Commentary Magazine

Reagan and the Republican Revival

For perhaps the first time since Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican party has become the party of change. During the 1920’s, it was the party of “normalcy” and “business”; during the 1930’s and 1940’s, it was the party of resistance alternating with periods of reluctant “me-too-ism”; and in the 1950’s, it was the party of national unity under a military hero. In the 1960’s, it began to put together a challenge to Democratic orthodoxy more fundamental and far-reaching than either resistance, reluctance, or heroism, but the challenge was poorly developed, linked to the fortunes of a half-hearted and impolitic candidate, and widely regarded as expressing the deviant sentiments of an unimportant minority. In 1980, it has acquired a skillful spokesman, a vast (though quarrelsome) organizational network, the leading position in the public-opinion polls, and—most importantly—an alternative vision of what American government and American society ought to be like.

By contrast, the Democratic party resembles nothing so much as the old Republican party in the era of Robert Taft and Thomas E. Dewey, with one enervating difference—the Democrats have been in power, with brief exceptions, for nearly half a century. Thus, the Democrats are simultaneously bereft of new ideas and forced to take responsibility for old ones. Senator Kennedy mounted a Taft-like challenge to the rival faction in his party, demanding fidelity to the old orthodoxy despite the unpopularity of the social part of that orthodoxy (busing, gun control) and the lack of any credible evidence that the economic and welfare parts (rationing, government health care) would work. President Carter dissented from what he considers the rash or unfeasible aspects of the Kennedy platform but was left defending a continuance of past policies that have lost their appeal.

The Eastern mind instinctively rebels at the thought that the party of Ronald Reagan could represent anything but blind reaction set out in an actor’s clever one-liners fraught with factual inaccuracies. Though Democratic politicians speak solemnly of “not underestimating Ronald Reagan,” in truth they underestimate him greatly—they do not take him seriously as a presidential candidate and they do not yet believe that he represents anything more than an alienated collection of single-issue groups whose leaders have (temporarily) taken advantage of popular dissatisfaction with the Carter Presidency. The evidence for this was the belief among many of them that if only the party could find a way to nominate an Edmund Muskie or a Walter Mondale or a Henry Jackson, the Reagan threat would shrivel. Now, it is possible that a different Democratic candidate could defeat Reagan, but it would hardly be a sure thing. Recall: since 1944, no Democratic candidate save Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has been able to win the Presidency without carrying the South, and it is far from clear that any Democrat (with the possible exception of Carter) could do well against Reagan in that region.

This is not the first time some people have erroneously thought of Reagan as a weak candidate, nor are Eastern Americans the only group to have made this mistake. In 1966, the national press was dumbfounded when Ronald Reagan beat Pat Brown for governor of California by nearly a million votes just four years after Brown had trounced Richard Nixon (a “serious” candidate) by nearly a third of a million votes. Today, the European press, to judge by summaries I have seen from West Germany and England, is preoccupied with the claimed (and possibly real) personal weakness of Reagan: his lack of experience in foreign affairs, his “shallowness,” his age.

I have never met Ronald Reagan; for all I know, these concerns about experience, character, and even age may be important. But for electoral purposes, they miss the point. And that point is this: the Reagan candidacy is a candidacy based on issues, issues which the candidate has developed over the better part of two decades and which now, taken as a whole, command the assent of a very large proportion of the American people (whether a majority, remains to be seen). Issues have often been more important in national elections than some political scientists have been willing to admit, but in this election, as in the elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976, they will play an especially important role. It was their failure to understand this (among other things) that may account for the poor showing in the Republican primaries of George Bush, Howard Baker, and John Connally, though in fairness to them Reagan would probably have been nominated regardless of what they did. He, after all, had been developing his issue constituency for a long time; they either never developed one or started only a few months before the ballots were cast.



