The Ghost in the Conservative Machine
"Oh dear, oh dear," said Lucy. "And I was so pleased at finding you again. And I thought you'd let me stay. And I thought you'd come roaring in and frighten all the enemies away - like last time. And now everything is going to be horrid."
"It is hard for you, little one," said Aslan. "But things never happen the same way twice."
-C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
You may have read Karen Tumulty's cover article for last week's Time Magazine - "How the Right Went Wrong."
It's a pretty good survey of the state of the conservative movement - I'm happy to say that if you've been reading this blog regularly for the past couple months or so, you should already know most of what Tumulty reports.
The cover image, a retouched photo portraying Ronald Reagan with a tear running down his cheek, calls to mind the legendary "Crying Indian"
anti-pollution spot of the 1970s. The metaphor seems straightforward: icon of purity distressed to see how later generations have despoiled the landscape.
But Peggy Noonan finds the imagery a little more difficult to process. Her column
at the Wall Street Journal, responding to the Tumulty piece but especially to the cover image, both exemplifies and attempts to overcome the tortured relationship of modern coservatives to the Reagan legacy. If you follow the conservative movement for any length of time, you encounter this phenomenon with regularity. Reagan has transcended the role of conservative icon to become a secular saint - even, in many ways, a messiah. It's hardly hyperbole - it's an inescapable conclusion when every aspiring conservative politician is compared unfavorably to the Gipper, when Reagan is the single consensus point of reference in an increasingly fractious movement, and when across the right everyone seems constantly to pine for the return of the One True Conservative.
Noonan has a sense of the political pathology at work here. She argues that while Democrats tend to take inspiration from their FDRs and JFKs, Republicans are "spooked by their greats." This, she observes, is an unhealthy habit for conservatives, who too often find themselves paralyzed, asking themselves "what would Reagan do?" It's holding the right back:
Republicans should take heart from his memory but not be sunk in him or spooked by him. Life moves. Reagan's meaning cannot be forgotten. But where does it get you if it's 1885, and Republicans are pulling their hair out saying, "Oh no, we're not doing well. We could win if only we had a Lincoln, but they shot him 20 years ago!" That's not how serious people talk, and it's not how serious people think. You face the challenges of your time with the brains and guts you have. You can't sit around and say, "Oh what would Lincoln do?" For one thing it is an impractical attitude. Lincolns don't come along every day. What you want to do with the memory of a great man is recognize his greatness, laud it, take succor from it, and keep moving. You can't be transfixed by a memory. Hold it close and take it into the future with you.
Which is good advice as far as it goes, but Noonan herself slips right back into the most reflexive conservative habit: she blames it all on the media. "Republicans," she says, "should stop allowing the media to spook them with [Reagan's] memory."
Noonan glibly accepts the conventional conservative wisdom that Reagan was indeed a transformative president. I won't delve into a discussion of whether and how he 'ended the Cold War.' But, as I discussed a few days ago
, he certainly didn't achieve anything like the transformation of American political economy that his acolytes like to pretend he did. Broadly speaking he was a likeable guy who left no real domestic legacy. His real legacy was a conservative movement that has found itself both energized and confounded by his example. The right believes
that he accomplished great conservative things while riding wave after wave of public acclaim (despite the perfidy of the liberal elites). So why can't they do the same today?
They can't do what Reagan did, because Reagan didn't do what they think he did. Noonan says that Democrats think Reagan had some "strange and secret magic." But insofar as that was the case, he worked his charm on the right as much as upon the population at large. And the spell has lasted.
Better for conservatives if they were to confront the real structural impediments to their agenda, but an honest assessment of those obstacles would inevitably require them to confront the fact that Reagan left them no real example of how to remake American political economy according to conservative ends. On a strictly factual level, many conservatives are aware of this - they can see that the welfare state has grown every year since the New Deal was conceived. But truly admitting that Reagan was unable to shift this paradigm would rob them of the one example upon which they've relied to prove to themselves that such a shift would be possible.
Far too uncomfortable. The easy alternative, for a movement rooted in its own sense of persecution, is to blame the media for making conservatives feel bad. And that's what Noonan does, accusing said media of "mischievously" comparing modern conservatives to the Gipper. In Noonan's narrative, the problem is that conservatives are cowed by a media determined to demoralize them by waving Reagan's image in their faces. What Noonan doesn't mention is that references to Reagan are generated primarily in conservative
publications and discourse. It's easier to blame others. But that won't make those nagging thoughts go away.
Labels: conservatives, Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan, Wall Street Journal