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Getting the Reagan Revolution right

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“In the eyes of Ronald Reagan, I saw sparks of hope,” said the old Leninist Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, about the man who became a conservative legend. Gorbachev was not alone in his assessment.  Historian Paul Johnson — who knew Reagan personally — wrote that even those who profoundly disagreed with him, could not help but like him. Reagan’s charm and charisma is undisputed, but there was something more to the man that is hard to explain.

Let me start with a personal reflection.

Reagan did not speak like a regular human being. His voice, his face, his body language, all combined to cast a spell over his audience. His way with words mesmerized others. When we speak about Reagan, actually we are speaking about a prophet — someone whose mystical dimension hardly can be described with easy words. It is much more about something you feel, rather than understand.

Reagan’s mojo, on the other hand, also helps to explain his appeal towards the socially conservative elements of the New Deal Coalition — blue collar works ethnically Irish, Italian and eastern European — who ultimately gave him two landslide victories at the polls.

I am Brazilian and was born when Reagan had already left the White House, and even so, I cannot escape the spell he cast on his audiences. His speeches give me goosebumps; his words stir up a deep sense of calm — and guidance.

When I watch a video of Reagan walking in the White House wearing a brown suit, the impression I have is that I have met him once. In a way, Reagan breaks a barrier by giving us a sense of intimacy. You could spend years with someone and never feel that way.

I can only remember another person who gave me the same impression, Pope St. John Paul II. And it’s not because I’m a Catholic. My mother, who was not Catholic and was raised in a spiritualist home, waited six hours while carrying me in her arms – I was one year old at the time — to see the man known in Brazil as “John of God.” She did not regret her decision.

Therefore, it does not seem surprising to me that Reagan was raised almost to holiness by the generations of conservatives who followed him. Whether it is due to the immediate effect of his presidency — the collapse of the Soviet regime — or the disaster that was the two Republican presidents who succeeded him — the two Bushes –, the fact remains that Reagan gave conservatives not just a vocabulary and a model, but the feeling that there is no problem large enough that cannot be overcome by the greatness of America. Behind his blue eyes, the conservatives still see a self-confident America full of people who — even if they disagree with each other — share a common creed.

In Reagan, at last, many saw the realization of one man’s fate as it expressed itself in the American dream: The poverty-stricken child, who became a Hollywood actor, lived through the Great Depression and led the country in the victory over communism.

It is the perfect story.

However, the question that needs to be asked is: Has Reagan’s Conservative Revolution triumphed? Thirty years since he left the White House, the only possible answer I can come up with is … no.

Revolution means a change in the existential axis of a society. It means that the form, words, and symbols by which a society defines itself are no longer the same. The French Revolution redefined French politics for good, and all political currents still invoke the symbols of that revolution. From this perspective, there was neither revolution nor counter-revolution through the 1980s. Perhaps some form of temporary accommodation, but nothing that changed the axis of American politics created during the New Deal.

I might go further in my pessimistic assessment of the Reagan revolution.

His administration represented a definitive inflection in the American conservative movement. In the extent that he invoked the worst form of pietism and self-righteousness about America’s “natural goodness,” Reagan helped transform the American right into a liberalism with a Christian veneer — really a Wilsonian liberalism redivivus.

In The Limits of Power (2008), Andrew Bacevich severely criticizes Reagan for this failing. “Reagan portrayed himself as conservative,” Bacevich notes, “He was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with his talk of ‘morning in America,’ the faux-conservative Reagan added to America’s civic religion two crucial beliefs: Credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due.” Bacevich points out Reagan’s “faux-conservative” as guilty of undermining America’s moral fabric and his adherence to such naive “folk wisdom” as “save for a rainy day.”

Underneath the failures of the Reagan administration, there was the annihilation of the conservative movement as it was once known. Reagan blessed — as well as William Buckley’s National Review did– as members of the conservative movement the liberals who had broken with Carter because he was not hawkish enough. The neoconservatives swarmed the Reagan administration and used Leninist strategies to seize power and silence all dissident on the right. In the two decades after Reagan, conservatism became synonymous with an internationalist and militaristic liberalism engaged in spreading the liberal-democratic creed across the world and rebuilding countries considered to be on the “wrong side of history.”

Reagan’s biographer and neoconservative intellectual Steven Hayward was accurate in his takeaway of the Reagan Revolution. According to him, Reagan avoided that conservatism embracing a Burkean or a libertarian outlook to the detriment of a more democratic one. In other words, in the 1980s the conservative movement dominated by newcomers got rid of Russell Kirk’s conservative traditionalism and Murray Rothbard’s libertarianism and took for itself the intellectual outlook of the neo-Jacobin egalitarianism of Harry Jaffa and other Straussians.

