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Reagan and the Enduring Tension

Posted on Sunday, February 18, 2024
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by AMAC Newsline
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AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel

official portrait of Ronald Reagan

He’s still the man. February 6 would have marked the 113th birthday of Ronald Wilson Reagan, and thirty-five years have passed since Ronald Reagan left the White House, but he is still a touchstone for those of us who want to conserve America. On this Presidents’ Day, a new book by one of Reagan’s own appointees is helpful for identifying why Reagan mattered and what his example teaches us.

            The book, Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Principles, is a collection of rewritten essays and reviews published over the last decade by Donald J. Devine, a political scientist who was appointed and confirmed as Director of the Office of Personnel and Management during Reagan’s first term. A movement conservative who believed that American government should not only be limited in scope but also in size, he was labeled by the Washington Post as the “terrible swift sword of the civil service” for his role in reducing the two million jobs in the federal bureaucracy by approximately one hundred thousand. He claimed that title for his own (he was also labeled a “Rasputin” and “the Grinch” by other mainstream media outlets) when he published his 1991 insider account of his time as Reagan’s Terrible Swift Sword: Reforming and Controlling the Federal Bureaucracy. 

            After his time in public service, he returned to teaching political science and serving think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and, most recently, The Fund for American Studies at which, approaching 87, Devine is still a Senior Scholar. Though his heroic whacking away at our overgrown and out-of-control bureaucracy is a dramatic story, Devine’s theme as a scholar and political thinker has been about a much broader topic, namely the conservative “fusionism” that was promoted by early National Review writer Frank Meyer and defined in this book as “a synthesis of the values of the Western tradition and of the belief in individual freedom.” It was this synthesis that Devine labels Ronald Reagan’s “solution” to the problems of an America that was even in the twentieth century losing its rationality, its spirituality, and the consensus about our history that had bound the nation together.

Devine cites Reagan’s 1981 speech at CPAC in which the new President signaled his own understanding of what the country needed by looking to Meyer’s understanding that the American emphasis on the individual is itself “part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture” alongside “a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions.” Liberty is primary, but it requires order and culture to truly be a blessing.

Reagan managed to lead the country in the direction of seeing the blessings of liberty more clearly after the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, when libertinism too often stood in for liberty in the personal sphere and unaccountable bureaucratic control replaced both good sense and tradition when it came to order. Reagan’s success at turning the tide had a good bit to do with his own understanding of this reality. Devine defends the leader still stereotyped by liberals as a doddering old man or just a smooth actor. “He was, in fact, one of the best read of modern presidents, with a serious philosophy of government and social order.”

Reagan benefited from the fact that there was a functioning and vibrant conservative intellectual movement in which parts representing different views of ordered liberty could come together. The so-called three-legged fusionist stool of free-market, social, and national defense conservatives were both locked together in argument and also united in part by their sense that the White House was listening to them.

The argument part is important. Though not averse to the idea that liberty and order can be synthesized, any such synthesis will only be for a time. Devine favors talking about the “enduring tension” between these concepts (a phrase he used for his last book’s title). In Devine’s telling, the Reagan synthesis began to fray almost immediately after he left office, revived briefly under Newt Gingrich’s leadership in the House, and pretty much evaporated during the era of George. W. Bush’s big government domestic approach and neoconservative foreign policy. As Devine summarizes it, the “coalition would fuse so many interests under the term ‘conservatism’ that its extreme diversity came to undermine its intellectual integrity.”

In many ways, since Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, Republicans and the Right have been looking for a new way of approaching things that will have intellectual integrity and respond to the moment in which we now live. Responding to those who complain of “zombie Reaganism,” Devine says that the goal is “not to robotically adopt old solutions” but to wrestle with how to “apply” Reagan’s “winning philosophy.”

Many of the pieces in this volume are interpretations or analyses of how people on the right are struggling toward a new conception of conservatism. Devine looks at Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s rejection of America as a shallow Lockean liberal project as well as Robert Reilly’s defense of the country as much more than Lockean. He evaluates National Conservatism founder Yoram Hazony’s views as a nationalist alternative.

