While many across the political spectrum would like to discover the secret of Ronald Reagan’s success, some conservatives, believing the fortieth president a high priest of the American civil religion, have dismissed him as a barely closeted progressive who blithely saw the good in all. After all, it is always morning in America…
While one might readily prove Reagan an optimist, even a Pollyanna, optimism does not equate to progressivism. Rather, it would be fair to label Reagan a grand proponent of the ingenuity and potential of each individual person. Despite his faith in the individual, however, Reagan did not have the same faith in history itself. History is merely the culmination of billions of decisions made by billions of persons. But just as the actions of each creative person would prove unpredictable—hence, human creativity—so too would the sum of their decisions and experiences. In ignorance of what is to come, one has to possess faith in the individuals of the world to have faith in the future of the world. This is not the same thing as progressivism, which demands a confidence in the very direction of history toward some inevitable and purposeful end. Reagan had faith, but his understanding of time and history and the future also demanded a proper ignorance and humility.
It should and must be noted that Reagan read constantly. As Dick Allen noted, Reagan “read everything.” Certainly no conservative, journalist David Gergen remembered:
Working for him, I saw he was no dullard, as his critics claimed. From his eight years as governor and his many other years of writing and speaking out, he had thought his way through most domestic issues and knew how to make a complex governmental structure work in his favor. In the first year of his presidency, I also saw him dive into the details of the federal revenue code and become an authority as he negotiated with Congress. When he wanted to focus, he had keen powers of concentration and could digest large bodies of information. He was also one of the most disciplined men I have seen in the presidency (much more so than Clinton, for example), so that he worked straight through the day, reading papers and checking off meetings on his list. At day’s end, headed off for a workout and would plow through more papers in the evening in the upstairs residence. He made the presidency look easy in part by keeping a strict regimen. He also had a retentive mind. After years of memorizing scripts in Hollywood, he would recall verbatim a lot of what he had read. He recited Robert Service poems as well as he did jokes. [Gergen, Eyewitness to Power, 197]
Martin Anderson remembered something quite similar:
Working for him, one of the first things that struck me about him was his high intelligence. I can recall many times sitting or traveling with him, introducing an idea or essay or memorandum. He would grasp its essence almost immediately; then, sometimes weeks or months later, he would interpret it and weave the relevant material into a speech or statement of his own. [Martin Anderson in Hannaford, ed., Recollections of Reagan, 11]
Russell Kirk, though, argued that Ronald Reagan’s sharp intelligence was not enough to make him the leader he was. Honing his intellect, Reagan added a profound confidence, “audacity, and again audacity, and always audacity.” [Kirk, Reclaiming a Patrimony, 115]
One vital contemporary of Reagan was Whittaker Chambers. Well-known in conservative and libertarian circles, Chambers renounced communism not because Marxism was doomed to failure, but because it was morally and ethically wrong. Even after leaving the foul ideology behind, Chambers continued to believe and fear he had chosen the losing side. While we know that Chambers’ book Witness fundamentally affected and shaped Ronald Reagan, we do not know to what degree. Still, we can state with some confidence that Reagan’s vision of history and his essential faith in the future came from a rejection of Chambers’ philosophy, even an inversion of it.
At the University of Notre Dame, on the seventeenth of May, 1981, Ronald Reagan offered his clearest statement of the imminent Soviet collapse:
The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
Yet, President Ronald Reagan’s belief that the Soviets were doomed had nothing to do with the laws of history of progress or of regress. There were no “forces” at work in history in Reagan’s understanding. Instead, the Soviets ignored an essential fact about humans: their individual and unpredictable creativity. The Soviets, therefore, had doomed themselves, whatever fates or gods or forces might rule.
In 1968, in a book all-too-easily forgotten by friend and foe alike, Reagan outlined his very Burkean and Smithian vision of spontaneous order. The book, The Creative Society, a somewhat obvious jab at and humorous take on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, published by the relatively obscure firm of Devin-Adair, sold relatively well. With it, Reagan brought together the contemporary work of Robert Nisbet, Friedrich Hayek, and Russell Kirk, arguing not just for allowing the creative energies of the individual to flourish, but of the individual within community. While governmental laws served only to diminish the good of the whole, a government of laws allowed society to grow exponentially, as it turned over the most important functions to individuals and communities.
The Creative Society, in other words, is simply a return to the people of the privilege of self-government, as well as a pledge for more efficient representative government—citizens of proven ability in their fields, serving where their experience qualifies them, proposing common sense answers for California’s problems, reviewing governmental structure itself and bringing it into line with the most advanced, modern business practices. Those who talk of complex problems, requiring more government planning and more control, in reality are taking us back in time to the acceptance of rule of the many by the few. Time to look to the future. We’ve had enough talk—disruptive talk—in America of left and right, dividing us down the center. There is really no such choice facing us. The only choice we have is up or down—up, to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down, to the deadly dullness of totalitarianism.
If Ronald Reagan’s vision of a Creative Society is progressive, it is no more so than Edmund Burke’s, Alexis de Tocqueville’s, or Russell Kirk’s. In other words, it is not progressive in the least. It is a vision of a decentralized society, a society of associations, a society of charity, and a society of entrepreneurship. Like the man himself, Reagan’s vision was, at once, humane as well as humble.
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