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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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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.

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