Just about everyone these days believes that the political Right is in disarray. It does not know what it is for or against. It is both rejecting every old principle and clinging to any solution that might give it power — but deep down is certain nothing can be done, all doom and gloom.
What conservatism needs is some convincing optimism, one based upon solid experience, philosophical truths, and earned results. Conservatives need a challenge.
It is time for us to realize that we’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all our creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope. We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look.
That was Ronald Reagan speaking in 1981, when he came into the presidency in the midst of a serious inflationary recession, foreign policy incompetence, aggressive communism, exploding government spending, and widespread belief that America was in social malaise with a future of decline. Four years later, it was “morning again in America” and then a decade of economic prosperity, two more presidential election victories validating the economic and social recovery, and the last days of the Soviet Union.
Ronald Reagan is unfortunately not available to us now, but he has left a legacy that can be recovered to break the present despondence. It is necessary to deemphasize current politics and personalities and look at the philosophy, governance, and individual and moral principles that Reagan demonstrated are crucial to sustaining a social renewal.
Reagan, like today’s conservatives, was confronted by an aggressive (1960s) Left and a rightist timidity in response. There was no real organized resistance other than very few conservative magazines and two youth organizations — progressive intellectuals even proclaimed that there was no such thing as conservatism. But Reagan did read the magazines and supported the few conservative institutions. He was in fact one of the best-read of modern presidents, with a serious philosophy of government and social order.
In 1964, Reagan gave a speech for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater proceeded to lose overwhelmingly, but, in the process, Reagan developed a following that helped him become governor of California and then, against all the odds, president of the U.S.
Facing double-digit inflation and a deep recession, President Reagan relied upon his wide reading in economics, including the work of anti-inflation guru Milton Friedman, to give support to a Democratic-appointed head of the Federal Reserve to clamp down on runaway inflation, plus his own plan to cut spending, taxes, and regulatory burdens. Despite vigorous opposition from the experts and unrelenting media, it worked to revive the economy and sustain it over the next dozen years.
Reagan took incredible heat fighting the recession, but he also was unique in firing air traffic controllers for illegally going on strike. I saw Reagan up close as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management when I had expressed my displeasure with concessions the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Department had made to the union. Controllers had already received excessively higher rates than the rest of the workforce and threatened disruption if not appeased. Luckily, the union was greedy, rejected the offer, and went on strike. At the White House meeting, Reagan overruled the agencies and staff. The controllers had violated their no-strike oath and they had to go. That was that.
Reagan took on bureaucracy systematically by cutting domestic government employment by 100,000 and even reduced their hallowed pensions. He even made deals with the Soviet enemy against his own supporters’ fears and refused to give up missile defenses against universal predictions of nuclear war unless he did. This all had a wide effect, as Secretary of State George Shultz reported years later that Reagan’s standing up to the air controllers union convinced the Soviets and a skeptical world leadership that he was tough and could stand up to them too.
Things certainly seem to have changed since Reagan. Republicans have become more defined by cultural matters than economic ones, although, in truth, limited government and a freer economy retain higher support. Still, the Trump presidency and Democratic Party wokeism clearly have changed the GOP into more of a working-class party. White voters without college degrees chose Republicans over Democrats in the 2022 elections by a 65 to 32 percent margin, and more Hispanics and Blacks have moved in the same direction, although less dramatically.
On the other hand, Reagan actually won in 1980 by expanding the GOP base to Main St., European ethnics, and evangelical Democrats, and he added Hispanics in 1984. So, maybe things are not so different. Today’s problems have a similar ring too: stagflation, unsustainable spending, entitlements nearing bankruptcy, failed bureaucracy, racial and class division, a hostile world military threat, and the rest. Reagan increased the age for Social Security retirement, reduced federal employee retirement reimbursements from 44 to 20 percent of payroll, cutting entitlements, and reduced nondefense discretionary spending by 9.5 percent.
As far as personal courage goes, it was when he was shot by a potential assassin on March 30, 1981, that Reagan showed his mettle. Time collected Reagan’s reactions. Even under such stress, he believed it was important to convey to the country that everything would be alright, relying upon his characteristic humor to make the case. To surgeons, as he entered the operating room to remove the bullet near his heart, he said: “Please tell me you’re Republicans.” To the first lady when she first saw him at the hospital after surgery, he said, “Sorry, honey, I forgot to duck.” From then on, he believed he had a mission.
Reagan made errors, especially by being too trusting of his early education and immigration appointees, but he was fighting the Soviet evil while conservatives today merely have to deal with professor and media wokeism, a recession he showed how to fix, a government he told us how to control, regulators he led rather than followed, and a budget including entitlements he demonstrated how to control. Moreover, he taught conservatives to emphasize federalism and returning programs to states and communities, as well as how to defeat foreign enemies “without firing a shot,” as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher put it. He taught us how to think about life and governance.
The end result is that still today, Reagan is one of the most respected of presidents and the most admired by today’s Republicans. He will not be on the ballot in our time, but if Republicans need to find a hero to inspire them, they could not do better than learning more about the ideals and character of Ronald Reagan.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, from Encounter Books; America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution; and Political Management of the Bureaucracy: A Guide to Reform and Control. He served as President Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.