Lee Edwards has a piece out today in the Heritage Foundation’s profoundly conservative publication, The Daily Signal, on the politics of the 1976 Republican presidential nominating convention- the last critically contested GOP nominating contest in recent history. (The other major showdown was in 1964, between Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater.)
Edwards discusses the delegate math and candidate drama, and cuts off with a typical conservative flourish of praise for Reagan Christ. The whole piece is meant, it seems, as a reminder that even if Heritage’s favored son, Ted Cruz, doesn’t receive the nomination this year, the conservative dawn is yet to come- the faithful should not yet give up hope. Reagan himself, back in 1976, captured the apocalyptic gravity of the moment, as Edwards notes:
“Reagan gave a rapt convention and tens of millions of viewers a taste of what they would have heard if he had been nominated. Without notes or a teleprompter, he speculated how Americans 100 years from now would look back at this time.
Would they say, “Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom; who kept us now a hundred years later free; who kept our world from nuclear destruction?” This was this generation’s challenge, Reagan declared. “Whether [the Americans of 2076] have the freedom that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.””
I admire Reagan as a man, as a pragmatic governing figure, and as a President, and I don’t doubt his sincerity to the cause of America. In other analyses, I’ve written that he led the Third Populist Reformation of American history, restoring the public’s faith in the institutions of the Republic and in their government. For that, all Americans of all political stripes must thank Reagan and his legacy.
That said, I really don’t like what he did to the conservative movement- he pulled it further to the right on economics and social issues and foreign policy, he legitimated the Southern Right’s cultural bigotry, he canonized himself as the ideological standard against which all subsequent conservative politicians must measure themselves if they are to out-Reagan each other, and he ultimately de-intellectualized and democratized the movement’s nature- which, as Tocqueville’s study of democracy teaches us, made it that much more difficult for ideological minorities to exist against the conformist nature of the general will.
Perhaps the most annoying bit of it is this: as the quote above demonstrated, Reagan’s (admittedly beautiful and moving) rhetoric enshrined forever the tendency for movement conservatives to cast policy discussions as a battle between “liberty” and “big government.” The enemy was not just Communism, not just foreign tyranny; it became a lurking, insidious tyranny here at home, looming just beneath the bureaucratic offices in DC and revealing itself in expansions of government power like the imposition of environmental standards and the provision of wage subsidies and insurance plans.
Now, I don’t like “big government” much either, and I think we’re at a point in American history where the federal government is much too big, much too bulky, and much too inefficient to adequately carry out its responsibilities to the American people. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued, the New Deal’s simplistic transfer payments model was good; the Great Society’s micro-level social engineering was too much.
I also think there are important points to be made in the fact that welfare dependency wrought by misguided anti-poverty programs leads to ineptitude and the end of true responsible liberty for those suffering from it; that suffocating regulations, unaccountable bureaucrats, and expanded power for favored classes leads to abuses of power, which is inimical to liberty; and that centralized decision-making in DC takes away the power of citizens in states and localities, which hurts the propensity for self-governance, which is harmful to liberty.
Most conservatives would probably agree with the above three points of mine, and in that sense we’re in agreement: that big, inefficient, unaccountable government bureaucracies chip away at liberty and, theoretically, could eventually lead to a permanent managerial-bureaucratic oligarchy like that America originally broke away from.
But conservatives, up to and including Reagan himself, do not argue against these relatively unsexy splittings of hairs as the main ways “big government” takes away liberty. They do not seek to reform government and curb its excesses. No, they argue against modern post-New Deal Government itself! They long for a laissez-faire “small-government” world not unlike that of the late 19th Century. They do not accept that the basic functions of the New Deal state are legitimate and simply overextended- the ideologically pure among them argue, rather, that the basic institutions of the New Deal are the problem. Here’s conservative John the Baptist figure Barry Goldwater:
“I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is “needed” before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ “interests,” I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”
Granted, most Republican voters don’t believe this stuff. They like their Social Security and Medicare benefits too much, and don’t want to see them taken away. But the conservative intelligentsia do- from the National Review conservatives who want a “liberty-oriented” deregulated laissez-faire economy, like Jonah Goldberg and Kevin Williamson, even to the further right-leaning “Reformocons” who prefer private-sector replacements to government programs over public-private collaboration and responsible government.
