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.

Thus, I found it surprising over the weekend to read the concluding call in Steven Hayward’s fine essay in the Washington Post for conservatives to engage in a deeper and more sustained critique of progressivism Hayward is the author of an impressive new hagiographic book entitled The Age of Reagan (recently discussed, among other places, in Ross Douthat’s column), and worked under Reagan during the years of his Presidency.  He knows as well as anyone that one of the distinctive features of modern conservatism, born in the image of Reagan, is its grand transformation into the party of Progress – and no longer (to use Emerson’s categories) the party of Memory.   (Personal aside:  Steve and I have a Simon-Ehrlichesque friendly wager that oil will cost over $75 a barrel on June 2, 2011.  I like my chances, and fully expect to enjoy a nice and really expensive locally-produced dinner on Steve’s tab.  I should have added a small side bet on the price of gold).

Hayward concludes his reflection on the current lamentable intellectual state of conservatism thusly:  “The single largest defect of modern conservatism, in my mind, is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level, in particular over the meaning and nature of progress. In response to the left’s belief in political solutions for everything, the right must do better than merely invoking ‘markets’ and ‘liberty.'”

Sign me up.  But here is the rub:  how can any of the leaders of contemporary conservatism legitimately launch a critique of progressivism when so much of modern American conservatism is defined by the sunny brand of optimism launched by Reagan, and continued today by the likes of Newt, Mitt, and Sarah?  Where is the harrowing self-examination in conservatism’s complicity in what can only be regarded as the massive defeat of most recognizable core beliefs and commitments of a conservative disposition over the past thirty years, often of Republican party ascendancy?   Have we strengthened our communities?  Have localities gained more opportunity and capacity for self-rule, with power devolving from the center to the peripheries?  Have we enacted robust forms of subsidiarity?  Are families at the heart of our personal and national commitments?  Have ideals of morality and virtuous character been maintained, much less been strengthened?  Have religious commitments deepened, and in particular, provided strong resources against a dominant culture of hedonism and materialism?  Have our schools and universities aided in supporting these and similar commitments?

Or, can it be any surprise that a modern “conservative” movement that took Paine’s belief that “we have it in our power to make the world over” culminated some thirty years later in an economic collapse that was precipitated in the belief that we were no longer to be governed by limits over our wants and wills?  That we became engaged in a set of nation-building wars that were premised upon the stated belief that “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” (GWB Second Inaugural).   Can various recent catastrophes, foreign and domestic, not be attributable to the very belief among conservatives (not to mention liberals) that we “have it in our power to make the world over,” including the elimination of limits and the belief that we could eradicate original sin?

If “conservatism” over the past thirty years has achieved anything, it has been the evisceration of older virtues such as thrift, moderation, self-sacrifice and a certain stoicism that might have prevented broad swaths of the population from gorging themselves in a credit fiasco generated in the belief that we could forever have something for n0 money down.  It has been in the forefront of efforts in the international realm to remake the world in our own image, a neo-liberal paradise of hedonic-based markets, the wanton exploitation of nature, and the destruction of those communities and cultures of stability and continuity that provide not only “family values,” but the proper understanding of what constitutes living well.  The progressive John Dewey argued that the aim of all life was “growth”; have conservatives, so-called, argued otherwise?  Or are we all now partisans of a process that can only be said to culminate in cancer?

Hayward says a mouthful in his concluding sentences, but one wonders if he really knows what it would mean seriously  to begin to question the “liberal” commitment to progressivism, and whether he (and others) are willing first to look at the logs in their own eyes before they pluck out the speck in the eyes of their brothers.   If modern “conservatism” really wants to discover where it went wrong, it could do worse than picking up a few volumes by those thinkers that Reagan and others discarded – such as Kirk, Weaver, and Nisbet, among others – and, by all means, easing their Paine.

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  1. Mr. Deneen, this is an overdue and much-needed piece. I will be forwarding the link to every conservative I know.

  2. You fail to make the necessary distinction between Optimism and Progressivism.

    The core belief for Progressives is that progress is inevitable, and (since progress requires change) so any change will eventually and inevitably lead to progress — hence, change is good in and of itself.

    Those who call themselves conservative believe that change can (and probably will) lead to degeneration just as easily (if not more easily) than progress, and hence are deeply suspicious of it.

    This is not the same thing, however, as believing that change must necessarily lead to degeneration, which is how you appear to be characterizing conservatism.

    Reagan (and other optimistic conservatives) believe that it is possible to get progress from change, if that change is rightly guided, and so they differ from the Gloomy Guses (like Pat Buchanan) who appear to believe that progress is practically impossible and so change needs to be resisted whenever detected.

