When Character Was King: The Story of Ronald Reagan
By Peggy Noonan
The Age of Reagan, The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980
By Steven F. Hayward
The Strange Death of American Liberalism
By H.W. Brands.
Yale University Press
“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”
On the Road
Founded in 1998, the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project is dedicated to naming “a significant landmark or institution” after Reagan in each of the fifty states, and in everyone of the nation’s 3,142 counties—and to replacing Alexander Hamilton’s picture on the ten-dollar bill with that of the Gipper. So far it has managed 50 such dedications, in sixteen states and three foreign countries. (So far there has been less success in replacing Hamilton, whom the renamers consider “a big government guy,” but the measure does have the support of Kentucky’s powerful Republican senator, Mitch McConnell.)
Like any old Bolsheviki, the American right fully understands the importance of history in any propaganda effort. While their colleagues are busy chiseling Reagan’s name all over this land, two movement conservatives have opened a new front in print. Peggy Noonan’s When Character Was King: The Story of Ronald Reagan, and Steven F. Hayward’s The Age of Reagan, The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980, are very different books, but both make the same case for the greatness of Ronald Reagan, chiefly by reopening the age-old debate about the relation between public and private morality.
When Character Was King is by far the more commercial of the two works. It shot up the bestseller lists soon after its release—not least, one suspects, because of the title’s obvious reference to You Know Who, He Whose Appetites Will Not Be Appeased.
This is wholly to the point. It seemed at times during the endless Clinton wars that Republicans had reduced the whole definition of public morality to keeping one’s dick in one’s class. Now Ms. Noonan—fresh from her own, obligatory movement work of character assassination, The Case Against Hillary Clinton—would put a more positive tack on “the character issue.”
The result is a treacly valentine to Noonan’s old boss, based almost exclusively on Reagan’s own memoirs, and interviews with his closest friends, relatives, and admirers. As literature, it is a nullity. The writing is pitched to such an intellectual level that one is surprised the margins are not decorated with teddy bears, and little pink bunny rabbits. When Character Was King specializes above all in the breathless insight and the portentous, one-sentence, paragraph, such as:
“And to be creative.
“And to imagine.”
“And then you hear two shots, bop bop.
“And then four shots in rapid succession.”
“And it was a Democratic year.
“He decided to run.”
More surprising, from a former speechwriter, is how obfuscatory Noonan’s writing can be. We are told that “when people who loved him” hear again about something that Reagan once said or did, “A kind of wave comes upon them unawares, surprising them with its fullness.” As opposed to an alert wave? Or maybe an empty one? At another point, we are told that “In Reagan’s case this didn’t mean teaching him what he didn’t know, but teaching him what he knew had an audience far greater than he could have imagined.” Oh.
Worse yet, Noonan seems to have adopted George W. Bush’s grating habit of conferring personal benedictions. Thus we are informed that former California governor Pat Brown is “a good man.” Former President Gerald Ford is also “a good man” and “not a trimmer or a strange-o.” The entire, extended Reagan family “are all good people; they are all people you’d like to have for your neighbors.” Even the nation’s air traffic controllers, fired early on by Reagan for having the temerity to go out on strike, are “a lot of good men and women.”
Ronnie is the goodest of them all—actually a divinely anointed creature. Driving to California, Reagan remembered that “the sun shone on his head the whole way.” Later, it breaks through the clouds to shine on his head as he takes the oath of office as governor—then again when he is sworn in as president. “It was like a halo coming down. It was eerie,” a friend remembers.
“I know it doesn’t sound true, but it is,” Noonan tells us helplessly. A few chapters later, Nancy Reagan relates how her husband was cured overnight of an ulcer, thanks to a prayer group led by “a man from southern California who had a problem he wanted to discuss” (that is to say, a lobbyist). Meanwhile, Reagan’s director of correspondence in the White House is sure that “God put him there for that specific time in history to do what he had to do.”
