While we remember and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s timeless “A Time for Choosing” speech we would do well to also remember the choice he made that became the spark, spirit and driving force of his vision for the country. Reagan chose first and foremost to trust and stand on the side of the American people – especially the hard-working “forgotten Americans.”
Reagan noticed that, aside from America’s political and economic elite, the rest of the country suffered under increasingly liberal policies. The political, corporate, and media opinion leaders were doing just fine. The people shouldering the brunt of big government’s failure were the working men and women of and aspiring to America’s middle class.
They were the ones whose neighborhoods saw rising crime rates. They were the ones whose communities were threatened by family breakdown. They were the ones whose jobs were hanging by a thread. They were the ones whose children couldn’t to go to college. They were the ones who couldn’t afford gas and groceries because of the energy crisis and inflation. Reagan chose to stand with and for them.
Unlike the poor, who attracted Washington’s sympathy, and the rich, who could influence public policy, the mass of Americans in the middle were being ignored, slighted, and left behind by the political class in Washington.
The 19th century economist William Graham Sumner had a term for the American caught in the middle: “the forgotten man.”
As Sumner put it in his famous essay of the same name:
[The forgotten man] works, he votes, generally he prays– but he always pays–yes, above all, he pays… his name never gets into the newspaper except when he gets married or dies… He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted, whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given… All the burdens fall on him, or on her, for … the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman.
It was these familiar friends and neighbors from all races and creeds and regions – people all Americans know and most Americans are – that Ronald Reagan believed made our nation good and great and beautiful. They were the ones, Reagan understood, conservatism could help the most – so he chose to raise their voice and represent their values.
Indeed, in a National Review essay Reagan reminded the conservative movement that it must choose to continue to stand up for the little guy:
“We represent the forgotten American-that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
To Ronald Reagan, these Americans were never forgotten. For him forgetting these Americans was never a choice.
From the beginning, he chose to build his politics around a profound respect for the honest, hardworking men and women who made America work.
Reagan chose to rebuild conservatism with a concrete agenda of innovative reforms to directly help and empower all of the forgotten Americans whom liberalism always leaves behind.
Now, as then, our economy is struggling. The great American middle class is beset with anxiety. Stagnant wages don’t keep up with the rising cost of living. For too many Americans, opportunities seem to be narrowing, and the American Dream seems to be slipping out of reach.
Meanwhile, a chasm of distrust is opening between the American people and their government. Both parties are seen as incapable of producing innovative solutions to growing problems, or uninterested in even trying. Reagan’s “forgotten Americans” are once again being left behind.
Once again, the Left has betrayed the trust of the American people. But the Right has not won it back. Too many in Washington, on both sides of the isle, are choosing to stand with the wealthy and the well-connected instead of choosing to remember, stand with and stand for the people that make this nation great.
So it seems to me that conservatives today need to choose to do exactly what Reagan did in the late 1970s: identify the great challenges holding back America’s working families, and propose concrete, innovative solutions to help overcome them.
Reagan’s agenda was designed to give ordinary Americans even more power to choose for themselves their own path while helping to shape the future of the nation. He respected them and trusted them, and thought the government should simply get out of the way. He knew the answer was not to get America to trust Washington; it was to get Washington to trust America.
Some see it as ironic that as Reagan chose to decentralize power to a diverse, divided nation… we came back together. But it’s not ironic at all. It’s the tried-and-true genius of the American way of life that has sustained our exceptional republic for more than two centuries.
Reagan’s agenda was an attempt to empower Americans to come together to make our economy more wealthy and our society more rich.
Reagan knew – and proved to a cynical elite – that freedom doesn’t mean you’re on your own; it means we’re all in this together.
And really, that is Ronald Reagan’s enduring challenge to conservatives, and Republicans, and all Americans: to choose to believe in each other. To choose to trust and respect the courage and industry and wisdom and ingenuity and compassion and hope of our people.
A renewed commitment to reform can not only put America on the path to recovery, but reunite our nation after too many years of bitter division… and empower our people after too many years of falling behind.
Today is once again a time for choosing. Answering Reagan’s epic and timeless challenge is actually quite simple – we must choose to once again remember, stand with and fight for every “forgotten American.”