On Reagan And Our Faith In The Nation

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…

10 thoughts on “On Reagan And Our Faith In The Nation

  1. Michael – You obviously know a very old tactic of war: discredit your enemy’s heroes, and you weaken their spirit. Nice try.

    Reagan gave responsible people hope that responsibility would return to government. It’s taken 25 years, and a couple of left turns, but we’re finally figuring out how to get there. People have finally begun to wake up to the fact that to the degree that they give government responsibility for their lives, they lose an equal amount of personal responsibility. Give away personal responsibility, and you give away freedom of choice.

  2. Thanks Donna, and welcome. I agree that his “brinkmanship as foreign policy” was dangerous, and that his embrace of supply-side economics continues to cripple our country. I would point out that the bulk of the deregulation, prior to 2001, was signed by Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. This includes most of the transportation dereg articles as well as all of the critical protections in the financial sector.

    Credit and blame where they are due…

  3. Ronald Reagan was an actor..and not necessarily a very good one. Because of that, he was able to pull the wool over most of America’s eyes and this country is still suffering because of his policies. “Trickle-down” economics, deregulation, his selfish act regarding Gorbachev and Russia and his illegal interference in other countries (with the help of Oliver North) just point out that we are still trying to catch up with his 8 years of “movie reign”.

  4. Alverda: Are you kidding? I’m old enough and I voted for him. I remember the summits with GORBACHEV. I remember Ronnie taking him to the cleaners within the walking up to the steps to the summit. Ronnie was our guy and he and he wore the American Super Hero cape when he went to these summits. Years later, I studied negotiations and he was used as a template on how to win before you start. Teddy Roosevelt may have coined the phrase, “walk softly, but carry a big stick”. But Ronnie perfected the process. He came to the summits looking like a billion dollars. He looked and acted as he had all the power. He and his men all wore the right clothes, they stood tall and made sure they did not look up to anyone at any time. They came to the summit with all the knowledge of the Soviets positions and had a plan for everything. If you were to really study Ronnie, you would know he was loved. Not because he was a movie star, but because he brought respect and honor to our country as no other president had before or since. Sure he had his shortcomings, but he is like family to my generation. He was our favorite grandpa or dad. He was our hero. I’m not the best debater, but don’t screw with my grandpa!

  5. You are correct in that I should find another column to respond to. Ronald Reagan ‘s administration was the dawn of political awareness for me, although I remember John Kennedy quite well. Your column was recommended by a friend and i tapped in and as you were aslking for comments, i waited and waited and waited for someone to comment. so i told you what i remember about Ronald Reagan from living in that era…..no I did not watch the Fox news abridged version, nor any other historical source , my comment was strictly from conversations I had with other people and news articles and television coverage of that time of Reagan’s presidency. Everyone’s memory is unique, if flawed, and that was long ago. My comment on the Berlin Wall needing to be explained by someone older than me referred to what brought it about and the emotions that ran deep during the time it was up. Maybe all those people are gone. Well, off to irritate some other disrepectful news dog. At least you got a comment…it must embarrasing to not have anyone who wants to take you seriously. i’ve learned my lesson.

  6. Well, Alverda, thanks for your comments, and welcome to The Rational Middle. Unfortunately, there are a couple of points in your comments that just don’t pass the smell test.

    First, there is no one who would have considered Ronald Reagan “middle of the road”. Period. That just isn’t up for debate as neither President Reagan’s political friends or enemies would have used that description.

    Second, the idea that Mr. Reagan “…truly did not like to upset anyone, especially our adversaries” is perhaps (and I do apologize) one of the most asinine comments I have ever read. Ronald Reagan, like him or loathe him, was nobody’s shrinking violet. I can point you in the direction of several hundred thousand Marines and soldiers who would take great exception to that description of the man they loved. Ronald Reagan relished confrontation, and had no qualms provoking anyone…especially the Soviet Union. Just by way of refresher…this is the guy who called the U.S.S.R. the “Evil Empire”, and meant it. A large part of our nation’s defense establishment was (and remains) especially proud of President Reagan precisely because he was not afraid of upsetting our adversaries.

    Third, your conflation of Gorbachev with the “menacing demands” that anyone who payed attention to foreign policy throughout the 70’s and 80’s knows pertained to early Soviet Premiers and not Gorbachev tells a very simple story. You have absolutely no clue what you are talking about…none. Gorbachev, as President Reagan well knew, was in constant search for a way to deescalate the Cold War and open Soviet society. The Soviet leader knew that his nation was at the end of its rope financially and socially. Mr. Reagan successfully leveraged that posture to achieve the only real foreign policy successes of his two terms in office.

    Finally, you seem to be confused about your own “knowledge” of President Reagan. “Most of you out there are too young to remember Ronnie.” is followed shortly by; “For that story you have to get information from someone older and more knowledgeable than me.” Do you remember Mr. Reagan, or have you just read or watched the Fox News condensed, abridged, and airbrushed version of the 1980’s?

    I hate being so harsh, but your comments, well-meaning or not, merited swift and complete rebuke. This space is open for ideological discussion and disagreement, but you must first demonstrate some understanding of the subject matter being discussed. I hope you will find a column that fits that requirement and comment in the future.

  7. GORBACHEV: He was a threat, and often told us that nuclear war was a viable alternative for not giving in to his manacing demands and it was well known that Russia had weapons of mass destruction. Ronald Reagan to a huge extent was responsible for averting that happening so he was idolized. So what. To say he didn’t do anything important is being base. He definitely restored patriotism……..who since then has done that

  8. On Ronald Reagan: Most of you out there are too young to remember Ronnie. He may not have been a good president by a lot of people’s standards because he did have the reputation of being “middle of the road”. He truly did not like to upset anyone, especially our adversaries. That is why he was called THE GREAT COMMUNICATOR. He visited other countries and came out smelling like a rose…everyone smiling and inviting him back. He turned on the California cowboy charm and persuaded those who would do us in that we meant no harm to them. He was the first president to get a smile and a handshake from Gorbachev, the big bad menace to our society and to persuade him to tear down the Berlin Wall. For that story you have to get information from someone older and more knowledgeable than me. But that was enough of a coup to earn him the respect of many, many people whether they were pollitically minded or not. I think we had a sense of safety and well being during his term. That is how i remember Ronnie.

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