It is even implied that Reagan himself may be divine. Noonan writes, without a trace of embarrassment, that, “I am still searching for an anecdote about Reagan that truly reflects badly on him.” She tells us that “Ronald Reagan loved the truth. We all do or say we do but for Reagan it was like fresh water, something he needed and wanted.” She even quotes one of the bodyguards with Reagan during the 1981 attempt on his life, as to how the agent found his vocation after seeing Reagan himself in the picture, Code of the Secret Service:
“I told him [Reagan], ‘By making that picture you became the instrument of your own destiny.’”
When Character Was King is filled with this sort of New Age knowingness. Reagan’s personal assistant feels that he was “moved” out of the way of the assassin’s bullets . Nancy Reagan was lunching across town that day, when she was struck with a strange foreboding, and left early—to go talk to the White House decorator.
It’s no surprise that Noonan accepts all this at face value, for her own cosmology is filled with references to devils and angels. Of course, she is entitled to her beliefs. Maybe God did busy Himself bestowing little haloes on Ronald Reagan; no doubt He was trying to make up for having been so distracted during the Holocaust, or the Irish potato famine, or, say, the entire fourteenth century.
The greater problem here is that Noonan tries to make do with this voodoo as a substitute for Reagan’s actual character. The deeper she digs for Reagan’s essential personality the more frustrated—and mystical—she becomes. At one point she is reduced to inventing an interior monologue for Nancy Reagan (“He was frail—all men are frail! He needed encouragement and support, he needed stability, and peace. He got it. It came from me.”). Elsewhere, she produces Rush Limbaugh to make the staggering claim that “…there was no image creation. There was no image. There was just genuine Ronald Reagan…”
Reagan’s elusiveness has driven other biographers to extremes, the most famous example being Edmund Morris’s invention of a fictional, Reagan friend—one whose dramactic disclosure is that he was saved from drowning by a youthful Ronnie, during the latter’s days as a lifeguard back in Dixon, Illinois.
Ms. Noonan is just as transported by the grace of small-town life, in early, twentieth century America. “Big cities, Jung thought, were where uprootedness began,” she informs us. (Yes, that’s where all the rootless cosmopolitans live.) She, too, recites the teenage rescues along the Rock River—seventy-seven lives saved, in seven years, all notched in a nearby log.
A more discerning biographer might have turned a gimlet eye on even those numbers. Seventy-seven in seven? For a man fascinated all his life by the numerology of the Book of Revelations? But never mind. Reagan was a lifeguard, and perhaps the good citizens of Dixon were particularly swimming impaired. There are few things better done than an American small town, and the young Reagan himself is thoroughly admirable; overcoming a bitter, hard-drinking, peripatetic father and a poor childhood with grit, and unflagging optimism. Working his way through college, pounding the pavement for a job; driving off to California, with the sun shining in his hair, to become a star.
There remains throughout, though, a certain…detachment, from his wives, his children, his friends. It is not uncommon for a great politician to be so enigmatic—but it does make it difficult to predicate the public man upon the private one.
Noonan’s ventures into actual public affairs are risible. Noonan’s forays into public affairs are risible. She makes the bizarre argument that Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers—all those “good men and women”—was “a foreign affairs triumph.” In a two-page recap of Reagan’s White House years, she insists that he kept every campaign promise he made—including cutting the federal budget (“Done, done, done, done, done, done, and done. Every bit of it.”).
More often, she confines herself to affirming Reagan’s principles by virtue of his private experiences. We are assured that Reagan “was by nature a conservationist” [p. 117] because he believed in God, and loved his huge ranch in the mountains above Santa Barbara. He was a feminist at heart because “He came out of a home run by a woman and went to work in an industry where women held positions of authority and respect.” [p. 255] He wasn’t a racist by dint of his friendship with a black, high-school football teammate, Dr. William Franklin “Burghie” Burghardt.
Unsurprisingly, this is less than convincing; Noonan’s Reagan remains at large. Steven Hayward, on the other hand, is a more able writer and polemicist, and hisThe Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1964-1980 makes a more serious case for linking the private and the public Reagan.
To be sure, Dr. Hayward—a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute—is often just as adulatory as Noonan. “While Reagan can be described, he is nearly impossible to explain,” he writes, apparently equating our fortieth president with the Buddha, or possibly a quark. He brooks no criticism even of his man’s intellect, repeating a claim that his bookshelves were filled with “dense works of political economy by authors such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek heavily underlined and annotated in Reagan’s handwriting.” At other times Reagan comes off as sort of an American “Dear Leader,” dreaming up NAFTA, or a missile defense system, during spare moments on a plane.