Shortly after Reagan was elected governor of California, I wrote for this magazine an article attempting to explain to my uncomprehending Eastern friends what had happened (“A Guide to Reagan Country: The Political Culture of Southern California,” COMMENTARY, May 1967). Reagan was not, I argued then, a product of Hollywood eccentricities, suburban hot tubs, cultist religions, or the ideological quirks of “Lotusland.” He was, rather, an expression of a regional political culture that was concerned, not with ideology but with property, not with eccentricity but with propriety, not with some romantic version of the past but with a desire for a future in which rewards would be allocated on the basis of effort, decency, and competence. Southern Californians, or at least the majority of them who supported Reagan, thought that right living based on traditional values would produce a good society and were in rebellion against what they took to be the efforts of some to acquire benefits without effort or to debase society by wrong living.

The people who felt this way had little or nothing in common with Hollywood; they were persons of Midwestern Protestant stock, vaguely populist in their outlook (they distrusted political parties and large institutions), who looked upon government as having the role of facilitator rather than conserver. That is, government was to supply those minimal services, and insure the availability of opportunities, which would permit individuals to work for their own benefit. Getting “something for nothing” was anathema, the hallmark of Eastern class politics and epitomized in “deals,” privileges, and welfare dependency.

These views were not necessarily “conservative” in any traditional sense. Big business was no more popular as an institution in California than in Massachusetts and there was little desire to turn the clock back to 1931. The persons who gave voice to this political culture were, after all, the sons and daughters of the New Deal, with parents who had, in many cases, come to California to escape the agricultural depression of the Dust Bowl.

In 1967, when Governor Reagan took office, the issues that symbolized the concerns of Southern Californians were “welfare chiselers” and high taxes. The events of the late 1960’s, combined with the rise to prominence of what everyone now calls, for lack of a better term, the New Class, added substantially to the list of grievances and enlarged the ranks of those who nursed them. Since I do not wish to enter the rather murky debate over what, if anything, the New Class represents, let me be more precise: Reaganism stands in opposition to those who believe in the unrestrained right of personal self-expression and the need for government to rationalize all other aspects of human affairs by rule and procedure. Reaganism opposes those who would legalize marijuana, abortions, and pornography and tolerate or encourage draft resistance, all in the name of personal freedom, and who would support court-ordered school busing, bans on gun ownership, affirmative action, and racial quotas, all in the name of rationalizing and perfecting society. Indeed, Reaganism is based on a profound conviction that the opposite policies are more nearly correct: if communal constraints on individual self-expression are sustained, then people will grow up to do the right thing with respect to blacks and the use of guns. Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican national convention described his cause as one based on a “community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.” Family, work, and neighborhood came first.

In my 1967 article, I tried to summarize the discontents of those who voted for Governor Reagan this way: “The very virtues they have and practice are, in their eyes, conspicuously absent from society as a whole.” The people who hold these views are neither rootless nor yearning for small-town simplicities; they are established parts of cosmopolitan metropolitan areas. They are simply angry.



No political movement as large as the one led by Ronald Reagan is likely to be homogeneous or single-minded. Indeed, there are more discrete factions, organizations, and causes vying for power and position within the Reagan movement than one finds in the Democratic party. That in itself is remarkable, indicative of the extent to which the forces demanding change have begun to coalesce in the Republican party. Anyone writing of Democratic or leftist politics in the past would have dwelt at length on the problem of building a viable coalition out of Southern segregationists, union leaders, big-city bosses, Marxist splinter groups, intellectuals, and single-issue movements as various as Share the Wealth, End Poverty in California, and America First. The Democratic party is not only the party of the intellectuals, it has also been, for most of its recent history, the intellectually interesting party.

