Why Reaganism’s Enduring Values Still Offer The Best Hope For America

Reaganism was always more than just tax cuts. Informed patriotism, peace through strength, and individual liberty remain the heart of American conservatism.

Conservatives have spent decades defending the legacy and political philosophy of former President Ronald Reagan from leftists. Today, however, Reaganism faces a surprising bevy of criticisms from his own side of the political aisle.

The latest assaults on Reaganism hail from a multitude of writers for right-wing sites and magazines, including contributors to the site you’re reading right now. The recent movement to abandon Reaganism, however, is bad for conservatism and even worse for America. So the right-wing repudiations of Reagan and his politics deserve a reply.

Far from Reaganism being “irrelevant” or harmful to our present political moment, the opposite is true: the principles Reagan stood for are timeless, his ideology represents the best of American conservatism, his character should be emulated, and the complete package embodied in Reaganism remains the greatest antidote to what ails our republic.

‘In All Parts of the Union’

For the last four years, many prominent voices on the right have advocated for Republicans to adopt the “defend your ‘team’ no matter what” mantra of the modern Democratic Party. There’s some wisdom in this, to be sure. Indeed, it’s merely a more forceful version of Reagan’s “11th Commandment” to “not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Yet this is one of the many ways the anti-Reaganism movement is puzzling.

The “always circle the wagons” mantra is now fairly typical, yet apparently doesn’t apply to the most successful and widely admired Republican since Abraham Lincoln.

As historian Paul Johnson notes, “Reagan was one of the great vote-getters of American history, a man who could win over the majority among both sexes, all age groups, virtually all occupation and income groups, and in all parts of the Union.” Reagan won 44 states against incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980; then, in his re-election campaign four years later, came 3,762 Minnesotian votes away from sweeping every state in the country. His 1984 “Morning in America” campaign holds the record for most Electoral College votes won by a candidate in American history, with Reagan receiving 97.6 percent of the total electors.

Since Gallup starting polling Americans on who they consider the greatest U.S. president in history, Reagan has ranked in the top four every time. The last time Gallup asked the question, he placed first ahead of Lincoln. A 2018 Quinnipiac poll found Reagan is considered the best president since the end of World War II. This is who some on the right now choose to target with their limited political ammo?

Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the Inaugural parade (1981).

Of course, success and public opinion don’t automatically confer legitimacy, rightness, or truth. Franklin Delano Roosevelt remains a fairly popular president even though his economic interventionism prolonged the Great Depression and his New Deal began the rise of the ever-growing modern government leviathan of the administrative state. So, what of Reagan’s policies?

Discounting the anti-Soviet and pro-tax cut aspects of Reagan’s messaging that have already been achieved, there are no policy planks of the speeches bookending Reagan’s political career — his “A Time For Choosing,” First Inaugural, Second Inaugural, and Farewell Address — that wouldn’t be a godsend to America this very instant if our citizenry and our political leaders adopted the principles they contain.

‘Peace Through Strength’

In writing against “Zombie Reaganism,” Reagan’s foreign policy stance has been characterized by some as “muscular internationalism,” a term never embraced by Reagan and one that doesn’t rightly describe his military ideology. When one examines Reagan’s actions and words, his foreign policy stance does not prescribe the overly idealistic adventurism we continue to see in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any attempted conjoining of Reaganism’s foreign policy beliefs with the mishaps of the early 21st century doesn’t stick.

While he believed that God placed the “dream of freedom” in every human heart, Reagan did not push for the U.S. Army to engage in nation-building, nor did he preach long-term occupations of lands in the Middle East. Reagan’s one prominent use of military force, the invasion of Grenada in 1983, was a direct answer to the desperate plea for help from five members of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States and was resolved in four days.

More than 600 American medical students were rescued, the Marxist revolutionaries that had taken over the country were removed from power, and the island was prevented from becoming a Soviet outpost in the Caribbean. Every October 25, the citizens of Grenada mark the day of the American liberation as a national holiday and celebrate a day of thanksgiving. Grenada remains a free and peace-loving democratic nation to this day.

Reagan shares a laugh with Charleton Heston (1981).

The most accurate expression of Reaganite foreign policy is “Peace Through Strength,” an old concept dating back to sentiments expressed by Roman Emperor Hadrian and repeated by George Washington more than 1600 years later. It was Reagan, however, who brought the policy back into the limelight while campaigning for Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.

In the address that would become so popular it later became known as simply “The Speech,” Reagan rejected the assertion that those who argue for a strong military are chickenhawks or warmongers:

Let us set one thing straight, there is no argument with regard to peace and war. It is cheap demagoguery to suggest that anyone would want to send other people’s sons to war. The only argument is with regard to the best way to avoid war. There is only one sure way — surrender … We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right … Alexander Hamilton warned us that a nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master and deserves one.

