In yesterday's Financial Times, Gideon Rachman writes that Ronald Reagan "debased" traditional conservatism because
Traditional conservatives disdain populism and respect knowledge. They believe in balancing the government’s books. And they are pragmatists who are suspicious of ideology.
Reagan, in Rachman's view, propagated the "cult of the idiot savant (the wise fool)," took the GOP away from "fiscal responsibility" by embracing tax cuts, and encouraged the idea that "a successful foreign policy is a rigid distinction between good and evil, and a strong military." Reagan may have been "a successful president," Rachman admits, but he "left behind a poisonous legacy for the conservative movement." Liberal bugbear Sarah Palin is the consequence.
There's a weird, anachronistic quality to Rachman's column -- it feels very January 2009. News alert: Conservatism is not in bad shape! Pew: "What's really exceptional at this stage of Obama's presidency is the extent to which the public has moved in a conservative direction on a range of issues." A bad economy is part of the reason, but not the whole reason, that Republicans have a narrow lead in the generic ballot. The public is split on Obama. It rejects the health care bill and the bailouts and cap-and-trade and much else. The Tea Party movement has energized the grassroots and is forcing the GOP to deal with its spending problem. Conservatives are enthusiastic -- maybe too enthusiastic. At last week's health care reform summit, conservatives and Republicans showed the public that they have plenty of ideas on reforming health care markets by encouraging competition, choice, and innovation. The public may not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president. But that has not stopped them from electing politicians in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts who basically agree with her politics.
Nevertheless, Rachman has a point when he says Reagan was not a traditional conservative. He wasn't. Where traditional conservatism looked backward, Reagan looked forward, to the shining city on a hill. Where traditional conservatism was reactive, Reagan made it proactive by embracing cuts to marginal tax rates and the Strategic Defense Initiative. Where traditional conservatism was elitist -- a better word might be, aristocratic -- Reagan was a populist who dared to say that sometimes the experts are wrong. These were the principles that made him the most successful president of the second half of the twentieth century. Why wouldn't conservatives and Republicans want to emulate them?
Do not take my word for it. Listen to Irving Kristol. This is from his 1995 essay "America's 'Exceptional Conservatism'":
The United States today shares all of the evils, all of the problems, to be found among the Western democracies—and sometimes in an exaggerated form. But it is also the case that the United States today is the only Western democracy that is witnessing a serious conservative revival that is an active response to these evils and problems. The further fact that it is a populist conservatism dismays the conservative elites of Britain and Western Europe, who prefer a more orderly and dignified kind of conservatism—which, in actuality, always turns out to be a defensive and therefore enfeebled conservatism. It is certainly true that any kind of populism can be a danger to our democratic orders. But it is also true that populism can be a corrective to the defects of democratic orders—defects often arising from the intellectual influence, and the skillful entrepreneurial politics, of our democratic elites. Classical political theory was wary of democracy because it saw the people as fickle, envious, and inherently turbulent. Those thinkers had no knowledge of democracies where the people were conservative and the educated elites that governed them were ideological elites, always busy provoking disorder and discontent so as to achieve some utopian goal.
And this is exactly the sort of democracy where we live today.