But don’t take my word for it- listen to Irving Kristol, the godfather of pro-New Deal neoconservatism himself, turning around and denouncing New Deal Liberalism at the end of his career:
“But what began to concern me more and more were the clear signs of rot and decadence germinating within American society–a rot and decadence that was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism. And the more contemporary, the more candid and radical was this agenda.
No–liberals were wrong, liberals are wrong, because they are liberals. what is wrong with liberalism is liberalism–a metaphysics and a mythology that is woefully blind to human and political reality.
So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other. “
I think Kristol’s right about the “moral anarchy” of post-1968 liberalism, but that is certainly not the spirit that moved the New Dealers. Nor was “collectivism” their means or their end- Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Bernard Baruch, and all the rest meant to save capitalism by reforming it and curbing its excesses while promoting its efficiency. They didn’t seek to create a federal leviathan- the federal leviathan was a byproduct of the regulatory state the reformers made, and each and every one of them up until Richard Nixon sought to reorganize and reform that state in the interests of efficiency, prosperity, and “liberty.” Even Lyndon Johnson was an experimenter, not a nefarious Communist sympathizer.
Reagan contributed to the view of government as the problem when he quite literally said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” I’m sure he didn’t mean that as literally as his heirs have taken it, but in any case, by uttering those words, Reagan enshrined a fundamentally anti-government aphorism in movement conservatism’s holy writ, and will be forever parroted so long as that movement exists in any form.
Here’s a clip from another speech of Reagan’s, “A Time For Choosing,” which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful bits of American oratory in the last half-century, though I disagree with it.
“Now it doesn’t require expropriation or confiscation of private property or business to impose socialism on a people. What does it mean whether you hold the deed to the—or the title to your business or property if the government holds the power of life and death over that business or property? And such machinery already exists. The government can find some charge to bring against any concern it chooses to prosecute. Every businessman has his own tale of harassment. Somewhere a perversion has taken place. Our natural, unalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment. “
Now the interesting thing to note about this speech is that Reagan directly compares the “collectivism” of the Democratic New Deal and Great Society with the Soviet Communism that poses such an existential threat to American liberty.
That’s right. The enemy is not just overseas; the enemy is right here at home, in our own government. Communists have taken over DC. The New Deal is no more pro-freedom than the Great Leap Forward.
The thinking behind this forged and continues to influence the modern conservative movement.
Granted, we no longer have a collectivist enemy abroad- the Chinese and Russians having long since converted to reasonably capitalist systems (thanks in part to the statecraft of such moderate Republicans as Nixon, Kissinger, Daddy Bush, and Scowcroft). But these sentiments- that freedom is in danger at home- animate the sentiments of movement conservatives everywhere, even as those movement conservatives would be loathe to lose their government-provided or insured pensions and healthcare. And those sentiments occasionally make their way into the speeches of major conservative politicians. Just look at the ideological opposition to anything and everything President Obama’s done.
Now, if the Trump movement has any virtue, it’s this- it has left behind the government conspiracy ideas in favor of class conspiracy ideas, which are probably more accurate. To Trump voters, the New Deal state is a bloated, bumbling, inefficient piece of machinery that overregulates and overtaxes, but if the right people (i.e., Trump) were placed in it, they could make it work better for “the people.” This is relatively akin to the American majority’s view of the state throughout much of American history, though it’s true that there have always been movements and pockets of anti-government types professing a truly libertarian ideology.
And as Michael Lind argued yesterday, Trumpism is very likely going to be the future of the Republican Party. Hopefully reformist, opportunistic statesmen can moderate it and soften it around the edges, ditching the nativism and latent racism it involves, preserving the economic nationalism and pro-government activism it entails. Hopefully the language of government versus liberty gives way to the language of competent people and “losers.” It’s weird to think about it, but who knows- perhaps after Trump recedes from the stage and someone trying to win over his voters softens his or her hostility to government action, we’ll get a Republicanism- perhaps even a conservatism- that is more interested in making government work than in pushing it back in the interests of “liberty.”
Now wouldn’t that be something? Donald Trump, crude and vulgar though he is, as the direct precipitant of a more responsible governing conservatism.
We shall see.