The debate about Ronald Reagan has never shown any sign of ending, but it is less and less about whether his presidency was consequential. As has happened with a few other high-impact presidencies​—​see historian Merrill Peterson’s classic The Jeffersonian Image in the American Mind​—​the debate over Reagan’s presidency has morphed into a battle over ideas, centering on Reaganism and its relevance, if any, to the future of politics.

For some years following his presidency, the narrative of elite opinion boiled down to something like this: In the early 1980s the Reagan administration radically changed U.S. policy on economics, defense, and Cold War strategy. In unrelated developments later in that decade, the stagflation of the 1970s disappeared, capitalism entered a generation-long global boom, and the Cold War came to an end amid the collapse of European communism.

Examples of such denialism are still around, in high-school textbooks and other precincts dominated by an American left determined to be unimpressed by anything good that might be traced to the astounding, meteor-like passage of Ronald Reagan through American and global politics. Yet now at his centennial, even many of Reagan’s most implacable critics feel compelled to concede his political gifts and attempt to analyze the “paradox” of how it came to be that a doddering B-movie actor with a view of reality bordering on fantasy could wind up finding (in the bemused 1988 description of a Washington Post editorialist) that when he ventured abroad, it was not just the nation but the world that was his oyster.

Today, Republican and conservative elites invariably speak of the Reagan presidency in terms of greatness. But their descriptions of his politics and explanations of his success are often confused. As an example, I recently heard one prominent Republican attribute the abortion-related term “big tent” to Reagan, rather than to its actual originator, the post-Reagan Republican national chairman Lee Atwater.

What, for conservatives, is the conclusion to be drawn from the Age of Reagan? Was it mainly a matter of a gifted leader and his time coming magically together? Or was it (in addition) a breakthrough for a conservative movement he helped reshape into a more consistent worldview that American voters found compelling? And does something one could call Reaganism provide a way forward in the world of 2011 and beyond?

Far from the stereotype of the passive actor being fed his lines by myriad scriptwriters and directors, Reagan was an avid reader of conservative periodicals like Human Events and National Review, as well as of leading theoreticians of the post-World War II conservative movement such as Frank Meyer, William F. Buckley, William Rusher, M. Stanton Evans, and Brent Bozell, among many others. He was also greatly influenced well by the free-market revival powered by such libertarian economists as F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and Milton Friedman.

In three different areas of policy​—​economics, foreign policy, and social issues​—​Reagan was the central protagonist in making conservatism far more populist than it had been earlier. In economics, his embrace of the supply-side insurrection gave conservatives and Republicans a pro-growth agenda rooted in optimism about the willingness of people to respond to economic incentives, whether in the form of lower tax rates or a more stable dollar. Rather than seeing supply side ideas as a replacement for the Taft-Goldwater critique of big government of the 1950s and 1960s, Reagan believed they broadened the case for limited government, providing an explanation of why it works economically.

In foreign policy, Reagan was no less anti-Communist than Barry Goldwater but was more determined to craft a forward strategy for concluding the Cold War in victory for the West. Just as in economics, Reagan brought to U.S. foreign policy a populist optimism about people, in part rooted in his youthful fascination with the Wilson-FDR vision of the United States as an evangelist of global democracy. Against the grain of most left and right elites of his own time, Reagan believed that people all over the world craved self-government just as much as Americans did. This radical optimism fed into such ambitious programs as the Reagan Doctrine and the Strategic Defense Initiative, which served notice on Soviet leaders that they could no longer look on their ideological conquests or military gains as permanent assets.

Breaking from the “realism” of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Reagan delegates demanded adoption of a plank titled “Morality in Foreign Policy” at the 1976 Republican national convention. Over the vehement objections of Kissinger, Ford campaign manager James Baker released the president’s delegates to back the insurgent plank as a means of securing Ford’s tenuous hold on the convention. It then passed without opposition. Ford held on to win the nomination, but the clock on realism had begun ticking more than four years before the start of the Reagan presidency. Culminating in Reagan’s celebrated pro-democracy address to the students of Moscow State University during the successful 1988 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, public advocacy of universal human rights took center stage in what would prove to be a breakthrough decade for U.S. foreign policy.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the greatest of the three challenges facing conservatism in Reagan’s years as an elective politician was the worldwide social and cultural upheaval that erupted in the 1960s, and has continued in one form or another ever since. Certainly it is the issue cluster where the left has been most consistently on the offensive in the politics of the last half century. It has left European conservatism a shadow of its former self, with the richest nations of Europe disintegrating before our eyes. Their churches have emptied and their non-Islamic marriages produce few children when such couples bother to get married at all. A single generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact brought democracy to virtually every country in Europe, voters in those same countries have watched their own political elites cede wide swaths of power to unelected bureaucrats of the European Union in Brussels.

The earliest manifestation of this worldwide social upheaval was militant student unrest beginning in 1964 at the University of California at Berkeley. From the beginning, Reagan’s political rise was intertwined with conservative opposition to this unrest. As much as he was influenced by libertarian economics, there was not a trace of libertarian tolerance in his stance on social disorder. Reagan was elected governor by a million votes in 1966 as a firm exponent of enforcing the rule of law, both on campuses and in response to such upheavals as the massive black rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965. He did so with some success, as did other conservative political leaders in this country and abroad.