During Reagan’s 1980 campaign against incumbent President Jimmy Carter, Reagan attacked Carter’s erratic “vacillation” and “weakness” Reagan believed had caused “[America’s] allies to no longer trust us and our adversaries to no longer respect us.” He argued Carter’s policy of accommodation and withdrawal from the world posed a “far greater danger of an unwanted, inadvertent war.”

A few months later, Reagan emphatically restated the Peace Through Strength mantra in his First Inaugural:

Peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it, now or ever … When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.

From behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Reagan delivered a Farewell Address that reiterated the need for the United States to engage with the world but to also remain vigilant in the face of foreign actors that may not have the best interest of Americans at heart. “Trust but verify,” he cautioned, “play, but cut the cards … watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.”

Yes, the Cold War with the Soviet Union is over — thanks, largely, to Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Reaganite British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But while America’s foreign policy threats are undeniably different than 40 years ago, Reagan’s foreign policy approach of “Peace Through Strength” remains the greatest guarantor of global stability and the best deterrent to war.

Dignity and Liberty Through the Free Market

On economic matters, Reaganism embodies far more than just tax cuts. It asserts that while free markets cannot automatically ensure free people, citizens must be allowed to engage in voluntary exchange in a republic seeking to preserve liberty.

In “A Time For Choosing,” Reagan reminded the audience, “Man is not free unless government is limited.” At his First Inaugural, he reminded Americans history has always shown “as government expands, liberty contracts.”

Instead of seeing a role for the government to select winners and losers as an arbitrary and unavoidably biased judge, Reagan advocated reducing government dependency to restore and uphold man’s independence and self-respect. “The solutions we seek must be equitable,” Reagan argued in his First Inaugural, “with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.”

Reagan’s cure for the most distressed areas of the nation remains the best solution today. For the genuinely infirm or disadvantaged, his Second Inaugural recognized “a growing economy and support from family and community offer our best chance for a society where compassion is a way of life.”

Reagan is sworn in for his second term (1985).

The price system combined with the personal, freely chosen actions of more than 330 million Americans will always create the highest amount of prosperity for the greatest amount of people — far more than any central planner or government bureaucrat, no matter how pure their intentions. Reaganism acknowledges that “Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”

Ultimately, Reaganism advocates an economic framework most consistent with the Declaration of Independence, which does not ensure or promise happiness but protects the pursuit of such nonetheless. It’s the opposite solution to that put forth by leftists and other proponents of larger government interventionism, who seek to buy votes by doling out perks, privileges, and redistributive taxation that steals from Peter to pay Paul.

American conservatism respects our founding principles when it ensures a playing field with no artificial barriers constructed by the state; when, as Reagan once said, “each individual has the right to fly as high as his strength and ability will take him.”

Reaganism rejects government paternalism or singling out any members of certain classes, races, or special vocations for special treatment. Instead, it views each citizen as a singular unhyphenated American, endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, not privileges to be doled out to those most preferred by the state.

Reagan in Iceland with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1986).

Reaganism understands, as Plutarch once warned, “the real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations, and benefits.” So Reagan cautioned against accepting any “favors” that could lead one to become beholden to the state. He encouraged Americans to “resist the temptation to get a government handout for your community.”

This wasn’t just empty talk. As the son of a hard-drinking, regularly unemployed shoe salesman, Reagan’s family moved four times before he turned nine. While he lived his entire youth one step away from poverty, Reagan never let his rough upbringing lead to resentment or envy of the success of others.

As he put it in “A Time For Choosing”:

Today there is an increasing number who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without automatically coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one. So they would seek the answer to all the problems of human need through government … You can’t control the economy without controlling people. So we have come to a time for choosing. Either we accept the responsibility for our own destiny, or we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual belief in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Reagan’s economic message is one of hope, not doomed government dependency. Its protection and promotion of individual liberty is a message of empowerment — a message that tells all Americans if they work hard and live within their means they don’t need to be indebted to anything other than their own effort and ingenuity.

The fundamental rules of the market have not changed in the last 40 years. The state cannot possibly calculate how to properly set prices or discern what goods are demanded by consumers and in what amount and where. As Reagan noted it in October of 1964, “For three decades we have tried to solve unemployment by government planning, without success. The more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.” More than five decades later, that statement is more true, not less.

Missed Opportunities

The problem of the post-Reagan years is not that we’ve had too much “hyper-individualism” or libertarian economic policies. On the contrary, from 1988 onward, Republicans — with only a few exceptions — went wobbly. They called for a “kinder, gentler, America.” They attempted to attach the modifier “compassionate” to “conservative,” forgetting (or not understanding) that the free market system is manifestly compassionate, lifting millions out of poverty in the last century.

