Ronald Reagan and the Changing Face of Conservatism

The passing of Ronald Reagan is a good time to access his relationship to the Conservative movement in America. Without doubt Reagan shaped its ideology and direction more than any other person in the 20th century, affirming and advancing certain of its ideas while rejecting and ignoring others. A clear understanding of his impact on the face of Conservatism requires a summing up of intellectual currents in the movement as he emerged on the national scene. As for defining the term “Conservative,” someone once wrote that it is not possible because “too many minds have been trying to ‘conserve’ too many things for too many reasons for too long.”

After years of rummaging around among a myriad of Conservative books, articles, and essays, not to mention hearing dozens of lectures on the subject, it appears to me that the dozens of variations on the term can be boiled down to a few, perhaps four. Many practicing Conservatives will, of course, scream and holler and object vehemently when their particular version is squeezed into one of the divisions proposed here. Even when reduced to a few varieties, however, several themes run through all of them. All, for example, claim to heartily support “freedom” and “liberty,” though some do so with only modest enthusiasm (Old Right) while others push freedom to the extreme (Libertarians). It is more obvious that Conservatives all oppose one thing especially—at least in principle—socialism in all its versions, socialism being the idea that government can and should solve all of our problems.

Ronald Reagan made his switch from card-carrying liberal to confirmed Conservative in the years just after World War II. It was at that time that one branch of the Conservative Movement reached its peak and began its rather precipitous decline. Historians refer to this branch as the “Old Right” and agree that its leading spokesman was probably Russell Kirk. Kirk’s principal published work, “The Conservative Mind” (1953), appeared early in his career. Like many Old Right Conservatives, Kirk was a Roman Catholic intellectual with a deep affinity for all things old and English, especially for social ideas that flowed from the writings of Edmund Burke. Thus, tradition, customs, civility, manners, morals, and above all, social order were prominent elements in his writings, as in his personal life. It is also fair to say that an anti-modern streak ran through his writings as well. These ideas can be summed up in the proposition that the mere long-time existence of an institution created a presumption that it must have great value. Implied, therefore, was the idea that old institutions should not be changed except for great cause.

After 15 to 20 years of growth and support by foundations, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the Old Right was vigorously challenged by a new breed of Conservative—the Neoconservative. Neoconservatives were converts to the movement from the liberal left. The occasion of their defection and subsequent conversion was what they called a betrayal of the liberal cause by a youthful core of radicals such as Students for a Democratic Society(SDS), radicals who attacked academic standards, encouraged the sexual revolution, and embraced Marxist views. Many Neoconservatives were Jewish intellectuals who were at home in the social sciences and its methods–statistics and computers. Moreover, they were pragmatic and policy-oriented, and this set them apart and in tension with Conservatives of the Old Right who were humanistic scholars—more at home with the ideas of Aristotle than with computers.

The Republican Party, political home of Conservatism, encompassed both the Old Right and Neoconservatives. Both competed for funding from traditionally conservative foundations such as Coors, Scaife, and others, but by the 1980s the Neoconservatives were gaining a larger share of foundation funding. Leaders of the Neoconservative movement included Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the extended family of each becoming powerful figures in government, journalism, and foundation work. Unlike Old Right Conservatives who wanted to dismantle the welfare state, Neoconservtives assumed the necessity of it but wanted to make it efficient and effective. They also vigorously supported a global democratic order, a view not found among leaders of the Old Right since they were inherently suspicious of democracy, a suspicion they inherited, they said, from the Founding Fathers. When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981, most of his staff came from the Neoconservative wing of the movement. Old Right attempts to gain seats of power were largely rebuffed, one here and there being given posts such as an Assistant Secretary of Education.

As the Old Right was being marginalized and Neoconservatives were rising to positions of influence and power in the 1970s, a third Conservative faction emerged—the New Right. It is true that it has some ideas in common with the Old Right, such as opposition to communism, support of free markets and limited government, and respect for religion and Judeo-Christian values—the latter honored more in the breech than in practice. Founders of the New Right, including Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, and Phyllis Schlafly, had been active in Republican politics but felt betrayed by its moderate to liberal “Eastern Establishment” leaders. To them, the great majority of Americans endorsed their views, not the views of moderate and liberal Republicans. Though like Old Right leaders in some respects, they came at problems from a business and pragmatic point of view—not from the writings of Aristotle or Edmund Burke. Unhappy with moderate Republicans, and the emerging Neoconservatives, New Right leaders decided to form a new political caucus designed to take over the Republican Party or even to form a new party.

The outstanding feature in the rise of the New Right, however, was the sudden involvement of the Christian Right in the movement. Christians on the Right had been involved in politics for a long time, but now new faces and new issues galvanized a large number of Christian organizations, and they joined hands with the more pragmatic New Right leaders. The Christian Right brought much to the New Right movement—vast television and radio audiences, millions more listening in the pews, a moral fervor, and a deep patriotic appeal. Its leading figures were Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. One issue more than any other brought the Christian Right out of the churches and into the political fray—the Roe abortion decision of 1973. It was not long before other social issues were tied to it, including prayer in public schools, Supreme Court appointments, and the like.

The Christian element of the New Right suffered the same destiny as the Old Right at the hands of the Reagan administration. Their ideas were honored with lip service but not with policy initiatives supported vigorously by the President. The Christian Right continued, however, to vote Republican by the millions—even voting for Bush, the Elder.

