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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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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.

The Future of Reaganism

David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images

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.

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