Reagan Tribute - John Micklethwait

Reaganism: The Gipper’s brand of conservatism is unique to America


Tuesday, June 8, 2004

There is one thing that virtually every obituarist, left, right or center, has agreed upon about Ronald Reagan: that he was a “conservative”–the embodiment of a movement that first appeared on the national stage with Barry Goldwater in 1964, seized the White House through the Gipper’s 1980 victory and still holds the presidency under George W. Bush. But what exactly does “conservative” mean?

For Mr. Reagan himself, his creed often seemed a matter of emotion rather than philosophy, and it was broad enough to include raising taxes (on occasion) and signing one of America’s most liberal abortion laws (which he did in California). As if to underline those contradictions, Mr. Reagan has duly been hailed this week as an inspiration, both by Buchananite isolationists and by imperialist neoconservatives; by libertarians and by Christian moralists; by Arnold Schwarzenegger and by Jerry Falwell.

This fuzzyness about Reaganism reflects a more general fuzzyness about American conservatism in general. Some of the American right’s great chroniclers, including George Nash, have concluded that its contradictions make it pointless to define: American conservatism is simply what American conservatives do. Mr. Reagan plainly had no conservative equivalent of Mao’s Red Book, no uniform that fitted all his followers. Indeed, the movement that gathered around him (and still gathers around Mr. Bush) was similar to a medieval army, with people wearing the tunics of different causes, such as property rights or the right to life.

But stand back and compare Ronald Reagan’s very American brand of conservatism with its counterparts around the world, and you can identify a clear mainstream. There has been, to put it bluntly, nothing like it anywhere else.

American conservatives have been exceptional in two ways: in the ideas that they espouse and the movement they have created. Mr. Reagan typified both. The best way to think about the ideas he preached, from his speeches for Barry Goldwater in 1964 to his last letter in 1994, is as a reformation.

Mr. Reagan may not have been an intellectual, but his sort of conservatism, just like the religious upheaval started by Martin Luther (another anti-intellectual populist) 500 years ago, combined renewal with heresy. The established faith that Mr. Reagan’s generation of American conservatives reinterpreted was classical conservatism (the conservatism whose most eloquent prophet remains Edmund Burke), and the heresy they introduced was classical liberalism (the creed of the Enlightenment and John Stuart Mill).

Traditional conservatism was based on six principles: a suspicion of the power of the state; a preference for liberty over equality; unashamed patriotism; a belief in established institutions and hierarchies; a pessimistic, backward-looking pragmatism; and elitism. This was the creed that Burke shaped into a philosophy in the 18th century–and that most famous conservatives, from Prince Metternich to Winston Churchill, understood in their bones. Mr. Reagan’s conservatism exaggerated the first three of Burke’s principles and contradicted the last three.

The exaggerations are the easiest to spot. Ronald Reagan did not merely dislike taxation in the manner of the East Coast Rockefeller Republicans who ran his party in the 1950s; he saw government as the enemy. An early patron of Freedom Forum bookshops in California (where they sold books with titles like “The Naked Communist”), he also took a Western approach to individual freedom, whether it was allowing people to carry guns or tolerating a high level of inequality. As for patriotism, conservatives are a nationalistic bunch, but Mr. Reagan celebrated his country in religious terms–as “the city on the hill” that God had chosen as the special agent of His purpose on earth.

If Reaganism had been merely a more vigorous form of old-style conservatism, then it would have been more predictable. In fact, Mr. Reagan– who began his political life as a New Deal Democrat–took a resolutely liberal approach to Burke’s last three principles: hierarchy, pessimism and elitism. The heroes of Burke’s conservatism were paternalist squires, who knew their place in society and made sure everybody else did as well. Mr. Reagan’s heroes were rugged individualists, defined by the fact that they do not know their place. He packed his kitchen cabinet with entrepreneurs who built up businesses out of nothing and he worshipped the cowboy. He kept a bronze saddle in the Oval Office and–rather magnificently–rushed to appoint Malcolm Baldridge as commerce secretary when he discovered that he liked going to rodeos.

Mr. Reagan took an equally heretical attitude to the fifth attribute, pessimism. Churchill famously “preferred the past to the present and the present to the future.” By contrast, Mr. Reagan was fond of Tom Paine’s adage that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” When Walter Mondale questioned the cost of America’s space program, Mr. Reagan proclaimed that “the American people would rather reach for the stars than reach for excuses why we shouldn’t.”

As for the sixth characteristic, elitism, instead of dreaming about creating an educated “clerisy” (as Coleridge and T.S. Eliot did) Mr. Reagan was a populist who argued that “Bedtime for Bonzo made more sense than what they were doing in Washington.” His was the conservatism not of country clubs and boardrooms, but of talk radio, precinct meetings and tax revolts.

Like all generalizations, ours come with exceptions. Mr. Reagan allied himself with authoritarian Evangelicals; some fairly feudal Southerners; elitist neoconservatives; and William Buckley, who founded The National Review in 1955 with the intention of standing “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” American conservatism, indeed, has many tributaries. Yet the mainstream that gathered around Mr. Reagan still looks distinct–not just from the more tepid Republicanism that preceded it, but also markedly from European conservatives.

The only European who spoke the same language as Ronald Reagan was Margaret Thatcher; and, as time slips by, she seems an ever more heretical figure–an American conservative who happened to be born in Grantham, not Houston. Her heirs in Britain’s Conservative Party seem unsure whether they should cut taxes, even though the state eats up roughly 10% more of the economy than it does in America–and Britain, remember, is the country which is closest to America.

This points to the exceptional strength of the movement that Mr. Reagan helped foster. When he went searching for radical ideas in the 1950s, he turned to European intellectuals such as Friedrich Hayek; there was no rive droite of conservative think tanks or foundations. Nowadays, it is no exaggeration to say that one building–1150 17th St. in Washington, D.C., which houses both the American Enterprise Institute and The Weekly Standard, as well as some smaller conservative organizations–contains more conservative standard-bearers than most European countries; and there are similar idea-labs in every state in the union.

As for brawn, there are no European equivalents of America’s antitax crusaders, gun-rights activists or religious right. America has 200 Christian TV channels and 1,500 Christian radio stations; nothing similar exists in Europe. These footsoldiers have changed American conservatism since Mr. Reagan left office. In particular, social conservatives have given Mr. Bush’s presidency a much harder line on moral issues than Mr. Reagan, an easy-going divorcee, would have appreciated. But it is still plainly the same movement, particularly in its Southern and Western heartland.

The fundamental fact about American conservatism is not just that it is conservatism but that it is “American.” Reaganism has survived in so much better shape than Thatcherism because it went with the grain of American culture, tapping into many of the deepest sentiments in American life: religiosity, capitalism, patriotism, individualism, optimism. Look at any comparative poll overseas of national attitudes, and these are the areas where the U.S. sticks out a mile. Which perhaps also helps to explain why no other country has a similar force. Reaganism may have had its contradictions; but, from a global point of view, it still looks like America–only more so.

Messrs. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, of The Economist, are the authors of “The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America,” just published by Penguin.

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