Monday, February 14, 2011

“The American people are no longer on the defensive”: Ronald Reagan’s Statement of Traditional Jacksonian Values at CPAC, 1985

by Michael Kaplan

“So, let us go forth with good cheer and stout hearts—happy warriors out to seize back a country and a world to freedom.”

Throughout the course of his political career, Ronald Reagan was a firm champion of the traditional values of Jacksonian America. These included an unapologetic nationalism, veneration of the symbols of American patriotism, belief in limited government and rugged individualism, traditional religious faith, and a belief in the greatness and goodness of the American people and America’s exceptional role in history as the champion of liberty in the world. These ideas defined Reagan’s conservatism and they were a major source of his ability to connect with the aspirations of the American people.

Reagan had two overarching objectives when he took office as president in 1981. First, he wanted to dismantle the blue social model (the progressive welfare state) and unleash the entrepreneurial dynamism of the American economy. And just as important, Reagan wanted roll back the Aquarian social and cultural revolution of the 1960s and restore the primacy of traditional Jacksonian culture in American life. Reagan feared that the unrelenting assault on Jacksonian America by the Aquarian counterculture was undermining the American people’s belief in themselves and in their nation. He stated this quite eloquently at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 1, 1985.
The new conservatives made anew the connection between economic justice and economic growth. Growth in the economy would not only create jobs and paychecks, they said; it would enhance familial stability and encourage a healthy optimism about the future. Lower those tax rates, they said, and let the economy become the engine of our dreams. Pull back regulations, and encourage free and open competition. Let the men and women of the marketplace decide what they want.
But along with that, perhaps the greatest triumph of modern conservatism has been to stop allowing the left to put the average American on the moral defensive. By average American I mean the good, decent, rambunctious, and creative people who raise the families, go to church, and help out when the local library holds a fundraiser; people who have a stake in the community because they are the community.
These people had held true to certain beliefs and principles that for 20 years the intelligentsia were telling us were hopelessly out of date, utterly trite, and reactionary. You want prayer in the schools? How primitive, they said. You oppose abortion? How oppressive, how antimodern. The normal was portrayed as eccentric, and only the abnormal was worthy of emulation. The irreverent was celebrated, but only irreverence about certain things: irreverence toward, say, organized religion, yes; irreverence toward establishment liberalism, not too much of that. They celebrated their courage in taking on safe targets and patted each other on the back for slinging stones at a confused Goliath, who was too demoralized and really too good to fight back.
But now one simply senses it. The American people are no longer on the defensive. I believe the conservative movement deserves some credit for this. You spoke for the permanent against the merely prevalent, and ultimately you prevailed.
Reagan gloried in his role as knight-errant of the Jacksonian folk community, much as Andrew Jackson had in his day. It also drove his liberal progressive opponents into fits of outrage. Reagan could express, in coherent and powerful language, the resentment of Jacksonian populist conservatives toward their liberal elite antagonists. For much of the twentieth century Jacksonian America had been on the defensive; its culture of patriotism and faith mocked as reactionary, its people derisively condemned as boobus americanus. The humiliation of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 drove conservative Christians into political exile, perpetuating an image of Jacksonians as eccentric primitives. Reagan gave focus and leadership to the Jacksonian revival which responded forcefully to the excesses of the Aquarian counterculture.

However, despite Reagan’s presidency, indeed because of it, the Aquarian counterculture was here to stay. The Aquarian lifestyle could only take root and flourish in a society of mass abundance. People engaged in the struggle for bare survival could not afford to follow their bliss. Ironically, it was Reagan’s own economic policies, by unleashing the animal spirits of capitalism and creating wealth on an unprecedented scale, which enabled Aquarian values to be incorporated into mainstream America. The Reagan years saw the birth of the bohemian bourgeois, or “bobo”—David Brooks’s term—the newest incarnation of the technocratic elite which combined an aggressive meritocratic work ethic with an Aquarian style and hedonism. There would be no return to the 1950s in the 1980s. Jacksonian America, too, was to a certain extent, “aquarianized.” As Brink Lindsey writes:
Capitalism’s vigor was restored, and the radical assault on middle-class values was repulsed. But contrary to the hopes of the New Right’s traditionalist partisans, shoring up the institutions of mass affluence did not, and could not, bring back the old cultural certainties. Instead, a reinvigorated capitalism brought with it a blooming, buzzing economic and cultural ferment that bore scant resemblance to any nostalgic vision of the good old days. Here then was conservatism’s curious accomplishment: it made the world safe for the secular, hedonistic values of Aquarius.
(Lindsey, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture [New York: Collins, 2007], p. 229.)

