Ronald Reagan, Conservatism, and the Decline of the American Empire

Obama, to me, is much closer to the spirit of America than Reagan ever was -- think back to Obama's speech in Philadelphia in '08 -- but Reagan remains much more accessible, in an emotional sense.
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I received an e-mail the other day from an old college friend asking me why the right has canonized Ronald Reagan. I thought about it, thought about it some more, and came up with a reply, written fairly hastily, that I reprint here. It is not meant to be a comprehensive explanation of Reagan's lofty status among conservatives and in recent U.S. history. I welcome your comments.


I think Reagan's victory in 1980 was the distillation of years and years of conservative activism. It all got started back in '64, when Goldwater's candidacy represented a new dawn for conservatism (although, in retrospect, and compared to some of today's vitriolic conservatives, Goldwater hardly seems all that extremist). LBJ won easily, but that defeat is what launched what I think is broadly understood as "Movement" conservatism. Money from wealthy donors started pouring into think tanks like Heritage and Cato and into universities through various foundations (some of which paid for some of my graduate education) and into the media. It was a concerted effort, I would say, to topple what was seen as America's hegemonic liberal establishment. It's an interesting story, if also a distressing one, and I'd recommend checking out David Brock's The Republican Noise Machine for more.

Nixon subsequently energized conservatives, but he was never Goldwater. There were Vietnam and Watergate, of course, but more than that Nixon was a sort of anti-conservative Republican, given his support for price controls and other regulations to address the economic crisis of the time, his efforts at detente with China and the Soviet Union, and his somewhat moderate social policies. (This is why, in retrospect, those who have come to admire -- or re-admire -- Nixon tend to be politically moderate. Needless to say, though, this is not to excuse all that made Nixon such an appalling figure.)

Reagan, meanwhile, had emerged as the leader of the new conservative movement. He was a prominent anti-Communist in Hollywood, but it was as governor of California that he became a political giant on the right. He failed in his presidential bid in '76, but he was then well-positioned to be swept four years later. Remember, the '70s were a miserable decade: Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, malaise, the Iran hostage situation, a hardening of the Cold War with Brezhnev in the Kremlin. Reagan was seen as the herald of a new beginning, both for America in general and for conservatism in particular. And, to conservatives, he was pretty much everything they'd been dreaming of since '64: anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-abortion, anti-Communist. He was, to them, he represented a turn away from the legacy of the '60s, the legacy that conservatism rejected and that continued to motivate them: civil rights, feminism, pacifism, etc.

It was a period of great upheaval in America. To liberals and progressives, it was a period of change for the better, of liberation. To conservatives, though, it was a period of destruction, and they longed for the way things were before. They still do. Watch Hannity and Beck and O'Reilly and Limbaugh. They all talk nostalgically about the way it was, about how great it was. Of course, it was never that way, and, to many -- women, minorities, the poor -- the way it really was was horrible.

But no matter. Reagan tapped into a combination of delusional optimism and abject fear. Somehow, in him, America was still the greatest place on earth, a place where women and minorities were still kept down, where military might made sure everything was right, where the haves could have what they wanted without regard for the have-nots, and where the New Deal and the Great Society and the great upheavals of previous decades, both domestically and internationally, had never happened. It was "Morning in America," white-picket fences sparkled in the sunshine, the flag flew in the warm summer breeze, and there was no need to worry about the impending decline of the American Empire.

Somehow, that is, Reagan made conservatism right -- to conservatives, to much of the country. Liberalism had lost, not just electorally, with Reagan's win in '80, but also socially, with a turn to the right throughout the decade to come. In this sense, he was a genuinely transformational figure, as conservatism became not just a legitimate alternative to liberalism but, for a time, the triumphal American ideology. Or so it seemed, and as so it still seems to many on the right. (In actual fact, as Neil Postman once wrote, Reagan was actually a committed liberal/libertarian given his unflinching support for the free market even above this theocratic leanings, his unwavering belief in progress manufactured in and through the free market.) Even as conservatism triumphed, the country grew more liberal and more progressive during the '80s. It may be that that was inevitable, given the general liberal awakening that was the defining feature of the post-WWII years, but he did very little to stop it.

But that is of no concern to conservatives, who have come to regard his presidency with the same utopian nostalgia that they regard that earlier and supposedly better time in American history. And at a time when conservatism is largely without ideas, a failed and bankrupt ideology, that nostalgia sort of makes sense. If only America could return to Reagan, they say -- to his policies, but also, and more poignantly, to what he represented, to what he symbolized. The bad stuff -- Iran-Contra, notably -- they ignore. With respect to policy, it's the anti-government, anti-tax, pro-"family values," hawkish foreign and military policy stuff that guides them. But, again, it's much more than that. It's the flag-waving, and all that means, that seems to be the driving force. Americans, and not just conservatives, badly want to believe in America, or "America," again, and it's difficult to, given where America is in the world today, given all that has happened.

Obama, to me, is much closer to the spirit of America than Reagan ever was -- think back to Obama's brilliant speech on race in Philadelphia in '08 -- but Reagan remains much more accessible, in an emotional sense, than Obama ever will be (despite his historic victory in '08 and all that that victory meant, especially to black Americans), and, to conservatives, Reagan not only fits the narrative as Obama never will but actually wrote the narrative that continues to define them.

You see, I think America is in decline, and, deep down, I think Americans sense that, if they don't know it already. This is more true of conservatives, who have divorced themselves from reality, than is it of liberals, but it is a phenomenon that transcends partisan divides. What I sense from Americans now is fear, fear of a world that has passed them by. Many are afraid of what is happening at home -- increasing multiculturalism and the recognition of gay rights, for example -- as well as of what is happening internationally, with the rise of China, the threat of Islamic jihadism, climate change, and so on.

This explains, in part, Obama's success, as many Americans have come to embrace, courageously and with open minds, the sort of change that he campaigned on -- even if we haven't seen much of it yet. (Obama is about hope for a better future that may come to be, whereas Reagan conservatism is about longing for a past that never was.) But it also explains, in part, in large part, the rise of the sort of fanatical conservatism you see on Fox News, in the right-wing blogosphere, and throughout much of the Republican Party -- the politics of fear, the vilification of the Other, ideological extremism, the complete inability to deal with the harsh realities of the world with anything other than simplistic notions of good and evil.

And it explains, also in large part, the canonization -- indeed, the deification -- of Ronald Reagan, in whom conservatives trust, and who used the flag and patriotic happy talk to shield America, and the American people, from the truth.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)

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