Political Hay

The End of the Reagan Era?

Yes and no, mainly because of the self-contradictory nature of the American voter.

By 1.21.13

Barack Obama’s re-christening has arrived. It commenced with a small private ceremony January 20, Sunday — God’s day. The actual festivities, with the inaugural address and the grandstand and mass liberal adulation and veneration, occur Monday, January 21. For those angry liberals who urged Obama to banish the Almighty from the inaugural, they can take solace in the public ceremony (traditionally held on January 20) not occurring on the Christian holy day.

Alas, with Obama’s re-coronation, liberals are glorying in an altogether new epoch, one of supreme significance to their ideological resurgence: the end of the Reagan era. They’ve desired it for decades, and you can feel it, see it, smell it at their websites and blogs. One recent book carries the breathless title, Barack Obama’s America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era.

Sadly, I must admit, as a Reagan scholar and admirer, that they are largely correct. Obama’s reelection does, to a notable degree, end the Reagan era. We are now in the snares of a despairing period of left-wing ascendance, marked by gay marriage, forced taxpayer funding of abortion, an exploding government class, and, generally big government. As to the latter, Ronald Reagan had declared in his first inaugural: “government is not the solution … government is the problem.” The first Democrat to follow Reagan, Bill Clinton, had similarly stated “the era of big government is over.” Clinton’s affirmation was also affirmation of the continuation of the Reagan era.

And then came Barack Obama. Just days after his 2009 inauguration, Obama smashed the Reagan mantle, proclaiming: “the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money which leads to even more layoffs.”

Yes, “only government.” Obama had repudiated Reagan, and the electorate would again reward him four years later. What Obama called for 2009 seems to be the new American spirit in 2013.

But is it? Well, the answer is complicated.

For one, Barack Obama is indeed in the process of undoing the Reagan era. He has done so courtesy of a hopelessly oblivious American public, one that exhibits mindlessly schizophrenic voting behavior. Let history record a positively confounding reality that will baffle future historians (if they dig deep enough): The Obama era supplanted the Reagan era thanks to a self-contradicting voting public, one that adores Reagan, refers to him in opinion polls as the greatest of our presidents, and that overwhelming describes itself as conservative rather than liberal. All unbelievable, yes, but true. It is bizarre.

Consider the painful facts:

For a long time now, starting with the Reagan presidency, Americans have called themselves “conservative” rather than “liberal” by margins of roughly two-to-one. Generally, self-identified liberals have hovered around the 20% level, while conservatives have ranged in the upper-30%, sometimes above 40%. In 2000, the year George W. Bush was elected president, 18% of Americans said they were liberal vs. 36% who said they were conservative.

Surely this must have changed in 2008, with the election of Obama? After all, before he was elected president, Senator Barack Obama was ranked the most liberal member of a very liberal U.S. Senate by the respected, non-partisan National Journal, which is famous for its rankings of members of Congress. Obama was literally to the left of Barbara Boxer and Ted Kennedy. In short, then, the decisive majority of Americans that elected Obama president in 2008 must have been an overwhelmingly liberal lot?

That’s where the confusion sets in. No, it wasn’t a liberal lot.

Despite Obama winning the presidency by 54 to 46%, 21% of Americans who voted in the 2008 election said they were liberal vs. 38% who said they were conservative.

If that seems contradictory for a nation that voted for a man from the far left as president… well, it is. But it gets worse. Consider the findings of other surveys done shortly after Obama’s 2008 election:

A major Gallup poll conducted from January to May 2009, at the height of “Obama mania,” including Obama’s massive inaugural ceremony, found more self-described conservatives than liberals not only by a margin of 40% to 21% but in all 50 states. That’s correct, all 50 states, from California to Massachusetts. And that electorate chose Obama.

It also chose Reagan. During that same period, a remarkable nationwide survey was done by Clarus Research Group, which asked American voters which president should be the model for Barack Obama in shaping his presidency. One would expect Americans to pick a liberal president — since, of course, Obama is a leftist. Perhaps FDR, LBJ, Jimmy Carter. Instead, the top choice was America’s most conservative president: Ronald Reagan.

How could that be? Answer: it cannot. It is impossible. Barack Obama could never model his presidency on that of Ronald Reagan. The two are irreconcilable. You cannot take a president who is a paragon of liberalism and one who was a paragon of conservatism and match them ideologically.

On the other hand, it isn’t a shock that Americans would look to Reagan as their model for the current president. Two years after the Clarus survey, a Gallup poll released for Presidents’ Day 2011 ranked Reagan the “greatest president” of all time, garnering 19% of the vote among 44 presidents, beating Lincoln fairly soundly, who finished second at 14%. Gallup began asking the “greatest president” question in 1999. Of the 13 times Gallup has done the survey, the public placed Reagan first four times — 2001, 2005, 2011, and 2012 — and always in the top three. A Zogby poll likewise released for Presidents’ Day 2011, which asked about presidents since World War II, listed Reagan as the “greatest,” with FDR second and Kennedy third. And get this one: an extraordinary June 2005 online survey by the Discovery Channel and AOL (which included 2.4 million participants) declared Reagan the “greatest American of all time,” beating Lincoln and Washington.