The leading agent of the social revolution in the United States has been the federal government and its bureaucracy. From the Old Right to the  Berry Goldwater’s insurgency, what united all the currents of the American right was to roll back the frontiers of the Federal Government, to return political power to the states and put Washington back under democratic control. Not one of those was priorities for the neocons, which also praised an authoritarian federal government as a social engineer tool to push egalitarian policies.

Both Kirk’s conservatism and Rothbard’s libertarianism, wrote the eminent historian Paul Gottfried, understood the threat that the administrative state represented to the American constitutional order. Both of them invoked the bucolic spirit of the small country-side cities of the United States — in which mass democracy had not yet arrived — as opposed to power-hungry Washington bureaucracy. Neoconservatives and Straussians alike have a completely different view. According to them, the American constitutional order is based on the principle of equality — not freedom –, and the federal administration is the main engine of this worldview. They admire Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill, but their true hero is Maximilien de Robespierre.

By kneeling to the neo-Jacobin imperatives of Jaffa, Irving Kristol et Caterva, and handing over the conservative movement to them, Reagan effectively moved the American intellectual debate to further-left.

Once in the White House, Reagan repeated the pattern he had already demonstrated as governor of California. Instead of confronting the power of bureaucrats and corporations, he preferred to seek political accommodation and to triangulate the essential problem of American democracy: The uncontrolled growth of the power of the federal bureaucracy. Furthermore, reading Hayward’s The Age of Reagan, it doesn’t seem to me he was aloof of this particular problem, he even campaigned at least twice — 1976 and 1980 — about it.

As Governor of California, for example,  Reagan signed a very progressive abortion law that his Democrat predecessor, the Catholic Pat Brown, had refused to do; in his presidency of the United States, Reagan did not do much different. In many ways, his administration was even more radical than that of Jimmy Carter’s.

For several reasons — some that were beyond his control, some not so much — Reagan failed to advance the agenda of conservative populism to which he owed his election. I believe that culturally, and this to me seems indisputable — the America post-Reagan was more liberal than the one existing before Reagan. The silent majority, which had given the last three landslides in American history to Republican candidates, was torn apart by radical politics pushed by the federal government, even while Reagan was president.

The Department of Education — which Reagan had promised to unmake– initiated a crusade to punish educational institutions — mainly serving Christians — that did not fit the established anti-prejudice policy created by the liberals who controlled the department. Bob Jones University was one of the targets for not officially recommending interracial relationships among students. As if a Christian university should encourage sex or even get into the private life of its students.

What’s more, countless companies were subject to anti-discrimination lawsuits promoted by the government for not following the policy of affirmative action that sought equal racial representation, whenever the government decided to define equality.

Despite all the fuss surrounding Reagan’s economic policy, there was nothing especially good about it. The supply-side philosophy has pushed conservatives away from sound economic orthodoxy according to which tax rates are bad, but government spending is even worse. After Reagan, conservatives became big spenders, and balancing the budget became mere rhetoric.

Needless to say, Reagan’s migration policy — widely criticized by Democrats at the time — was a disaster, giving amnesty to millions of illegal migrants that some years later became reliable left-wing voters. Such careless policy turned Reagan’s California in a socialist dystopia.

Perhaps the only revolution that Reagan came close to accomplishing was Robert Bork’s appointment to the Supreme Court, which legal scholar Richard Posner called the most consequential switch in judicial paradigms since the Warren court. However, when Bork became a victim of a vile campaign of character assassination, Reagan did nothing to help him.

Ironically, we have always compared Reagan’s optimism to Carter’s pessimism and praised the first one. On July 15, 1979, President Carter delivered a nationally televised speech in which he spoke of “a fundamental threat to American democracy.” That threat was not a red one; rather it was deeply rooted crises in America’s soul. He sensed a debilitating “crisis of confidence” about the nation’s future, a spiritual blankness brought about by a culture of “self-indulgence and consumption” and an erosion of faith in the American institutions.

The so-called “malaise speech” — he never used such word– may well have cost him re-election in 1980.

Forty years later, it seems unquestionable that Carter’s words about the crisis that hit America are prophetic, positioning him as the conservative in the White House who saw the very fabric of society falling apart before his eyes. While Reagan with his “It is morning again in America” seems as blindly optimistic as a schoolboy.

Reagan’s biggest problem was not so much that he changed so little in Washington, but that he gave conservatives the idea that they had triumphed. This self-hypnotic effect is extremely pernicious to the extent that it deprived them of the ability to see things for what they really are. Under the spellbinding mythology of the Reagan Revolution, conservatives have been converted into sheep that happily marched into the wolf’s lair, believing that a better day will come soon. That’s not conservatism but cuckoo liberalism.

Homepage picture: WikiCommons.

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Silvio Simonetti Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.