Like Noonan, Dr. Hayward finds Reagan’s simplicity, his moral clarity and optimism, “to be his chief virtue, and the key to his success.” He compares him to Archilocus’s hedgehog, knowing “one big thing,” when all those foxy liberals were losing their moral way.
“I say there are simple answers to many of our problems—simple but hard,” he quotes Reagan approvingly. “It’s the complicated answer that’s easy…because it avoids facing the hard moral issues.”
Above all, the hard moral issue was the threat to liberty posed by government, “both in its vicious forms such as communism or socialism, but also in its supposedly benign forms, such as bureaucracy.” Hayward contends that establishment liberalism had lost sight of this and devolved into something he labels “the administrative state” insisting that “our public problems are complicated, with ‘no easy answers,’” and that they required “sophisticated legislation and extensive bureaucratic management.”
This hubristic, “cult of expertise” is, for Hayward, “the common taproot” of the three, great disasters of 1960s liberalism—”the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, and the rise of social (as opposed to merely economic) regulation.” The “ideological polarization,” that followed led to “the breakdown of the American liberal consensus,” and opened the way for the rise of Reagan.
Just as Reagan himself would always insist that “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me,” Hayward makes the familiar argument that “contemporary conservatism has in many ways become the inheritor of the best of the classical liberal tradition,” [which he traces back to the Englightment. In a particularly unctuous author’s note, he claims that “it is not intended that ‘liberal’ be taken as a pejorative” and expresses the hope “that liberal-minded readers will engage this narrative in a spirit of self-criticism…”
This is disingenuous. The Age of Reagan is written with the same sneer that now seems to be permanently affixed to the face of “contemporary conservatism,” and liberals are derided throughout as “whiz kids,” “Establishment elites in their salons,” those “more likely to drive foreign cars,” “the chattering class” (i.e., those writers and commentators who happen to disagree with one), and—most horrible of all—”intellectuals.”
But this sort of rhetoric has long passed for academic discourse on the American right. What is more surprising is that Hayward has written a book about the rise of conservatism while managing to leave out—conservatives.
Aside from a quote by an occasional National Review pundit here, or a neocon intellectual there, Hayward has excised the right from his book as neatly as some Kremlin apparatchik airbrushing out an image of Trotsky at Lenin’s side. Gone entirely are the old grotesques of the movement, such as Phyllis Schlafly, or John Birch Society founder Jack Welch. McCarthyism is dismissed as “that favorite liberal bogeyman,” and Barry Goldwater is hurriedly shoved off the stage. George Wallace is alluded to in passing as “captain of the rearguard trying to preserve segregation,” as if the entire struggle for civil rights was a scrum between rival houses at Eton. The only real exception is Reagan himself.
One might think this would undermine the entire purpose of Hayward’s book, but in fact deleting the rest of the right serves a valuable, twofold propaganda purpose. First, there is no better way to make any political side seem mad than by removing their opposition. Hayward has a justifiable field day walloping the bumblings of the McGovern campaign or the Carter administration, or the loonier pretensions of the New Left.
By expunging liberals’ conservative opponents, though, Hayward removes their entire context. “The white supremacist South of old was rapidly dying by the 1950s,” [p. 24] we learn in a quote from Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom—an asinine, post facto assessment that denigrates the thousands of Americans who put their lives on the line for equal justice. Feminism is dismissed as “boredom more than ‘oppression’ that afflicted increasingly comfortable but restless housewives…” while Hayward views any acceptance of homosexuality as a sign of social disintegration, lumping it in with “abortion…illegitimacy and single motherhood, casual sex, pornography, coarsening of language, degraded educational standards, and public disorderliness…”
Environmentalism is a creation of media hysteria, and Hayward—out of his vast, scientific knowledge—even implies that global warming is all a shibboleth.
