Ronald Reagan was a great president, but it is time to let him rest in peace. Even though it has been more than 30 years since Reagan left office, he has remained the standard by which Republican presidents and presidential hopefuls are judged. Thus, as Republicans contemplate the future of their party, they are haunted by the prospect of a zombie Reaganism apocalypse.
Writing for National Review, Peter Spiliakos describes zombie Reaganism as “the application of a distorted version of 1980s Republican politics to a very different time.” This is a tribute to Reagan’s political and policy triumphs, but it is also a sign of political decadence. Our nation faces challenges that cannot be adequately addressed by calcifying Reagan’s platform into conservative dogma. Cutting taxes won’t cut it forever.
Nonetheless, some on the right insist that a resurgence of Reaganism is just what conservatism requires. Jonah Goldberg wishes that “everyone who didn’t subscribe to a basic understanding of Reaganite conservatism just went with a different label.”
David French frets that the GOP will soon be left as a “formerly conservative party.” In his view, Reaganism is conservatism, and he defines Reaganite conservatism as “an ideological movement that was more or less united around the famous ‘three-legged stool’ of ‘social conservatism, fiscal restraint, and muscular internationalism.”
But the need to specify “Reaganite conservatism” indicates that conservatism encompasses more than Reaganism, which was a political response to a particular set of political and historical circumstances, not a set of eternal verities equally applicable to all times and places. For instance, conservatism is not defined by a policy of “muscular internationalism.” Although this was an appropriate response to the evil empire of the Soviet Union, it is not a permanent conservative principle because it is often destructive and destabilizing.
This illustrates how Reagan’s triumphs — such as tax cuts and the defeat of global communism — reduced the need for Reaganism. Yet none of the subsequent attempts to redefine the GOP’s governing philosophy (such as George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”) had the same success. Thus, many Republicans continued to sing the praises of that old-time Reaganism, which they sought to transform from a set of policies into a permanent governing philosophy.
For many on the right, fidelity to the principles of Reaganism became more important than preserving the things Reaganism had been created to protect. It is an exaggeration to say that Republicans had ceased to conserve anything, but the abstraction of “Reaganite principles” away from concrete circumstances vitiated their conservatism. Incessant invocations of Reagan cannot make endless occupations in the Middle East and increased economic dependence on the Chinese Communist Party into conservative policies.
By 2016, many voters were not looking for someone who could best repeat stale Republican dogma, or who would be the best manager for a system that was disrupting their families and communities. Rather, they wanted someone who would disrupt that system and take on the D.C. blob.
Mitt Romney, for instance, represented the best of center-right technocratic liberal capitalism, but as a public intellectual once said: If that’s your best, your best won’t do. For all of his faults, Trump challenged calcified Republican dogmas.
As David Brooks argues in The New York Times, even if Trump loses, “A thousand smarter conservatives will be building a new party after 2020, but one that builds from the framework Trump established.” On issues like immigration, trade, and foreign policy, the GOP will not go back to what it was before Trump’s takeover.
It might seem odd to insist that conservatives need new political ideas, given that conservatism favors the old and tried over the new and untested. But conservatives know that the old and tried is challenged in new ways and that the threats against what we seek to conserve are not always the same. Changed circumstances require political adjustments to continue the conservative task of preservation.
For example, business interests may be allies against the dangers of socialism and a command economy. But as we see with the emerging woke oligarchs of the left, they can also support radical social change, in addition to exploiting workers and damaging communities in their quest for cheap labor.
Likewise, a global military presence was necessary to confront the Soviet empire, but to maintain it at the same level after the collapse of the USSR may lead to very unconservative military adventurism. To borrow a phrase, conservatives have permanent interests, not permanent allies.
Thus, the concerns that animate conservatism are not free-market ideology or devotion to “muscular internationalism.” Reagan’s policies had and may still have benefits, but they are not the definition of conservatism. They should not be elevated into principles, with those who object to them branded as heretics and cast out of the conservative movement.
The populism that Trump rode to victory arose because the conservative movement and the Republican Party were becoming indifferent, or even destructive, to the communities and families of their voters. This neglect of the common good was excused by appealing to Reaganite policies that had been reified into permanent principles, often far beyond anything Reagan himself would have approved. Shuttered factories and shattered towns were justified, even celebrated, in the name of creative destruction and globalization.
Thus, we must renew our understanding of the purpose of conservatism, which is to promote human flourishing by preserving the political, social, and economic orders that have enabled past and present well-being. As with everything human, these orders are imperfect. But conservatives recognize that destruction is easier than construction, that building a civilization takes generations, while its downfall can come quickly. We know that the radicals who want to burn it all down in a purifying fire will not build anything better.
Conservatives, therefore, have a dual task. We must repulse the radicals and ideologues on all sides who would destroy a good civilization to make way for their imagined ideal one. But we must also undertake tasks of repair and reform to maintain and improve our cultural and political dwelling place. Tradition, as the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has observed, is not passive but must be renewed and reinterpreted with the generations.
Therefore, conservatives would be wise to address populist concerns with something other than zombie Reaganism. We should recall that the American dream is not primarily about the opportunity for a lucky or exceptional few to get fabulously rich, although we should not envy their success. Rather, the American dream is about the common man having an honest job, a home, a family, and a place in the community in which he can be known, recognized, and respected.
This is the way of life that conservatives must promote and protect. It may be threatened in myriad ways, and so we must not allow the policies of a prior generation of conservative leaders to be treated as the eternal principles of conservatism. We must not allow the dangers of socialism to blind us to the emerging threat of a woke oligarchy.
If conservatives are going to face a unified cultural, legal, and political onslaught from the left, we will need a commitment to more than the reanimated remains of Reaganism. Nor can we cannot allow our debates over what is to be done to be circumscribed by the self-appointed ideological enforcers of conservatism circa the 1980s.
Reagan was great, but Reagan is dead. Conservatives respect and learn from the past, but we are not necromancers.