Dumbing down conservatism

Somewhere, in a box of old files in the attic of our family’s garage, there’s a newspaper photograph of me with three other people:  Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, and John Warner.  

To be candid, this picture is actually a bit of an illusion.  It was taken at a political rally for John Warner, who was then making his first bid for the U.S. Senate.  Mr. Reagan was the main speaker.  There were two rows of dignitaries on the platform, and – as a very minor dignitary – I drew the back row.

However, I sat directly behind Governor Reagan, who was seated between the Warners.  Thus, when Reagan got up to speak, I became visible.  After the speech, as we all stood to applaud his remarks, Reagan stopped to shake hands with Warner.  For that moment, I seemed to be standing between Warner and Elizabeth Taylor, as part of a foursome with the future president.  

So the picture is a sort of Forrest Gump moment.  I was there, but not actually part of a grouping with the other three.  Still, it’s fun to know that – if the silverfish haven’t gotten to it – I have that picture somewhere.

Ronald Reagan has never been one of my political favorites.  I remember a brief blush of enthusiasm after listening to his powerful 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing” with my Dad – but I was only thirteen then.  I was white, and male, and from an upper-middle class family.  I knew little of history, and nothing of the hard lives faced by millions – in this country, and around the world.

I also listened to my parents – especially Dad.  He was about to launch his own political career and, thus, was gradually easing to the right in order to fit in as much as possible with the County’s antediluvian political establishment.

Fourteen years later, when I shook hands with Mr. Reagan and sat through his speech endorsing Mr. Warner, I had a mind of my own.  I considered Reagan a nice enough guy – well-intentioned and basically sincere in his desire to serve our country.  But I had met enough of his followers to think that  – whatever his personal merits – he was the leader of a crew with which I had nothing in common.

Earlier in 1978, I had crossed swords with Reaganites during the caucus and convention process leading to the Republican Party’s nomination of Dick Obenshain as its candidate for the U.S. Senate.  (Shortly after his nomination, Obenshain had died in a plane crash, which led to Warner’s becoming Virginia’s Senator.)

I didn’t like Virginia’s Reaganites.  Indeed, I remember hanging, on my office wall, a Boris Vallejo poster of five club-wielding Neanderthals striding out of the mist.  The poster symbolized everything I thought and felt about the Republican Right.

It still does.

I’ve always believed that Ronald Reagan will bear a heavy responsibility in the judgment of history – partly because of the people he brought into the political process, and partly because of his role in dumbing down American political discourse.

Because he was a reasonably good actor, and a very accomplished public speaker, Reagan wielded more influence on our entertainment-obsessed nation than a barn-full of serious thinkers from the academic world.

More influence than a stadium-full of small business owners, mayors, school principals, cops, social workers, juvenile judges, and others from the class of people who actually deal with the actual, day-to-day problems of governing a great and complex nation.

Mr. Reagan introduced this country to an era of sloppy, sentimental thinking.  America is far too powerful and influential to be guided by anything but informed, hard-headed realism – but Reagan made it acceptable for citizens to be both uninformed and outspoken, at the same time.  

I suspect history will not judge him kindly for that.

As President and, earlier, as Governor of California, Reagan proved that he was no fool.  He made lots of tough, practical decisions.  He had strong principles, but he knew how to compromise.  

But, in the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency, he was guilty of oversimplifying the sorts of hard choices involved in governance.  He repeatedly used anecdotal “evidence” to justify ignoring sober statistics.  He made millions of Americans feel comfortable having strong opinions concerning issues they knew absolutely nothing about.

In-depth knowledge – or even a decent grasp of basic history, economics, sociology, and law – were no longer necessary.   Right-thinking Americans could content themselves with ideas which could fit on a bumper sticker, and anyone who insisted upon a more sophisticated, data-driven analysis could be dismissed as an elitist intellectual.

To be sure, there has long been a populist, anti-intellectual strain in American politics, and this strain gained new vigor in the age of television.  But Mr. Reagan bestowed an unwonted dignity upon those who itched to speak out without first learning something about whatever the hell they were talking about.  

We see this everywhere in American politics today.  To a certain extent, the Left has also embraced blissful ignorance.  Today, advocates on both extremes are content to be more passionate than well-informed.  And that helps no one.

When I was in college and law school, American conservatism was intensely intellectual.   Some of the great minds of my own generation were deeply read in the conservative canon – from Burke and Hamilton to Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek – and seemed destined to contribute bold new chapters of their own.

Sadly, this was not to be.  For a host of reasons – but substantially because of the rise of Ronald Reagan – American conservatism shifted from a profoundly intellectual minority to a populist celebration of bigotry, ignorance, and superstition.  

At a time of global climate change, economic fragility, Islamist terrorism, and the rise of powerful rivals to America’s world leadership, the Right has nothing to offer but bumper-sticker slogans.

Given the paucity of fresh ideas on the Left, this impoverishes us all.



The author mentions "the conservative canon" and then his two modern examples are Rand and Hayek, both of whom explicitly said they are not conservatives.

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