To dismiss all of these movements, of course, is to deny the great, historical triumph of liberalism. Before the 1960s and ’70s, most Americans were not accorded full citizenship in their own counry. Blacks lived under a system of virtual apartheid, subject to terrifying violence whenever whites chose to subject them to it. Women were relegated to a handful of professions and a subordinate role in almost all things. Homosexuals were forced into a bitter, shadow existence, in which they, too, could be abused at will.
In choosing to ignore all this, Hayward would white-out the most vital lesson of the American past, which is that freedom cannot be won without struggle. American history is full of ugly scenes and unseemly conflicts. It is William Lloyd Garrison calling the constitution “a covenant with hell and a compact with the devil” because it recognized slavery; it is cops beating teenage sewing girls on the streets of New York because they wanted a union, it is the schoolchildren of Birmingham standing up to firehoses and dogs to win the dignity that white adults would not otherwise grant them. In whiting out all past unpleasantness, Hayward chooses to adopt the mindset of small-town, middle-class life, where there is nothing that cannot be overcome without a little grit, a little optimism. He chooses, that is, to don the same blinders that his subject has always worn.
This brings us to the second advantage of deleting the old right. Hayward’s Reagan appear all the larger in contrast, bursting onto the national political scene in 1964 fully formed. The time and the man are met. “Reagan would have been unsuccessful as a politician in the 1940s and 1950s,” Hayward tells us, and no doubt he is right. It is only in contrast to the complicated, ideological confusion of the liberal breakdown that Reagan’s simplicity will acquire its necessary “salience,” until he becomes what Phillips Brooks called “truth through personality.”
And yet, try as Hayward may, those complications keep creeping back, undermining his narrative. It would take another book to fully plumb the sheer whackiness of many of his theories (My favorite is how the release of The Graduate started America down the road to moral perdition. Others are simply bewildering. Hayward devotes reams of paper, for instance, to a supply-side attack on Keynesian “management” of the economy. In the end, though, one man’s Laffer Curve is another’s military Keynesianism, and in any case it’s hard to see how the economy was any less “managed” when America hung on every, oracular pronouncement from Alan Greenspan.
But let us concentrate on those two, wedge issues that did indeed bust up the old, liberal consensus of the mid-1960s, the Cold War, and the expansion of the welfare state through the Great Society. The conservative case on the Cold War is the most serious, containing as it does a charge of virtual treason, or at least moral cowardice; indeed, Peggy Noonan even implies that all of America’s Cold War presidents before Reagan were essentially appeasers.
When it comes to Vietnam, Hayward confines himself mostly to a charge of hubris against Lyndon Johnson’s “best and the brightest.” He meticulously refights the war—though after 1.4 million Hanoi dead and 8 million tons of American bombs, he still fails to dispel the conviction that there would be a South Vietnam today, if the Vietnamese people had found anything worth fighting for in the rondelet of corrupt regimes that succeeded each other in Saigon.
At the same time, though, Hayward tells us that there “may be evidence that in fact the 10-year American intervention in Vietnam actually succeeded in slowing the momentum of Communist-inspired ‘wars of revolution,’”—and thereby saved Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, even Australia, from communism. Still more perversely, he revels in all police and hardhat attacks on demonstrating students, opines that “A few mass expulsions would have quieted down the campuses in a hurry,” and even defends Reagan’s appalling, 1970 reaction to campus takeovers: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”
Well, which is it? Shouldn’t the students have been protesting, if the war was being waged in an incompetent, unwinnable manner? Or is Lyndon Johnson the unsung hero of the Cold War? Could it be that the whole issue is becoming complicated?
If Johnson and company were hubristic, Jimmy Carter, and American human rights advocates in and out of the administration, were virtual traitors. By the late1970s, Reagan was comparing Carter to Neville Chamberlain, and Hayward hands us the old Committee on the Present Danger line that the Soviet Union was not only close to being able to “win” a nuclear war, but already exploiting this “window of vulnerability” to make dangerous incursions into Afghanistan, Central America, and Africa. Supposedly, by 1979 Reagan even feared that the Soviets was about to confront the U.S. with some undefined “ultimatum” that would decide the Cold War.
