But conservatives today have abandoned the positive and inclusive spirit that animated Reagan's politics. Instead conservatives have embraced the negative and divisive spirit of the Republican Party's angry little brother, Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan, for those who only know him as an occasional MSNBC commentator, ran for President more than once on an isolationist, anti-immigrant, and protectionist platform. He lost badly each time.To go a step further, I think the biggest difference between Reagan-era conservatism and Bush-era (faux) conservatism or Buchanan-style paleoconservatism is the difference between optimism and pessimism.
Things have changed. America finds herself at war abroad in a conflict that seems without end. More and more Americans just want to call it a day and bring the troops home. At home, many Americans have come to view illegal immigrants as an invading army to be repelled at all costs. In the middle of a booming economy, Americans are insecure about their own prospects as Lou Dobbs relentlessly demagogues on TV about a "War on the Middle Class." Buchanan's time has come.
Whether you agreed with him or not, there's no denying that Reagan's vision of America was relentlessly optimistic. And the reason he was able to communicate this so clearly is not just because he was an actor, and not just because he had the incomparable Peggy Noonan as a speechwriter. He got this view across because he honestly believed it.
To those of you too young to remember Reagan, it probably sounds ridiculous to say that a politician honestly believed in something he was saying. But Reagan did, and despite his faults, what he said resonated with much of America because of this basic honesty of vision. It didn't hurt that Reagan exuded a confidence in America that no politician since has come close to matching, although Clinton was at least smart enough to try. This was not the false confidence of that manifests itself in the putting down of others; it was the quiet confidence that comes with knowing how good you are. Reagan knew in his heart that America was the greatest force for good on the planet, and that this was not because of its government, but because of its citizens. Knowing that he believed in you made you believe in him, and in his vision.
We don't have that sunny optimism any more, and although some might argue that this just means we've become more realistic, and that this is a good thing, I don't think that's the case. I think we've lost something invaluable and irreplaceable, and that we need to look everywhere until we've found it. Nobody (except Reagan) thought Reagan was being realistic when he called on Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." But the wall came down. Many on the left were outraged when Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire. But an evil empire it was, and Reagan's words gave aid and comfort to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain. (It's no accident that some of the former Soviet-bloc nations have been our staunchest allies over the past several years.)
In the middle of the last century it was liberals who had an optimistic view of America's place in the world. A liberal told us that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. A liberal told us that we would pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. And it was conservatives who argued that we needed to put ourselves first, and that the freedom of others wasn't worth the price of one American life.
Reagan changed all that, and in truly reactionary fashion, liberals suddenly decided that we shouldn't pay any price, bear any burden, or meet any hardship to assure the survival and the success of liberty. Really what they decided was that words such as freedom and liberty were just words, just expressions of the white male power structure, and that we needed to be more sensitive to other people's cultures. This view continues to be espoused by today's left, despite the fact that it is really an expression of the "white man's burden" turned on its head. "Of course freedom is good for us," they say, "but it wouldn't be right for us to impose our world view on people of other cultures." The fact that this is the moral equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns is lost on these people, who are content to suffer separated shoulders from patting themselves on the back for their "cultural sensitivity" to the brown and black. They're more than willing to send foreign aid to underdeveloped nations, but God forbid we should try to do something about the political and economic systems that in many cases directly led to the underdevelopment. (Root causes, anyone?) That would be "imperialistic" and "hegemonistic." We must respect the culture of the Other, even as the Other has an average lifespan of 26 and dies of diseases that the don't you dare say it's better West eliminated decades ago.
I get the sense that in the area of foreign policy, the conservative "base" circa 2006 has more in common with so-called "progressives" than either side would like to admit, although it's a case of different roads reaching the same neoisolationist terminus. In his heart, it's clear that George W. Bush would be more comfortable with a sort of "steady state" world, in which America takes care of herself first, and then, if anything is left over, maybe turns her attention abroad. (Indeed, as many people have pointed out, that's pretty much the foreign policy platform he ran on.) And this shows everytime he makes a speech about spreading democracy and freedom: the words are there, but the vision isn't. There's no heart, no soul, in what he's saying. Reagan made statements: Bush gives speeches. The Reagan administration would have emphasized Iraqi freedom as a reason for Operation: Iraqi Freedom, rather than downplaying it until it became clear that we weren't going to find any WMD any time soon. Why? Because they would have had the political smarts to know how it would play, and, more importantly, because Reagan himself would have believed it.
Excepting the neocons, I think many of today's conservatives feel much the way Bush does. They may duitifully back the President, and they sincerely believe that now that we're in Iraq we have to win, but in their hearts they don't particularly care one way or the other whether the Iraqi people will ever be free, and they doubt that we can effect this kind of change in the first place.
This same pessimism among conservatives - and many liberals - extends to their views on immigration. Lost among the fence-building crowd is any semblance of the notion that this country still has the ability to handle a great influx of immigrants: many of them look at America as a zero-sum nation rather than the land of limitless possibility that Reagan believed in. Illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans, they say. Well, no, they're not, actually, but by now the entire issue is running on almost pure emotion on all sides - logic has left the building and is warming up the car. Defending the illegals doesn't make much sense; after all, their first act in coming to America was to break our laws. But does anyone doubt that there is a sizeable number of people who favor building the Rusty Curtain who would just as soon these people not be here period, whether illegally or legally?
How far we've come from Reagan's call for a wall to be torn down. How far we've come from Reagan's neverending faith in America. How far we've come from Reagan's boundless belief in us.