One of the basic premises of 21st century American society is that polarization, particularly along politically partisan lines, has risen dramatically.
That the right, in particular, has become increasingly hard line and intransigent is a common charge for the left. The assertion that “Reagan wouldn’t recognize his own party” is crowed by both GOP moderates and liberals alike as if this were some sort of syllogism which proved that encroaching extremism is destroying conservatism.
One would certainly hope, however, that almost forty years after his presidency, in a new century where exigent political crises are as shaped by the limits of social relations as by the dominant ethical quandaries of the moment that Reagan could not simply rise from his grave and comfortably assume a role of leadership in the party.
The problem, however, is that he probably could. Because conservative ideology is a stagnant quagmire and the dominant thinking is mired in Reaganism.
Barry Goldwater, the vaunted ideological scion on what would become known as the conservative resurgence, wrote in his foreword to The Conscience of a Conservative: “Circumstances do change. So do the problems that are shaped by circumstances. But the principles that govern the solution of the problems do not.”
The problem is, intellectually at least, conservatism has failed to make the crucial distinction between circumstances and principles. Instead of evolving it became enslaved to the policy of one man, enshrined his personality and charisma rather than the principles in which his policies were rooted and became a necrocracy of sorts.
Reagan, like any politician, was flawed, the most obvious example being his disastrous bargain with Congressional Democrats over immigration reform which never materialized. But he was hardly perfect in other matters of policy. The fiscal platform of Reaganomics is hallowed indeed by modern conservatives. Yet, Reagan did not balance the budget or rein in the federal deficit.
Are these actions really meant to embody the apex of conservatism? Seemingly, the answer is yes, because they are still held up as a model and are more discussed and lauded than the principles of fiscal responsibility and federalism which underlie them.
Further, conservatives often make the case for free market innovation bringing untold new advantages and benefits to society. The benefit which unpredictable kinds of growth stemming from new technology is an important part of laissez-faire economics, a cornerstone of conservatism. Yet, movement conservatives overlook this principle’s applicability to their party’s epistemology. Instead of looking towards fresh policy initiatives and new leadership, Reaganism is the default fallback whenever conservatives are challenged on an issue.
This plays rights into the hands of critics who accuse the right of being stuck in the past and anti-progress; at least in regards to intellectual attitudes, this is demonstrably the case.
And this has real-world consequences beyond those which the right’s obsession with the emotionalism of the movement’s glorious past have created in preventing new generations from connecting with and spreading conservatism.
Donald Trump is a direct result of conservatism’s stagnation. He does not mince words about America’s past mornings but speaks of future prosperity. Love his bravado or hate his irreverence, Trump is the literal antithesis of classical conservative thought. He is, at heart, a statist who believes that big, intrusive government is good for society so long as it is run by the person with the right acumen, namely himself.
This categorization is in no way hyperbolic. In Goldwater’s own words, Trump embodies the first principle of authoritarianism, which is a belief that “that the State is competent to do all things and is limited in what it actually does only by the will of those who control the State.”
Yet, win or lose, his unique brand of populist braggadocio has created a grassroots movement which is the new standard for right-wing though. Real conservatives have historically been rooted in a level of thought which Trump and his constant flip-flopping and third-grade rhetoric can only dream of reproaching; his new iteration of right-wing politics is the degenerate child of the soaring rhetoric of Goldwater and Reagan. But conservatives have no one but themselves to blame. They lost sight of the principles for that rhetoric and now must contend with the consequences.
Also published on Medium.