A half-forgotten exchange of letters between two titans of the Republican party, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, contains an urgent lesson for the presidential candidates who will debate at the Reagan Library on Wednesday: Tell the country that you will be the president of all Americans, and will represent no one group in particular.
This message-in-a-bottle from Ike and the Gipper comes straight from the 1960s, but it holds important lessons for our own time.
In July 1966, former President Eisenhower took an interest in Reagan’s candidacy for governor of California and, through the intermediary of a mutual friend, decided to write talking points for the conservative former actor. At one point in the typed letter, which can be found at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, Ike suggested that “at the first major press conference” Reagan should express the following:
“In this campaign I’ve been presenting to the public some of the things I want to do for California – meaning for all the people of our State. I do not exclude any citizen from my concern and I make no distinctions among them on such invalid bases as color or creed.”
Ike went on to write that
“something conveying this meaning might well be slipped into every talk – such as ‘There are no ‘minority’ groups so far as I’m concerned. We are all Americans.”
There are literally hundreds of ways for expressing the same idea.”
Reagan answered in longhand a few days later. He thanked Ike for his “very sound advice and suggestions – some of which are already being put into action.”
“I am in complete agreement about dropping the hyphens that presently divide us into minority groups,” Reagan continued, “I’m convinced this ‘hyphenating’ was done by our opponents to create voting blocks for political expediency. Our party should strive to change this – one is not an Irish-American for example but is instead an American of Irish descent.”
At the time of the Eisenhower-Reagan exchange, today’s noxious mix of identity politics, adversarial multiculturalism, and political correctness was only in its infancy. It was just then coming into fashion on campuses and in the circles of the New Left run by cultural Marxists like Herbert Marcuse.
Building on the theories of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, the New Left argued that─even more than class─America was divided along racial, ethnic, and gender lines into a dominant group (white males) and “marginalized” groups (ethnic, racial, linguistic, and sexual minorities). The goal of politics should be first to “de-legitimize” the ideas of the American system and second, to transfer power from the dominant group to the “oppressed” groups, they argued.
Today, this perverse form of Balkanization, which places Americans into various identity group boxes in employment, education, law, and culture pervades the academy, government, media, and political life. It is even codified in the official U.S. Census.
Yet almost 50 years ago, Eisenhower and Reagan immediately and instinctively knew that this embryonic identity politics was a direct challenge to the universalism that America stands for. Beneath their smiles and Midwestern amiability, Ike and the Gipper revealed a deep understanding and sophistication of what political philosophers would call “regime maintenance.” That is, the ideas and values are necessary to sustain the American way of life.
Without using sociological terminology, Eisenhower and Reagan knew that an emphasis on one’s race, ethnicity, and gender group highlighted his “ascribed status,” i.e. what a person was born into, rather than the “achieved status” that an American earns as an individual. They knew that there was something “old world” and frankly un-American about emphasizing birth status and dividing our citizens into competing ethnic, racial, and gender groups.
In other words, five decades ago, they understood identity politics for it was: an attempt to de-legitimize American constitutional democracy.