Political Hay

Why I Am a Reaganite

Reagan, Rush, and conservatism as the political law of gravity.

By 1.7.08

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I am a Reaganite.

But why? And what, exactly, does that mean? As we get into this campaign in earnest on both sides, a debate is rising on the Republican side over whether the Reagan coalition even survives, let alone is it the winning philosophy of the conservative movement or even America itself.

I say yes. It not only survives -- it thrives. Here's why.

First, what does it mean to be a conservative? Specifically a Reaganite conservative?

It helps to know in understanding this that Ronald Reagan himself was not born a fully-formed conservative. As he once acknowledged, he was at one-time your basic bleeding heart liberal. But he grew. He evolved. He did so by extensive reading, thinking, and paying attention to his life experiences. The Reagan home in the 1950s, as was noted by Thomas W. Evans in his book The Education of Ronald Reagan had an extensive political philosophy collection on Reagan's library shelves. By the time Reagan appeared on national television in a serious political capacity for the first time -- to give a speech for GOP nominee Senator Barry Goldwater in October of 1964 -- he had spent almost two decades talking, reading, writing, and speaking about politics, also serving as a union leader and traveling spokesman for General Electric. While his detractors saw nothing more than the gloss of a Hollywood actor, they were in fact, as history now records, dealing with a very smart man who knew exactly what he was talking about because he had done some very extensive homework that effectively took years to complete. He was nothing if not organized and thorough in his approach.

What are ten core beliefs of a Reaganite conservative?

1. The idea that an individual was and should always be the master of his or her own destiny.

2. The belief in the unique character and powers of every human being and their personal opinions.

3. A belief in freedom under law, as opposed to the concept of modern liberalism that power is everything.

4. A belief that collectivism and the centralizing of power in Washington threatened Americans with a loss of freedom in their own communities and daily lives.

5. A belief in the individual over bureaucracy.

6. That modern liberalism has, in the words of Whittaker Chambers, a "vindictiveness...of temper."

7. That, as Reagan wrote, "we cannot diminish the value of an entire category of human life -- the unborn -- without diminishing the value of all human life."

8. That we will all die, but what makes the difference, as Reagan once said, is what we die for. That there are things worth dying for, and peace, alas, can never be purchased at any price but strength.

9. That freedom belongs to every individual by divine right.

10. That freedom is better than control.

These ten core beliefs lead inexorably to an all important eleventh. That the United States of America has a unique sense of destiny and optimism that from the very first has made America different from any other country on earth. The shorthand for this belief is "American Exceptionalism."

WHAT'S IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER in the swirl of new and old personalities who are entering on the national stage is that not one of them -- not Huckabee or Obama, not Hillary or Mitt, not McCain, or Edwards or Thompson or Rudy -- not a single one of them is proposing anything new. There is a reason for this.

The world of politics is as old as humanity. From ancient Greece to Rome to England to every single other culture or civilization that has flourished, the central ideas of how to govern human beings are all out there and have been for thousands of years. The ten beliefs listed above as core beliefs for Reaganites are in fact beliefs that have been sifted over the centuries as the best and by far most successful elements of successful civilizations. Together they serve as what you might call the political equivalent of the law of gravity. Just as with the understanding of Isaac Newton's realization of what an apple falling from a tree really said about the way the physical world worked, so too the human experience with the ten beliefs above has brought millions to the realization that if you try and escape from these ten core principles of politics you -- or your country -- will soon find itself in some form of trouble. You will be living out the Nazi nightmare, or awaken in Stalinist Russia. In another era you could be a slave or find yourself a pawn of an overbearing bureaucracy, be unable to speak your mind, earn a living or worship as you please -- or don't.

The problem always, of course, is that while principles stay the same, human beings do not. One generation is always vanishing in favor of the next -- and gravity, physical or political, must be re-learned and re-taught all over again. Which is why the importance of Ronald Reagan, who educated first himself and then millions of others as he conducted a presidency based on those principles. Today this role of educator is played by a number of people inside and outside the media and the political system. Sheer audience size alone makes Rush Limbaugh indisputably the educator-in-chief on this subject, and there is no newsflash here to say so.

Like President Reagan, Rush Limbaugh has learned his conservative fundamentals. In a year as important as this one, this is why he draws so much fire, precisely because he educates about fundamentals. Also like Reagan, Rush has learned something of the fates in store for someone who takes extensive amounts of time to successfully educate Americans about conservative principles. Take belief # 7, the vindictiveness of the liberal temper. Ronald Reagan was initially shocked to realize that his evolving talks in the 1950s about the dangers of the growth of government power at the expense of the freedom of individuals resulted in a demand from a government official that he be fired for criticizing the Tennessee Valley Authority. He was even more stunned that a teachers group had demanded he be blocked from giving a speech on the subject in St. Paul, Minnesota, and that a government official had actually threatened his General Electric bosses with the loss of $50 million worth of contracts if they didn't shut Reagan up. Reagan described these experiences with opposing American liberalism as his realization of the "bitter truth" about Chambers's indictment of the "vindictiveness" of the liberal temperament. Without a doubt the President would not be surprised in the least by the effort of Senate Democrat Leader Harry Reid to bully Rush Limbaugh into silence by writing a threatening letter to Rush's business partner. Nor would he be shocked at the efforts of Democrats to jump-start a new life for the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" that would effectively censor not only Rush but every dissenting conservative voice on American airwaves.