Devine is a sympathetic critic, but he argues that even those most vocally opposed to fusionism generally are sympathetic to it when they get into the details. And he wonders if the critics have really provided any true alternatives. He suggests that Hazony’s concession that conservatism “will always be internally diverse” is a sign that “he may be a kind of philosophical fusionist manqué himself.”

One of the biggest questions that must be asked, however, is how close our situation is to Reagan’s. Devine catalogs today’s problems that “have a similar ring” to 1981: “stagflation, unsustainable spendings, entitlements nearing bankruptcy, failed bureaucracy, racial and class division, a hostile world military threat, and more.” While agreeing that these problems are indeed similar to those faced by Reagan, many readers will see that the differences might lead in different directions.

Devine recognizes this when he discusses how foreign policy came unglued under George W. Bush “the old open-ended Buckley-Reagan synthesis” had been “transformed” into “a neoconservative ideology” of “obsession with nation-building, materialist utilitarianism, and hyphenated compassionate-conservatism.”

I think he also recognizes that this ideological approach has also been part of the domestic policy problems of conservatives. Critical of those offering “more aggressive government regulatory initiatives” than those favored by traditional fusionism, he defends the older approach of trying to “defund or de-federalize central government institutions” so as not to have them “frustrate” any attempts to govern them. It’s not clear to this reader that either Devine or his critics are the clear winner yet. Any future fusion movement will likely require a multi-pronged strategy aimed at defanging our central government.

One of the big differences in our time and Reagan’s is that many of the problems he dealt with have metastasized. The federal government has ballooned, and the amount of control over it by the executive branch or by Congress has shrunk. It seems to be weaponized currently at any enemies of the Ruling Class. The racial division has become more entrenched and more noxious in many places. And the appreciation of America by young people, lamented as fast disappearing in some of Reagan’s last presidential speeches, has been virtually killed under our disastrous public education system.

Devine is correct that a fusion of old and new, order and liberty, will have to be the way of the future. But many readers will suspect that our times will require a fusion that looks very different from the Meyer-Buckley-Reagan model in the end. As Devine notes, the original fusion movement wasn’t cooked up in a lab but developed “organically.” We will need statesmen like Reagan as well as thinkers and strategists like Meyer, Buckley, and Donald J. Devine to build up a new model of our country in which right order and liberty, both informed by natural law and reason, work together for our common good.

 

 

David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Follow him on X @davidpdeavel.

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Lieutenant Beale
Lieutenant Beale
2 months ago

“In many ways, since Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, Republicans and the Right have been looking for a new way of approaching things that will have intellectual integrity and respond to the moment in which we now live”

The truth is, since Obama’s victory in 2008, we have been paying dearly ever since.
Sure, some things need to change, but some things are timeless.
You don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
I am reminded of some of the opening lines in the Declaration of Independence:
”We hold these truths to be self evident. . . . .”
In this day and age, we have devolved to the point that our current leadership cannot even look between their legs and define what a woman is.
This country’s current leadership does not possess even a modicum of common sense let alone intellectual integrity.

cc
cc
2 months ago

Prayers for President Regan!
One of Our Absolute Best…
Humility…
Class!….
Honesty….
True Humor…
God fearing family man…
Rest In Peace
Humbly…

Ty
Ty
2 months ago

America is not the problem. Freedom in America is! To many non government organizations have linked themselves to the government coffers and tax payers don’t have the transparency to see where funding is ported. Its the new truth in spending not leanding. Today, it isn’t about liberty or human rights, it’s all about power and the control of corruption by corruption. It’s political power and the continuation of the dole, at every level. Biden said buy American, but he has bought more and sold more to the Chinese than Americans. All of Bidens’ campaign promises are broken, and he is so blinded by the Swamp managing corruption that he believes the lies he is telling. He really is just a kind old crooked politician with a forgetful mind! After all, the job growth Biden continues to speak of were for the most part new government jobs, which aren’t needed and should never have been offered. These are Swamp generated holding places, by unelected bureaucrats, and Biden was told he did it, but he dosen’t know what he did! He helped the Swamp steal more tax dollars and fortify the new corruption mandates of the expanding dole!

