Republicans have, of course, turned Reagan into an icon, portraying him as the savior of a desperate, declining nation. Mostly, however, this is just propaganda. You’d never know from the legend that economic growth under Reagan was only slightly faster than it had been under Jimmy Carter, and slower than it would be under Bill Clinton.
And rapidly rising income inequality meant that a disproportionate share of the benefits from economic growth went to a small elite, with only a bit trickling down to most of the population. Poverty, measured properly, was higher in 1989 than it had been a decade earlier.
Anyway, gross domestic product isn’t the same thing as well-being. Other measures suggest that we were already veering off course.
For example, in 1980 life expectancy in America was similar to that in other wealthy nations; but the Reagan years mark the beginning of the great mortality divergence of the United States from the rest of the advanced world. Today, Americans can, on average, expect to live almost four fewer years than their counterparts in comparable countries.
The main point, however, is that under Reagan, irrationality and hatred for facts began to take over the G.O.P.
There has always been a conspiracy-theorizing, science-hating, anti-democratic faction in America. Before Reagan, however, mainstream conservatives and the Republican establishment refused to make alliance with that faction, keeping it on the political fringe.
Reagan, by contrast, brought the crazies inside the tent.
Many people are, I think, aware that Reagan embraced a crank economic doctrine — belief in the magical power of tax cuts. I’m not sure how many remember that the Reagan administration was also remarkably hostile to science.