Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Lowry on Diggins on Reagan

NR’s Rich Lowry reviews John Patrick Diggins’ book on RWR, last noted here, when George F. Will sermonized on its basis.

Lowry gets the consistency in Reagan’s approach to the USSR, well-documented here, with a sample here. But for me this is the most interesting and problematical part of Lowry’s review:

True enough, in a way. It has often been remarked that America doesn’t have a European-style conservative tradition, devoted to defending the prerogatives of an established church or aristocracy. American conservatives like Reagan have always sought instead to conserve the habits and institutions of classical liberalism. And yet, in the contemporary context, Reagan’s anti-statism — no matter how hopeful and optimistic its packaging — made him unmistakably a conservative.


Diggins seems blinded by Reagan’s sunniness, which, in this interpretation, was not just a matter of temperament, but reflective of a deep philosophical and religious conviction. Reagan, Diggins maintains, sought to rid “America of a God of judgment and punishment.” This is absurd. Reagan had a charitable view of human nature and a relaxed, nonjudgmental air, but there is no denying his deeply felt social conservatism. He wrote — as a sitting president, no less — the anti-abortion tract “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.”

Does Lowry understand how fraught with tension a conservativism that takes its orientation from the (ultimately "progressive") "habits and institutions of classical liberalism" is? And how "anti-statism" is hardly a proxy for conservatism, unless you think that that classical liberalism suffices as a definition of conservatism? I can’t tell if Lowry wants to explain (away) Reagan’s optimism as a matter of "temperament," in which case "a charitable view of human nature and a relaxed nonjudgmental air" amount to personality traits, rather than important bases of a well-thought out (or at least semi-coherent) position. They may be no more than characterological reflexes, which at least frees us from having to puzzle out their systematic connection with the rest of RWR’s thought. Or they may be more intimately connected with Reagan’s particular "fusion," in which case we may have to take seriously the ways in which his conservatism isn’t (and can’t be) thoroughgoing.

In either case, Reagan may not be a workable model for contemporary conservatives, either because his disposition is hard, if not impossible, to duplicate, or because his position isn’t altogether coherent. Does Reagan demonstrate the impossibility of a genuinely American "genuine conservatism"?

A penny for everyone’s thoughts.

Discussions - 9 Comments

Reagan’s optimism is perfectly consistent with a conservative view of society. Conservatives believe that a society will tend to work things out for itself, provided there is also a healthy culture, if the state doesn’t overwhelm that society. In Reagan’s time, underneath the counterculture veneer, American culture remained largely healthy. That is probably no longer the case. But the fact that RR’s optimism may no longer be appropriate for conservatives doesn’t alter the fact that it was OK 20 to 40 years ago.

Lowry’s essay, however, is not an adequate answer to Diggins. Reagan’s opposition to abortion is not sufficient evidence of social conservatism. Indeed, one can be a social liberal and oppose abortion 100 percent. One can also be a social conservative and believe it should be largely legal. (One cannot be a social conservative and think abortion is not a serious moral problem, but that’s different.) Diggins refers snidely to RR’s actions against social disorder as governor of California. Lowry should have taken a leaf from Matthew Dallek’s instructive book about RR’s 1966 campaign, "The Right Moment." Dallek correctly states that this campaign, "the real Reagan revolution," began as a debate about retaking control of a society in chaos. He correctly adds that Reaganism, more generally speaking, is as much about social order as it is about the free market.

Just step back a minute, and ask yourself how ridiculous Reagan himself would have found all this hand wringing about the nuances of his inmost thoughts. For Reagan, the question wasn’t what was Conservative, rather, it was what was American. And that distinction informed him, and it’s that distinction that made his conservatism profoundly upbeat, cheerful, confident. Not for him Spenglerian gloom, not for him the heated rhetoric of a Buchanan. And it was also that Americanism that provided the steel underneath the affable surface. He was a man of the West, the American West. And he understood that often morality wasn’t simply a matter for a conversation between a vicar and a parishioner. But for an American, morality was often defined IN ACTION, gun in hand.

All of this chatter about his attitudes and principals he would probably have found as ridiculous as the thought of an airport, {AN AIRPORT...!} named after him.

