What happened was Ronald Wilson Blithering Reagan. Obviously Reagan did not suddenly descend out of the clouds in 1980. He had been the cherished candidate of the conservative movement, its chosen route to power, ever since Goldwater’s defeat. Goldwater was too blunt and candid, too much an unhandleable Real Person. What was needed was a lovable, manipulable icon. Moreover, Goldwater’s principles were too hard-edged: he was way too much a domestic libertarian, and he was too much an eager warmonger. Both his libertarianism and his passion for nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union scared the bejesus out of the American masses, as well as the more astute leadership of the conservative movement.
A reconstituted conservative movement would have to drop any libertarian ideology or concrete policies, except to provide a woolly and comfortable mood for suitably gaseous anti-government rhetoric and an improved foreign policy that would make sure that many more billions would go into the military-industrial complex, to step up global pressure against Communism, but avoiding an actual nuclear war. This last point was important: As much as they enjoy the role of the bully, neither the Establishment nor the American people want to risk nuclear war, which might, after all, blow them up as well. Once again, Ronnie Reagan looked like the Answer.
Two important new ingredients entered into, and helped reshape, the conservative movement during the mid 1970’s. One was the emergence of a small but vocal and politically powerful group of neo-conservatives (neocons), who were able, in a remarkably short time, to seize control of the think tanks, the opinion-molding institutions, and finally the politics, of the conservative movement. As ex-liberals, the neocons were greeted as important new converts from the enemy. More importantly, as ex-Trotskyites, the neocons were veteran politicos and organizers, schooled in Marxian cadre organizing and in manipulating the levers of power. They were shrewdly eager to place their own people in crucial opinion molding and money-raising positions, and in ousting those not willing to submit to the neocon program. Understanding the importance of financial support, the neocons knew how to sucker Old Right businessmen into giving them the monetary levers at their numerous foundations and think tanks. In contrast to free-market economists, for example, the neocons were eager to manipulate patriotic symbols and ethical doctrines, doing the microequivalent of Reagan and Bush’s wrapping themselves in the American Flag. Wrapping themselves, also, in such patriotic symbols as The Framers and the Constitution, as well as Family Values, the neocons were easily able to outflank free-market types and keep them narrowly confined to technical economic issues. In short the neocons were easily able to seize the moral and patriotic “high ground.”
The only group willing and able to challenge the neocons on their own moralizing on philosophic turf was, of course, the tiny handful of libertarians; and outright moral libertarianism, with its opposition to statism, theocracy, and foreign war, could never hope to get to first base with conservative businessmen, who, even at the best of times during the Old Right era, had never been happy about individual personal liberty, (e.g. allowing prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, or drugs) or with the libertarians’ individualism and conspicuous lack of piety toward the Pentagon, or toward the precious symbol of the Nation-State, the US flag.
The neocons were (and remain today) New Dealers, as they frankly describe themselves, remarkably without raising any conservative eyebrows. They are what used to be called, in more precise ideological days, “extreme right-wing Social Democrats.” In other words, they are still Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Humphrey Democrats. Their objective, as they moved (partially) into the Republican Party and the conservative movement, was to reshape it to become, with minor changes, a Roosevelt-Truman-etc. movement; that is, a liberal movement shorn of the dread “L” word and of post-McGovern liberalism. To verify this point all we have to do is note how many times Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, et al., properly reviled by conservatives while they were alive, are now lauded, even canonized, by the current neocon-run movement, from Ronnie Reagan on down. And no one calls them on this Orwellian revision of conservative movement history.
As statists-to-the-core the neocons had no problem taking the lead in crusades to restrict individual liberties, whether it be in the name of rooting out “subversives,” or of inculcating broadly religious (“Judeo-Christian”) or moral values. They were happy to form a cozy alliance with the Moral Majority, the mass of fundamentalists who entered the arena of conservative politics in the mid-1970s. The fundamentalists were goaded out of their quietist millenarian dreams (e.g., the imminent approach of Armageddon) and into conservative political action by the accumulation of moral permissivism in American life. The legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade was undoubtedly the trigger, but this decision came on top of a cumulative effect of the sexual revolution, the militant homosexual movement “out of the closet” and into the streets, the spread of pornography, and the visible decay of the public school system. The entry of the Moral Majority transformed American politics, not the least by furnishing the elite cadre of neocons with a mass base to guide and manipulate.
In economic matter, the neocons showed no more love of liberty, though this is obscured by the fact that the neocons wish to trim the welfare state of its post-Sixties excrescences, particularly since these were largely designed to aid black people. What the neocons want is a smaller, more “efficient” welfare state, within which bounds they would graciously allow the market to operate. The market is acceptable as a narrow instrumental device; their view of private property and the free market is essentially identical to Gorbachev’s in the Soviet Union.