The problem isn’t that the GOP embraced too many of Reagan’s prescriptions, it’s that they buckled and forgot their limited government mission when Republicans finally held sway over both the executive and legislative branches. Republicans wasted countless opportunities to cut the size and scope of the state. Multiple chances to relinquish control and return more liberty to the American people were squandered. In the meantime, the federal deficit has grown unabated, to the detriment of our children’s futures.

The Republican Party never had control of the U.S. Congress during Reagan’s entire time in office. Reagan had to contend with an average of 77 fewer GOP than Democratic Party members in the House. As only the leader of the executive branch, and Democrats dominating the House, Reagan was forced to cut deals and abandon his goal for balanced budgets to secure victory in the Cold War. There is no similar excuse for the Republican Party that controlled the House, Senate, and Oval Office between the years of 2003-2007 and 2017-2019.

The total pages published in the Code of Federal Regulations increased from 117,480 in 1988 when Reagan left office to 185,434 in 2018. When the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal began measuring economic freedom in 1995, the United States placed fourth in the world. The 2020 results of the economic freedom index list America 17th. Such realities should fill conservatives with terrible regret. It is assuredly not evident that the nation suffers from an overabundance of economic liberty.

Defending the Shining City on a Hill

A point that isn’t made often enough is this: Reagan’s brand of conservatism, like American conservatism itself, isn’t just a set of traditional values encompassing faith, family, and freedom. Reaganism carries with it a sensibility, an advocacy of a high level of moral character for our politicians, and a particular outlook on life.

It’s a political stance that never gives in to grievance, jealousy, or revenge. It’s maintaining a lighthearted, self-deprecating sense of humor that brushes off minor slights with a head shake and a smile — which Reagan employed to devastating effect.

It’s not a blind patriotism but one that is informed. It’s a patriotism rooted in the love of America’s ideals, not just for one particular race, ethnic group, or social class. The message Reagan delivered as part of his Farewell Address is particularly needed in the face of the historically illiterate, anti-American, and neo-Marxist 1619 Project promoted by The New York Times.

“[A] National feeling is good,” said Reagan, “but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge. An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?”

Reagan meets young congressional hopeful Mike Pence (1988).

Then, as now, Reaganism is concerned about making sure future generations know why they should be grateful to live in the greatest country in the history of the world. “Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it,” Reagan cautioned, “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.”

Finally, Reaganism includes a buoyant, uplifting optimism not grounded in utopian solutions, but in the belief that America is exceptional, her values are exceptional, and her people are so hearty, so industrious, and so innovative that when they work together there is little we can’t accomplish.

For Reagan, America had a unique “sound,” one that was “hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair.” She was, as she was for the Puritans, a land of promise and endless possibilities. During his final moments in the Oval Office in front of the American people, Reagan spoke of his affinity for John Winthrop’s description of America as a “City on a Hill” and described what he saw:

A tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity … a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

Restoring the Reagan Revolution

Not every part of Reagan’s record or beliefs needs to be defended — in the case of immigration, it shouldn’t — but casting the whole Reagan Revolution into the dustbin of history is not just foolish, it would be horrible for America’s future.

Reagan himself would have been the first to remind that he isn’t some sort of perfect conservative saint. Indeed, Reagan is a rarity in most of presidential history in his humility and for owning up to his errors. When he made a mistake or others made poor decisions on his watch, he didn’t pass the buck or spread blame — he apologized.

America is still in need of politicians like Reagan. America requires a new generation of leaders of strong moral character who practice what they preach, who inspire us, who want to serve rather than be served, and who admit their fallibility.

In every corner of local, state, and federal politics, we’ve lowered our expectations of who should be involved in governance to the point of non-existence. As a result, an increasing number of Americans have had it with politics altogether. This doesn’t have to be.

Decency isn’t synonymous with weakness, nor is it a recipe for failure. From Washington to Lincoln, to Churchill, to Reagan, great statesmen know when to dig in their heels, and when to make a prudent compromise for the sake of their country. Happy warriors have been winning battles since 1776. In his Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin included an old Italian proverb no less valuable to today’s politicians as to all other men and women in society: “Tart words make no friends: a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than gallon of vinegar.”

Reaganism isn’t locked-in to a man, a particular time, or a fleeting movement. Informed patriotism, traditional values, individual liberty, peace through strength, and an optimistic, pioneering spirit are the uniquely American brand of conservatism. Reaganism exemplifies the heart and soul of our nation’s spirit, and, if pursued faithfully with the appropriate messenger, it remains the most winsome blueprint for a successful future with the Republican Party leading the way.

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