March 26, 2009
When It Was Morning in America

George W. Bush came close to winning the 2000 presidential election by pretending to be a closet Democrat — this being the barely-coded message of his “compassionate conservative” nonsense.

And Reagan won the 1984 presidential election fair and square by doing the same thing, although this is less generally understood. A while back I went into the question in some depth. I’m dusting off that 1988 piece now not because it’s particularly relevant to anything in the news, but because I was reminded of it yesterday when I posted that old video from Ronzo’s pink period.

And because it’s my party and I’ll post if I want to. So here goes:

Now Ronald Reagan has beaten the Democrats twice — not because he was an elephant, but because he had done such a good job of looking like a donkey.

Most foreigners could no more tell a Democrat from a Republican than they could distinguish between the male and the female of the Galapagos tortoise. But just as the tortoises are able to sort themselves out, so can we Americans. In the narrow mainstream of our politics, ranging from kind-of-far right to pretty-far right, the Democrats are the liberals and the Republicans are the conservatives.

The normal way to tell a liberal from a conservative is that the liberal is an optimist, while the conservative is a pessimist. The liberal imagines that the world can be changed for the better. The conservative imagines that it can’t. He looks into his own heart, supposes that all hearts must be similar, and concludes that very little can be expected of mankind.

Others must be as ready to attack him as he is to attack them, and so praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. Government is bound to be organized theft, so that the only remaining question for the intelligent man is who gets robbed. Liberated woman would prove to be no better than liberated man has been, and thus, in the interest of reducing the general level of mischief, should be kept barefoot in the winter and pregnant in summer. Only a sucker would believe that faith could move mountains, but greed will do the job just fine. Look at Appalachia. The mark of Cain is on all of us, and we are none of us any better than we should be. “In Adam’s fall,” as the New England Primer said, “we sinnčd all.”

These things being so, the path of history must lead downward, and it would be useless to stand in the way of this general decline. About the best a conservative can hope for is to preserve the status quo; the absolute best is to turn back the clock for a few moments, so as briefly to recapture some status quo ante…

In his most usual guise, then, the conservative is full of gloom and pessimism. He knows our sloth will drive us to bankruptcy, our lust to license; our anger to war; our envy to civil unrest, our covetousness to crime; our gluttony to a triple by-pass; and our pride to a fall.

The point is not whether this view is correct. The point, politically, is whether such pessimism is appealing.

Someone with a more favorable view of mankind’s capacities — someone, in other words, more liberal — might indeed think that the voters were up to hearing a few unpleasant truths.

Carter and Mondale seemed to have thought the country was mature enough for a little castor oil, at any rate. In Carter’s world petroleum was running out and the American Century was in danger of ending before it was over. His was a complicated world that required careful planning to manage.

Nor was Mondale’s world a cheerful one. It, too, required planning and discipline if we were to cope with Reagan’s deficits while at the same time restoring fairness to American life. Carter’s and Mondale’s faith that the voters could grasp these concepts was essentially liberal in its optimism about the human condition. And it was essentially misplaced, as the country showed both men on election day.

Reagan didn’t seem to see the world this way at all. In Mondale’s America, as the Republican commercials said, it was always April 15; in Reagan’s it was always the Fourth of July. Whether by temperament or by design Reagan ran as an optimist, which is to say that he ran as a Democrat.

His issues may have been traditional Republican ones, but this misses the point. If you campaign in poetry but govern in prose, as Governor Cuomo likes to say, then Reagan’s poetry was Democratic.

In both campaigns, but especially in the 1984 one, Reagan went beyond poetic license and into outright theft. The bands at his rallies played “Happy Days Are Here Again.” He adopted Roosevelt and Truman as Republican saints, and it worked; he sounded more like a Democrat than Mondale or Carter did. He talked about tomorrow with the cheerful optimism of the Happy Warrior, Hubert Humphrey; he talked about America’s role in the world with the mindless, adolescent macho of the early Kennedy; he offered guns and butter with the fiscal abandon of Lyndon Johnson.