Now attention has turned to the party headed by Governor Reagan, wherein we find, in loose and uneasy alliance, the Right-to-Life movement, the Young Americans for Freedom, the anti-ERA movement, Anita Bryant, intellectual libertarians, the entrepreneurs of direct-mail fund-raising, retired military officers, evangelical ministers, corporate executives, and opponents of the Panama Canal treaty. A recent book, Thunder on the Right,1 by a self-described conservative, Alan Crawford, devotes over three-hundred pages to deploring the “New Right,” as he calls many of the groups that are, unofficially if not officially, part of the Reagan coalition. He criticizes them for various things, especially the rigidity of their views and their demand for political purity, but most of all for being “populistic”—that is, for distrusting institutions and favoring direct democracy in the form of plebiscites and referenda (such as Proposition 13 in California and anti-gay-rights measures in various communities).

Now, I have a good deal of sympathy for those, such as Crawford, who would like to retain the checks and balances and indirect democracy that the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. And I am attracted to his vision of what a “real conservative” is like: a person of measured prudence and elegant language, much given to reading history and recitations from Tocqueville, who values continuity, stability, and the preservation of ancient institutions. This rather genteel conservatism is enchanting but, alas, from the point of view of the fundamental forces at work in American politics today, it is (as usual) largely irrelevant.

Fundamental political change has not, since the Philadelphia convention of 1787, been the result of deliberation or moderation, but rather of the accumulation of elemental passions that seek to redefine the principles of a good society and that arise out of widely shared dissatisfactions rather than carefully tempered reflections. It is just such passions that are at work in America today. But when Crawford and other writers try to come to grips with them, the best they can do is sneer. Crawford does not take up the arguments of the Right-to-Life movement, or the anti-ERA movement, or the anti-gun-control lobby; he merely hurls epithets at them. They are simply “right-wingers” who try to emulate John Wayne and display their “macho” (he uses that word three times in three pages). And, as with most persons who are politically distant from some portentous forces, he sees them as more united than they are (in one section of the book he speaks of “interlocking directorates” that “coordinate” the various “home and family” groups, the leaders of which “meet continually” in order to build the “organizational structure” that can “take control of the culture”).

I confess to finding some of the arguments and activities of the New Right a bit unnerving and I disagree with many of its views. But to write of these movements as if they were entirely composed of dangerous eccentrics is to miss the point. The revolutionary movement of the 1770’s, the anti-slavery movement of the 1830’s, the trade-union movement of the 1880’s, the progressive movement of the 1900’s, and the feminist movement of the 1910’s all had elements that would not bear close scrutiny today. Zealotry is the cutting edge of change; one of the reasons that conservatives so often oppose change, I suppose, is that they so often find zealots such unappealing persons. But to dismiss the movement by disparaging the more vocal elements (the “macho” Sam Adams, the “shrill” Susan B. Anthony, the “absolutist” Oswald Garrison) is to turn one’s back on history.



A more interesting line of inquiry would be to explore the tensions (not the “interlocking directorates”) within the Reagan movement. If he becomes President, he will have to choose among the very different instincts of a deeply divided coalition. The libertarians drawn from such places as the Hoover Institution are not simply in favor of limited government, a sounder currency, and deregulated industry, they are also in favor of personal freedom carried at least as far as John Stuart Mill proposed: complete liberty for individual tastes and pursuits so long as the individual directly harms no other person. At a minimum, this means the legalization of marijuana and the sale of heroin (at least for adults), the ending of many (though not all) environmental controls, opposition to military conscription, the tolerance of deviant sexual practices, and significantly relaxed barriers on immigration into the country. How this will be viewed by Moral Majority, Inc., or Senator Jesse Helms, is not hard to imagine.

The corporate executives supporting Reagan hope for stern measures to stem inflation, tax cuts to spur investment, and a sounder currency, but many of them also want to expand their exports to all parts of the world, including the Soviet Union. Military officers certainly have no objection to an expanding economy but many wonder whether as part of this our corporations should sell to the Soviets the wherewithal to close the technological and production gap. And corporate executives themselves are divided over the merits of a tax cut; many reject the claims of Arthur Laffer, Jack Kemp, and others that reduced taxes will stimulate investment and production quickly or surely enough to prevent a steep rise in demand-pull inflation. They would prefer a balanced budget even at the cost of continued high tax levels. And though military officers find Reagan’s stance on defense issues most congenial, many of them must wonder about his outspoken opposition to a draft (and even to the recently inaugurated registration program).

Perhaps, as the campaign unfolds, we shall obtain some clues as to where Reagan will move on these issues. But since it is a campaign, and since Reagan is a consummate campaigner, it is more likely that he will blur these conflicts in his own camp in order to widen his constituency. Yet there are limits to how far he can go in this direction, because his constituency is not simply a collection of disparate interests—every candidacy faces that problem—but rather an authentic social movement around which particular interests have coalesced. The life and heart of the campaign are not to be found in elite concerns with economic and foreign policy, but in mass concerns with social and moral issues. Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail fund-raiser for conservative causes, said in an interview with the New York Times that it was only when the Old Right, interested in foreign and economic affairs, “began to reach out and strike an alliance with social conservatives” that the “whole movement began to come alive.” And a movement it is.



One must, I think, go back to 1896 to find an election quite like this. Then, William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic party with much the same appeal, though not the same organizational skill, that Ronald Reagan brought to the Republican party. For a long time, the conventional view of Bryan’s candidacy was that fostered by certain progressive historians: given to economic explanations of human affairs, they believed that Bryan simply represented the farmers’ demand for cheap money against the gold standard defended by the Eastern bankers. The difficulty with this theory was not only that it failed to explain why some distressed farmers supported William McKinley and why so many poor urban workers supported the bankers; it was also based on the implausible assumption that money alone could imbue voters with the passion, the zeal, the downright frenzy that not only surrounded Bryan in 1896 but that lasted long enough to make him the Democratic nominee on two more occasions.

More recent research has shown that Bryan’s appeal was as much cultural and moral as economic and political. Fundamentalist Protestants were outraged over the moral decay of urban life, the product, they supposed, of whiskey-swilling immigrants who had Hooded into the tenements. Bryan called not simply for a new economic order, but for the purification of society. His appeal was as much to persons favoring temperance, blue laws, and the purging of corruption from the political parties as it was to those seeking the free coinage of silver, easy credit, and the public control of monopoly enterprises. As Richard Jensen has written in The Winning of the Midwest, Bryan’s campaign was directed at small-town America where the voters were not only suffering farmers but also pietistic Protestants who “abhorred corruption, harbored millennial dreams, and preferred moralistic crusades to pluralistic cooperation.” The pietistic view of America was not undemocratic; rather, it understood democracy in different terms from those favored by the urban political machines or the business corporations. To the pietists, democracy and social equality presupposed the acceptance of Christian morality and individual rectitude. Without these religious restraints on behavior, freedom would degenerate into license.

Bryan, of course, lost. But Reagan need not be dismayed by the comparison. With today’s distribution of electoral votes, Reagan would win if he merely carried the regions Bryan carried in 1896 (chiefly, the South and the Plains) and added California, Indiana, Iowa, and West Virginia, four states that Bryan failed to carry by a combined total of fewer than 100,000 votes.

The 1896 election produced a major realignment of the political parties, one that endured until the New Deal coalition created by Alfred E. Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt a third of a century later. That realignment reflected both a cultural as well as an economic cleavage among the electorate. Indeed, so deep and lasting were the party loyalties that were fixed in 1896 that entire regions came under the unchallenged control of one or the other of the two major parties, leading dissident factions within those parties to demand the direct primary so that voters would have a choice within the confines of one-party rule. It was, of course, the extension of the direct-primary system (and its surrogate, the caucus system) that later enabled George McGovern in the Democratic party and Ronald Reagan in the Republican to set in motion forces that may conceivably lead to another realignment.

Political scientists have devoted great attention to political realignments in American history but have not taken fully into account the extent to which these seismic shifts in partisan loyalties were accompanied by, and perhaps stimulated by, the Shockwaves of religious and quasi-religious revivals. William G. McLoughlin of Brown University has written a luminous essay on the impact of the several “Great Awakenings” on American cultural and political history.2 Awakenings are “periods of cultural revitalization that begin in a general crisis of beliefs and values and extend over a generation or so, during which time a profound reorientation in beliefs and values takes place.” Awakenings have typically begun with religious revival movements.

The First Great Awakening from roughly 1730 to 1760 preceded and laid the groundwork for the American Revolution; the Second Great Awakening (1800-1830) romanticized the common man and argued for the perfectibility of human nature, thereby supplying a moral element to the claims of Jacksonian Democracy and the motive energy for the anti-slavery movement. The Third Great Awakening (1890-1920) was a response to industrialization and the social violence and economic conflict of the end of the 19th century; it was fought out in the struggle between evangelical fundamentalism, led by Bryan and later by Billy Sunday, and the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and the Protestant Progressives. Its legacy was to be found both in the camp grounds and revival tents of the preachers and the social reform organizations and civic associations of the Social Gospel. Politically, the latter legacy was by far the more lasting; after Bryan’s campaign speeches and Sunday’s sermons were half-forgotten echoes, the liberal Protestant reformers were in command of a vast network of institutions dedicated to finding scientific principles by which to moralize and rationalize society. The American Economic Association, now little more than a fraternity of persons arguing over regression equations, was founded by ministers and others as a reform movement with a quasi-religious mission; its draft statement of purposes, written by Richard T. Ely, described the state as “an educational and ethical agency” and the doctrine of laissez-faire as “unsafe in politics and unsound in morals.”

These awakenings occurred at times when the prevailing set of moral understandings seemed inadequate to shape human behavior or make legitimate existing institutions. Traditional patterns of family life were challenged by new opportunities available to young persons; customary standards of communal life were flouted by rising levels of urban violence and public disorder. A “value dislocation” occurred—an acute sense of personal stress that made persons receptive to new religious appeals which, to be sufficiently responsive to the shared sense of lost direction, could not confine themselves to calls for individual salvation but had to address the social and political circumstances that created this stress. It was when a religious revival became a generalized and powerfully felt cultural critique that we can say an awakening was under way. These awakenings did not, of course, have a single theme; often, traditional and nativist preachers vied with progressive reformers for moral leadership. But one consequence seems clear: the major political realignments of the Jacksonian era and of the 1890’s were shaped in part—perhaps in very large part—by the religious and cultural upheavals that preceded them.



We do not yet have the historical distance to be certain that the value dislocations of the 1960’s and 1970’s amount to the equivalent of the Fourth Great Awakening. McLoughlin suggests they did and devotes a chapter to their explication. Certainly, some of the customary features of an awakening were present: a suddenly enlarged youthful segment of the population that defied conventional morality in life and conventional standards in art and music; a growing sense of alienation from existing institutions, notably—but not only—the government; rising levels of public disorder and urban crime; and a decline in traditional party loyalties. But two elements seem to be missing: the awakening did not, for many caught up in it, involve a religious revival, and there has not been as yet a partisan realignment.

These are not necessarily fatal criticisms. A partisan realignment may yet occur and, indeed, might have occurred before this had the capture of the Democratic party by the followers of George McGovern not been followed by the public discrediting of the available alternative to McGovern Democracy, Richard Nixon and his Republican party.

Moreover, the secularization of educational and occupational elites that has been under way for half a century or more produced, by the 1960’s, a large group of educated young persons for whom religion had little significance and who would respond to a value dislocation almost wholly in secular terms. That a profound reexamination of man’s nature and a searching reevaluation of society could occur almost entirely outside the religious framework of Protestant theology in which such matters had traditionally been embedded was symbolized by the election of a Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy, at the very beginning of this era, just two years before the SDS produced the Port Huron Statement. At about the same time, some theologians were announcing that “God is dead,” others were celebrating the “secular city,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer was suggesting that Christians should act as if God did not exist, and various sages were beginning to explain the virtues of “situational ethics.” “Policy” became the goal of a cultural revitalization and “power” its source of energy. As McLoughlin notes, almost the only major social activist to make explicit use of any religious formula was Martin Luther King, Jr., and he invoked—Mahatma Gandhi.

Perhaps it was the almost wholly secular nature of the 1960’s youth movement that helps explain the bitter opposition that, almost unnoticed, it evoked. Commentators remark that the 60’s are over, that the mood has changed. This implies that what happened was merely a passing fad. But it was not, as attested by the continuing vitality of feminism, gay rights, and unfettered self-expression. The Reagan movement is animated in large part by a desire to contain and force back the legacy of the 60’s, and many of the movement’s members are hoping to make clear that those who challenge traditional values must be prepared—as most are not—to pay a high price.

Every awakening has its traditionalist as well as its progressive wing; in the 1960’s, the traditionalist one was slower to emerge, or at least slower to command the attention of the national press. Throughout this period, Reverend Billy Graham was one of the most popular Americans, having won as early as the 1950’s the devoted support of millions of average citizens and the derisive contempt of editorialists and intellectuals. By the end of the 1970’s, when the revival of fundamentalist, evangelical Protestantism was too widespread and too obvious to be ignored, in part because it included among its ranks a President of the United States, the national media expressed surprise at this “new” development.

The fundamentalist denominations have grown in members at least as fast as the establishment churches have lost them. Ministers such as Jerry Falwell, Bob Billings, and Pat Robertson are household names almost every place except where intellectuals gather. Alan Crawford estimates that the fundamentalist “electronic church” includes 36 wholly religious television stations, 1,300 religious radio stations, and dozens of gospel programs that buy time on regular commercial stations; in sum, these outlets may reach 100 million persons each week.

Ronald Reagan now speaks politically for these persons, among others; so, too, does Jimmy Carter, though to a lessened degree now that he has had to deal with the complexities of the real world. But they do not speak without challenge. The Right to Life party announced, shortly after the Republican national convention, that Reagan’s selection of George Bush as a running mate ruled out any chance of that party’s endorsing Reagan; Bush, it seems, had opposed the anti-abortion amendment. This move, characteristic of an ideological party preoccupied with doctrinal purity, may be taken by its political opponents as evidence that single-issue movements are a political menace. But those who do should not forget that, whatever the Right to Life party may say, “99 percent of the Right-to-Lifers” will, according to a party leader, vote for Reagan and Bush.

There is a counterpart social movement within the Democratic party: the feminists. The National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and related groups made up the only faction attending the Democratic national convention to win decisively on all of their core issues over the determined opposition of the Carter administration. The feminists succeeded in committing the Democratic party to withholding campaign funds and political aid from candidates who do not support the Equal Rights Amendment and to endorsing federal financing of abortions for indigent women (a policy already rejected by Congress and the White House). These symbolic victories (their practical significance remains to be seen) are the culmination of a women’s movement that is more than a century old but that has acquired special visibility and influence in periods of social awakenings. Feminism was born during the Second Great Awakening when women tried to become active in the anti-slavery societies and was revitalized during the Third Awakening when the drive for women’s suffrage began in earnest.

The ideological energy of the 1980 election campaign will come in large measure from rival groups of women. Not since the volcanic struggles over prohibition and the suffrage sixty years ago have “women’s issues” so dominated the attention of political activists. On no other question—not inflation, not unemployment, not foreign policy, not even taxes—are the opposing leaders so deeply and implacably opposed or so prepared to sacrifice almost every other consideration to their dominant concerns. In ordinary times, one would not be far off the mark to call the Democrats the party of full employment and social welfare and the Republicans the party of a stable currency and lower taxes. But these are not ordinary times. Despite the furor at Madison Square Garden over various economic planks in the Democratic platform, and despite the announced intention of traditional Democratic leaders to attack Reagan as an economic reactionary, the cutting edge of the partisan struggle is in reality very different. The two parties, for the first time since Prohibition, are chiefly divided—at least for the activists, and perhaps for many others as well—over social rather than economic issues.

