These Charts Show How Ronald Reagan Actually Expanded the Federal Government


One of the many, many problems Jeb Bush faces in his quest for the Oval Office is his break from Republican orthodoxy on president Ronald Reagan’s legacy. In 2012, Bush told a group of reporters that, in today’s GOP, Reagan “would be criticized for doing the things that he did”— namely, working with Democrats to pass legislation. He added that Reagan would struggle to secure the GOP nomination today.

Bush was lambasted by fellow conservatives for his comments, but he had a point: If you judge him by the uncompromising small government standards of today’s GOP, Reagan was a disaster. Here are a few charts that show why.

Under Reagan, the national debt almost tripled, from $907 billion in 1980 to $2.6 trillion in 1988:

Reagan ended his 1988 farewell speech with the memorable line, “man is not free unless government is limited.” The line is still a rallying cry for the right wing, but the speech came at the end of a long period of government expansion. Under Reagan, the federal workforce increased by about 324,000 to almost 5.3 million people. (The new hires weren’t just soldiers to fight the communists, either: uniformed military personnel only accounted for 26 percent of the increase.) In 2012, the federal government employed almost a million fewer people than it did in the last year of Reagan’s presidency.

Instead of praising Reagan’s small government philosophy, maybe Republicans should look to Bill Clinton’s action for guidance. By the end of Clinton’s second terms, the federal workforce was at its smallest size in decades.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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