06 May 2009

Conservatism vs. Reaganism

There was no death notice attached to the new issue of The American Conservative, so I suppose I should expect at least another issue. That the magazine isn't out of the woods yet comes through in the editorial comment opposing Senator Kerry's plan to bail out the newspaper industry. "Good journalism cannot be secured through government intervention," the writer argues, "We hope that TAC lives long enough to see [Kerry's bill] fail." As far as this goes, I'm a little leery of any measure that might tend to make the press dependent on a government subsidy (even in the form of tax credits for subscribers) that could be withdrawn on whim. At the same time, there's a whiff of sour grapes in the writer's contemptuous regard for "the self-appointed guardians of free speech," i.e. "depressed hacks." I suppose the Conservative prefers to see itself as prepared to accept the verdict of The Market and then to try, try again at other ventures. There may also be some of the typical conservative hostility to complaint (i.e. "whining") here.

But one writer's bitterness isn't my reason for blogging. I want once more to commend the Conservative for actually taking the steps so many people say are needed to revive the opposition to the Obama administration. The magazine's editors and writers seem to be trying to do what the Goldwater-Reagan conservatives did for the Republican party starting in 1964. Those reactionaries revived the party by critiquing what they saw as Eisenhower and Nixon's complacency and accommodationism towards international communism and American liberalism. By now, however, it's past time for a new generation of Republicans to critique the Reaganite tradition. The Conservative has been doing this in spurts for a while, but the new issues makes a cover story out of it, asking, "How Right Was Reagan?"

Richard Gamble is another self-style conservative with fresh affection for Jimmy Carter. More and more of the breed is embracing Carter's so-called "malaise" speech of 1979 as a signpost on the road the nation should have taken, instead of following Reagan. Carter's speech appeals to these conservatives because he called for a return to a virtue that Gamble and others think Republicans have forgotten: frugality, i.e. living both modestly and within one's means.

Gamble notes that "the federal payroll was larger in 1989 [when Reagan left office] than it had been in 1981 [when Carter left office]," and that Reagan's beloved tax cuts "left large and growing budget deficits when combined with increased spending, and added to the national debt." In retrospect, he writes, "it is hard in 2009 to point to any concrete evidence that the Reagan Revolution fundamentally altered the nation's trajectory toward bloated, centralized, interventionist government."

Worse, Gamble claims that Reagan was temperamentally "anything but conservative." Noting Reagan's religious and philosophical influences, Gamble notes an absence of any appreciation of human limits. "Reagan's optimistic Christianity," for instance, "seemed ready made for an America disinclined to hear talk of limits to power and wealth. The historic Christian message can sound downright un-American [to people like Reagan]."

Gamble himself sternly rejects the Reaganite notion of the U.S. as "the city on the hill," a divinely favored nation destined to lead the world to prosperity and freedom. "There is nothing inherently conservative about believing that America is God's promised land for a new epoch," he remarks, "Because it sounds so patriotic to elevate America among God's elect, however, many conservatives dig in their heels and resist any challenge to America's redeemer myth."

While Reagan was never as bellicose as George W. Bush, Gamble traces the Bushites' interventionist streak to Reagan's belief in America's power and right to "begin the world over again," -- a phrase Reagan took from Thomas Paine, as far from a conservative as some would say you could get. Gamble also blames Reagan for what George Lukacs calls "the militarization of the image of the presidency," the tendency to portray the President as the "commander in chief" of the country as a whole rather than the military only. Gamble elaborates:

If the president visits a city ravaged by a hurricane, he is emphatically not there in his role as commander in chief. If every American thinks of the president -- of whatever political party -- as my commander in chief and not narrowly as the Army or Navy's commander in chief, then we have taken another decisive step from republic to empire.

Harsher still is the assessment Gamble quotes from anti-war conservative Andrew Bacevich:

Reagan portrayed himself as a conservative. He was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with his talk of 'morning in America,' the faux-conservative Reagan added to America's civic religion two crucial beliefs: Credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due.

Worship of Reagan inhibits critical thinking by conservatives, Gamble concludes. "Conservatives ought to have enough confidence in their own principles to examine Reagan's ambiguous legacy in light of those very tenets....Reagan as conservative icon must not become a way to shut down debate within the conservative movement....Maybe the Reagan we think we remember is the very thing most likely to distract us from painful self-examination and serious reckoning with who we are as a people and how we got this way."

That's strong medicine compared to some Republicans' stubborn insistence that Reaganism is the party's only salvation. I'm not going to pretend that the conservative party that emerges from such self-examination would automatically be a good thing or even necessarily a more constructive element of political life, but I will say that what Gamble recommends sounds like what Republicans and conservatives should be doing instead of hoping that repeating the prayers of the past will bring them the same results. If The American Conservative can prod Republicans in that direction, its demise before it actually does so would really be cause for regret.


Anonymous said...

I do have to agree that too many people in this country think of the President in terms of his role of commander-in-chief of the military, I think too many presidents and politicians in general are guilty of the same sin. It's along the same lines as the guy who thinks because he wears a flag pin it automatically makes him a patriot.

In a sane, civilized society, that would be the very last role people who think of their leadership in. Once a people get the "patrioism" bug (as opposed to "nationalism") and they begin to see their leaders as military men, you have only a short stride to allowing a military man to become our ideal leader.

Samuel Wilson said...

One of the reasons why many of the Founders feared the creation of a permanent standing army was the thought that the President could use it to impose his will on the states and the people. An argument against that reasoning was that the President was essentially a civilian, not a military man himself. Those generals who became presidents made a point of retiring from the military first.

While critics chide Reagan for something as innocent-seeming as returning the salutes of soldiers (he was apparently the first president to do so), I think the younger Bush went a great deal further toward militarizing the presidency just by wearing that flight jacket in his infamous "Mission Accomplished" photo-op.