Ronald Reagan’s personal qualities do not fully explain his appeal to American conservatives. Reagan gained their favor not so much because of his personality and communication skills but because conservatives liked and believed what he said. His message was more important than the messenger.
Perhaps the most important fact to assimilate about modern American conservatism is that it is not, and has never been, monolithic. It is a coalition with many points of origin and diverse tendencies, not always easy to reconcile. And because of this fact, there has long been a felt need among many conservatives to integrate the Right’s divergent components into a philosophically coherent—or at least functional—force. Hence the frequent use of the term fusionism, a word coined more than fifty years ago.
Conservatives often like to say that they adhere to a body of immutable truths about human nature and politics. At the same time, most of them recognize that to govern is to maneuver. Conservatism thus is more than simply a corpus of doctrine; it is resistance—resistance to perceived challenges and assaults from the Left. One of the requirements of successful resistance is the need at times for maneuver and realignment as new assaults take form.
And that, many believe, is where we are today. The Philadelphia Society has convened this panel to discuss the topic “Toward a Post-Reagan Conservatism?” (with a question mark). Implicit in this question is another: Should conservatism move in a post-Reagan direction?
No doubt a number of people have grown a bit jaded by the ritualistic use of Ronald Reagan’s name on the political Right. But here I must inject a note of caution. Before we gallop off into a post-Reagan future, we would do well to pause for a few moments and ask: Which parts of his legacy should we pack for the journey?
The Reagan Legacy
It is useful to remind ourselves why Reagan developed such an extraordinary bond with American conservatism. Obviously his charm, wit, optimistic temperament, transparent decency, authoritative physical appearance, and oratorical talent were tremendous assets. Someone once said of him that he “could get a standing ovation in a graveyard.”
But Reagan’s personal qualities do not fully explain his appeal to American conservatives. Reagan gained their favor not so much because of his personality and communication skills but because conservatives liked and believed what he said. His message was more important than the messenger.
Reagan stood out from other conservative political leaders of his time in several ways. First, unlike most of them, he was something of an intellectual: a man who not only spoke the language of the Right, but also thought about it. He was, we now know, an inveterate and voracious reader of conservative literature. In the 1950s Reagan became—and remained ever after—a conservative by conviction, not convenience.
Second, he also become what activists on the Right call a “movement conservative”: someone who deliberately associated himself with the intellectuals and public policy entrepreneurs who were building a conservative cause based on ideas. He never forgot that he represented a movement as well as a political party.
Thus, when Reagan won the presidency in 1980, he treated his success as more than a personal victory. He brought American conservatives into the “promised land” inside the Beltway and secured a permanent beachhead for them at the center of national politics.
The movement that came to power with him was a coalition of five distinct parts: classical liberals and libertarians, “traditionalist” conservatives, anti-Communist Cold Warriors, neoconservatives, and the Religious Right. Reagan himself seems to have been closest in his outlook and priorities to the classical liberals and Cold Warriors. But the president was astute enough to identify himself with each component of the grand coalition. Thus just as William F. Buckley Jr. had done for conservatives out of power before 1980, so Reagan during the ’80s did the same: he performed an emblematic and ecumenical function.
Third, Reagan did more than give his fellow conservatives access to power. He developed a stirring brand of populistic libertarianism along with an uplifting vision of America couched in the language of American exceptionalism, the lilting imagery of America as a nation chosen by God (in Reagan’s words) “to be free” and to be “the golden hope of all mankind.” Reagan’s confidence in the elixir of freedom, and his belief that history is not predetermined, inspired not only Americans in general but also a generation of his fellow conservatives.
This is a remarkable legacy, quite apart from Reagan’s programmatic achievements in foreign and domestic policy. I cite it not to idolize Reagan but to illuminate some of the enduring lessons that conservatives can learn from his life and political philosophy. The remedy for superficial Reagan nostalgia, it seems to me, is not to consign his record and principles to the memory hole but to study his thoughts and deeds all the more.
The Challenges Today
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that America has changed considerably since Reagan was president, and in ways that threaten the parity with the Left that the Right attained during those years. The first such challenge is one that Reagan himself identified: a growing amnesia about our nation’s history and animating principles. “Freedom,” he declared many times, “is never more than one generation away from extinction.” In his farewell address in 1989, he pointedly asked whether Americans were “doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world.” He warned of “an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in the erosion of the American spirit.”
A generation later it increasingly appears that Reagan’s concerns have been validated. It seems no accident that Americans under thirty—the first generation of children to be indoctrinated in multiculturalism and taught to be “citizens of the world”—have been shown in polling surveys to be the demographic bloc least likely to adhere to the tenets of American exceptionalism that Reagan expounded.
A second challenge that conservatives now confront, after Reagan, is what I call the perils of prosperity. Since 1980 prosperity has come to conservatives. But with it has also come market specialization, sibling rivalry, and a weakening of what I call “movement consciousness.” No longer does American conservatism have a commanding, ecumenical figure like Buckley or Reagan.
As conservative voices and institutions have proliferated, there has arisen a tendency to divide conservatives into ever smaller and often contentious groupings. Thus we have the neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, “big government” conservatives, “leave-us-alone” conservatives, compassionate conservatives, reform conservatives, constitutional conservatives, crunchy conservatives, conservatarians, Tea Party conservatives, dinner party conservatives—and the list goes on.
Some of this is rather amusing, but it does suggest the centrifugal and tribalistic impulses now at work. It underscores how crucial anti-Communism was as a unifying cement in the post-1945 conservative coalition and how the demise of Communism in Europe had the effect at home of weakening the fusionist imperative for American conservatives. Without a common external foe headquartered in Moscow upon whom to concentrate their minds, it has become easier for former allies to become competitors and to succumb to the bane of all coalitions: the sectarian temptation, the temptation to go it alone. It is an indulgence made infinitely easier by the advent of the Internet.
This leads to my final observation. Since the 1970s American conservatives have created a flourishing counterculture of conservative discourse and activism from the Beltway to the blogosphere. Viewed in historical perspective, it is truly an impressive achievement.
But ask yourselves this question: Apart from conservatism, what have been the most important intellectual and social movements of the past forty years? As a historian I will give you my answer: feminism, environmentalism, and multiculturalism. Since the 1970s America has been moving Right and Left at the same time.
In recent years conservatives have become very adept at networking with one another, and I applaud this. But how, in our increasingly fragmented and contentious media universe, do conservatives propose to expand their audience outside the network? How do they plan to move beyond their countercultural enclaves and redeem a larger culture enveloped in what American Spectator editor Bob Tyrrell has called the liberal Kultursmog?
Many conservatives, of course, are laboring valiantly and effectively in the realm of cultural renewal. But as a historian I am constrained to note that the “progressives” in this country continue to predominate in the production of culture, and in the manufacture and distribution of prestige among our cultural elites. As long as this imbalance continues, the fate of post-Reagan conservatism will be problematic.
So I hope that the various encampments on the Right will reaffirm the ecumenical fusionism and fusionist spirit of Buckley and Reagan and reject the sectarian temptation. And as we face the rising tide of historical amnesia, cultural fragmentation, and other problems that I have mentioned, let us recommit ourselves to Reagan’s proposition that the future is not predetermined.
If we do so, there can be happier days ahead.
This essay is adapted from a presentation Dr. George H. Nash gave at the Philadelphia Society National Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Spring 2015). It originally appeared in the Intercollegiate Review (July 2015) and is republished here with gracious permission.
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The featured image of President Reagan posing at the White House, 1984 is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.