This raises an inexplicable question: How does that same citizenry twice elect Barack Obama? That’s a darned good question.

Well, maybe this sudden admiration for Reagan conservatism suddenly changed in November 2012? Something must have shifted, right? Surely, there must have been far more self-identified liberals than conservatives in the November election?

Nope, though liberals did draw a little closer. According to CNN exit polling, 35% of voters on November 6, 2012 described themselves as “conservative,” and 25% chose “liberal.” This was identical to a Pew poll that likewise found a margin of 35-25%.

This also applies to the critical Hispanic vote, which went for Obama by a landslide in November. In one survey from the election, Hispanics self-identified as conservatives over liberal by two to one, 27% to 14%. That’s no surprise whatsoever. Hispanics are socially conservative. They are Catholic, churchgoing, pro-life, and don’t support gay marriage. They should not have voted for Obama at all, let alone by over 70%, as they did.

Importantly, some conservatives have disputed these self-designations, insisting that many of those who describe themselves as conservative really aren’t, and that there are more liberals than those willing to admit it. Here and there, that may be true. But, overall, I think the designations are probably fairly accurate, and have been consistent for a long time now. After all, when you break down the data, and ask voters questions like whether they prefer more taxes and more government, well, they generally don’t — even when they vote that way. They favor the conservative vision. It appeals to them. And though your television may have convinced you that half of America is gay, well, it’s far and away not — and the vast majority don’t support gay marriage either (not yet), or taxpayer-funding of abortion. No, but they vote for candidates who do.

There are untold numbers of Hispanics and also blacks who plainly are not liberal, who are especially conservative on social and religious issues, but who vote Democrat reflexively. They’re not alone. There are countless old, traditional Roman Catholics (a demographic I know very well) who do the same.

So, what does all of this mean, particularly as applied to the Reagan era?

It means that a self-described conservative, Reagan-loving electorate has twice voted for a hardcore leftist, Barack Obama, to, in effect, end the Reagan era. That wasn’t the intent, but that’s the result.

Thus, it also means — and this would shock Ronald Reagan — that we conservatives really cannot trust the American public. Reagan, of course, insisted just the opposite; he was the quintessential optimist, with an unflagging faith in the American people. He had the greatest confidence in his fellow Americans.

The deeper truth, however, is that the American voter cannot be trusted; the American voter cannot be depended upon to vote rationally. Other elements, far more decisive, influence their voting behavior, such as (among others) the personalities and personas and public images of presidential candidates, the campaigns run by the candidates and their advisers (the David Axelrod factor), and, most critically of all, the liberal mainstream media that serves as a 24/7 full-time partisan/propaganda arm of the Democratic Party. In fact, related to that media point: what Ronald Reagan actually said was that if the American public is presented with both sides, it will always make the right choice.

Well, maybe.

I’ll end with a dose of Reagan optimism: All of this also means that the Reagan ideal is not over. I believe that most Americans (for now) still prefer the principles of Reagan and his view of government over those of Obama. That is because the Reagan principles are ultimately time-tested and true; they are the universal, unalienable principles of the Founders, rooted in eternal Judeo-Christian values and Natural Law. When liberalism is laid bare, it loses because it is unappealing. Leftists like Barack Obama still must mask their real beliefs and intentions. A conservative like Ronald Reagan never had to do that with conservatism.

What will it take to resurrect the Reagan era? It will take the right Republican presidential candidate and the right campaign, and Republicans unifying and rallying behind the candidate — and not joining the New York Times and liberal smear-artists in attacking and demonizing our guy (or girl). Or, as another (less appealing) alternative, it might require a moderate or rare conservative Democrat, the next pied-piper to lead the unquestioning Democrat masses. (That’s quite easy to do; Democrats will vote for and follow any Democrat, regardless of that Democrat’s beliefs. A moderate or conservative Democrat could stand against and repudiate absolutely everything Obama did and fellow Democrats would still support him.)

The Reagan vision and values are already here, ready to be tapped and to again prevail. They merely require the right spokesman, and Obama’s exit from the presidency. Once Obama is out in 2016, we can start anew, again.

Barack Obama’s second inauguration ends the Reagan run that began in 1981 and dominated for nearly three decades, but it doesn’t end what Ronald Reagan believed. Reaganism remains. It lives on, outliving Obamaism.

 

 

 

 

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About the Author

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His new book is Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage.