Saturday, July 30, 2022

Revisiting Reaganism with George F. Will, Fifteen Years Later

Time to move on from Reagan,
wrote George F. Will as far back as 2007

Right before President George W. Bush's administration ended, George F. Will told conservatives that they needed to move on from Reagan.

Sadly, he didn't accept that the movement voters wanted meant Trump: a nationalist, populist, more isolationist foreign policy which focused on American citizens, stopped mass immigration (legal and illegal), and stopped with the reckless, globalist agenda-setting spending.

Will's call to move on from Ronald Reagan was published in 2007:

George F. Will:Conservatives must temper worship of Reaganism

WASHINGTON — In this winter of their discontents, nostalgia for Ronald Reagan has become for many conservatives a substitute for thinking. This mental paralysis — gratitude decaying into idolatry — is sterile: Neither the man nor his moment will recur. Conservatives should face the fact that Reaganism cannot define conservatism.

Reagan is dead, and Reaganism is dead. He met many of the challenges facing the country during the 1980s, and he scored a significant win in consigning international communism to the ash heap of history.

Today, the United State is looking at a harsher fate if We the People do not tackle the domestic marxism infecting our schools, universities, and other institutions.

That is one lesson of John Patrick Diggins' new book, "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History." Diggins, a historian at the City University of New York, treats Reagan respectfully as an important subject in American intellectual history. The 1980s, he says, thoroughly joined politics to political theory. But he notes that Reagan's theory was radically unlike that of Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, and very like that of Burke's nemesis, Thomas Paine.

Burke believed that the past is prescriptive because tradition is a repository of moral wisdom. Reagan frequently quoted Paine's preposterous cry that "we have it in our power to begin the world over again."

This notion of "beginning the world again" would re-emerge with Barack Obama. Sadly, the change that he thought he would bring would be nothing more than corporate elitism spitting on the needs of everyday Americans. Reagan cared about America, he loved the American people, but the domestic issues we face today cannot be solved by the Reaganism of yesterday.

Diggins' thesis is that the 1980s were America's "Emersonian moment" because Reagan, a "political romantic" from the Midwest and West, echoed New England's Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Emerson was right," Reagan said several times of the man who wrote, "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature." Hence Reagan's unique, and perhaps oxymoronic, doctrine — conservatism without anxieties. Reagan's preternatural serenity derived from his conception of the supernatural.

George Will depended way too much on quotes. What a distraction!

Putting aside the stylistic problems, Will does drill down a deeper issue: conservatism without anxieties. The truth is that every human being should be in tune with the Laws of Nature and Nature's God. This repository of natural law defines and embeds the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. 

We want the Laws of Nature to be crystal clear to every American. Then would they be restored to the cultural and legal heritage of this country. So, for this part I find Will's criticism a little unfounded.

Diggins says Reagan imbibed his mother's form of Christianity, a strand of 19th-century Unitarianism from which Reagan took a foundational belief that he expressed in a 1951 letter: "God couldn't create evil so the desires he planted in us are good." This logic — God is good, therefore so are God-given desires — leads to the Emersonian faith that we please God by pleasing ourselves. Therefore there is no need for the people to discipline their desires. So, no leader needs to suggest that the public has shortcomings and should engage in critical self-examination.

I disagree with this take. The Scriptures could not be clearer regarding human direction and will in conjunction with God's will and desires:

"12Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12-13)

Diggins thinks that Reagan's religion "enables us to forget religion" because it banishes the idea of "a God of judgment and punishment." Reagan's popularity was largely the result of "his blaming government for problems that are inherent in democracy itself." To Reagan, the idea of problems inherent in democracy was unintelligible because it implied that there were inherent problems with the demos — the people.

Human nature is flawed as well as fulsome, no doubt about that. Human nature does need to be limited, not expanded upon. This notion of human expansion and cheery optimism led to higher spending during his administration, with no real interest in tackling the massive debt that has only grown much, much worse over the last forty years.

There was nothing — nothing — in Reagan's thinking akin to Lincoln's melancholy fatalism, his belief (see his Second Inaugural) that the failings of the people on both sides of the Civil War were the reasons why "the war came."

It's essential for a president to rally and cheer up the citizenry, certainly, so I do not believe that a president should beat down on the national electorate exclusively. There is room, and much need, for course corrections among the people, no doubt. There is a fallen aspect to human nature which cannot be ignored, of course, for for that reason the United States Constitution instituted so many checks and balances on political power.

As Diggins says, Reagan's "theory of government has little reference to the principles of the American founding." To the founders, and especially to the wisest of them, James Madison, government's principal function is to resist, modulate and even frustrate the public's unruly passions, which arise from desires.

See above.

"The true conservatives, the founders," Diggins rightly says, constructed a government full of blocking mechanisms — separations of powers, a bicameral legislature and other checks and balances — in order "to check the demands of the people." Madison's constitution responds to the problem of human nature. "Reagan," says Diggins, "let human nature off the hook."

"An unmentionable irony," writes Diggins, is that big-government conservatism is an inevitable result of Reaganism. "Under Reagan, Americans could live off government and hate it at the same time. Americans blamed government for their dependence upon it." Unless people have a bad conscience about demanding big government — a dispenser of unending entitlements — they will get ever larger government.

There is a great deal of truth to this indictment. Reagan did not cut the spending, and he only slowed the growth of government. Today, forty years after the last inflation crises under President Jimmy Carter, the American public is enduring the long-term cost and consequences of printing money ad libitum.

But how can people have a bad conscience after being told (in Reagan's First Inaugural) that they are all heroes? And after being assured that all their desires, which inevitably include desires for government-supplied entitlements, are good?

Barack Obama would echo similar sentiments during his 2008 campaign and into this first and second inaugural. The cheery optimism that treats human beings as basically good, while the government and the environment are the truly flawed features, will create nothing but problems for true constitutional governance.

Similarly, Reagan said that the people never start wars, only governments do. But the Balkans reached a bloody boil because of the absence of effective government. Which describes Iraq today.

George Will was a vocal opponet of the War in Iraq, as was John McLaughlin and a number of other paleoconservatives. Strangely enough, George Will hated President Trump, who was the first President in thirty years to keep the United States out of war and scale back American military commitments around the world!

Because of Reagan's role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Diggins ranks him among the "three great liberators in American history" — the others being Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt — and among America's three or four greatest presidents. But, says Diggins, an Emersonian president who tells us our desires are necessarily good leaves much to be desired.

It depends on what the desires are, and it depends how individuals push to realize those desires. If people want to use the government to fulfill their desires, they will find and create nothing but frustration. After Reagan, we have yet to see a Republican President who has been committed to cutting the spending and shrinking the size and scope of the state.

Will Trump follow through, should he get re-elected in 2024?

If the defining doctrine of the Republican Party is limited government, the party must move up from nostalgia and leaven its reverence for Reagan with respect for Madison. As Diggins says, Reaganism tells people comforting and flattering things that they want to hear; the Madisonian persuasion tells them sobering truths that they need to know.

The American people have many sobering truths to face, like the fact that demographic demise, via births and mass immigration, is hurting the structure of the country. The excessive spending due to the reckless entitlement promises must come to an end. 

Reagan said that government is the problem, but he never stopped growing that problem. The next generation of leaders and representatives in Washington DC and around the world will have to get used to saying NO to lobbyists, grifters, and consultants, and say NO to growing government.

Human nature needs a heavey dose of NO at this time, now more than any other, and Reaganism cannot provided that needed check and balance.

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