In addition to the Old Right, Neoconservatives, and the New Right, a fourth group claimed citizenship in the kingdom of Conservatism in the post-World War II era—they styled themselves “Libertarians.” Libertarians have always argued vigorously about who they are and which of them truly represents the essence of their movement. They do so because the core idea that drives them all is the notion that each person is autonomous. Not all of them state their premise quite that starkly, but personal autonomy is nevertheless the central idea for them. From a distance, it is clear that Libertarians have their roots largely in the works of two intellectuals—the Austrian economist Mises and the anarco-capitalist Murray Rothbard. Most Libertarians focus on economic issues and the need to be free from all government contact and control. One admiring biographer of Rothbard captured this mood when he entitled his book about him “An Enemy of the State.” As for moral principles in typical Libertarian thinking, a paraphrase of a line from the Book of Genesis will do: “Each man did what was right in his own eyes,” and they would add “as long as it does not injure anyone else.” Contemporary expressions of a Libertarian outlook may be found in the Reason Foundation and Cato Institute—a look at their web cites will make this clear.

All four of these branches of Conservatism were hard at work as Ronald Reagan matured as a Conservative and then achieved political power. Great reader that he was, it may be assumed that Reagan was familiar with most ideas emanating from these groups. The question remains, however, as to how Reagan related to them. In answering that question we can see how Reagan changed the face of Conservatism. This could be the subject of a whole book, but here it will be briefly sketched.

Reagan was famous for his statement, paraphrased here, “Thou shalt not speak evil of fellow Republicans,” and that would, of course, also refer to Conservatives. In a word, he appreciated the efforts of all Conservatives and said so. Significantly, however, he used only those ideas that fit with his well-developed public philosophy and his sense of mission. Rebuilding the American economy was one of two central pillars of his mission as a politician. The other was the defeat, not the containment of, Communism. He gathered ideas and policy suggestions from all quarters of Conservatism that might help him achieve his mission. As it turned out, many ideas of the Neoconservative branch of the movement fit well with his goals, more so than ideas from the other branches.

Being a born-again Christian, especially evident from recent books about his faith, Reagan was very sensitive to numerous social issues that were near and dear to the hearts of the Christian element of the New Right. He spoke to that constituency often about these ideas, including abortion and pornography. When it came to legislation about these matters, however, he did little—sensing, no doubt, that they were more divisive than constructive in the public square. Stated another way, he was not willing to see these issues undermine the two main goals of his mission. As one writer put it, in the end these issues “were window dressing” in the larger plan of his administration.

Reagan’s plan to rebuild American capitalism, a capitalism which had faltered for 20 years under the influence of John K. Galbraith’s doctrine of an “affluent society,” assumed limits for government—something less than the New Deal and Great Society had put in place. This is not what the Old Right, the New Right, and Libertarians heard. They thought he meant to roll back government and radically shrink it to a size they imagined, eliminating huge programs such as Social Security along the way. Reagan did not think in these terms, rather, he thought more of efficiency—more bang for the taxpayer’s buck. Stated another way, Reagan wanted to make government work better, not merely make it smaller. Further, he wanted government to be less intrusive in the daily lives of citizens as they sought to make their way in life. Neoconservatives were more attuned to this view and were, thus, the main beneficiaries of Reagan’s economic stance. Their manta was “democratic capitalism,” not free market economics. In short, Neoconservatives ended up being appointed to many important posts of Reagan’s government.

And, the Neoconservatives were also well-positioned to advise Reagan on foreign policy. Generally, they favored communism’s extinction rather than its containment. Further, as proponents of “democratic capitalism” they were for expanding world trade—rather than being supporters, as others of their Conservative brethren were, of a cranky economic isolationism.

Ronald Reagan was in the right place at the right time to pull together a coalition of Conservatives—various Republicans, and socially and economically conservative Democrats—to form a powerful alliance. As recent Reagan memorial services indicated, this alliance empowered him to achieve great things, including his twin goals—the defeat of communism and the revival of the American economy. A decade’s distance from his successes in these matters makes it clear that Reagan the man had pulled together a coalition of Conservative factions, and others, to achieve his goals. It is also clear that social and moral reform was not part of his program though some Conservatives were hopeful that it was at the time.

Reagan did change the face of Conservatism through the sheer power of his personality and ability to engineer the political process. From the distance of 15 years it is clear that ideas he supported gained prominence in the Conservative movement while those ideas he ignored tended to fall by the way. For example, Neoconservative ideas about economics and governmental power continue to be prominently reflected in the Republican Party. That is, it still supports government on a scale similar to the Democrats and it assumes that government should tinker with the markets as opposed to being completely free as other branches of Conservatism teach. Obviously, ideas of the Old Right and Libertarians—fully free markets and no or very limited government—have fallen upon deaf ears in government circles. A glance at the Bush administration today confirms this pattern.

And what about the Old Right and Libertarians as players in the larger Conservative movement? The Old Right hangs on in the academy, at conferences, and in journals few people read. As for Libertarians, many of them have morphed into new forms, hoping to have some influence on public policy, a point evident in the programs and literature of the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation. Harsher elements of the Libertarian view—personal moral autonomy for example—have been softened into more palatable forms for consumption among traditional Conservatives. As for the New Right with its strong Christian Right influence, it hangs on too and hopes that Bush, the Younger will lead America into the promised land of higher moral standards.

The 2004 elections will tell us much about the health of Conservatism. Will it survive? The 2000 election suggested that Conservative power was waning if not on the ropes. Ironically, it has evolved in the past to meet changing conditions as it did in the hands of Ronald Reagan. Still, Conservatism may end up on the fringes of American politics, in the wilderness as it were, until another Ronald Reagan arrives to lead. It seems clear that if another Conservative (Republican) wished to lead in the Reagan mold he would need very clearly articulated goals and a very forceful, winsome personality.