    This distinction is key, and needs to be kept always in mind.

  3. PD: If I recall correctly, you raised the question over at What I Saw in America of whether it is time to find a new word to replace “conservative,” which, as this post implies, is pretty much a useless term now. When we don’t “habituate ourselves to a strict accuracy of expression,” as Colerige put it, we desertify the language and prepare a catastrophe–for ourselves and for those who follow. Flannery O’Connor bristled at the phrase “Christian novelist” because, by her lights, “Christian” was no longer a reliable word. And she was right. Even “church” is an unreliable word. (It means anyone with an electric guitar, a belief in the afterlife, and John 3:16 committed to memory.) The same could be said, I suppose, for “conservative.”

  4. Tim of Angle,

    If there is a distinction between progressives and “optimists” as you have stated the problem, then it’s a distinction without difference. Progressives also believe that change must be “rightly guided” so that progress is the result – rightly guided by them, why else do they seek political power?

  5. Jason, I think that’s a hallmark of the modern age – the debasement of language. No one has any respect for the Truth, so words are routinely twisted to suit whatever meaning is expedient at the time of utterance, so now no one can trust whether a church is a church, a conservative a conservative, and so forth.

    One sees it a lot in the Church. For example, people who are raging opponents of orthodox belief nevertheless say the Creed, they simply assume different meanings to the words therein and so reconcile it to their heterodoxy. Twisting the language is a favorite tool in subverting institutions and societies – substitute different meanings for the words in creeds, laws and so forth and you can eventually turn an institution on its head with hardly anyone noticing. How can we reclaim the language under such conditions?

  6. Peters,
    Yes, I had discussed a change of name (and perhaps concept), over at WISIA, here: A major problem of American conservatism is that it necessarily seeks to conserve liberalism, which is inherently an un-conservative regime. It’s always amusing to watch conservatives praise without reservation the Declaration of Independence, a document justifing revolution based on a universalist conception of rights. It should at least be the object of some discomfort for conservatives, even if there is much to admire in that document and what it defended.

    Tim of Angle, there is indeed an enormous amount of weight being borne by the idea of change being “rightly guided” (as Steve K. points out). Who is to properly guide the change? Aren’t many conservatives fearful of the heavy hand of government – particularly in the market, where much of modern change is generated? Isn’t the valorization of the market, in fact, the fervent embrace of unguided change by many so-called conservatives? I see little evidence among most mainstream conservatives evincing thought over the best way to restrain the pace and guide the direction of change, at least as far as the market is concerned. An unwillingness to do so means that conservatives can continue to expect to lose most of the battles over which they DO want to exercise some control (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, etc.). Liberalism has always been based on the belief – borne out in practice – that liberalization follows the ability of the market to eviscerate the restraints of custom and tradition. One need simply read the true paragraphs that open Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” to understand the true power and logic of the market’s corrosive effects. And I say that (note to Peter Lawler) without wanting to endorse most of what Marx otherwise wrote.

  7. A weaker dollar is on your side, Dr. Deneen, but economic recession and depression make oil cheaper. Tricky, tricky. Good luck!

  8. Ronald Reagan, or St. Reagan as he is regarded among “conservatives.” laid the groundwork for the current state of affairs. It was “morning in America” then, but now it is twilight, and soon there may be mourning in America.

  9. Albert,
    Yes, my prospects in this wager depend entirely whether we are at that moment in the throes of wrenching deflation or harrowing inflation. My only real confidence is that it will be one or the other.

  10. Pat, you’re spot on in your critique of RR. However, we may be served to speculate on the what-might-have-been had RR not been elected in 1980.
    I remember all those things the Marxists Democrats did for us: 19% inflation, 9% unemployment, 20% interest, American presidents wetting their pants in fear of the invincible Soviet goliath, the American ‘malaise’, shipping entire industries overseas starting right after WW II, NAFTA, GATT, racism, corruption, punishing taxation, economic stagnation, Korea-52,000 dead, Vietnam-55,000 dead. I remember that no one thought the Democrats could be thrown out of office; too many owing their existence to the state, but it happened! Reagan, with the flaws you’ve pointed out, gave some of us the hope that these statists could be thwarted, that we might have a chance to recover the republic.
    And, if it hadn’t happened, Arben (I love you, dude) would have had his socialist utopia ten years ago (as it is, he’ll have to wait until BO’s done wrecking the country).
    So, while I do agree, intellectually, with your analysis, it is my hope that RR’s presidency represents the beginning of the American turn around, where the movement toward statism is stopped and the principles of the republic recovered.

