations, since the U.S. is the North today. Like other nations in the North of the past, the U.S. believes that it is uniquely “endowed with virtue”, and are the only ones in modern history convinced that by bringing their political and economic system to others, they are “doing God’s work” (Kinzer, 315). These are similar sentiments of past empires, especially with European colonialists in which their way of life was placed in a higher value than the civilizations they invaded. Americans, led by their ambitious presidents have learned to embrace this self-righteous belief because it reinforces this notion that they are indeed great people meant to civilize others. The ideological motive denies that cultures shape societies and that changing national identities take time and even the most powerful cannot do that. Still, carrying this ideology and imposition of it has continued whether in Cuba, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. The lack of change in these ideological trends has only made the conviction deeper among Americans, and today, Kinzer argues that Americans feel it has become an obligation for the great power. Kinzer brings into attention how so much of what the North does is out of the control of the South, often these influences being inevitable.

Kinzer may use a critical tone and unsympathetic diction, but I believe that he brings into focus something very important in contemporary American foreign policy. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was no break with history but a faithful reflection of the same forces and beliefs that has motivated previous presidents. Presidents like Dulles, McKinley, and Reagan to name a few sought economic and political advantages while carrying a strong belief that the U.S. has a mission to spread its ideologies. The current war in Iraq is a culmination of trends in the American history that is typical of North-South relations.  They were looking for a proxy in the Middle East to assert their power, drawing them to Iraq regardless of how much the Iraqi society differed or what they wanted.  In Iraq, while a pro-American government was sought after, it did not work. Ayad Allawi, a pro-American politician was chosen to lead Iraq, but he lost the elections in 2005 to Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, from the Shiite community who wanted to build closer relations to Iran (Kinzer, 313). The result symbolized the inherent contradiction in American plan for Iraq. Kinzer asserts that many Americans believe the country has “passed beyond reach of history” (Kinzer, 319). I believe that this is true, especially since very little change is seen when its foreign policy is analyzed as Kinzer has. Overthrow tells us that foreign policy must be made carefully, taking both history and present day situations into equal considerations, as patters do not just fade away. Kinzer’s honest tone in deciphering why today’s North is the way it is with the South is telling, and has much implications for how we can and cannot change these patters.

(Originally written: December 3, 2009)

The Nation and its Fragments by Partha Chatterjee

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press

I found Chatterjee’s discussion on the spiritual section of anti-colonialist nationalism of particular interest, especially in regards to women. The spiritual is the essential mark of cultural identity- the more that the people, in this case the middle class are successful in imitating the West in the material ways, the more that they will need to preserve the spiritual.

With his discussion of the “modern” woman, it seems that women play an important role in maintaining the “inner space of community” in the life of a nation (147). Colonial power, specifically the British in this case has used the figure of an Indian woman as a symbol of the “inherently oppressive” nature of the entire culture of India (118). The irony is that the British were never able to enter the spiritual section of their colony, and this eventually led to their leave (30). This very prevention from entering the spiritual is attributed to many factors including women, the very figure used by the colonial power to represent the region’s backwardness.

In his discussion of women, I believe it is important to note two things: First, the smooth acceptance of women getting education and becoming “modern” took place in the middle class, therefore still isolating many groups. Secondly, the issue of internal social classes still mattered in the movement for women. For example, the main reason that women were allowed to be educated lied in the fact that it gave them superiority over poor, lower class women, and also increased their value as part of the social ladder, not necessarily because they could then participate in the political arena (129). Therefore, we can observe that the issue of social class has changed very little in the region’s culture even with dramatic political and economic changes taking place over the years.

From these observations, I am left with some questions-

– Chatterjee states that women’s emancipation in India came with little noise because it was a political strategy- anti- colonial nationalist refused to make it an issue of “political negotiation” with the British (132). Has this worked to help women’s movement of today in India or hurt it?

– Nationalism used to be a factor in India’s move for independence. Is it still important in battling domestic issues like poverty or the wealth gap in India, or has globalization made this kind of unity impossible?

Bananas, Beaches, and Bases by Cynthia Enloe

Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics

~ Cynthia Enloe, University of California Press (January 11, 1990)

Enloe both excited me and frustrated me with her analysis on women in international politics. To me, her victimization of women made it seem like we are almost hopeless, and her goal of greater participation unattainable. There are indeed gender inequalities in this world, but I wonder how much a women leader can do if she is to always think about her gender and putting that in the place of making political decisions.

I was also sometimes confused about what message she was trying to get out- for greater equality of women as a gender, in general? Or for greater female participation in international politics, specifically? I was not convinced that both could take place at the same time from her observations.

Key ideas:

– We risk of being “globally naïve” if we do not see that Masculinity and femininity are definitely politicized, and that women’s experience needs to be taken seriously in international politics.

–  Relations between governments depend not only on capital and weaponry, but also on the control of women as symbols, consumers, workers and emotional comforters. –xvii

– A danger in this discussion for change is only seeing women from the developing world when discussing women in international relations.

–   Making feminist sense of international politics may compel us to dismantle the wall that often separates theory from practice- 201

Enloe discusses issues like sex tourism and Hollywood where women are continuously used, abused, and left in the shadows. When she asked why it is women that are used in sex tourism in Southeast Asia, I asked, why aren’t women the ones to be the head of crime circles? Why aren’t women more violent and commit frauds and lead states into wars? Maybe then we can be taken more “seriously” as Enloe wants.

I wonder, if women were the ones to be modern pirates and dictators, is that considered choosing their “feminist aspirations” (64) or in general, basic human aspirations? If other women looked at these types of leaders with admiration, is that violating their nationalist aspirations for feminist aspirations? Would it help women’s sense of security?

(October 7, 2009: For Sociology class)