The Magazine

The Future of Reaganism

Why American conservatism is alive and well in the 21st century.

Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By JEFFREY BELL
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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.

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