  11. Bob,
    Maybe the truth of “conservatism” is that – in a “progressive” era – it can only seek the goal of making things less worse than they otherwise might have been. If so, then conservatism is a long-term losing proposition to the extent that it implicitly accepts the basic presuppositions of the modern liberal order. I’m more disposed than ever to jettison the term, since it is, at base, relativistic: it seeks to conserve something at a particular moment, but that may be (e.g. the present moment) a fundamentally decadent economic and political system. There should be instead a devotion to human things based in human nature, which may call upon us to be far more “radical” than “conservative.” Then we might congratulate ourselves for cultivating something admirable (as you call for at the end of your comment), rather than for preventing things from being worse than they otherwise would have been.

  12. These days, what conservatism conserves is any gov’t program more than 10 years old, especially if it is connected with a large voting block. Hence, they present themselves as defenders of Social Security, or Medicare, of gov’t subsidies of every sort and type.

  13. I think a strong case can be made for conservatism to preserve core values of our civilization, especially in the face of the huge numbers of immigrants, mostly illegal, from cultures with very different values, language, etc., and statist-Marxist-Bolshevist leanings that the Left ever represents in changing guises.

    Conservatives are much more likely than liberals/progressives to speak of the tragic nature of human endeavors, that man is not infinitely prefectable, and that things go awry, in any event. You could call this a “Shakespearean conservatism.” The one thing that will survive the times we are living in is basic human values, which are reflected in world literature. We are again living in historical times. Even liberals sense this and produce movies like National Treasure, which however faulty in their use of history, nonetheless evoke the resonanse of historical sources, tokens and voices.

  14. Conservatism is dead. You don’t mention it here, but you’ve said it a thousand times: Our urban policy is killing conservatism, particularly our lack of one. You cannot execute collective interests without the collective, and the present project of conservatives is to burnish all collective interests so that we can thrive as the autonomous self. If you look at the hagiography of Reagan, a good portion of it is his ranch. Likewise, GW Bush had his ranch. Palin had her McMansion in suburban Anchorage. Comparatively, Obama was mocked for living in Chicago and for being a “community organizer” in the same city.

  15. Don’t you just notice how the conservative rich usually turn themselves into outcasts living as far apart, or isolated, from ordinary folk as they can? Don’t you just wonder why in comparison to our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

  16. Cheeks,
    Ronald Reagan was far from a turnaround…he was the start of the longest running Bait and Switch in American history. The unabated growth of government and nation building accelerated during his tenure. Though one cannot blame the flummoxed citizen. If you want a reason why the populace was seduced by Reagan’s sunny optimism, watch the blackly amusing movie Taxi Driver and it will become readily apparent. Reagan was a populist progressive. He cut his teeth as a democrat and labor organizer and was a member of the West’s long-standing cult of the striver. He was no “conservative ” even though he was part of the “just say no”, “family values” movement that had seen quite enough libertinism from 1955-1980. His presidency finished the gutting of the conservative cause begun by Nixon but we don’t need to remind anyone that we were in the midst of the Cold War. Bush Sr., freed of the Cold War constraints is the official executioner of the Conservative Cause and champion of aggressive international arms meddling while his loutish son ably trotted the zombie out , brought forth during incantations and seance during the Clinton years and he once again killed the beast that will not die …and the undead is still busily accepting checks from bundled sources in sleek conference rooms.

    Still though, Reagan’s meetings with Gorbachev were epic and the man reckoned with his tidily held presumptions, altered his personal outlook and worked in an earnest manner to end the Cold War and this effort alone…his brilliant stage craft at Iceland and his ability to treat openly with those he had reviled…to disarm them with an essential humanity….this was a level of statesmanship that is not to be gone unnoticed nor withheld from due honor.

    Instead of discussing “conservative” vs. “liberal” politics in the current atmosphere of appearances rule politics, one might better serve their time by reading “Alice in Wonderland”.

  17. Come now Smith and M.Z., do you actually believe the fat cats of the democrat party do not enjoy their tony dachas in the scenic countryside? Please. Do you also think they give a simple rats ass about our Urban areas? If you do, please send $25 to Dirty Dicks Patient Homilies of Everlasting Optimism @ P.O. Box 666, Oxford, Ct. and ye shall be sent a morning prayer from Stuart Smalley entitled “Thinking Good Thoughts is Good Enough For Me”.

