Monday, November 15, 2010

The Speech that Made the Conservative Movement: Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing”

by Michael Kaplan

Ronald Reagan delivered this speech, “A Time for Choosing,” in support of Barry Goldwater on October 27, 1964. Goldwater lost the election in a landslide, but Reagan was transformed into a leader of the conservative movement. Two years later Reagan would be elected governor of California. And the rest is history.

This speech is as good a distillation as there is of the ideas and passions that drive the conservative movement, both in 1964 and in 2010. It showcased Reagan’s charisma and eloquence as a leader who could articulate those ideas in a way that average Americans would find compelling. It is a very Jacksonian speech, emphasizing the themes of individual liberty and responsibility, limited government, entrepreneurship and the power of the free market, rugged individualism, American exceptionalism, and the need to stand up to tyranny.

Here in one key passage, Reagan targets the idea that the American people need the guidance of an intellectual elite:

This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
Jacksonians have always rejected the idea that intellectual and cultural elites have a better understanding of what’s good for America than do average Americans. Sarah Palin hammers this home in her speeches and it’s central to the Tea Party movement. As is the need to keep government involvement in the economy to a minimum:

Well, I, for one, resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me, the free men and women of this country, as “the masses.” This is a term we haven’t applied to ourselves in America. But beyond that, “the full power of centralized government”—this was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.
Reagan proclaimed the need to stand up to tyranny—communism in 1964, radical Islamic jihadism in 2010—denouncing accommodation with or appeasement of those who would reduce human beings to servitude:

Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state have told us they have a utopian solution of peace without victory. They call their policy “accommodation.” And they say if we'll only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he’ll forget his evil ways and learn to love us. All who oppose them are indicted as warmongers. They say we offer simple answers to complex problems. Well, perhaps there is a simple answer—not an easy answer—but simple: If you and I have the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based on what we know in our hearts is morally right.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? Reagan made a powerful appeal to American exceptionalism, historical memory, and the power of faith in human affairs:

You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin—just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn't die in vain. Where, then, is the road to peace? Well it's a simple answer after all.
And he concluded with a call to arms:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
Reagan was the original Reagan Democrat. He started as a liberal progressive and a supporter of another great orator who appealed to Jacksonians, Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan continued to admire FDR even after his politics took a different turn. But as the Democratic Party moved left, Reagan moved right. Reagan began his transition to conservatism when, as president of Hollywood’s Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, he fought against communists who were trying to take control of the union. In the late 1950s Reagan, as host of General Electric Theater, toured GE plants across the country giving speeches and meeting with workers. This gave him a greater appreciation of the workings of business and the free market, completing his transition to conservatism. In 1962 Reagan officially switched his party affiliation, saying, “I didnt leave the Democratic Party; it left me.” Jacksonian America would follow Reagan on that journey.

There was a reason why Reagan was called “The Great Communicator.” This speech set him on the path to become the defining president of the second half of the twentieth century; who would bring about an American revival and send communism onto the ash heap of history. Like Washington and Jackson before him, Reagan was cut from the mold of Cincinnatus, the man who gave up power and returned to his farm when his task was done. Reagan was indeed the most Jacksonian president since Jackson himself. He was one of history’s great liberators.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan

1 comment:

  1. He was truly a great communicator. Was Regan a populist???? I’m not for sure about that.