Is it 1982 Again?

Those who still think of conservatives as people who clip coupons are badly out of date. Among other things, such a stereotype betrays a lamentable ignorance of the Rockford Institute and its publications. Associated with Rockford College in Illinois, the Rockford Institute is dedicated to the proposition that moral and intellectual integrity are as important to the welfare of American society as economic efficiency. The Institute’s Chronicles of Culture, a well-produced bimonthly magazine with an impressive circulation, serves up constant re­minders that the intellectual dishonesty and moral de­generacy that pervade American culture and mass media are just that. And, amazingly, it does so eloquently and without ever being priggish or shrill. Its stern and unre­lenting, yet graceful and humorous approach reminds us by example as well as by precept that, culturally speaking, things don’t have to be the way they are. Older and better values are available if we want them.

Persuasion at Work, a Rockford newsletter, is designed to persuade businessmen that free enterprise does not work in a vacuum, that it can only function in a morally sound society. The President of Rockford College is John A. Howard, one of the few giants left among American educators who has not bent the knee to the federal government. The publications are directed by Leopold Tyrmand, a brilliant refugee from Poland, who, like Solzhenitsyn, survived a materialist upbringing behind the Iron Curtain with a profound allegiance to the things of the spirit and enmity to what threatens them. Recently associated with the Institute is a young Southern scholar, James J. Thompson. Although situated in the old Yankee Heartland of Northern Illinois, the Rockford Institute is cosmopolitan enough to understand that no American conservatism can survive without the South. A perception that has, at least since the polls closed last November, escaped Ronald Reagan and the Republican party.

It makes me very sad to say so, but I know I am voicing the thought of many when I observe that every day Mr. Reagan begins to sound to me less and less like the clear-sighted honorable man we admired for so many years and more and more like Gerald Ford. I have by no means given up on him. I still admire his grace under provocation, his ability to perceive simple truths and stick to them, his . genuine decency. And I don’t want to dispute with him on any particular issue. But I can’t escape the suspicion that he is becoming every day less of a conservative and more of a Republican. Less himself and more something else. His positions and associates have been changing complexion gradually and steadily—from the platform he stood on for so many years toward standard-brand, boring, ineffectual Republicanism.

Let’s face facts. Reagan was not elected President be­cause he was a Republican, but in spite of the fact that he was a Republican. Consider that the President himself, a majority of the delegates who voted for him at the last two Republican national conventions, and a majority of the voters who supported him at the election, were former Democrats. Reagan succeeded only because he was able to leave behind the dead baggage of the Republican past and become a spokesman of the future.

But in office Mr. Reagan has surrounded himself at every level with and become the captive of professional Republicans. You have to hand it to the “moderate” Re­publicans. They have managed to hold on to their institu­tional power despite the fact of having lacked for more than a decade either any political principles or any grass­roots support. They have, however, the aid of the media and inertial control of the party. Consider that there are millions of social conservatives in this country, North and South, Democrat and Republican and independent. There are millions of dedicated leftists of all stripes. There are not many country club Republicans—their core strength can be placed at about half of John Anderson’s vote. Yet this handful has managed to take over the Reagan victory and turn it from a conservative landslide into a liberal Republi­can coronation.

Look at the history of “moderate” Republicanism. Since World War II it has produced little but a series of medi­ocrities passed off as statesmen. (Remember Scranton? Romney? Rockefeller? Lodge? Or for that matter Eisen­hower, Nixon, Ford or Bush?) These people never had any political principle except the snobbish assumption that since they were prosperous Northern WASPS they were divinely entitled to rule the country. Their platforms always boiled down to being in favor of whatever the Democratic left was in favor of—except a little less of it and run by different people, themselves.

Had the Establishment Republicans had their way, they would have lost the election with Bush and Ford. Or, if they had won by some miracle, we would have had an ad­ministration notable only for its inability to generate any idea different from the Democrats. But they did not have to win the election to enjoy its fruits. Alas, look at the present administration, elected by the votes of non-Republican conservatives and independents. With a few exceptions, Mr. Reagan’s appointments are indistinguish­able from those that would have been made by Bush or Anderson. The Stockman interviews were morally devas­tating in revealing the cynicism with which the Liberal Republicans are making use of the administration and the degree to which they have effective control over it. The social issues that provided the groundswell that carried Reagan within striking distance of the White House have been shelved. This is not surprising, since establishment Republicans come out of the same social strata and have exactly the same social views as liberal Democrats.

All of this is very sad for several reasons. Ronald Reagan is in danger of betraying his own better self. He is in danger of betraying the people who elected him and especially those who supported him through his outsider years. True, politicians always betray their supporters, but we thought he was different. Worst of all, it won’t work. Establish­ment Republicanism is morally and intellectually bankrupt and has been for a long time. It cannot solve the country’s problems and cannot keep together a winning coalition.

Ronald Reagan, where is the rest of you?

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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