Ahhh... the joys of growing up in a political family...
So, a number of memes and infographics regarding Reagan, and the PATCO strike of August 1981, have been circulating around blogs and social media the last few weeks. Most are just your basic meme fodder; shallow, not remotely accurate junk... But even among those who know something of the story, it seems that very few really understand the larger picture and context of what happened there and why... and how it relates to the Reagan years as a whole.
What you have to understand, is that as much as people remember them as the "Reagan Revolution" years; in fact, the entire 80s and into the early 90s (summer of 1992 to be precise) were essentially a wonderfully corrupt bargain between the Democrats and Republicans.
People mostly think of it as a time when "Reagan cut taxes", and increased spending on the military, which did in fact happen; but that's less than half the story.
The other half, is how Reagan and the republicans managed to get most of that pushed through a democrat dominated congress, relatively easily.
The answer is actually pretty simple...
For every dollar of new spending initiated by Reagan and the republicans, the Democratic majority under Tip O'Neill, initiated (depending on the year) from 1.2 to 1.8 dollars of new spending...which the Republican minority then generally offered only token ACTUAL opposition to, or even actively helped to pass.
Of course they made a great deal of rhetorical noise, but when it came down to money on the table, the bills got passed, and Reagan signed them.
What it boiled down to, was that for the most part (with a few notable exceptions) Reagan and the republicans could spend as much as they wanted on what they ACTUALLY wanted; so long as the republicans didn't actually meaningfully try to stop O'Neill and the dems, from spending as much as THEY really wanted on whatever THEY really wanted.
... note how I am repeating "really" and "actually" several times here. That's important. Rhetoric was one thing, reality was another thing entirely.
Most of the big, loud, noisy spending fights you may remember from the mid and late 80s were, shall we say... full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Most of the time, the minority and majority leadership had worked out what was going to pass, how much was going to be spent, and what if any amendments would be allowed, before anything ever hit the floor, or even got out of committee. The rest of the show was just electioneering and fundraising.
Under this cozy modus vivendi, Reps and Dems could pursue "red meat" issues, and pay back favors for their respective sides, while at the same time acting as each others boogeymen; so each side could look good for their base, get out the vote, work up the faithful, and raise a lot of money.
It was a near perfect system for the parties... Not so much for the people of course, but great for the DNC and RNC.
The mid 80s through mid 90s, were when semi-permanent single party incumbency for most seats became not just the rule (it had been such for many districts since the war already), but the near certainty; both sides making sure that everyone who played for the team, stayed with the team; and anyone thought to be leaving the reservation was replaced with someone who would keep the game going according to plan.
Pretty much the only time an incumbent lost their seat was when they had to be replaced with a more compliant congresscritter; or when they had screwed up bad enough, and botched the spin on the screwup bad enough, that they had to be sacrificed to protect the rest of congress from further investigation into bad behavior (Rostenkowski anyone?).
Oh... actually there was one other exception... The last of the southern ideological realignments.
The south and west voted overwhelmingly democrat up until 1960, and most states still voted majority democrat excepting for president, up until the late 70s or early 80s (the first time the south voted entirely majority Republican, both for president and for new congresscritters, was 1984).
From 1960 on, the south started voting more republican, and the north started voting more democrat. This pattern accelerated dramatically in 1968, 1972, and 1976 with an explicit southern strategy being followed by Republicans to unseat southern democrats; and then a mass turnover of 35 seats in the 1980 election, with the "Reagan revolution" (which was pretty much entirely reversed in 1982 by the way, and the democrat majority was never actually under threat).
After the 1976, and particularly after the 1980 elections, most of the less powerful and shorter serving southern democrats, and pretty much all the northeastern Republicans outside of a few upper class all white districts (the Rockefeller districts basically), were out. Those remaining, generally had safe overwhelmingly urban and university districts; a powerful machine behind them (missouri for example); were independently wealthy and very popular at home; had a very high national profile; or had a great deal of power in congress (or some combination thereof).
Over the years from 1976 to 1996, almost all of those old line southern democrats died, retired, resigned, moved over to the senate, or switched to the republican party.
During most of those years (particularly from '82 to '92), there was a tentative and tacit understanding, that when the democrats vacated a southern seat that wasn't a safe dem seat, or was demographically trending Republican, so long as it didn't greatly impact the leadership balance or threaten the majority, the party would not fight too hard for it (there were exceptions of course, particular when a states governor or statehouse were dem controlled). The RNC would then hand pick one of their guys who they wanted to be a congressman, put enough money and talent behind him to make a show of it, and the dems would run a no-hoper (an old guy, a lefty woman, a nobody local party ticket puncher, a radical lefty etc...) against him (and yes, it was always a him).
This soft and largely unspoken arrangement worked out to everyones benefit... Or at least to congress and the governments benefit. Again, not so much for the people.
Which brings us back to the original subject...
The PATCO strike was just another one of those red meat issues.
On the one hand, Reagan got to make a big show of being "strong" on domestic issues early in his presidency, and firmly stake out the conspicuously "anti-left" position.
On the other hand, the democrats and the AFL/CIO (who had wanted to bring PATCO to heel since it's formation in 1968) got to pay PATCO back for generally not falling into line with the rest of labor and specifically for supporting Reagan, and dropping support for some democratic congressional candidates in the 1980 election (and by the way, to explicitly strongarm the Teamsters - who had voted with PATCO - back into line as well); without actually being seen to be against a union (and in fact, to loudly "support" that same union, while helping to ensure it's destruction).
And of course, they both got to posture and grandstand, rallying the base and raising money.
Hell, it's 2014, and the Democrats are STILL raising money and support off the "union busting" of the PATCO strike.
So, democrats, union people... in case you didn't know, it wasn't actually Reagan that busted PATCO, it was Tip O'neill, and the AFL-CIO (who by the way OFFICIALLY crossed the PATCO picket line, and encouraged workers to scab).
Both "sides" (there's really only one side in washington... the government side. We the people don't even rate a side... we're just the floor) got exactly what they wanted, and neither sides ACTUAL vital interests or powerbases were threatened.
Was it a "big conspiracy"?
No, not at all...
It was just a few hundred people, who liked their jobs, acting in their own best interests in trying to keep them. It was basic political economics.