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Whose Reaganism? Which Republicanism?

March 27th, 2019 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

In an intriguing document published last week at First Things and signed by a number of prominent dissident conservatives, the drafters called for an end to “warmed-over Reaganism,” and exhorted America’s conservatives to embrace a communal conservatism that values home, small community, and that concerns itself not only for the capitalist elite, but also with the welfare of workers.

On the substantial points of their statement, it is hard to find anything to disagree with. Indeed, it reads more like a further development of an established trend in conservative thought for some time, at least dating back to Ross Douthat’s and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party published a decade ago. In fact, the most interesting question the statement raises may well have less to do with the positive goods it seeks to promote in our politics and more to do with the final paragraph. Here is the key excerpt:

Whatever else might be said about it, the Trump phenomenon has opened up space in which to pose these questions anew. We will guard that space jealously. And we respectfully decline to join with those who would resurrect warmed-over Reaganism and foreclose honest debate.

The question is this: Has the Trump phenomenon actually opened up new space or has it simply exposed long-standing hypocrisy amongst American conservatives?

At its best, Reaganism could have been a synthesis of social conservatism and subsidiarity. The Religious Right brought in social conservatism to the GOP which, again at its best, includes a robust pro-life ethic and defense of marriage, but is not limited to those things. Meanwhile, limited government is a means of respecting the integrity of local communities and allowing them to govern themselves, ordering their life together to the good in ways sensitive to local custom and immediately felt local challenges.

The difficulty with critiquing “Reaganism” is that there is Reaganism as it was articulated by its frequently bad faith, insincere public supporters and Reaganism as it was actually practiced by those same bad faith, insincere people who—surprise!—never actually lived up to their principles.

If we are talking about the latter, then there is a great deal to justly hate. Indeed, it is not entirely clear that Reaganism as it was actually practiced can even be called conservatism, given that the only things it seems to have conserved is the healthy bank balances of the capitalist class and a state of perpetual undeclared war in American foreign policy—and it is not a coincidence that these are the two things conserved, I suspect.

It did not conserve marriage. Indeed, the 80s was the height of the American divorce crisis and that was immediately followed, not coincidentally, by the further redefining of marriage over a couple of decades of debate in the 1990s and 2000s. It did not conserve the lives of the unborn. It was a Reagan appointee, after all, who saved Roe. Nor did it conserve the lives of small local places or the welfare of ordinary workers. Wage stagnation dates back to the Reagan administration, as does the advent of a shareholder focused brand of capitalism that enriches the shareholders at the cost of the workers. Even the national deficit, that great bane of Republicans, first began to spike in the 1980s following Reagan’s decision to both increase defense spending and dramatically slash taxes.

But these failures are not cases where socially conservative subsidiarity was attempted and failed; they are failures in which socially conservative subsidiarity was found difficult and left untried.

If we reject “Reaganism” without reckoning with the bad faith of many of its proponents, such that their words and actions virtually never aligned in a real way, then we run the risk of closing off promising intellectual paths due to vicious behaviors that tell us more about the individuals than they do about the cogency of the policies.

In this sense, we might say what we need is not a repudiation of Reaganism, but an actually sincere, good faith form of it that lives up to the promise of socially conservative subsidiarity.

After all, one of the document’s signers, Patrick Deneen, has been criticized because his fairly radical book Why Liberalism Failed ended by calling for what seemed like a rather conventional limited government conservatism that respects the integrity of small, local communities as opposed to the large-scale social engineering of most modernist politics.

In this respect, the conversation about the future of conservatism may actually overlap a great deal with the conversation about the future of one of conservatism’s loudest sub-groups: the religious right. The chief sin of the religious right is a refusal to be serious.

Thus we do not need a conservative revolution, if such a thing even were possible. We need conservative repentance. We also need to be serious enough to actually attempt to define a politics that is communitarian and uses social conservatism and subsidiarity as ways of promoting the lives of human communities. In doing this, we may well find that returning to these basic principles open up vistas that have been there as possibilities all along but have never actually been seen. What, for example, does socially conservative subsidiarity look like as applied to economies?

It will, no doubt, close off some top-down federal solutions to economic challenges. Yet surely it must also close off the attempts of the powerful to trample the lives of local communities in the name of economic progress?

I’m reminded of a neighborhood that once existed not far from where I used to live in St Paul, MN. Rondo, a thriving black neighborhood and the oldest such community in the St Paul metro, was bulldozed to clear the way for I-94. In the aftermath of that destruction, many residents moved elsewhere and those who remained were forced to attempt to rebuild, a process which has taken decades. A conservatism that actually reverences the integrity of local communities would have known that a thriving neighborhood is too high a price to pay for an interstate.1

Far from being an intellectual dead end, this brand of “Reaganism” may well create space in which conservatives can creatively pursue the good of their local places by foregrounding organic communities of many sorts and preserving space for them to order their own lives within the broader life of the republic.

It is in this sense, then, that we may well need a reinvigorated Reaganism if American conservatism is to endure. But, unlike its predecessor, it must be a Reaganism that really does respect the lives of local communities and seeks to conserve not merely the things that enrich corrupt Republican politicians, but that actually aspires to conserving the good life for all.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).