Getting the Gipper’s Back

by Steven F. Hayward

Another week, another Reagan-bashing article, this time appearing in Obamaweek Newsweek, by Jeremy McCarter, entitled “Reagan Was Wrong.” All good for me, I suppose. Reagan in headlines must draw in readers, because once you get into the text of McCarter’s essay, it turns out not to be about Reagan at all, but is rather a long mash note to the late Henry Fairlie, who disdained American conservatism for contradictory reasons — first, its supposed lowbrow populism, and for its un-conservative embrace of open markets that undermine tradition and other aspects of Burkean conservatism. Fairlie and McCarter both fail to understand (along with, let’s admit it, some conservatives) that American conservatism has always been a different animal than European conservatism, a fact Patrick Allitt captures in his new book, The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History. Says Allitt rightly: “American conservatism has always had a paradoxical element, entailing a defense of a revolutionary achievement.”

I won’t rehearse the familiar intramural conservative arguments here, except to say that it is precisely this dynamic tension that accounts for much of the success of the Right in recent decades — a dynamic tension wholly absent on the Left (as Jonah has often observed here) and hence incomprehensible to most writers on the Left such as McCarter and Fairlie. McCarter offers a sampling of Fairlie’s scorn for American conservatism. Fine. But I think NRO readers might like to take note of a few of the other things Fairlie had to say about Reagan and Democrats back in the 1980s that have gone missing from McCarter’s quote book. After Reagan finished his first 100 days in office, Fairlie wrote in the Washington Post: “It is almost a heresy for someone of my beliefs to say that this transition takes my mind back to 1933. Yet how can one deny it? This is not Truman to Eisenhower, or Eisenhower to Kennedy, or Johnson to Nixon, or Ford to Carter. This is a feeling of a nation with its own mandate.”

In 1983, Fairlie tried to warn Democrats about their intellectual lassitude: “Those Democrats who are seriously interested in the future of their party should be ready to consider the fact, however unwelcome, that it is the Republicans who in recent years have been appealing to masses of voters who have considered themselves disenfranchised.”

Meanwhile, props to Ramesh, who gets the Gipper exactly right in his new piece. Lo and behold, the piece is actually about Reagan.

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