But the 1960s upheavals were anything but one-dimensional. In fact, in the wake of the multinational 1968 uprisings in such diverse nations as Mexico, France, and Germany, as well as in the United States after the King assassination, the threat of violent revolution faded, as did the prospect of breakthrough gains for the economics-centered old left. By the end of the 1970s, the left was deemphasizing socialism and returning to its oldest and most authentic roots.

These lay in the turbulent streets of the Paris of the 1790s, the decade when the left first got its name based on the seating location of the Jacobins and their allies in the National Assembly. The Jacobin left was not about ownership of the means of production, but about liberation as a way of returning to what it saw as Rousseau’s vision of Natural Man. This meant, to left politicians like Robes-pierre, liberation not simply from the key political institutions of the Bourbon monarchy and aristocracy, but (far more importantly) from such social institutions as the church and family. These had to be downgraded or discarded because the left’s vision of human freedom tended toward an autonomy that involved zero obligation to other persons.

This is why, given the popular backlash to overt violence by protesters and rioters, the left’s successful line of attack became centered on the sexual revolution. In his first term (1967-71) as governor, Reagan signed bills liberalizing abortion and divorce. These were sold to him and to the California public as reasonable if minor adjustments to overly rigid current law, but it soon became evident that they were part of a fundamental revolution in the status of marriage and the family.

Reagan drew correct conclusions about the nature and agenda of social liberalism. He underwent a conversion experience and became a staunch pro-lifer after Roe v. Wade in 1973. He put the first unabashedly pro-life plank in the Republican platform upon his nomination in 1980​—​the same year that the Democrats’ platform became unequivocally pro-choice. When Reagan picked his chief primary challenger George H.W. Bush as his vice presidential running mate, it was understood as a condition of acceptance that Bush would switch from pro-choice to pro-life. Bush did so and never switched back.

Reagan was also the central figure in welcoming newly militant conservative Christians into the public square. When he did so in a Dallas speech just after his 1984 renomination, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale declared Reagan an “ayatollah.” Between 1976 and 1984, Democratic presidential support levels among evangelical Christians fell from around 60 percent to around 20 percent, according to media-financed exit polling. Reagan also made historic gains among Roman Catholic voters

In Western Europe and Japan, conservative leaders and most other established elites folded before the socio-political onslaught of the sexual revolution. The difference in the United States was not in the reaction of elites, but in the ability of Reagan and of social conservatives to mount a popular counterattack and keep the battle going. It is why the United States today has political polarization, and why Western Europe and Japan do not.

So in all three legs of the conservative stool​—​economics, foreign policy, and social issues​—​Ronald Reagan successfully refashioned American conservatism in a more populist direction. But in itself this does not prove that Reaganism is the basis of a viable, integrated conservatism in 2011. There appears to be no inherent reason, for example, why a supply-side advocate in the domestic economy would have to favor a forward democratic strategy against the rogues’ gallery of dictators and jihadists in today’s post-Cold War world.

A good place to start is to ask how Reagan himself saw the relationship of the three issue clusters. In his 2001 book Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom, Claremont McKenna professor Andrew Busch made a count of how often recent presidents alluded to the American political tradition, centering on the founding. Reagan was far ahead of other elected presidents, mentioning such themes more than three times as often as his runner-up, Lyndon Johnson. (The unelected Gerald Ford mentioned founding-related matters almost as often as Reagan, an accident of his serving 40 percent of his presidency during the Bicentennial of 1976. According to Busch, Ford’s citations were perfunctory and superficial.)

Reagan’s view of the American founding was central to his belief system. To him, American exceptionalism was not something in our mountains and streams. Like Jefferson and Lincoln, he believed that the United States is founded on an idea, the belief that all human beings are created equal, consistent with the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

If you believe this, you cannot be neutral about human rights abroad, any more than about the right of the unborn or the unfree here. Belief in the founding principle of God-given equal rights​—​not as a metaphor or sentiment, but as a reality​—​is the surest predictor of social conservatism in an individual or group. If you believe in that founding principle, you are probably a social conservative. If you don’t, you probably aren’t.

The rise of the Tea Party in the last two years vindicates Reagan’s belief in the founding as the center of American conservatism. The Tea Party’s focus on the size of government and the deficit is not a move away from social conservatism, but will increasingly be understood as a bringing of the normative politics of the founding to a new issue cluster where it belongs.

Social conservatism and the Tea Party, taken together, are making American conservatism less situational or event-driven than before. The Tea Party’s orientation to the values of the founding will keep it militant and robust even if the U.S. economy improves under the liberal stewardship of President Obama. If Obama and his fellow Democratic partisans believe economic improvement will make the Tea Party movement fade or disappear, they are likely to be disappointed.

So are those who believe Reaganism can safely be consigned to the past. It can’t be. The principles of the founding have reemerged at the center of the conservative movement. The vital political force fashioned by Ronald Reagan is alive and well.

Jeffrey Bell, policy director of the American Principles Project and author of a forthcoming book on social conservatism, was an issue adviser to the Reagan campaigns of 1976 and 1980.

Next Page