I don’t know what’s worse, an airport named after Ronald Reagan, or an U.S. Navy Carrier named after Gerald Ford. Whose next? Senator Warner, Robert Byrd, is the USS Nancy Pelosi going to be launched sometime soon?

An American Carrier should be named after somebody like Doc Holliday. And underneath the stenciling of USS John "Doc" Holliday, there should be engraved a simple, but fraught with menace phrase: "I’m your huckleberry!" But that type of common sense you’re not apt to find anymore in Washington. Gerald Ford, GERALD FORD.....??? You’ve got to be kidding me!

JK, that was a case where my ignorance of that particular submarine "was bliss."

The self-regard of these politicians is simply staggering. Ronald Reagan accomplished much, which is witnessed by the Poles naming squares after him, besides erecting statues in his memory. I can understand naming a Carrier after Andy Jackson for instance, "Old Hickory" is the kind of guy to name a Carrier after. But some of these modern politicians don’t even deserve consideration. Remember Forrestal? How many Americans actually know who Forrestal was, let alone what he did. And he didn’t do much, certainly not enough to have a Carrier named after him. Patton is the kind of guy that a Carrier should be named after, likewise MacArthur. Of course Nimitz deserved one, as did Farragut.

For major capital ships, such as Battlewagons and Carriers, old famous ships, famous martial figures in our history or famous battles should be used. A USS Gettysburg makes far more sense that naming a Carrier after a President who presided over American withdraw from Saigon. Ford simply should have honoured the agreement, unleashed our B-52s, pounded the enemy unto dust, and went before the American people and told them the truth, that Nixon had a deal that the Democrats hadn’t the moral right to violate. Should have reminded Americans that the ARVN held in ’73 against a far more serious offensive than the one currently underway, and that with our airpower, S. Vietnam will emerge victorious once more. He should have called the Dems bluff on impeachment, forced them to come after him, and all the while, order his military to attack and destroy the enemy, which they would have been all too eager to do. THAT’S what a MacArthur would have done. And that’s why we’ll remember MacArthur until America is no more, "and the sea gives up her dead," but we’ll never recall Ford without recalling our shameful, disgraceful retreat and abandonment of a people who deserved so much better.

The Democrats have a thing for showing the world that no more treacherous friend than the United States exists. As well as proving that no enemy need ever take the United States into consideration.

What a claim to fame.....

Mega-dittoes, Dan. On the Democrats and on Ford re: Vietnam. That is exactly what he should have done.

There were compelling reasons for the Democrats to select him as the successor to Agnew. They knew they were on the verge of driving Nixon out, they knew how weak a man Ford was, and they knew that he would prove himself an incompetent.

That’s a rather brutal assessment, but it’s an accurate one. Thing is, Carter BARELY beat him in ’76. And but for Ford absolutely imploding in his debates against Carter, he very well might have pulled it out.

That’s somewhat comforting actually, because when we look at the percentage of the vote that Carter and Clinton received, we learn that there ISN’T a majority level of support for the Democrats. Which is why they have to pretend, they have to hide, they have to use terms like "redeploy" instead of "capitulate." The Democrats can’t show their true colours, for it turns the stomach of the American people.

We just have to find a man that puts the issue squarely before the American people, with some verve, some imagination, some political savvy, and most importantly, with passion for American Exceptionalism. Ronald Reagan was PASSIONATE about America, so much so that he restored America’s understanding of herself, to herself.

I hope you read Steve Hayward’s book THE AGE OF REAGAN, THE FALL OF THE OLD LIBERAL ORDER, 1964 - 1980. You really have to read it, it’s a TREMENDOUS piece of work. It’s a tour de force.

Hayward’s book may well be a tour de force. But I would question the subtitle. It is far from clear that the "old liberal order" actually fell in 1964-80, or since. It got into trouble and Reagan was able to win the Cold War. At home, he caused the country to fall apart less slowly than it would have. He bought time. But I’m afraid the old liberal order is still with us. In some ways, it’s more virulent and arrogant than ever.

TR, but the "old liberal order" was that of Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, Harry Truman and JFK.

The Democrat party split, old Democrats fled the party, while the David Bonior, the John Conyer’s took over. That’s what Steve Hayward means when he says "the fall" of the "old" liberal order.

Not to mention the book is flat out hilarious in places. I’ve read it completely at least three times, and portions of it over a dozen.

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