The other day I was browsing the headlines on my homepage when my attention was caught by a stunning pronouncement; “Ronald Reagan Restored Faith in America“. The singular fact of an opinion piece given a banner headline is, regardless of the ideological leanings, a major point in the decline of American democracy. But beyond the media commentary, the piece intrigued me. The writer of the column, Ed Rollins, is one of the few political operators still in the game who worked for our 40th President. And while I have no major issues with someone writing from a position of love and loyalty, the tenor of the column, and the tone of today’s political debate, raise some interesting questions.
The notions of American pride, faith in the nation, and American exceptionalism are common themes in today’s often vapid political conversation. Why, after all, talk about substantive policy points when you can hammer away with sexy and easy to digest soundbites? But this issue has some compelling and relevant points worth considering that depart from the quantitative discussions I normally embrace. What does it mean, for example, to believe in American exceptionalism? What does it say about a nation, or a subset within the citizenry of a nation, that “faith” needed to be restored? How far from the reality of President Ronald Reagan does the mythology of Saint Ronnie the Gipper reside?
At the heart of this discussion lies the passionate and often incoherent declarations of political ideologues. The more aggressively humans defend narrow points of view, the more irrational their arguments become. Many liberals for example are, at this moment, torn by these irrationalities as they view the stunning events in Egypt. Those who stridently declare that we should leave the rest of the world alone are too quickly hung by their own rope when the issue of women’s rights come to the fore. Those who passionately attack the notion of U.S. military superiority are left open to question when they demand it be used to confront the barbaric bullies who control the Darfur’s of the world. But in the context of this column, it is the peculiar ideological fact-traps that conservatives so regularly wander into that intrigue me.
Conservatives, in theory, believe in the notion of American exceptionalism. A rather simplistic update on the old European idea of Manifest Destiny (we can do what we want because we are God’s people), American exceptionalism is best captured by the phrase, “The Greatest Country on Earth”. The admission, by President Obama, of wrong-doing by the United States, or the idea of Democrats that a major industry (pick one; health care, energy, finance) has fallen behind are both universally derided by conservatives. The greatest country in the world apologizes to no one; our industry is the dominant force on the planet (so long as, apparently, unions don’t get in the way).
But if this is true, if it is wrong for President Obama to apologize, if admissions that areas of our nation are weak are tantamount to treason, than how is it that President Reagan had any faith to restore? I can assure all my readers that Reagan restored no faith to liberals or left of center independents, so we are left to assume that it was conservatives who lost faith. Now, as in the late 1970’s, conservatives apparently believe that America is not great; otherwise they would have little need for such a champion. This is a political movement, after all, that has been driven for the last three decades by Christian Fundamentalism. It has been powered by a belief system that puts a preeminent label on the ability to believe in the best despite all evidence to the contrary. Yet these are the same people who seem to regularly loose faith in their country when its citizens elect leaders whose views are more liberal than conservative.
President Obama, in 2008, was elected with a far higher percentage of Americans casting votes for him than President Reagan received in 1980. While both men took office in the teeth of crippling recessions, President Reagan presided over an economy that continued to worsen for longer, plummeted to a deeper level, and took longer to enter recovery than that presided over by President Obama. Our current recovery began the very quarter that Stimulus funds hit the economy, and unemployment rates peaked and began to fall during the first fiscal quarter of President Obama’s tenure. These statements aren’t based in any ideological point of view, they are grounded in generic, boring numbers. Based on the numbers, it isn’t immediately apparent what Reagan did that was such a restorative for conservative souls.
But the rational facts don’t matter when we are talking about an ideological hero. There is a reason that saints are only elevated long after their death; time softens the blemishes, and those that loved the saints exaggerate the good points. Conservatives have been building Mr. Reagan into an unassailable caricature of his former self. The very people who have adopted purity tests for Republicans that Mr. Reagan wouldn’t pass (and wouldn’t stand for, by the way), are the same who mandate Reagan-idolatry as a litmus for aspiring conservative politicians. But these same people refuse to embrace the simple American notion that if something is wrong then you fix it. Mr. Reagan and I would differ on how to fix American problems, but he would not embrace the 21st Century conservatism that mandates the burying of one’s head in the sand.
If you believe that America is (or should be) the greatest nation in the world, then you have two choices; never lose faith in your nation, or never lose sight of the need to constantly maintain its greatness. My standard operating procedure; America has been, has the capacity to remain, and always should be, the greatest nation in the world. But like every title holder, we always get our opponents best shot and so always need to be on our best game. I humbly submit that you conservatives out there need to take stock of your beliefs. Because if you needed Ronald Reagan to revive your faith in America, then you never believed in American exceptionalism anyway.
The Rational Middle is listening…