In fact he made Johnson and those other Democrats look like pikers. They wanted to tax and spend; by 1984 it was clear that all Reagan wanted to do was spend. He was the Peter Pan of politics, never growing up and settling down. He was the grasshopper and the Democrats were the ants. Never mind what he actually said; after four years, everybody knew he didn’t mean all that stuff anyway. What he actually was, in both races, was the Democrat.

But how could he be the Democrat when he opposed virtually every social measure the Democrats had passed, over the years and over his dead body? The trick was that he went the Democrats one better. He said we had once had all these good things for nothing, and we could have them again for the same attractive price.

Cut red tape and the mighty engine of American industry will provide jobs for all. Cut funds for libraries and some new Carnegie will build them once again. Cut taxes for the rich and revenues will go up. Cut Matilda off the Social Security rolls and her children will take her in. Cut funds to enforce environmental and safety laws, and voluntary compliance will go up. Cut forests and you cut air pollution.

Reagan offered no-fault government to the Me Generation and to their parents, who often enough were vagabonding around in their RVs with messages like “I’m Spending My Children’s Inheritance” on the bumpers. (The message on their children’s BMWs was likely to read, “The One Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.” The apple, the French say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.)

The old folks liked it that Reagan, old folks himself, stood foursquare for God, the nuclear family, enforced pregnancy to term, creationism, prayer in schools, heterosexuality between married adults — none of which would cost a nickel in taxes.

The younger folks had grown up in a world of homosexuals and casual sex and abortion and divorce. They seldom went to church. They saw little of their kids. But they forgave their permissive and nicely naughty Grandpa Ron for all his preaching, because they knew his fingers were crossed. No way he could really mean all those terrible things he kept saying about what had been, after all, his own lifestyle.

Reagan sounded like an optimist because he was able to sell Americans the notion that to retreat to the past was to advance, that yesterday could become tomorrow. That this might not be such a good idea didn’t occur to people who had little knowledge of what yesterday had been like. Their memories were either too short or, like Reagan’s, too selective.

In his 1986 State of the Union message, Reagan gave Congress an unusually explicit (for poetry) statement of his view that progress is just a question of retracing our footsteps:

Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film, Back to the Future: ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.’ Well, today, physicists peering into the infinitely small realms of the subatomic particles find reaffirmations of religious faith; astronomers build a space telescope that can see to the edge of the universe and, possibly, back to the moment of creation …

We are going forward with our shuttle flights. We are going forward to build our space station, and we are going forward with research on a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low-earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours. And the same technology transforming our lives can solve the greatest problem of the 20th Century. A security shield can one day render nuclear weapons obsolete and free mankind from the prison of nuclear terror.

It’s all there. Magical time machines to take us back to the 1950s. White-coated scientists ranging out in front of the rest of us and stumbling over, of all the darned things, proof of God and His creation of the world. Trips to the Exotic East with Sidney Greenstreet and the gang in a sure-enough time capsule, this one so fast that you arrive hours before you started out. And the same science that gave us the space shuttle will soon give us a warm and woolly security blanket to keep us safe from the Russian bogeyman.

Never mind that the space shuttle itself just blew up a few weeks ago and that the majority of graduate engineering and science students in America are foreign exchange students. Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

That all this stuff is nonsense doesn’t matter, any more than it matters that the poem “Xanadu” doesn’t make much sense, either. They both invite us not to think, but to dream.

And Reagan’s dreams are appealing. Where Carter and Mondale offered self-improvement, self-criticism, and self-discipline, like a couple of country club conservatives advising the lower classes to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, Reagan offered no-fault government. High-paid volunteers will take your place in the armed services. Never mind about all those dead marines in Lebanon: look at the way our boys rolled over those commies down in Grenada.

Don’t worry, mon. Be happy.

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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at March 26, 2009 07:36 PM
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I'm trying mon, but it just ain't happening.

Posted by: knowdoubt on March 27, 2009 7:43 AM

yes.

Posted by: karen marie on March 28, 2009 12:40 PM
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