On February 6, conservatives celebrated the gift of Ronald Reagan. Born on that date 104 years ago, his presidency embodies the finest moment for conservatism in the modern political era. It’s why every candidate with an ‘R’ next to their name attempts to claim the mantle of Reagan. Unfortunately, too few know much more about his political philosophy beyond a shallow obligatory understanding of the “small government” argument.
A few writers saw fit to pay tribute in the past week to Reagan. None I’ve read so far is as good as commentary by Bradley Birzer.
Birzer presents the importance of Reagan’s optimism. More importantly, he shows how that optimism was not just a public affirmation of positive thinking, but a natural outgrowth of Reagan’s belief in the fundamental conservative tenet of decentralization. Reagan understood through years of study of history how decentralization spurs the creativity of the American people to face challenges in their own community on their own terms. He was confident in the power of the creative community.
As President, he put this to work for the country in a way no leader has since, and helped give rise to a more locally engaged citizenry throughout his time in office.
While many across the political spectrum would like to discover the secret of Ronald Reagan’s success, some conservatives, believing the fortieth president a high priest of the American civil religion, have dismissed him as a barely closeted progressive who blithely saw the good in all. After all, it is always morning in America…
While one might readily prove Reagan an optimist, even a Pollyanna, optimism does not equate to progressivism. Rather, it would be fair to label Reagan a grand proponent of the ingenuity and potential of each individual person. Despite his faith in the individual, however, Reagan did not have the same faith in history itself. History is merely the culmination of billions of decisions made by billions of persons. But just as the actions of each creative person would prove unpredictable—hence, human creativity—so too would the sum of their decisions and experiences. In ignorance of what is to come, one has to possess faith in the individuals of the world to have faith in the future of the world. This is not the same thing as progressivism, which demands a confidence in the very direction of history toward some inevitable and purposeful end. Reagan had faith, but his understanding of time and history and the future also demanded a proper ignorance and humility.
It should and must be noted that Reagan read constantly. As Dick Allen noted, Reagan “read everything.”
Birzer goes on to list the comments of many of Reagan’s confidantes and former staffers who reinforce his high level of intelligence resulting from years of deep study of philosophy, history and political theory.
Birzer references Russell Kirk’s argument that “Ronald Reagan’s sharp intelligence was not enough to make him the leader he was. Honing his intellect, Reagan added a profound confidence, “audacity, and again audacity, and always audacity.”
In other words, it was Reagan’s study which led to his intelligence, and his intelligence that led to his commitment to conservative principle. In turn, his commitment led to his audacious confidence, his optimism and kindness.
Reagan’s optimism and self-deprecating humor was not strictly a disarming tactic as might be suggested by political speech coaches of today. Rather, it was a natural result of his confidence in the people to govern themselves. Reagan’s demeanor and tone exuded the foundational tenet of decentralization and his unwavering belief in the power of liberty.
Those who would resort to “screaming and name-calling,” as Sen. Chris McDaniel succinctly described it recently while speaking with Politico, are promoting the opposite of Reagan’s approach. What’s more, they are showing a lack of confidence in the conservative tenet of decentralization, and by extension conservatism itself. Tactics that seek to silence people are the polar opposite of empowering them to face challenges. What this country needs now more than anything are people empowered to face challenges.
Mimicking the left’s tactics of division and character assassination has gotten us nowhere, and it will continue to get us nowhere. It has, in fact, created a generation who has little understanding of conservatism and it’s rich philosophical tradition of self-governance through empowering what Reagan called The Creative Society.
Both the attacks and celebration of personality politics reveals a trade-off of the very essence of Reagan’s legacy. He was important to conservatism precisely because he refused to make it solely about self-importance.
In 1968, in a book all-too-easily forgotten by friend and foe alike, Reagan outlined his very Burkean and Smithian vision of spontaneous order. The book, The Creative Society, a somewhat obvious jab at and humorous take on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, published by the relatively obscure firm of Devin-Adair, sold relatively well. With it, Reagan brought together the contemporary work of Robert Nisbet, Friedrich Hayek, and Russell Kirk, arguing not just for allowing the creative energies of the individual to flourish, but of the individual within community. While governmental laws served only to diminish the good of the whole, a government of laws allowed society to grow exponentially, as it turned over the most important functions to individuals and communities.
The Creative Society, in other words, is simply a return to the people of the privilege of self-government, as well as a pledge for more efficient representative government—citizens of proven ability in their fields, serving where their experience qualifies them, proposing common sense answers for California’s problems, reviewing governmental structure itself and bringing it into line with the most advanced, modern business practices. Those who talk of complex problems, requiring more government planning and more control, in reality are taking us back in time to the acceptance of rule of the many by the few. Time to look to the future. We’ve had enough talk—disruptive talk—in America of left and right, dividing us down the center. There is really no such choice facing us. The only choice we have is up or down—up, to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down, to the deadly dullness of totalitarianism.
If Ronald Reagan’s vision of a Creative Society is progressive, it is no more so than Edmund Burke’s, Alexis de Tocqueville’s, or Russell Kirk’s. In other words, it is not progressive in the least. It is a vision of a decentralized society, a society of associations, a society of charity, and a society of entrepreneurship. Like the man himself, Reagan’s vision was, at once, humane as well as humble.
As we remember Reagan, let’s not forget he was more than a face and a name. He remains today an icon of what conservatism can accomplish by focusing on what brings us together, and the power of free individuals who choose to collectively support and inspire one another to greatness.
Our aim at the United Conservatives Fund is to bring the trust of the individual and the concept of decentralization back to the forefront of political conversation. We will support candidates who can articulate this message and educate the public on what it means to be conservative.
Reducing ourselves to angry factions is detrimental to our success. However, when we unite in respectful and honest dialogue and intelligent discussion of policy, success becomes inevitable.
Like Reagan, conservatives can be confident in that approach.
Keith Plunkett is the Policy and Communications Director for the United Conservatives Fund. He has worked on communications and policy issues with a range of public officials from aldermen to Congressmen, and a variety of businesses, government agencies and non-profits. He serves or has served as a board member of several non-profit, civic and political organizations. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Keithplunkett