Making Progress?

reagan grave

Writing on the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s death, the NY Times columnist David Brooks articulated the roots of Reagan’s success in as accurate and succinct a way as I’ve seen.  Reagan “revolutionized” American conservatism insofar as he transformed it from what had been a disposition to defend tradition and custom – and thus one with an orientation toward the past – to a movement motivated by a deeply optimistic belief in progress – and thus, marked by an upbeat view about the future and America’s providential role in advancing progress.  As Brooks wrote,

To understand the intellectual content of Reagan’s optimism, start with American conservatism before Reagan. It was largely a movement of disenfranchised thinkers who placed great emphasis on human frailty and sin, the limitations of what we can know, and the tragic nature of history.

Conservatives felt that events were moving in the wrong direction and that the American spiritual catastrophe was growing ever worse. Whittaker Chambers observed that when he left communism and joined the democratic camp, he was joining the losing side of history. In his influential book ”Ideas Have Consequences,” Richard Weaver argued that American society was in the midst of ”a fearful descent.” To describe modern life, the leading conservative thinker Russell Kirk used words like barrenness, sterility, inanity, hideousness, vulgarity, sensationalism and deformity.

Conservatives looked back sadly to customs and institutions that were being eroded. What was needed, many argued, was a restoration of stability. ”The recovery of order in the soul and order in society is the first necessity of this century,” Kirk argued.

Reagan agreed with these old conservatives about communism and other things. But he transformed their movement from a past- and loss-oriented movement to a future- and possibility-oriented one, based on a certain idea about America. As early as 1952 during a commencement address at William Woods College in Missouri, Reagan argued, ”I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.”

Reagan described America as a driving force through history, leading to the empire of liberty. He seemed to regard freedom’s triumph as a historical inevitability. He couldn’t look at mainstream American culture as anything other than the delightful emanation of this venture. He could never feel alienated from middle American life, or see it succumbing to a spiritual catastrophe….

Unlike earlier conservatives, he had a boyish faith in science and technology (Star Wars). He embraced immigration, and preferred striving to stability. On the economic front, he inspired writers like George Gilder, Warren T. Brookes and Julian Simon, who rhapsodized about entrepreneurialism and wealth creation.

Perhaps among the most revealing things about Reagan – and modern American “conservatism,” for that matter – is that Reagan frequently quoted from his “favorite” Founding Father, Thomas Paine, and in particular, Paine’s line “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”  Paine - an eventual supporter of the French Revolution - was, of course a bete noir and chief critic of Edmund Burke, widely considered (correctly) to be the founding voice of modern conservatism.  What does it say of anything calling itself “conservatism” when a main source of inspiration is a thinker that exhibited a Gnostic hatred for the world?

Also revealing is Reagan’s epitaph.  The first line on Reagan’s California grave reads “I know in my heart that man is good.”  A conception of human sin, fallenness, and the propensity for evil – what historically might be considered to be  a defining feature of a conservative disposition is wholly absent in these few words meant to sum up Reagan’s life and legacy.  Such a form of “conservatism” bears little fundamental difference to the transformational optimism that has always marked Progressivism – the belief in the Gnostic possibility of human perfectibility ranging from such thinkers as Condorcet to Comte, Mill to Dewey, Emerson to Rorty.

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