This raises a question which perplexed the Founding Fathers. Can those traditional American values which create abundanceJacksonian values, of hard work, self-discipline, delayed gratification, and a strong sense of national identitysurvive the very abundance they create? Does the American people’s pursuit of happiness sow the seeds of their destruction should happiness ever be found?

© 2011 Michael Kaplan


  1. Michael,

    Another thought provoking piece. I for one feel our founding ideals can indeed survive as you ask. Ronald Reagan embodied those principles in every way. The problem I see today is the lack of his love of country as evidenced by our current leaders. Reagan didn't just wear his patriotism on his sleeve. unlike any other leader in my life time, Reagan was able to show his love for country, his love for freedom and his love for his fellow man.

    This country and as you point out the Jacksonian principles was founded by men like Reagan. Their love for freedom was compounded by their love for their fellow man. As such, there is hope as long as we can somehow get that message out to the people and drown out the Anti-American propaganda.

    People tend to forget, Reagan was President of the screen actors union and a leftist in his own right until he re-assessed this and realized it was against everything this country stands for. He was brave enough to say he was wrong!

  2. Reagan a leftist???? Being a Democrat and belonging to a Union does not automatically make one a leftist.

  3. Max,

    The Union he was president of is factually documented as being leftist in nature both when he was president and now! Reagan stated more than once that he was wrong in many of his earlier views and leadership positions in the screen actors community. There are leftists and radical leftists. I would definitely place Reagan in the leftist category in his early years.

    One other comment. It takes a hell of a man to change his ways and say he was wrong and Reagan was one hell of a man.

  4. Joe, Max,

    Reagan did start off his career as a liberal Democrat. He was a supporter of FDR. He began to move to the right when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, after fighting an attempt by communists to take control of the union. This led him to testify before HUAC.

    Reagan liked to say that "I didn't leave the Democratic Party; it left me." But he continued to admire FDR. FDR and Reagan were, I believe, the greatest presidents of the 20th century. They were both great communicators who connected with the aspirations of the American people and they both believed in American exceptionalism and America's role as the champion of liberty in the world. They both fundamentally transformed American politics: FDR by institutionalizing the blue social model welfare state, and Reagan for starting to dismantle it.

    Our current leaders, as far as I can see, can't hold a candle to either Reagan or FDR, let alone the Founders or Andrew Jackson. I do hope that someone, perhaps Sarah Palin, perhaps another governor like Bobby Jindal or Chris Christie, or a senator like Marco Rubio, can emerge as the leader America needs.

  5. I'm still not sold on Reagan being a Leftist, a Democrat yes. Let's remeber that being a Democrat back then was much different than what it is now or even what it was 30 years ago. As a Populist, I would probably be a Democrat back then.

    Michael, what do you think of Huckabee?

  6. @Max,

    I like Huckabee personally. He's affable, engaging, a man of faith of course (he used to be a Baptist pastor) and a populist. And he does have ten years of experience as a governor--like Bill Clinton, he's from Hope, Arkansas. Huckabee reminds me of a laid-back 21st-century version of William Jennings Bryan--Bryan without the brimstone.

    But I don't think I want Huckabee to run in 2012. First, I really don't want any retreads from 2008 making another run. It's unlikely that he can energize the Tea Party base. And I don't think he has the charisma to take on Obama. Then again everything will be wide open on the Republican side this cycle. So who knows who or what will emerge.


  7. Personally, I really want someone to come out as a leader! By that I mean I want them to take on every sacred cow head on consequences be damned. It has to be done nut I'm not sure we have someone like that just yet.

  8. Yeah, he won't be the Tea Party's fave for sure, however that could work in his favor. Remember it's the independents that go back and forth between the parties who have the real power in elections. If he could debate Obama, I think he could win over the independents.

  9. I write music commentary . I think these songs speak for all of us .

    1- They Did The Wild Life Boogie or The Economy Song .

    Pick Up The Trash