I’ve often pointed out that, while some conservatives claim the conservative movement began with Barry Goldwater, modern conservatism has become a philosophy quite different from Goldwater’s beliefs. Goldwater was so distressed by the direction that conservatism was going, especially with the increasing influence of the religious right, that in his later years he even referred to himself as a liberal. I have no doubt that if he was still alive Goldwater would have actively backed Barack Obama over John McCain, especially after the addition of Sarah Palin to the ticket, as did two of his granddaughters. With the GOP becoming a southern regional party dominated recently by George Bush and now by politicians from the religious right such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, the party has also moved away from the views of Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan’s name is repeated ad nauseum at most Republican gatherings primarily because the GOP does not have any old leaders to brag about. Nixon was a crook. Bush was an incompetent who undermined our national security and trampled on the Constitution. Previous Republican presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abe Lincoln would all be Democrats today, and the conservatives would also drive out Gerald Ford.
Many modern Republicans cling to Ronald Reagan’s name and pretend his views were comparable to their own. Many of those who actually worked with Ronald Reagan know better and have recognized that the modern Republican Party has moved far to the right of Reagan. This includes former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein, speech writers Jeffrey Hart and Peggy Noonan, and Colin Powell (see here and here).
Another Reaganite, Mickey Edwards, describes how Ronald Reagan would not recognize what the Republican Party has become, criticizing the current Republican opposition to virtually all government action (other than for military action, which apparently does not count as big government):
A shocker: The Constitution, which we love for the limits it places on government power, not only constrains government, it empowers it. Limited government is not no government. And limited government is not “small” government. Simply building roads, maintaining a military, operating courts, delivering the mail and doing other things specifically mandated by the Constitution for America’s 300 million people make it impossible to keep government “small.” It is boundaries that protect freedom. Small governments can be oppressive, and large ones can diminish freedoms. It is the boundaries, not the numbers, that matter.
What would Reagan think of this? Wasn’t it he who warned that government is the problem? Well, permit me. I directed the joint House-Senate policy advisory committees for the Reagan presidential campaign. I was part of his congressional steering committee. I sat with him in his hotel room in Manchester, N.H., the night he won that state’s all-important primary. I knew him before he was governor of California and before I was a member of Congress. Let me introduce you to Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, who spent 16 years in government, actually said this:
“In the present crisis,” referring specifically to the high taxes and high levels of federal spending that had marked the Carter administration, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He then went on to say: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.” Government, he said, “must provide opportunity.” He was not rejecting government, he was calling — as Barack Obama did Tuesday — for better management of government, for wiser decisions.
A problem with political labels is that their definitions are not clear, and they change with time. At one time the major differences between left and right might have been over economics but, although many Republicans try to obfuscate this with their claims that Obama is a socialist, the left now supports a capitalist system at least as much as the right. Considering the amount of collusion between big government and big business favored by Republicans, I often consider liberals to be the actual supporters of capitalism.
During the Bush years liberalism came to be defined more upon opposing the policies of the Republicans than based upon past definitions. Currently the sets of views which primarily separate liberals from conservatives are 1) support for liberty by the left and opposition to the authoritarian views of the right and 2) having a reality-based viewpoint as opposed to the anti-intellectualism of the right. Edwards concludes his article criticizing both the anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party and its focus on seeking power rather than on promoting freedom:
The Republican Party that is in such disrepute today is not the party of Reagan. It is the party of Rush Limbaugh, of Ann Coulter, of Newt Gingrich, of George W. Bush, of Karl Rove. It is not a conservative party, it is a party built on the blind and narrow pursuit of power.
Not too long ago, conservatives were thought of as the locus of creative thought. Conservative think tanks (full disclosure: I was one of the three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation) were thought of as cutting-edge, offering conservative solutions to national problems. By the 2008 elections, the very idea of ideas had been rejected. One who listened to Barry Goldwater’s speeches in the mid-’60s, or to Reagan’s in the ’80s, might have been struck by their philosophical tone, their proposed (even if hotly contested) reformulation of the proper relationship between state and citizen. Last year’s presidential campaign, on the other hand, saw the emergence of a Republican Party that was anti-intellectual, nativist, populist (in populism’s worst sense) and prepared to send Joe the Plumber to Washington to manage the nation’s public affairs.
American conservatism has always had the problem of being misnamed. It is, at root, the political twin to classical European liberalism, a freedoms-based belief in limiting the power of government to intrude on the liberties of the people. It is the opposite of European conservatism (which Winston Churchill referred to as reverence for king and church); it is rather the heir to John Locke and James Madison, and a belief that the people should be the masters of their government, not the reverse (a concept largely turned on its head by the George W. Bush presidency).
Over the last several years, conservatives have turned themselves inside out: They have come to worship small government and have turned their backs on limited government. They have turned to a politics of exclusion, division and nastiness. Today, they wonder what went wrong, why Americans have turned on them, why they lose, or barely win, even in places such as Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina.
And, watching, I suspect Ronald Reagan is smacking himself on the forehead, rolling his eyes and wondering who in the world these clowns are who want so desperately to wrap themselves in his cloak.
The Republican Party has turned into primarily a southern regional party based upon authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. It would no longer provide a home for either Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan.