Magazine | September 8, 2014, Issue

The Decline of Liberal History

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein (Simon & Schuster, 880 pp., $37.50)

It is the thesis of Rick Perlstein’s book that the United States, circa 1970, was on the verge of a moral and political breakthrough. Perlstein compares the nascent revolution in sentiment to the French Enlightenment, that “sweeping eighteenth-century intellectual-cum-political movement,” he writes, which saw “all settled conceptions of society thrown up in the air, which introduced radical new notions of liberty and dignity, dethroned God, and made human reason the new measure of moral worth — a little like the 1960s and ’70s.”

In Perlstein’s telling, the advocates of the new American enlightenment stood ready to rouse their fellow citizens from their dogmatic slumbers and teach them to “think like grown-ups.” Under so luminous a tuition, Americans would embrace a better patriotism: They would put away childish things and master the grown-up arts of “questioning authority” and “unsettling ossified norms.” But like the evil djinn in a fairy tale, Ronald Reagan appeared, and foreclosed the happy possibility of a “new, higher patriotism.” Instead of encouraging Americans to grow up, Reagan insisted on keeping them in a state of perpetual infancy, and taught them “to think like children waiting for a man on horseback to rescue them: a tragedy.”

A curious image: Surely it is the odd child who longs to be saved by an equestrian hero. The inaptness of the phrasing betrays the sloppiness of the argument. Reagan, Perlstein contends, radiated an “optimism” so “blithe” that it overwhelmed the rational faculties of the citizenry. His supporters felt “so good in his presence” that they were “eager and willing to follow him” wherever he might lead them. And the place to which he did lead them was peculiarly delightful — the lost paradise of childhood, where they recovered the “simple moral clarity,” the “crystalline black-or-white melodramas” of childish innocence, as yet untouched by the complexities of adult experience.

This is fantasy and condescension. Reagan, though a charming man, was not, like Prospero, a caster of spells. He succeeded, not because he waved a magic wand and restored the childish hour of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower, but because he expressed, more lucidly than any of his competitors for public office, convictions that many millions of his fellow countrymen (the greater number of them of sound mind and reasonable competence) believed to be true.

Truth may make us free, but it is not always helpful in the selling of books. And so we are treated, in The Invisible Bridge, not to the story of the rise of a democratic statesman who, like Lincoln or Churchill, got the biggest truths right, but to a morality play in which a deluded charlatan — an “athlete” in the “denial” of reality, a master of turning “complexity and confusion and doubt” into “simplicity and stout-hearted certainty” — vanquishes the high-minded patriots who seek to enlighten a dimwitted nation. Reagan, in Perlstein’s account, is the foolish-fond Superman of counter-Enlightenment. He effortlessly surpasses such triflers, in the art of reaction, as Maistre, Burke, Coleridge, Chateaubriand, Donoso Cortés, and Newman, whose combined genius, after all, conspicuously failed to arrest the progress of the original, French-philosophical Enlightenment that Perlstein holds in such high regard. In contrast to these bunglers, the Reagan of The Invisible Bridge routs the agents of American Aufklärung singlehandedly, a feat that is the more extraordinary given that he was, Perlstein assures us, a moron of the first water.

But Perlstein’s account of the virtues of his enlightened, Reagan-despising patriots is over-simple. Among their claims to distinction, he says, is their conviction that Americans must “question leadership ruthlessly.” On closer inspection, however, it appears that they wanted Americans to question American leadership ruthlessly; they tended to give foreign leadership, particularly if it was Communist and despotic, a free pass. Perlstein relates how, in a 1975 address at Barnard College, that skeptical patriot Lillian Hellman admonished the graduating class to be wary of the government in Washington, which “spied on innocent people who did nothing more than express their democratic right to say what they thought.” A sound admonition, as timely today as it was 40 years ago. And yet it is curious that Miss Hellman’s own skepticism seems always to have stopped at the American frontier; and indeed she once condemned John Dewey for having dared to cast a skeptical eye on Stalin’s Moscow Trials, those judicious exercises in which Vyshinsky, the state prosecutor, sent the Old Bolsheviks to the firing squad for having conspired with nefarious capitalists intent on the sabotage of the Soviet Workers’ Paradise.

