What would Ronald Reagan do? That has been the question—actual or implied—on the lips of every Republican for the last 30 years. From the squishiest RINO eager to curry favor with a skeptical base to the conservative stalwarts who can quote Hayek, Chambers, Buckley, and Goldwater from memory, the question has been the same. What would the man Rush Limbaugh calls “Ronaldus Magnus” do? Reagan has been the North Star of Republican politics since the day he left office. George H.W. Bush, never especially popular with the party’s conservative base, rode Reagan’s coattails to the presidency in 1988—a feat he was unable to repeat four years later.
As memories of the Reagan era have grown more faint and subject to revision, the times and issues have changed and the comparisons have grown more tortured. Yet no Republican has been able to advocate a position, a policy, or his own candidacy without reference to Reagan.
Republicans invoke Reagan’s name as if it alone had the power to make their political dreams come true. The Reagan brand is so essential to the Republican self-image that Republicans speak of Reagan’s legacy just like dead Democrats vote—early and often. There is no issue too small to claim the hallowed Reagan as its patron saint. (Vote for J To mention the name of Reagan is to end debate, it’s the ultimate appeal to authority. Or was.
Appeals to the Reagan name have grown less meaningful and less powerful with repetition. It is a shame that our 40th president’s substantial legacy should have grown shopworn and impotent from hackneyed misuse by ineffectual pols hungry for short-term political gain. There is much that conservatives can learn from Reagan. But they have largely learned the wrong lessons. They should look to his principles and his style and less to his policies which were, necessarily, the product of the issues and politics of his day.
Unfortunately for the Republican Party and for the country, what became known as the Reagan Revolution has become stale, unthinking, and lifeless—a shadow of its former self with none of the vitality or purpose that it had during its ascendancy. Today, the “Reagan Revolution” is a term of art with no orthodox definition, used more for political posturing than as shorthand for a defined set principles. That said, Reagan argued for limited, constitutional government as the best means to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” He paid particular attention throughout his political career to the threat from international communism abroad and creeping socialism at home. Recall that it was Reagan who awarded Whittaker Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom in part for his role in exposing State Department official and FDR aide Alger Hiss as a Communist spy.
In the years leading up to Reagan’s election, the conservative movement and its journals, led by National Review, were vibrant places full of ideas that could (and did) change the country for the better. The best minds were on the Right and they were attracting converts from former radicals like James Burnham and David Horowitz and from disaffected Democrats like Jeanne Kirkpatrick. They were drawn by the power of conservative ideas in the face of the Left’s manifest failures.
But the Reagan Revolution has run its course and in 2016 we saw its last gasp. The world has moved on, but the institutions that underpinned Reaganism haven’t. They have become ossified and out of touch with the common people and the issues that affect their lives. What is more, even though Reagan won the elections, it was the Bushes that inherited the party and much of its intellectual apparatus.
Latter-day Reaganites rarely got the principles much less the style right. Sure, there have been notable exceptions, who have gotten one or the other but never both. In this cycle we saw Marco Rubio trying hard to emulate Reagan’s sunny style but never quite getting there on policy. He thinks of himself as a Reaganite, but his devotion to the neoconservative foreign policy establishment and his unseemly flirtation with open borders turned off core Reagan voters.
Ted Cruz on the other hand, a much better student, memorized the Reagan policy book and created a stump speech that scratched conservatives where they itched. On the style? Well, not so much. Cruz generally managed to look like the least popular guy at a life insurance convention. Or to quote Peggy Noonan (who generally seems to get these things right): “What a jerk.”
But who cares anyway? Not voters, that’s for sure. Few voters under 40 even remember Reagan. And in any event, voters are looking for the next revolution not the last one. It’s time for Republicans and conservatives to stop trying to be Reagan. There will be no second coming. The core principles are still there to defend, but they must be framed in terms of the issues of today and tomorrow, not yesterday or 30 years ago.
In First Things, R.R. Reno sums it up nicely saying,
[Its] leitmotif was crystal clear: freedom. This has been the Republican brand for a generation. With Reagan, we sought to promote freedom over against communist totalitarianism. We worked to break up a government-controlled, monopolistic economy and unleash capitalism’s potential. We argued that ordinary Americans could and should lead responsible, self-directed lives rather than become ever more dependent on the intrusive ministrations of the Nanny State.
That all made sense in 1980, a great deal of sense. But we’re in 2016 now, and we’re no longer suffering under suffocating collectivism and clotted, complacent capitalism. Most important, ordinary Americans today are much more vulnerable. The politics of freedom is losing its salience.”
The issues have changed and so has the country. There is a growing sense that the most important political divide today isn’t between Left and Right, but rather between globalists and nationalists; between people who think of themselves as citizens of the world and people who are proud to be American; between the elite ruling class and everyone else. Many people sense that for all the talk of a freedom agenda, what they got instead was a corrupting libertinism and consumerism.
It’s the result of an unhappy marriage of the Left’s quest for the radical liberation of the self from objective moral principles and a misguided and ill-informed individualism on the Right—a sort of frat boy’s version of Ayn Rand’s self-centered Objectivism. All this, at the expense of political liberty and vibrant, distinctly American civic culture.
Meanwhile the leviathan state has grown larger, more remote, and less accountable. It’s been a bad trade for everyone except the bipartisan ruling class, which has grown wealthier, more powerful, and more insulated. So while we may mourn the death of the Reagan Revolution, it died years ago. We’re just now realizing it’s time to bury it.
But with recognition comes an opportunity to see the world as it really is and recover what the Reagan Revolution was all about. Yes, let’s learn from Reagan. Let’s learn from his statesmanship, his practical wisdom, his love for this country and its people. And let’s shed our illusions and pointless nostalgia. It’s time to stop chasing ghosts and work on tomorrow’s revolution, not reminisce about yesterday’s.
Intellectuals, like generals, are always fighting the last war. They may try and deny it, but there is another revolution underway even now.
It’s worth remembering Leo Strauss’s off the cuff (!) remarks in class at the University of Chicago in 1965 upon learning of the death of Winston Churchill. He used the opportunity to explain to his students why they were there.
“We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.”
It’s time that the American people reassert themselves as citizens and sovereigns. The legitimacy of the government relies upon the consent of one American people living under the rule of law.
The Reagan Revolution was about winning the Cold War, defeating global communism, and rolling a overreaching and demoralizing central government. But Reagan left plenty of unfinished business. The government continued to grow. Marginal tax rates may be lower, but the regulatory burden is much higher and the bureaucrats who make and enforce the rules are more powerful and less accountable. The people who run the government are more remote and less responsive. Even some elements of the Left have started to recognize the danger of the leviathan state. The challenge for conservatives—and for all people of good faith—is “in seeing things as they are.” It’s for the next revolution to reestablish the sovereignty of the American people and the accountability of their government.