We are a month away from the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth. Accordingly, the state of Indiana is celebrating by, among other things, offering students the opportunity to write an essay on the importance of Ronald Reagan for American history. Here are some thoughts on that particular subject.
Whether we like it or not, Reagan is a historical figure of much import. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama praised Reagan's rhetorical approach, his sunny optimism, his oft-stated belief in the power and promise of America and the American people. He received quite a bit of heat, in particular from his rival at the time, Sen. Hillary Clinton, for his comments. I defended the things he said at the time, and I still believe he was right, as far as it goes, that Reagan's contribution to our national psyche included praising America and Americans for our better natures. There's nothing wrong with that, in a general way. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seemed to understand this in ways other Democratic candidates for President have not, part of the reason they won.
All the same, Ronald Reagan's time in office, his impact upon our polity, our politics, our national discourse, and so much else, has been, once one gets passed encomiums such as this, quite pernicious. As the Republican Party drifts further and further to the rights, they cling Reagan ever more closely to their collective bosom, it is important to keep in mind that the fault lines within the Party lie squarely at the feet of the 40th President.
One can survey the totality of his Presidency for all sorts of evidence that make clear how bad it really was. He began his run for the Republican nomination in Stone Mountain, GA, the birthplace of the KKK, a definite signal he was not only continuing but expanding Nixon's Southern Strategy. It has worked so well, the southern states, formerly iron-clad Democratic in their politics, are now Republican, for very bad reasons. In a famous moment in an early debate in New Hampshire, Reagan insisted on being given time to respond to a question by saying, "I've paid for this microphone." Except, of course, he hadn't paid for the microphone. It had been provided for him. The celebration of his sense of rugged individualism was belied by the reality of the case. No one, even at the time, pointed out to him that he was either misinformed or lying through his teeth. Of course, this was the case throughout his public career, from his time as governor of California to the end of his Presidency.
Reagan's courting of the religious right, hugely successful, is an object lesson in the contradictions of American conservatism. For reasons that I still cannot fathom, fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals rejected one of their own, Jimmy Carter (who spent his Presidency teaching a Sunday School class at a Baptist Church; his invocations of the Deity were real, heart-felt, and deeply-rooted) for Reagan. Quite apart from the obvious personal issues involved - divorced; forced to marry his second wife because she was pregnant; he was not a church-goer at any time in his adult life - his vocal support for many of the policies embraced by the religious right came late in the pre-1980 election cycle. Up to the primary season, the then-nascent religious right was going to throw their support behind former Texas governor and former Democrat John Connally. Connally not only sang their tune. He also was deeply committed to their vision, and had a record of support that Reagan lacked. The switch came not least because Reagan's people convinced people like Richard Viguerie that Reagan, not Connally, was the only Republican capable of beating Carter.
The Republicans have failed, in the generation since Reagan's election in 1980, to deliver on any of the religious right's pet policies. There is no official prayer in public schools. Abortion remains legal. Our culture continues to drift toward openness, rather than embrace some arbitrary set of values labeled Christian, yet bearing little resemblance to the Christian ethic. Yet, the religious right continues to support the Republican Party, always a bridesmaid and never a bride, it seems.
One could continue in this manner ad nauseum, but the central point, I hope, is clear. For all that Ronald Reagan is and will continue to play a pivotal role in our understanding of the second half of the 20th century in America, any such understanding needs to be done with at least one eye on the contradictions and flaws within the Republican Party he helped shape, and the pernicious effects it has had on our country.