Why did the Right permit itself to be bamboozled by the neocons? Largely because the conservatives had been inexorably drifting Stateward in the same manner. In response to the crushing defeat of Goldwater, the Right had become ever less libertarian and less principled, and ever more attuned to the “responsibilities” and moderations of Power. It is a far cry from three decades ago when Bill Buckley used to say that he too is an “anarchist” but that we have to put off all thoughts of liberty until the “international Communist conspiracy” is crushed. Those old Chodorovian libertarian days are long gone, and so is National Review as any haven for libertarian ideas. War mongering, militarism, theocracy, and limited “free” markets – this is really what Buckleyism amounted to by the late 1970s.
The burgeoning neocons were able to confuse and addle the Democratic Party by breaking with the Carter Administration, at the same time militantly and successfully pressuring it from within. The neocons formed two noisy front groups, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the Committee on the Present Danger. By means of these two interlocking groups and their unusual access to influential media, the neocons were able to pressure the Carter Administration into breaking the détente with Russia over the Afghanistan imbroglio and influencing Carter to get rid of the dove Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State and to put foreign policy power into the hands of the Polish émigré hawk and Rockefeller Trilateralist, Zbigniew Brzezinski. In the meantime, the neocons pushed the hysterically hawkish CIA “B” Team report, wailing about alleged Soviet nuclear superiority, which in turn paved the way for the vast gift of spending handed to the military-industrial complex by the incoming Regan Administration. The Afghanistan and “B” Team hysterias, added to the humiliation by the Ayatollah, managed not only to kill off the bedeviled Carter Administration, but also to put the boots to non-intervention and to prepare the nation for a scrapping of the “post-Vietnam syndrome” and a return to the warmongering of the pre-Vietnam Era.
The Reagan candidacy of 1980 was brilliantly designed to weld a coalition providing the public’s instinctive anti-government mood with sweeping, but wholly nonspecific, libertarian rhetoric, as a convenient cover for the diametrically opposite policies designed to satisfy the savvy and politically effective members of that coalition: the neocons, the Buckleyite cons, the Moral Majority, the Rockefellers, the military-industrial complex, and the various Establishment special interests always clustering at the political trough.
Has the Reagan Administration done nothing good in its eight ghastly years on earth, you might ask? Yes, it has done one good thing; it has repealed the despotic 55-mile-per-hour highway speed limit. And that is it.
As the Gipper, at bloody long last, goes riding off into the sunset, he leaves us with a hideous legacy. He has succeeded in destroying the libertarian public mood of the late 1970’s, and replaced it with fatuous and menacing patriotic symbols of the Nation-State, especially The Flag, which he first whooped up in his vacuous reelection campaign in 1984, aided by the unfortunate coincidence of the Olympics being held at Los Angeles. (Who will soon forget the raucous baying of the chauvinist mobs: “USA! USA!” every time some American came in third in some petty event?) He has succeeded in corrupting libertarian and free-market intellectuals and institutions, although in Ronnie’s defense it must be noted that the fault lies with the corrupted and not with the corrupter.
It is generally agreed by political analysts that the ideological mood of the public, after eight years of Reaganism, is in support of economic liberalism (that is, an expanded welfare state), and social conservatism (that is, the suppression of civil liberties and the theocratic outlawing of immoral behavior). And, on foreign policy, of course, they stand for militaristic chauvinism. After eight years of Ronnie, the mood of the American masses is to expand the goodies of the welfare-warfare state (though not to increase taxes to pay for these goodies), to swagger abroad and be very tough with nations that can’t fight back, and to crack down on the liberties of groups they don’t like or whose values or culture they disagree with.
It is a decidedly unlovely and unlibertarian wasteland, this picture of America 1989, and who do we have to thank for it? Several groups: the neocons who organized it; the vested interests and the Power Elite who run it; the libertarians and free marketeers who sold out for it; and above all, the universally beloved Ronald Wilson Reagan, Who Made It Possible.
As he rides off into retirement, glowing with the love of the American public, leaving his odious legacy behind, one wonders what this hallowed dimwit might possibly do in retirement that could be at all worthy of the rest of his political career. What very last triumph are we supposed to “win for the Gipper”?
He has tipped his hand: I have just read that as soon as he retires, the Gipper will go on a banquet tour on behalf of the repeal of the 22nd (“Anti-Third Term”) Amendment – the one decent thing the Republicans have accomplished. In the last four decades. The 22nd Amendment was a well-deserved retrospective slap at FDR. It is typical of the depths to which the GOP has fallen in the last few years that Republicans have been actually muttering about joining the effort to repeal this amendment. If they are successful, then Ronald Reagan might be elected again, and reelected well into the 21st century.
In our age of High Tech, I’m sure that his mere physical death could easily have been overcome by his handlers and media mavens. Ronald Reagan will be suitably mummified, trotted out in front of a giant American flag, and some puppet master would have gotten him to give his winsome headshake and some ventriloquist would have imitated the golden tones: “We-e-ell…” (Why not? After all, the living reality of the last four years has not been a helluva lot different.)
Perhaps, after all, Ronald Reagan and almost all the rest of us will finally get our fondest wish: the election forever and ever of the mummified con King Ronnie.