But whereas women were clearly a faction at the Democratic convention, one that had to fight for its objectives and that might well have failed to attain them had not half the delegates been women, the issues raised by women at the Republican convention were scarcely matters of controversy. The Democratic party is a governing coalition that has within it an important social movement; the Republican party is such a movement.



Ronald Reagan is not William Jennings Bryan, to say nothing of Billy Sunday or Jonathan Edwards; he is an uncommonly skillful politician, as yet untested in a national role, who has deftly placed himself at the forefront of a broad social movement. But he is not merely a politician; which is to say, he has not made merely expedient use of that movement. Dwight Eisenhower might have attracted the support of many of those who now support Reagan. But he would have done it differently. Rather than stating his views on busing, abortion, or the Equal Rights Amendment in terms so categorical and with conviction so undeniable as to make the candidate and the movement seem one, he would have moved, by nuance and style, by posture and carefully phrased statement, to preempt the favored position vis-à-vis this constituency and thus deny that position to all rivals, without at the same time eliminating the chance of making overtures to persons outside that constituency.

This difference between Eisenhower and Reagan, between the politics of mediation and generalization and the politics of conviction and particularity, is what makes the present moment so interesting. Reagan is at once a candidate for the Presidency and the spokesman of a social movement. We have not seen the like in our lifetimes. Such a combination of roles offers some substantial potential advantages. As Hadley Arkes remarked in a recent essay, Reagan has the opportunity to use his campaign for “shaping his coalition in an explicit, principled way,” and by so doing to create “his own political capital.” He thereby generates the authority that can enable him to govern, or at least to have a chance at governing, a bureaucracy that can rarely be managed but can sometimes be led.

But there are risks as well; what they are, and how one assesses them, depend very much on one’s own beliefs about what issues are important and how they should be addressed. While I sympathize with much of the concern of Reaganism for home and family, for decency and a return to defensible principles, I am not certain what the government can do about these matters. It is not that I think there is no connection between public governance and private morality; it is rather that the instrumentalities of that relationship are very largely in the hands of judges or otherwise scattered about in a thousand constitutional nooks and crannies where no movement, and few laws, can make a difference. Much of the governmental action that has driven Reaganites to despair and outrage has been the action of courts: it was the Supreme Court that struck down anti-abortion laws, supported busing for purposes of school integration, liberalized the obscenity laws, and endorsed affirmative-action programs and their associated quotas. But of the nine current members of this Court, seven were appointed by Republican Presidents.

Of course, all that can be changed, but it is costly—very costly—in political capital. One can amend the Constitution, but as the proponents of the ERA have learned, that is exceptionally difficult and time-consuming if the matter is at all controversial. One can pass laws changing the jurisdiction of the Court, but Congress—almost any Congress—is reluctant to challenge the authority of the Court head on. (Congress has had countless opportunities to do this with respect to busing and has always backed down.) And one can alter the composition of the courts by new appointments, but that occurs at a slow and uncertain pace. In 1978, Congress increased the size of the federal judiciary by more than 30 percent, creating 152 new positions that Carter has been filling with Democrats. Since the Supreme Court hears but a tiny fraction of all the cases coming to federal court, the identity of these lower judges—now strongly shaped by a Democratic administration-will be at least as important as who fills the next one or two vacancies on the Supreme Court. Republicans are likely to discover that implementing their campaign pledge to change the judiciary is going to be more difficult, and less productive of dramatic results, than they may suppose, however desirable it may be in principle.