These charges have always overlooked the U.S. superiority in missile accuracy, or the indestructibility of our submarine-based weapons. The greater problem here, though, is the dog that didn’t bark. Reagan’s expected ultimatum never materialized—and in retrospect, the Soviets’ foreign adventures of the ’70s now seem pathetically ineffectual or even self-destructive, as in the case of Afghanistan. There is no discernible difference between these forays and the probes the Soviets made into Cuba, Indonesia, the Middle East, and Africa in the 1950s and ’60s, back when the United States boasted an enormous superiority in nuclear weapons, and no doubt the reason for this was that the nature of nuclear weapons made any, all-out war between us and Soviets unwinnable.
It was this, in turn, which made the whole business of containment so necessary—and yes, so complicated. There is no more cherished conservative dogma than the belief that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War single-handed, by speaking truth and starting a military build-up that spent the Soviets into submission. But in fact this victory was more of a coup de grace. Surely, if we accept Hayward’s statistic that the Soviets were devoting 70 percent of their GDP to the military [p. 424] they had already been spent into the ground, and the realization that this was unsustainable had seeped through even the walls of the Kremlin.
It was a generation of containment that brought this to pass, and containment was a strategy that worked best whenever the United States remained most true to its founding principles. Lyndon Johnson’s greatest act of hubris in Vietnam was that he tried to fight the war in a surreptitious and undemocratic manner, without a declaration of war and without convincing the American people that what he was doing was vital to their security.
Hayward himself writes, “over the long run the idealistic side must always dominate in a democracy founded on the universal creed that ‘all men are created equal.’” Nonetheless, he proceeds to lambast “Carter’s human rights policy” for the triumph of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and “the mass media of the bourgeois countries” for the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. He brings on Jeane Kirkpatrick—soon to be Reagan’s ambassador to the U.N.—to scold Carter “for lack of realism about the nature of traditional versus revolutionary autocracies” and he snorts that “Despite Carter’s public attention to the Soviet dissidents, the real orientation of human rights policy could be (and was) summarized in the phrase, ‘No more Pinochets’…”
Who is being hubristic now? We are back in Noonan’s magical kingdom, where foreign peoples do not know they are unhappy unless Americans tells them they are. Within a few years, Reagan would so lose his moral way that he would squander his political capital selling arms to Khomeini and funding the contras. Kirkpatrick would have to be put down when she tried to ditch our staunchest ally, Great Britain, in favor of a particularly stupid Argentinian junta. (Can we assume this policy was summarized as “No more Thatchers?”)
When it comes to the expansion of the welfare state and Johnson’s War on Poverty, Hayward’s arguments are so muddled that he has trouble keeping tracking of them. After tracing the decline of the poverty rate from 1950, Hayward claims us that “with the launching of the War on Poverty, this progress slowed and within a few years began to reverse. Coincidence?” Some 117 pages later, though, we learn that “by 1969…the nonwhite unemployment rate had fallen by half and overall poverty had fallen by 25 percent during the previous five years.” Still later we are told that number of blacks attending four-year colleges and universities doubled in the 1970s, and the proportion of the black population living in suburbs increased by a third.” Consistency?
Hayward is especially agitated by that old, right-wing whipping boy, Community Action Program (CAP), a perennial target of rightist critics for its expressed goal of encouraging the “maximum feasible participation,” of the poor in fighting their way out of poverty. CAP—a miniscule part of the Great Society, was loathed by many urban machine politicians as well—because it circumvented their authority. Hayward wheels out that wheezy old Republican prop, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to charge that community action actually encouraged the poor—particularly the black, ghetto poor—to foment revolution and start riots, asking “Can it be that this had nothing to do with the onset of urban violence?”
Well, yes, it can, considering that the riots Moynihan is referring to began in 1964, or before Community Action was even passed into law, much less funded and implemented. Once again, we are back in Wonderland, where even the suggestion that a people will finally be listened to makes them burn down their neighborhoods—but where centuries of poverty and degradation have nothing to do with it. Besides—far from rioting, according to Hayward’s own figures, most people in the ghetto seem to have been busy getting jobs, going to college, moving to the suburbs.
More than anything else, it is the issue of race—that constant sticking point in all claims to America’s moral transcendency—that thwarts all efforts to simplify Ronald Reagan. Was Reagan a racist?
