G.Will on Reagan
Fascinating op-ed by George Will on the problems for Republicans with nostalgia for Reaganism.
Will takes as his launching pad a new biography of Reagan by historian John Diggins.
Diggins's thesis is that the 1980s were America's "Emersonian moment" because Reagan, a "political romantic" from the Midwest and West, echoed New England's Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Emerson was right," Reagan said several times of the man who wrote, "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature." Hence Reagan's unique, and perhaps oxymoronic, doctrine -- conservatism without anxieties. Reagan's preternatural serenity derived from his conception of the supernatural.Reagan, like Emerson, was strongly influenced by Unitarianism. What is sacred to my nature is correctly the Soul--the higher self. Emerson was deeply open to higher states of awareness. When, however, especially in our "non-judgmental" world of spirituality, the correct referent to the sacrality of one's Soul nature becomes the sacrality of my egoic desires.
Will (via Diggins) draws some interesting conclusions as a result of this optimism.
1.It destroys the notion of revelation, sin and judgment of false desires. Traditional aspects of Christianity in other words. [Unitarianism is not orthodox Nicene Trinitarian Christianity].
2.It does not accord with the conservatism of the Federalist Founders, particularly James Madison. The Federalists sought to limit democracy through mechanisms, separation of powers, and immense amounts of non-democratic constitutional guarantees.
And #3, most interestingly I think (my emphasis):
"An unmentionable irony," writes Diggins, is that big-government conservatism is an inevitable result of Reaganism. "Under Reagan, Americans could live off government and hate it at the same time. Americans blamed government for their dependence upon it." Unless people have a bad conscience about demanding big government -- a dispenser of unending entitlements -- they will get ever larger government. But how can people have a bad conscience after being told (in Reagan's First Inaugural) that they are all heroes? And after being assured that all their desires, which inevitably include desires for government-supplied entitlements, are good? Similarly, Reagan said that the people never start wars, only governments do. But the Balkans reached a bloody boil because of the absence of effective government. Which describes Iraq today.Diggins and Will laud Reagan for his work to end communism, considering him a great liberator of the people's of Eastern Europe. I agree that Reagan played a part in that fall--although generally I think his gift was to realize that the beast was dying from within and just played his cards right waiting for it to collapse.
But that liberation came with I think serious negative consequences--the history of blaming governments and the optimism of individual initiative (Gordon Gecko at the same time period said that greed was good--was greed a God-given good desire?).
Bush's failure to implement what could have possibly been the sound middle ground of compassionate conservatism as well as his cowboy adventurism, leave the Republicans with some major soul searching to do. If they don't do it soon, they may well enter the wilderness yet again--losing both the Congress and the Presidency. As they work towards a new set of guiding principles, I think Will hits the nail on the head---more Lincoln and Madison less mythic nostalgia for Reaganism.