Ronald Reagan and Capturing the American Moral Imagination

Today it seems we are dominated by ideology. It is true that ever since Marxism entered the picture, ideologues have tried to repress the telling of stories that cause people to reflect on the authenticity and promise of the American experiment. But America is more than an experiment in proper governing and citizenship. It is also an experience. 

Now, Marxist theory has been supplanted by technological tyranny combined with a biopolitical statist complex, and our obsession with presentism. The oppression of Big Tech is on full display and takes many forms, be it social media or the strange and dangerous combination it seeks with human biology, turning us into humanoids dependent on biometric data for existence. 

Presentism is characterized by people’s increasing myopia. Those who engage in it (and they are on both the Left and the Right) disregard the past and live only in the time that amounts to a few scrolls on the Twitter feed. To the extent they focus on the future, it is usually of either the negative variety (“we are all doomed”) or what may seem positive, but actually is just a fanciful and intergalactic futurism that puts man as the measure of all things (“let’s go to Mars”). As if human problems cease to exist in such an escape—either from the burden of having to solve them or from the limits of earth’s atmosphere.

If we are unable to find our common humanity in all of this chaos, then how can we expect to find what is unique in our individual selves and our nation? The result of ideology’s hold on American society is a death of imagination. Ideology forces us to only care about results, and in ways that dehumanize and objectify people—subsuming them into “masses” or a “collective.” In such a form, imagination is not permitted, and it leads at its worst to the killing of the human spirit, or at least to the creation of lifeless Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

The anti-American faction in its current ideological form wants to destroy the American story completely, as is evident from the New York Times’  “1619 Project.” 

But so, in a way, do those who believe in a “national divorce,” as they are ultimately fragmenting the trajectory of the American story. 

The pro-America faction certainly prefers to preserve the Union but it, like so much of our society, is also caught up in presentism and results. People need something more to hold onto in order to avoid falling into despair or mob thinking. This is where imagination and storytelling enters the picture. 

Ronald Reagan understood the importance of a story. He knew how to tell one, whether it was as a sports announcer in his very early career, or through his radio addresses that featured stories of ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things, or as an actor in Hollywood, or, finally, as a governor of California and president of the United States.

Telling stories came naturally to Reagan. It was part of his talent in reaching out to so many people. They were often funny, touching, political, and intellectual but they all contained some element of the “moral imagination.” They were always oriented toward the order of things and the knowledge that we are not the measure of all things, but that our very meaning comes from our Creator. 

Reagan never dumbed things down so he could create some kind of inauthentic “homespun philosophy,” yet neither did he indulge in self-centered intellectualizing. Stories in His Own Hand: The Everyday Wisdom of Ronald Reagan is a collection of stories Reagan wrote himself (contrary to popular belief, Reagan was a consummate writer, as is evident from many of his speeches and radio addresses). This ability to speak about large ideas without falling into intellectualizing is seen in many of the stories in this collection. 

For example, in order to illuminate the importance of “voluntary associations” for helping people “to solve their problems,” Reagan mentions Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous observations in Democracy in America. Unlike so many pundits today who seem to want to impress readers with their bona fides, Reagan doesn’t begin his explanation by immediately mentioning Tocqueville by name. Rather, he begins with a story: “Some 130 or 140 years ago a French philosopher came to America to see at first hand what he called ‘this great experiment.’ He’s probably been quoted in these modern days more by after-dinner speakers than any other individual.”

Reagan doesn’t stop here. He moves the mystery along: “Going back to France he wrote a book about democracy in America . . . in his book he told his countrymen how in America a citizen would see a problem that needed solving; that he wouldn’t call on the government but would cross the street and talk to a neighbor.” Reagan continues to refer to Tocqueville as “our French visitor” even after he identifies him, so that the audience is invited along to consider his observations on their own terms and not as the pontifications of some distant author of a classic work. In other words, Reagan teased out an important idea about limited government through storytelling, and that takes a very special gift. (His talent shines even more when he humorously retells and adapts a story of a Little Red Hen in order to illustrate why socialism doesn’t work.)

Of course, not everyone has or can have Reagan’s talent. He was a unique man and his example is unrepeatable. But what is true today is that we are caught up in a bureaucratic mentality that robs us of imagination. We are faced with a task not only of preserving the Union and the American idea, but also the American story. This requires agility of the spirit and an understanding that our story is not a story of the masses or a collective but of individual people. 

People need to be energized and lifted up in order to see that flickering light, that illumination, which gives meaning to life. Without meaning, there will be no contemplation, and without contemplation, there will be no action. The question remains: where will the American story go? 

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About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

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