Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War without firing a shot. He willed himself to victory over the Republican establishment during an era when Rockefeller Republicans had more firewalls, and brought America out of Jimmy Carter’s malaise. RFK loyalists from 1968 proudly became Reagan Democrats as national Democrats started to morph into a hybrid of “limousine liberals” and multiculturalists who always blamed America first.
Events in Eastern Europe today, America’s sluggish economy, and a Republican Party that has trouble connecting with American workers of all backgrounds cast an even brighter glow on Reagan’s legacy.
Yet with all that Reagan accomplished, he said in his Farewell Address that “one of the things I’m proudest of in the past eight years” was “the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism.”
Reagan knew that though “this national feeling is good,” it would not “count for much” or “last unless it’s grounded in thoughtful and knowledge” that he called an “informed patriotism.”
“I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit,” he said. “Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.”
Though Reagan’s memory would fade with the onset of Alzheimer’s, he would never lose his sense of what made American exceptional. That’s in the soul.
Delivering his homily at Reagan’s funeral in California 10 years ago, Sen. John Danforth read from the Gospel of Matthew: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.”
Reagan knew that for America to always be the world’s North Star, its citizens had to be informed about what made the country and its common culture so exceptional and indispensable. And he was fierce in fighting to preserve a nation that the Founders could still recognize.
Yet 10 years after his passing, establishment Republicans who never liked Reagan or understood why the unwashed did are trying to whitewash history, claiming Reagan would have trouble winning over a conservative movement that is fighting for the same ideals in a different–and more digital era–where Twitter has replaced newspapers and the news cycle has become a constant, ceaseless, and unrelenting news stream.
Craig Shirley, one of the most esteemed Ronald Reagan biographers, recently wrote that those who falsely assert that Reagan would find not fit in today’s conservative movement “confuse tactics with principles.”
Shirley, as Mark Levin has so often mentioned, observed that “the very forces of the establishment Republicans who made war against Reagan before he was REAGAN are at it again, saying the Gipper could not have survived in the modern Republican party or would have been rejected by the tea party or could not have been elected today.”
Jeb Bush has said Reagan would be too liberal for the modern GOP. Jon Huntsman has made the same claim. As scions of wealthy, establishment families, their observations need to be taken with a little more than a grain of salt. Actually, the fight inside the GOP today, pitting the insider elites against the outsider reformers, is very much like the fight in which Reagan found himself in the mid-1970s. Reagan, the intellectual populist, was a tea-party leader long before there was a tea-party movement–but there was a conservative movement, and he was very much the leader of that vibrant political force.
“Actually, the Constitution would forbid him from completing a third term, and we all know in what reverence he held that sacred document,” Shirley wrote. “Those same forces who thought men like Bill and Jim Buckley were unsophisticated and out of touch are now making war against the intellectual conservative forces of the tea party. It’s as if an Iron Curtain has fallen across the GOP, with the statists on one side and the forces for individuality on the other.”
Reagan’s critics within the Republican Party and those who actively wrote missives opposing him from the other side in the 1970s and 1980s continue to prove how ignorant they are of Reagan’s appeal by mocking limited-government and working-class conservatives who seek to fundamentally restore America’s greatness. But even his harshest critics, some of whom have even become Republicans, pay homage to Reagan’s prescience and all of his accomplishments. How could they not?
By the time of the Goldwater speech, he was already a champion of the individual over the state, the essence of American conservatism. In his adult life, he never awakened in the morning saying to himself, “Government is popular now, so I will switch my principles and embrace big government.” In fact, his mature American conservatism, including the opposition to centralized authority, came at a time when the American people still generally believed in government. His embrace of the pro-life cause came at a time when the science wasn’t what it is today and the pro-abortion position was the more popular position for politicians, including within the GOP. Indeed, it was allies of Reagan’s who added the pro-life plank to the GOP platform in 1976, where it remains to this day.
His rejection of containment and détente and advocacy of actually winning the Cold War shocked the establishment, but by the end of the 1980 campaign, the American people had come to share his viewpoint and in point of fact supported nuclear superiority over the Russians.
But as Shirley noted, Reagan did not need titles, accomplishments, or praise to be complete as a man. He knew what was important and focused on America’s long-term health. He asked Americans, “Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?”
“Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions,” he reminisced in his Farewell Address. “If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school.”
And if all else failed back then, Reagan said that Americans could still “get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.”
Reagan lamented that as the country was about to enter the nineties things were changing. He observed that “younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children” and “well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style” for those who create popular culture.
“Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs [protection].” he said, echoing his previous words about how freedom is only one generation away from extinction.
Reagan feared a dangerous future in which reparations and balkanization would further disunite America, as the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. often noted.
The Gipper told children to call their parents out if they were not being taught to be informed patriots. And were he alive today, he would relish the many opportunities he would have to use new media to remind Americans about its common culture.
Reagan mastered radio, “talking pictures,” commercial television, and the news cycle dominated by the big-three networks. And, as Shirley delightfully mentions, he would “probably be using Facebook and Twitter (perfect for his quips!) and all the other new forms of communication to advance his ideas” because “technology always fascinated him as a method of spreading ideas.” No doubt, Reagan would have made Americans more informed patriots 140 characters at a time or with YouTube videos that would have effortlessly cut through today’s fragmented media landscape.
Shirley concludes that “to say Reagan would not fit in today’s GOP or modern politics is to underestimate him once again” and is a flat-out “indolent argument.”
“Some have suggested that Reagan could not survive in today’s GOP because he was ‘a man of his times,'” Shirely writes. “In fact, given his principles, his vision, and his moral convictions, Reagan was a man for all times, for all seasons.”
The day there is no place for Ronald Reagan in the conservative movement will be when America is no longer exceptional, all cultures are viewed equally, and the United States is considered just one of many countries on a map. The world will have lost its “last, best hope.” Worst of all, it will also probably be a day when there are two pastel globalist political parties that represent two sides of the same coin without a vibrant grassroots, non-elite movement to fight for an America that represents that shining city on a hill that Reagan personified.
Do those who seek to vindictively and pettily distort Reagan’s legacy want to live in such a world?