Jim
Jim
2 months ago

Yes he is. He was spectacular in my humble opinion.

Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
2 months ago

Game Boy charging again? Bummer.

Gabe Hanzeli kent wa
Gabe Hanzeli kent wa
2 months ago

democrats and leftists hate Reagan because he fixed carters failure in 6 months and made them all look like morons.

Democrats needs to learn to except that they are moron Obama’s failed administration was fixed in a year by trump and Biden turned it into a failure again in 3 moths. Too bad the leftists just can never learn from their repeated failures.

Cliff
Cliff
1 month ago

How can you put biden and Trump in the same category?

johnh
johnh
1 month ago

Reagan was POTUS for all Americans & not just a chosen few, and that was the major difference between then & the last 20-years in Washington DC. We need a POTUS that will unite this nation & not divide this nation. Lastly, Reagan picked strong cabinet members & not just people that were “YES” people & that is a big difference.

Glenn
Glenn
1 month ago

Most assuredly I couldn’t agree more. Reagan took no crap from anyone, spoke intelligently and with keen precise communication. He battled with himself and others regarding the famous line “Mr. Gorbechev (spelling) tear down this wall”. I read that Reagan’s advisors pleaded with him to not say anything of that nature when at the wall.

Melinda
Melinda
2 months ago

Let Reagan rest in peace. There will never be another just like him.

Melinda
Melinda
2 months ago

Exactly right on all counts. Progress cannot be stopped, human ingenuity is everlasting, but it must be combined with respect for the traditions that led to it. What’s missing these days is common sense, having been replaced with a “win at any cost” attitude.

anna hubert
anna hubert
2 months ago

2008 and 2020 victories are in the same category Must not forget 2012 That too was a victory In came Trump to throw a monkey wrench into a smooth operation And that is an outrage Must be stopped at any cost Political murder will have to do since the bodily one is risky

Morbious
Morbious
2 months ago

Its hard to avoid the sad conclusion that the country died in Nov 2012 when a far left community organizer was reelected. In many ways reagans time was a hiatus from democratic domination. As noted, nearly all he did has long been erased by his own party working with dems to grow government. When conservatives are frustrated they write 700 pg books that few read. When dems are frustrated, they become furious and work feverishly to make up lost ground. The greatest conundrum we face is that conservatives ponder and dems act. The creation of conservative activism remains the philosopher’s stone.

Casey C Matt
Casey C Matt
1 month ago

Ahh…..the myth of Reagan. The only good thing the man did was to drag us out of a deep recession brought on by the same things we are doing now……..playing world policeman.
Please remind yourself that it was Reagan that kow-towed to the immigration lobby and ‘forgave” millions of illegal aliens, aka “wetbacks” in his second term doing little more than starting the flood we see today.
Was he better than Carter? Oh hell yeah but thats like preferring heart disease to cancer,

Gabe Hanzeli kent wa
Gabe Hanzeli kent wa
2 months ago

Haley sucks, she is a democrats hiding in the republican party. she is a lying piece of trash. We woudl be better off with Stalin or Hitler. Trump woudl be 2000 times better then haley.

democrats and leftists hate Reagan because he fixed carters failure in 6 months and made them all look like morons.
Democrats needs to learn to except that they are moron Obama’s failed administration was fixed in a year by trump and Biden turned it into a failure again in 3 moths. Too bad the leftists just can never learn from their repeated failures.

Guzzle dow
Guzzle dow
2 months ago

What’s the difference between Ukraine and a conservative?
the Ukrainian didn’t bend over and beg for it lol

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