Last month, I was talking about Sarah Palin with an old friend of our family, a staunch conservative of thirty years who voted for Barack Obama in November. He was comparing her to Ronald Reagan. “I remember seeing Reagan come up to the microphone in ’76 at the Republican National convention in cowboy boots and thinking ‘oh Jesus, who have they found?’ Then I heard him speak and everything changed.” Our friend’s initial reaction to Palin was the same, but when he heard her speak, his concern did not abate. It deepened.
Talking with this old friend, I started to think about Ronald Reagan, who, as Margaret Thatcher once said, only had five or six ideas—but they were all good ones. Peggy Noonan, his speechwriter, described Reagan as “emotionally moved by American history and the Founders, by the long sweep of history.” He spoke with seriousness but he also spoke with passion. Here was a person excited by ideas, by their meaning and by their practical effects. At the moment, remembering Reagan is particularly instructive because he gracefully articulated a robust, deep, grounded focus that seems lacking in the demoralized yet doggedly surviving Republican Party.
The Republicans have lacked this focus for most of the decade, led as they were by the ideologically rudderless George Bush, who spoke about big ideas with sentiment but without understanding. When Christopher Hitchens spoke at Pitzer earlier this year, he commented that President Bush’s religious faith was to some extent practical; it was the vehicle by which he turned his life around, allowing him to get where he wanted to go. I think that Bush’s take on ideas was similar; he went into office with certain goals, and big ideas are the right way to express, bolster and justify big goals, so he brought on the big ideas like freedom and democracy.
People normally speak of Bush’s hubris in conjunction with his go-it-alone cowboy diplomacy, but I think the core hubristic impulse that he exhibited was his approach to ideology. Ideas are powerful because they are, to some extent, bigger than any individual human being. They are the crystallized sediment of generations, and in some cases centuries, of human thought and experience, and they offer individuals a necessary prism through which to view the world. Unlike his espoused idol Ronald Reagan, Bush did not see the world with the aid of a particular philosophy; one always had the sense that he gravitated toward conservatism not out of deep understanding of its ideas but out of personal loyalty. And he showed little deference to traditional conservatism on most of the issues he confronted while in office.
Moreover, his administration exacerbated the problem with a deeply rooted, peculiar, and self-destructive defensiveness. I remember visiting the Eisenhower Building, across the street from the White House, in 2006 with a large group of students and hearing a talk from two senior aides to the president. Both were in their mid-thirties and operating yards away from the most powerful office in the world. Yet they didn’t seem humbled or open. They seemed besieged and certain. During the Q&A section, when someone asked if the media was biased, one of the men rolled his eyes and said, “Of course.” The resentment inherent in the comment was clear, and so was the implicit position that such an opinion birthed: the media don’t give us a fair shot, so we should reject them. We don’t have to prove our worth to biased mediators. In fact, we don’t have to prove our worth to anyone.
What happens when the leader of his party refuses to persuasively advance its ideas? Fringe players step into the arena, at the moment represented by the two most visible spokespeople for the Republicans, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Needless to say, neither is articulating deeply held beliefs with rationality and gravity. Instead they are focused on gimmicks.
Consider: Rush Limbaugh wants President Obama to fail while Sarah Palin wants more attention paid to “real Americans.” Yes, both Limbaugh and Palin have every right to express sentiments like these, but why would they want to? Sentiments are short-lived because they play to particular, under-expressed emotions of the moment. Because they are transitory they are not helpful in building or solidifying an ideological foundation, which is what a party in crisis needs in order to revitalize itself.
That is why remembering Reagan gives me, and an apparently increasing number of people who are concerned with Obama’s actions on the economy, hope for the revitalization of the conservative movement’s tempering influence. Ideas need life breathed into them in order to be real, and people with firm, deep, thoughtful convictions who articulate them persuasively can breathe this life. Ronald Reagan did this for conservatism, just as FDR and JFK did so for liberalism. Surely as America continues to survive and prosper, there will be more of these patriots.
I close with a thought consistent with the age of post-partisan dialogue which so many Americans hope has arrived, which is that conservatism’s revival would prove beneficial for both the left and the right. As John Stuart Mill said, “Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites… It has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” Open dialogue is a foundation of our republic and key to its continued success. It only remains for current conservatives to answer the call and throw themselves, armed with clear ideas and elegant expression, into the arena.