Perlstein implies that his enlightened patriots, in their willingness to deplore the actions of the United States, are more worthy of approbation than Reagan, who figures in The Invisible Bridge as the prince of the country’s callow “flag wavers,” a self-complacent man who was unable to admit that America was neither so innocent nor so exceptional as he claimed it to be. Yet Perlstein overlooks the self-complacency of his own preferred patriots, who risked little in smugly denouncing the repressive culture of “Amerika,” safe in the knowledge that American laws and liberties would protect them from the sort of vengeance that was routinely visited upon those who in Hanoi, Moscow, and Havana dared to criticize the regime in their native land.

#page#These are, perhaps, forgivable faults of perspective and interpretation, but they flow from a more fundamental error. Perlstein’s Enlightenment is the Enlightenment of the French philosophers and of those intellectuals who sought to emulate them. It was a movement whose patron saints, from Voltaire to Comte, sought, as Perlstein says, to overthrow the “settled conceptions of society” in the name of reason or science. Yet Perlstein all but entirely overlooks the chief weakness of this Enlightenment, the insistence of its votaries that progress is something imposed from above by a virtuous sovereignty or mandarinate. Indeed, it is precisely because they put their faith in the superior illumination of elites — committees of public safety, party vanguards, properly credentialed administrators — that the inheritors of the French intellectual tradition have so little sympathy for the private citizen’s liberty of action. On the contrary, they seek to reform the state, in Tocqueville’s words, by means of “tyrannical regulations on all subjects” in a way that promotes the “total absorption of the individual in the body politic.” It is true, of course, that these enlightened intellectuals are in theory advocates of what Perlstein calls “radical new notions of liberty and dignity.” In practice, however, they send their opponents (real or imagined) to the guillotine or the Gulag. They dethrone God, and put Robespierre in his place.

There is another Enlightenment; and although Perlstein overlooks it, it is essential to any real understanding of the statesmanship of Ronald Reagan. The Other Enlightenment grew out of the work of Anglo-Scottish thinkers who discovered a hidden wisdom in the “ossified norms” Perlstein’s patriots were so eager to unsettle. The Other Enlightenment begins in David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s perception that a really free and enlightened political order cannot be formed by the dirigiste will of rational lawgivers. “There has probably never existed,” F. A. Hayek wrote in his précis of the Anglo-Scottish point of view,

a genuine belief in freedom, and there certainly has been no successful attempt to operate a free society, without a genuine reverence for grown institutions, for customs and habits and “all those securities of liberty, which arise from regulations of long prescription and ancient usage.” Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always be in large measure a tradition-bound society. [Quotation within quotation, from Joseph Butler, corrected.]

As much as Perlstein’s new American patriots, who, like their heroes Ho and Che, dreamt of a Republic of Virtue to be established by enlightened lawgivers (themselves, should the revolution succeed), Reagan, too, was a child of enlightenment — only his was the Enlightenment not of Stalin but of Smith, not of Mao but of Madison. Like others influenced by the Anglo-Scottish tradition, Reagan was conscious of the limitations and fallibilities of elite knowledge. He knew that more knowledge is necessary to the functioning of a healthy society than any one individual or small group of individuals can possibly possess; and he was convinced that it is just because free, uncentralized societies make so much more efficient use of available information than centrally directed ones that they are able (in Hayek’s words) to produce achievements “greater than any single mind can foresee.”

In making the case for the Other Enlightenment, Reagan made no pretense to being an original scholar; he got his own information, for the most part, secondhand, not least from the pages of this magazine. But his intellectual conversion was, so far as I can tell, sincere, and not animated, as Perlstein implies, by a petty grievance concerning an old tax lien, or by the mercenary motive of the money he was making as a spokesman for the General Electric Company.