Moreover, the social movement headed by Reagan is now at flood tide; its high-water mark may be the November election. Win or lose, it might well begin to ebb. I have no particular ground for this conjecture other than the historical fact that in every preceding period of religious revival and broad cultural change, the forces of tradition have ultimately lost. Bryan not only lost the election but in the Scopes trial lost his dignity. The traditionalists won the struggle for Prohibition, but in so doing overreached and ultimately discredited themselves. The Social Gospel defeated, institutionally and politically, the revivalism of Billy Sunday, as the anti-slavery movement had earlier triumphed, after many reversals, over the effort to restore a more inward-looking, less worldly creed.

Historical comparisons are risky, and never more so than today when dramatic events can so quickly overtake plausible generalizations. And Reaganism is distinctly different in important respects from earlier traditionalist movements: it is not racist or nativist and it does not suppose that the United States is an isolated island in an irrelevant world. These differences are important, but perhaps not as important as one fundamental continuity. Every cultural awakening has ultimately enlarged the permissible limits of self-expression and enhanced the power of those who wished to rationalize society on behalf of progressive ends. The reason for this, I think, is clear: every such period of broad cultural change has sooner or later been dominated by young, educated activists who have left as their legacy the values implicit in liberal higher education.



But whatever may happen in the struggle over issues of home and family, far more important matters are at stake. The gravest uncertainty is the relationship between these ultimate issues and the Reagan movement. To me, having a strong, well-managed defense establishment and a foreign policy willing to take seriously the containment of the Soviet Union at those places where its expansionist drives and proxy “wars of national liberation” thereaten our vital interests are matters of supreme importance.

Ronald Reagan has spoken on these matters and will speak again. His views represent a significant departure from the McGovern foreign policy that has been embedded in a “Carter” administration, though in response to Iran and Afghanistan, Carter himself has tried (how hard is still uncertain) to redirect these policies at the margin. But on these issues, Reagan is speaking more as a candidate representing a certain inclination in political thought and less as the leader of a social movement. Many of the groups that have become part of Reaganism have no views on foreign policy other than an abstract pugnacity that takes offense, understandably enough, when American citizens are captured or otherwise pushed around overseas. There is a clear sentiment in public-opinion polls in favor of increased military spending; indeed, Congress, as it has almost always done in the past, has reacted to that sentiment by voting increased defense appropriations. The Soviet Union is unmistakably held in low esteem.

But these general opinions are simply that-general. One can derive no particular defense posture, no specific foreign initiative, no coherent and sustainable policy from such opinions (though without those opinions, only a disastrous policy is feasible). These views, in short, are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a redirection of our foreign affairs.

And even these general dispositions have some ominous nuances. Some members of the Reagan movement speak of the Trilateral Commission in much the same way as others once spoke of “munitions makers,” “international bankers,” and “European wars.” Such comments cannot be reassuring to our allies; they might be forgiven for thinking we are about to exchange an improvised go-it-alone policy disguised as an alliance for a calculated go-it-alone policy devoid of disguise.

There is no reason why a reassertion of traditional values and even a quick temper need stand in the way of a coherent foreign policy; indeed, a willingness to act boldly when core values are at stake is part of what has been missing from American leadership in recent years. But there is a gap nonetheless between the passions of those who have brought Reagan to a presidential candidacy and the requirements of being a President. Popular instincts as to what is worth preserving, even at great risk, are usually worth heeding; popular instincts as to how best to do the preserving are often another matter. Our nation’s brief flirtation with imperialism in the 19th century during the height of one awakening and the support that the Spanish-American War enjoyed among both fundamentalists and progressive adherents of the Social Gospel are worth recalling. Ronald Reagan’s greatest challenge is to find a principle of statesmanship that can draw the support of a social movement without being imprisoned by it.


1 Pantheon, 318 pp., $13.95.

2 In Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, University of Chicago Press (1978).

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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