Hayward insists that “Reagan never wanted to win an election on a racial appeal.” Yet when the struggle for civil rights hung in the balance, Reagan opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—the bills that ensured black Americans of their most fundamental rights to sit on a public bus, and to cast a ballot. He was one of the pioneers of the Republican “Southern strategy,” breaking off white, Democratic voters through thinly veiled, racist appeals, and all four of his presidential campaigns depended heavily upon the support of unrepenetant, racist politicians, such as North Carolina’s Jesse Helms. Even as he signed the bill that made Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, Reagan casually repeated J. Edgar Hoover’s old calumny that King might have been a communist agent.
Most egregious of all was Reagan’s first speech after the 1980 convention, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It was in Philadelphia where, just sixteen years earlier, the young civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, had been murdered by local Klansmen, but Reagan’s speech failed to make even the slightest reference to the murders. Instead, it contained the usual codewords—”I believe in states’ rights and I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.”
The Philadelphia speech—like the rest of the disagreeable past—has been expunged from conservative annals. Hayward at least has the integrity to bring it up, though he still tries to insist that Reagan was only “clearly reiterating his well-known opinion against centralized government power…”
Elsewhere, Hayward tells us of “Reagan’s penchant for telling ‘whoppers’—wildly inaccurate statistics or supposedly true stories that were easily exposed as exaggerations or falsehoods—as evidence of the man’s unfitness to be taken seriously… The one that stuck most in the craw of liberals was Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’ in Chicago public housing who supposedly collected public assistance under more than 100 separate names. The news media looked high and low, but no such person could ever be found.”
So much for the man who considered the truth as unto fresh water. But Hayward insists upon a greater truth:
“Reagan’s whoppers were…always about the deeper meaning of America, both what was right with America and what was wrong with America. That’s why the accuracy of his whoppers was always secondary to their teaching, which resonated deeply with Americans who had grown disaffected with the leadership of the nation. Even when Reagan didn’t have his facts right, there was usually a kernel of truth about the American character, or its corruption under the sway of liberal dogma.”
But facts do matter—and the facts were that most welfare recipients were not stealing public funds, did not stay on welfare for more than two years, did not take up more than a miniscule percentage of the federal budget; were not black, were not even adults (Of some 11 million welfare recipients in 1980, 7 million were children.
How much “teaching” was there be in such distortions? How could it possibly have helped us to do what free people must constantly do in a democracy, which is to make decisions after rationally, truthfully analyzing the world around us?
Reagan’s story about the welfare “queen” was not some Al Gore story about inventing the internet. It was a deliberate, racist lie, and no more a harmless “whopper” than was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The inescapable judgement on the public man, then, is that Reagan was a racist or—worse still—that he was willing to exploit racial hatred for votes.
Yet no doubt, part of what was going on in Philadelphia was more of Reagan’s purposeful opacity—the small-town habit of overlooking the late unpleasantness. Reagan was giving his absolution to the white citizens of Mississippi; no more were they people who had condoned the murders of three young men, but merely advocates of states rights, concerned to uphold the constitution. No wonder that they loved him.
Sometimes it is necessary for a people to forget—but first it is necessary for them to learn. Hayward holds to the end that Reagan was the true inheritor of the liberal tradition, against a radical, postmodernism which “is characterized by nothing so much as its rejection of the idea of progress based on reason…” In this, as in so much else, he has stood history on its head.
If anything, Reagan’s ascent marked the triumph of political postmodernism, detaching the present from the American past; detaching the language of our politics from any real meaning. As president, the man who told us that government was the problem ran up record budget deficits, presided over the worst financial scandals in our history, and even managed to raise most Americans’ taxes. Twenty years into the “Age of Reagan,” the state is bigger and more powerful than ever, particularly in its most coercive forms. We have more police, more prisons than ever before, along with a military that is soon to be funded at levels beyond those of the Cold War and a thirty-billion dollar, national security apparatus (though apparently it is incapable of anticipating the threat posed by a single dervish, tied to a dialysis machine.)