Blind as he is to the meaning of the Other Enlightenment, Perlstein can only dismiss Reagan’s warnings about the unintended consequences of state action as so much “apocalyptic” stupidity. But if in questioning the wisdom of an ever-expanding social state Reagan was a voice of what Perlstein calls right-wing extremism, so, too, were such men as George Orwell and Lionel Trilling. The “ultimate threat to human freedom,” Trilling wrote in a review of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, might well come from a “massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture.”

By the end of his book, Perlstein arrives at roughly the same conceptual destination as such earlier liberal scholars as George Kennan, Richard Hofstadter, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who each sought a larger social-administrative state. But his mode of getting there is different. The Invisible Bridge is a distinctly “lite” version of the work of the old liberal masters. The book has a certain energy, derived from the hysterical flippancy of the writing; Perlstein “cuts,” like a film director, from topic to topic with a frequency that precludes sustained analysis. Such a style, in small doses, is absorbing, and might have carried a shorter book; but over the course of some 800 closely printed pages of text the shock of edginess loses its force; the reader wants to understand, and not be merely bewildered and amused.

#page#Whenever Perlstein comes to a point of real contention — the rival claims, say, of the Keynes-Samuelson and Hayek-Friedman schools of political economy, or the pros and cons of the “last best hope” rhetoric Reagan cribbed from Lincoln and John Winthrop — Perlstein does not go deeply into the question, as Hofstadter or Schlesinger would have done: He hurries off to one of his set pieces on popular culture. He dilates on the plots of The Exorcist and Jaws, quotes from innumerable syndicated columns, offers synopses of a number of pornographic films. Whether Reagan is really, as Perlstein maintains, an American Dr. Pangloss, to be blamed for a national cult of spurious optimism, is a question worth going into; but Perlstein does not go into it, and instead relates gossip and innuendo concerning the private lives of the Reagans, which need not be further noticed here. (Whether the same frenetic literary manners that have led him, in the words of the New York Times’s Sam Tanenhaus, to find “rumor more illuminating than fact” have betrayed him, as Reagan scholar Craig Shirley maintains, into a carelessness in the acknowledgment of sources that amounts to plagiarism is a question for another essay.)

To be sure, it is not easy for a writer today, who must get his bread in the teeth of competition from blogs and video games, to pierce the surfaces of things and penetrate to the depths. One only wishes that Perlstein, forced by circumstance into his own oversimplifications, could have treated more charitably those of Reagan, who in his public speaking countenanced, at times, precisely the sort of superficiality that fills The Invisible Bridge. Just as Perlstein would soon go broke if he tried to write, in an age of literary degeneration, in the manner of Schlesinger or Hofstadter, so it is unlikely that Reagan would have carried 49 of 50 states in a demotic epoch of TV politics had he framed his arguments after the fashion of The Federalist Papers.

The fact is that a statesman must galvanize opinion if he is to lead; and long before the advent of television, thoughtful leaders judged it sometimes necessary to sacrifice subtlety if they were to carry their point. “When Aeschines finished speaking, they said, ‘How well he spoke.’ But when Demosthenes finished speaking, they said, ‘Let us march.’” Like Demosthenes and Lincoln before him, Reagan sought to illuminate the conflict between liberty and tyranny in order to mobilize the forces of freedom; and if, like them, he did not always qualify his words with an array of doubts and reservations, he might have pointed, by way of justification, to Winston Churchill, who in 1940 said of the ideas set forth in a mandarinish government paper that they erred “in trying to be too clever, to enter into refinements of policy unsuited to the tragic simplicity and grandeur of the times and the issues at stake.”

Give Perlstein this much: It is the audacious scholar who would belittle the achievement of Ronald Reagan. If nothing else, he deserves to be made house historian at MSNBC. But if you strike at the king, you must kill him; and this Perlstein fails to do. Another, wiser man, a registered Democrat, pronounced what seems to me a truer epitaph of the 40th president. “I ended up thinking,” Paul Nitze said, that “he was a great man.”

The judgment stands.

– Mr. Beran, a lawyer and a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of, among other books, Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran, a lawyer, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871, among other books.

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