There is a reason, of course, why liberals and government officials of the 1950s and early 1960s tried to silence Reagan and why the same effort has been made to silence Rush since he first burst on the national scene almost twenty years ago. Both of these men had an audience, and once in front of that audience they were explaining, illustrating, and translating the events of their respective time periods using some presentation that involved these core beliefs. There was nothing personal about it either, or mean. It was not that Ronald Reagan didn't like Gerald Ford or Nelson Rockefeller on a personal level, for example, it was that he believed their brand of so-called "moderate" or "liberal" Republicanism was genuinely the wrong direction for the country. Against all sorts of advice Reagan jumped into a race for the 1976 GOP presidential nomination against the incumbent President Ford, making the case for these principles from one end of America to the other, discussing how -- exactly how -- America had strayed from the vision of our founding fathers. A vision that was gleaned from centuries of human political experience and was encompassed in the ten core beliefs Reagan spoke about in one form or another -- endlessly. Educating, educating, educating.

Walter Mondale was so frustrated about Reagan that the day after he lost 49 states to him Mondale said the real problem was television and the fact that Reagan was so entertaining. To the point that Reagan had actually driven his argument home about Mondale's latest rendition of a failed and very old philosophy, Jimmy Carter's vice-president and Hubert Humphrey's protege was silent. A variation of this argument is made about Mr. Limbaugh when he is dismissed as simply a radio entertainer.

ONE OF THE RECURRING THEMES of human nature is that powerful new personalities can come along -- charming people, nice people or sometimes charming but really not nice people -- and try and convince you that the ten principles listed above as a political equivalent of the law of gravity can somehow be suspended, changed or even banished. The power that Reagan possessed derived precisely because he strode onto the political stage to say that we should once again understand these old principles -- that like it or not they were the laws of political physics. Yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever. And that we ignored them at our peril.

Along these lines is a curiosity of Governor Mike Huckabee's campaign, a particular phrase he used on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. According to the program's official transcript, Huckabee said this:

"Americans are tired of the horizontal politics that pulls us back and forth without getting us anywhere -- left versus right, conservative versus liberal, Democrat versus Republican. I believe in vertical politics that will lift us all up. Vertical politics will solve the issues." And again on his website, the former Governor says that "Everything in this country is not left right, liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican. I think the country is looking for somebody who is vertical, who is thinking, 'Let's take America up and not down'..."

Hmmmm. As someone who worked for Ronald Reagan I have to say my first thought was: where have I heard something like this before? And here it is, straight from Reagan's famous speech for Goldwater in the fall of 1964:

"I suggest to you there is no left or right, only an up or down. Up to the maximum of individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism."

What startles here is not simply that Huckabee is lifting a Reagan line without so much as a nod of the head in Reagan's direction. In fact, the Huckabee website has an entire section about so-called "vertical" politics without a word about Ronald Reagan. The really startling point is the transformation of Reagan's original line by simply leaving the last part of it off altogether. Reagan's point, of course, was that "down" towards the "ant heap of totalitarianism" was in reality -- left. Reagan believed fervently that "right" was synonymous with "individual freedom consistent with law and order." Refer back to Reaganite belief # 3: "A belief in freedom under law, as opposed to the concept of modern liberalism that power is everything." Ronald Reagan left no doubt whatsoever that there was in fact a very real left and a very real right, and they would not go away. Which made it even more importantly to understand "right" -- and to move the country right.

This is an important issue when put forward by a candidate who frequently plays the "greed" card. Reaganites know without doubt that a candidate who flays private citizens for "greed" has one objective ultimately in mind: have the government take money from the middle class. If a private citizen or a private company is said to be greedy, the obvious implication is that the government should not allow said citizen or company to keep the "excess" funds that signify the greed, that the government, not the private citizen or company, has the right to those hard earned dimes, nickels and pennies. Hence Hillary Clinton can easily say, "I want to take those oil company profits..." Of course she does. She is not a Reaganite. She favors bureaucracies over individuals, collectivism over the rights of the individual. Reaganites differ, believing in the individual over bureaucracies. And as always, what starts with taking money from the big guys quickly means the government is soon coming after the little guys.

AS NEW HAMPSHIRE CLOSES IN and South Carolina looms, conservatives are having a healthy discussion that is for younger conservatives a chance to learn anew, just as Ronald Reagan himself once did. It is a time to remember that this election is not about personality A, B, or C but about principles. Conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh -- and in fact the people who voted for Reagan by the millions and listen to Rush by the millions -- understand the principle of political gravity. They realize that however charming the latest batch of candidates, to the extent that they try and draw you away from these ten principles -- and the eleventh as well -- in varying degrees they are trying to tell you gravity does not exist. Go ahead, say these candidates. Try it. You'll like it. No problem. Jump off the political equivalent of the Empire State Building without a parachute. Heck, politics is vertical anyway.

Is it possible to jump off the Empire State Building and go up? Sure, for a second or two. Can you ultimately avoid going down? Ahhh...no. Gravity is a fact, not a theory. Down in vertical politics, as President Reagan once said, leads only to the ant heap. It is, alas, definitely left. And in politics, the moment you start stirring the fires of resentment, pushing the sin of envy, that too is definitely left.

There is one last reason why I am a Reaganite conservative. It is, I think, why Ronald Reagan came to be a conservative, why millions of Americans today are Reaganite conservatives and, I bet, why Rush Limbaugh is a Reaganite conservative.

We all like to think we know the difference between up -- and down.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.