The current occupant of the White House promises us an unending, secret war to be fought around the globe. Meanwhile, he claims the right to order secret military tribunals and executions, and to spy on us as we talk to our lawyers. Elsewhere, government-organized mobs decide national elections, and international trade tribunals override American laws in hearings that are closed to the general public.
I have used the terms “conservative” and “right-wing” for the sake of convenience, but what, in fact, is truly conservative about any of this? The truth is that far from being Hayward’s heir of the Enlightment, Reagan and Reaganism have destroyed both liberalism and conservatism, in favor of some new beast—a large, activist government that is to be deployed solely on behalf of the wealthiest and most powerful interests everywhere.
And through it all, just what “simple but hard” thing have Reagan and his successors ever asked us to do? To despise the poor? To go shopping in the face of terrorism? To tell ourselves, over and over again, what a wonderful people we are?
We are still left with the question of just how Reaganism was able to triumph over the liberal tradition. H.W. Brands, in The Strange Death of American Liberalism, puts it down to neither Reagan himself nor the “cult of expertise” but Vietnam itself, which “killed the American Cold War consensus, and in killing the Cold War consensus killed liberalism.”
Brands, a professor of history and liberal arts at Texas A&M, is at least a good deal more irreverent about Reaganism than either Noonan or Hayward. Yet The Strange Death of American Liberalism is a superficial work, full of such glib observations as “In certain respects World War II was just like World War I, only bigger,” or “At times the war effort seemed chiefly an exercise in marketing.”
His very title is a misnomer, since Brands contends that liberalism was only a Cold War anomaly in the first place, alien to a longstanding American tradition of “skepticism” toward any central government. They may have been skeptical, but Americans have always been willing to rely upon big government largess, from Homestead Act land grants to Social Security. Brands ignores the many examples of localized authoritarianism that have always been present in American life—from the Puritans’ religious state, to the feudalism of the patroons, to company towns, to the ultimate tyranny of Southern slave society—that have proved much more intrusive than anything perpetrated by the federal government.
Like Hayward, Brands views liberalism as little more than a reliance upon the federal government, and this leads him to trivialize or even mock nearly every progressive movement before 1945. This is a willful misreading of history, for the essential virtue of liberalism is that it has always viewed government as one tool among many, and has never confused it with the millenium—be that the workers’ paradise or the globalized, corporate state.
Instead, what liberalism created was the unending dialogue on the possibilities of human freedom—one that was often most fruitful when liberals were actually not in power. Far from depending exclusively upon government, liberalism built up nearly all of the countervailing, non-governmental institutions in our society, from labor unions to conservation groups, from preservation societies to block associations, from the ACLU to the NAACP to NOW.
The liberal tradition was indeed mortally wounded by Vietnam—not, as Professor Brands would have it, because the war dissolved the “Cold War consensus,” which was always a mixed blessing for liberalism—but because the great dialogue was fatally interrupted. Hayward is closer to the mark here, when he writes that “Whereas Goldwater’s defensive slogan was ‘In your heart you know he’s right,’ the liberal’s tacit slogan, betrayed in countless ways, could have been: ‘In your heart, you know Marx is right.’”
Liberalism lost the confidence to stand on its own as a philosophy. Its more radical wing—which was right about the war but wrong about almost everything else—eventually drifted out of politics and into a neo-Marxist fantasia, where its adherents convinced themselves that deconstructing a text was a revolutionary act, but that organizing a ward was not. The reform wing, by contrast, seized the Democratic party and turned it into such a slavish imitation of the Republicans that today it has nothing to say.
“Liberals may not be as discouraged as they ought to be,” concludes Brands, and he is probably right. It would take a herculean effort merely to restore the old liberal dialogue, and Americans now seem barely able to follow what their government is doing, much less engage it.
Yet democracy in the modern age has never lasted for long without liberalism. There is no reason why we should not slip back into the demon-haunted, pre-Enlightenment world that most of humanity still inhabits today.
The only response possible is that given by Teddy Roosevelt—a much better optimist than Ronald Reagan ever was—when he was asked, in 1905, why anyone should think that the colossal, multiethnic, democratic America that was then just emerging was possibly sustainable. TR could give no guarantee that America would work; all he could do was to clench his fist and answer, “The effort—the effort’s worth it.”