It was half a century ago that Ronald Reagan emerged as America’s most eloquent spokesman for conservative principles. In his 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan demonstrated that he was a more consequential campaigner for Barry Goldwater than was Goldwater himself. After establishing his mastery of words and ideas on a national scale, Reagan quickly emerged as a skilled practitioner of government policy-making who could transform concepts into political vision, first as governor of California and, eventually, as a two-term president.
At its most basic level, Ronald Reagan’s presidential ideas were expressed in terms of his commitment to limited government and lower taxes as well as his resistance to communist totalitarianism. In 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative, Dr. Paul Kengor gives greater substance to the notion of what it means to be a Reagan conservative. Kengor’s answer is not phrased in philosophical terms but, as Reagan undoubtedly intended, around key principles, policies, and issues. Reagan’s conservatism, after all, was a pragmatic approach to governing by constitutional principles and not, as Reagan cautioned, a “slavish adherence to abstraction.” In Kengor’s clearly articulated view, Reagan conservatism was a “principled ideology from which cohesive principles emerged.” This book concludes with a selection of Reagan speeches which embody his basic principles.
It is significant that today Republicans still look to Reagan for guidance while the legacy of the “compassionate conservatives” is expressed less in ideas than in personnel policies and insider networks. They embraced the Framework Convention on Climate Change, expanded the mandate of the Environmental Protection Agency, and brought David Souter to the Supreme Court thus insuring the continued rise of big government. Their outlook was too often based not on principles but simply on fads cultivated by cultural and political elites.
Even though Democrats view Bill Clinton as their only genuine presidential success and he enjoyed eight years in office, there is no legacy of Clinton ideas. The same is true of George W. Bush and it is likely that Obama’s eight years in office will engender embarrassment among the partisans and shame on the part of Democrats committed to at least some values.
It is, therefore, appropriate that an analysis of Reagan’s political legacy is expressed in terms of principles. Kengor has carefully organized his study around the fundamental principles characteristic of Reagan’s conservatism. The essence of Reagan’s official conduct in office is found in eleven core values that reflect American constitutional principles and support our Founders’ determination that government should ensure liberty, order, and justice. Together they constitute an integrated, cohesive philosophy that we describe as “Reagan conservatism.” They also help us understand why Reagan believed that America was not simply a geographic entity but an idea.
While the author provides a list of these eleven principles of Reagan conservatism, the list is not offered as a mere recitation of Reagan pronouncements but rather as part of a contextual setting for Reagan’s presidency and for those who seek to forge a new Reagan coalition of values. With a steadily increasing field of presidential aspirants for 2016, Kengor’s analysis is particularly valuable to those who would pick up the Reagan mantle.
Most consistently associated with Reagan’s worldview is the notion of individual freedom. A fundamental characteristic of Reagan’s leadership style – one which did not involve the oxymoronic notion of “leading from behind” – was his willingness to be freedom’s voice to the captive nations of Eastern Europe. It is not surprising that surveys of the attitudes of East European citizens have long found Reagan to be the most admired of U.S. presidents.
Moreover, Reagan’s view of freedom was not simply rejection of governmental authority but rather an assertion of the proposition that freedom had a political aspect as well as economic implications. He argued that without entrepreneurial freedom, oil would not have assumed importance as a driving force for humanity which helped create conditions associated with a better, healthier life for millions. This, he maintained, was a component of the freedom that built America.
While Reagan associated freedom with America’s exceptional development, he also saw freedom as a universal principle essential for the noblest aspirations of the human spirit and expressed in our Founders’ wisdom and visions. Support for freedom was, therefore, conservatives’ duty to humanity and an underpinning of American foreign policy. The goal of Reagan’s foreign policy was not limited to the struggle for peace but embraced the expansion of freedom and the preservation of limited government. Reagan’s “reset button” for relations with the Soviet Union was based on his explicit rejection of totalitarianism and his observation that Soviet leaders were frightened by the “infectiousness of even a little freedom” for those people living in the Soviet bloc. Thus, anti-communism and “peace through strength” emerged as basic foreign policy principles of Reagan’s conservatism.
As important as freedom is to Reagan conservatism, he recognized that freedom without Christian values was an incomplete basis for political guidance. Summarizing Reagan’s view of this, Kengor writes that “freedom by itself, isolated, is libertarianism, not conservatism”. Reagan’s consistent view was that genuine freedom could not be practiced without faith and he referred to Russell Kirk’s observation about the need for the “inner order” that was produced by spiritual faith. Reagan, often when speaking to an academic audience, declared that all knowledge came from God and was not the product of human pretension. In fact, as Reagan observed, many of history’s most despotic figures, people such as Lenin, Pol Pot, and Ho Chi Minh, were intellectuals without a religious faith. Reagan, therefore, readily embraced the principles of faith, family, and the sanctity of human life.
Though critics sometimes note that Reagan was not a regular attender of churches in Washington, he was emphatic in his belief that democratic society could not be successful without Christian faith. He insisted that people needed to “seek Divine Guidance in the policies of their government” because there was a bond between faith and freedom. Reagan’s persistent optimism, an outlook which always colored his discussions about America’s future, was a result of his Christian faith. In 1950, he published an article entitled “My Faith” in which he concluded with the line from a poem: “God’s in His Heaven/All’s right with the world.”
While many contemporary conservatives effectively express views consistent with Reagan’s worldview, what is often missing in their assessments of the world is Reagan’s faith based optimism. In his final chapter, which is entitled “A New Time for Choosing,” Kengor asks if there “can be genuine freedom without faith?” Kengor continues by recounting Reagan’s observation as Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency that the U.S. faced the prospect of a long period of “darkness.” The existence of this prospect did not, in Reagan’s view, mean there was no prospect for an American renewal but that conservatives should “present a program of action” embracing both social conservatism and economic conservatism. Reagan believed that such a combination would be a “politically effective” alternative to state oriented liberalism and, if shared, would become the natural political home for Americans everywhere.