  18. Rather than play ephemeral games, let’s look at the literature. The plain truth is that “liberals” have been writing endlessly about urban policy. The only ideas around urban policy right now are on the left.

  19. M.Z., Policy Writing is itself an ephemeral game to a degree and while the progressives/liberals indeed outpace the conservatives in that particular department, one wonders to what benefit, in the end. The 60’s and 70’s were a hay day of policy writing and the urban areas of that period were an unmitigated disaster. Urban vitality may, under some circumstances be improved by the policy inventions of your so called “collective” but it is economic activity and lowered crime (to a degree they go hand in hand) that really do the job. Neither party is doing anything truly productive in this realm. In fact, they are both complicit in the wholesale transference of our industrial base off-shore and the surrender of our economy to financialization’s chief indiscretion: debt as commodity.

    This is not to say that “policy writing” is in itself a bad thing. It is to say that expecting the policy notions of a “collective” to keep the population of a town from penury is a proven farrago. High hopes and best intentions do not an entrepot make. Bridgeport , Ct., the recipient of thousands of pages of ‘policy making” remains a sink of moribund decline because the fundamental economic life that is the basis of any city is dysfunctional and heavily weighted….somewhere in the vicinity of 60% to “non-profit public assistance…the front lines of “policy-making”.

  20. “Where is the harrowing self-examination in conservatism’s complicity in what can only be regarded as the massive defeat of most recognizable core beliefs and commitments of a conservative disposition over the past thirty years, often of Republican party ascendancy? Have we strengthened our communities? Have localities gained more opportunity and capacity for self-rule, with power devolving from the center to the peripheries? Have we enacted robust forms of subsidiarity? Are families at the heart of our personal and national commitments? Have ideals of morality and virtuous character been maintained, much less been strengthened? Have religious commitments deepened, and in particular, provided strong resources against a dominant culture of hedonism and materialism? Have our schools and universities aided in supporting these and similar commitments?”

    These are certainly important questions to ask, and I would generally assert that the answer should be “No” in almost every case. That being said, it is difficult to answer these questions as long as the terms employed remain theoretical. While this is not as much a problem when asking whether commitments to faith and family have become stronger or weaker, it becomes more problematic when asking questions about community. “Community” itself is an abstraction and, where it does exist, its members rarely see themselves as acting “communally” as much as they see themselves as acting “naturally”. Because of this, in relation to the state, it would seem that the weakening of communities issues from the state’s actions on specific occasions rather than through general actions; the Amish constitute a strong and self-conscious community, but few begrudge them their communal habits. It is the communities that incite controversy, such as Jim Jones’s Jonestown, that come into direct conflict with the state. I know that this is the sort of community to which your post refers, but the main point is that when we ask whether “we have strengthened communities” discussing “communities” abstractly won’t do, for we need to determine in what the contemporary community consists, whether or not this or that community is worth strengthening and how it should best be strengthened.

    Another problem seems to me that the conservative ideals which you offer up–faith, family, community–are assumed to be consistent; but this is not always the case. Christianity, for instance, is cosmopolitan rather than communal and interpersonal rather than familial. It was not Karl Marx who said “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me”. It is true that stronger families, particularly those with a historical awareness, tend to make for a stronger state, but the family is also–at times–a competitor for loyalty that can endanger the very existence of the state. (One example of this materialized during the near-civil war in Iraq when blood feuds lead to parliamentary stagnation.)

    I would say that the conclusion one should draw from this is that there is no perfect hierarchy of virtues to a conservative order; only a balance which always addresses itself to an unchanging human nature but also is informed by the fact that this unchanging nature is constantly altering in reference to an evolving world.

  21. Dear Patrick,

    The questioning of Reagan’s conservatism, or rather, the meaning of Reagan’s ascent and legacy, has been reasonably well formulated a few times in the last couple years; Gamble’s piece in “The American Conservative” was nice, for instance. But yours gives us the fundamental set of questions necessary to outline both a critique of Reagan and to chart a course forward (temporally) and backward (to our true roots).

    As for the term “conservatism,” what happened to that fine compound word of Beer/Kauffman vintage — “Reactionary Radicals”?

    I suppose if we all start calling ourselves Reactionary Radical Distributist Traditionalists we shall wind up even farther on the margins of contemporary debate than we already are. If, I mean, such is possible.

    I used to summarize my politics by saying simply, “I am a Catholic.” That no longer says much, and I had thought “Conservative Catholic” might clarify by ensuring no one mistook me for the Jesuit “educated.” Maybe I’ll add “Papist” to the above multi-part epithet and call it a day.

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