You all know the story: liberalism dominated American politics without serious challenge from the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 until 1980, when Ronald Reagan led a rising conservative movement in a successful campaign to wrest power center-left. Over the next 36 years, conservatives set the limits of what is possible in Washington, forcing one Democratic president (Bill Clinton) to consolidate the Reagan revolution and squeezing in another (Barack Obama) after he dared to defend an ambitious bill on health care reform for the first two of his eight years in office.
This story is familiar because it achieves many things. But there is a big mistake: Reagan was a liberal.
A right-wing liberal, yes. But a liberal all the same. We can see this now, not only because of the clarity conferred by hindsight, but also because over the past 14 years, Reagan’s GOP has been transforming into an illiberal party.
Former President Donald Trump is a big part of this story, but the transformation began before him, and it continues alongside him but also independently of him now that he is no longer in power. Whether or not Trump runs and wins the Republican nomination again in 2024, the GOP has left liberalism behind — and with it, Reagan and his most admirable legacy.
Reagan’s liberalism was hard to see at the time precisely because the left-liberal consensus was so strong and the ideological differences between the parties so confused. In addition to launching and then expanding the American welfare state, Democrats fought World War II and the Cold War, and sometimes, in the case of John F. Kennedy, cut taxes. Republicans consolidated the liberal expansion of the federal government and sometimes, in the case of Richard Nixon, expanded it further, while opening diplomatic relations with China and doing more than any Democratic president to normalize the relations with the Soviet Union.
This context made Reagan’s political priorities look like extreme conservatism. The former actor began his political involvement in the 1960s as a belligerent anti-Communist Goldwater Republican. By the time he arrived at the White House, in the wake of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and the demoralizing aftermath of the American defeat in Vietnam, his open hostility to the Soviet Union made him ring , for many Carter-era liberals, as a reactionary warmonger. . But Reagan’s idealistic, warmongering anti-communism placed him firmly in a tradition that dates back to the Democratic presidencies of Harry Truman and Kennedy – and he anticipated the enthusiasm for humanitarian military intervention that swept the international center-left in the 1990s.
As for domestic politics, Reagan was fiercely opposed to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society social programs (especially the advent of Medicare) when he entered California politics. In the White House, he oversaw deep cuts in income tax rates. But the rate of expansion of the welfare state simply slowed during the 1980s (partly due to falling inflation). It was not returned.
Reagan’s “conservatism” therefore amounted to taking the accelerator off the accelerator of government growth, not violently curbing it – much less reversing it. The administration has also proudly championed immigration and free trade. He did so both to spur economic growth and to express his commitment to openness and moral universalism. Reagan sincerely believed that all human beings yearn for freedom – and that once freed from the yoke of tyranny, they would choose to embrace democratic self-reliance and modestly regulated free-market capitalism as the best of all political arrangements. and economical as possible.
This made Reagan a liberal. Not a progressive, of course, nor someone who explicitly embraced the significant changes in American life wrought by the counterculture of the 1960s. Instead, Reagan championed bourgeois norms and constraints. (In his personal life, as the first divorced and remarried president in American history, the story was more complicated.) It is also true that he welcomed into his electoral coalition the nascent religious right and still reactionary dissidents. extremes of mainstream politics and culture. But these groups were very junior partners in this coalition. What dominated was an idealistic centre-right liberalism.
This remained true, with some variations, through the Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations, even when elements within the party – particularly in Congress after Republicans took control of the House in 1994 – began to express more vehement opinions. But an intense grassroots desire for a more culturally populist and combative style of politics only really began to turn the party in an unmistakably illiberal direction once Reagan liberal John McCain chose Sarah Palin, the little-known governor. from Alaska, as a running mate in 2008.
Palin gave Republican voters a sassy, low-key, talkative alternative to the lofty idealism that had dominated the party since 1980, and they ate it. This began a transformation that continues to this day.
First there was the Tea Party, an angry anti-establishment protest over the Obama administration’s push to pass the Affordable Care Act, and its wave of midterm election successes in 2010. Then , in 2012, GOP primary voters showed surprising enthusiasm for a string of populist protest candidates — Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — before finally settling on the nomination consensus of Mitt Romney, the last of the Reagan liberals to have a chance of winning the White House.
After Romney’s failure to defeat Obama’s re-election bid that year, popular anger escalated on the right. Trump tapped into that anger and began to escalate it from the moment he launched his candidacy in the summer of 2015. After more than three decades of service as junior partners in the party’s electoral coalition, Republicans ( as well as disgruntled Democrats and Independents) who opposed – or even felt and despised – liberalism in all its political and cultural manifestations had found a champion.
More than a dozen alternatives to Trump in the 2016 primaries attempted to merge Reagan themes with expressions of anti-establishment resentment, but a plurality of voters opted for the purer expression of populist illiberalism. that sprung effortlessly from the mouth of the demagogic billionaire scammer. By the time Trump had rebuffed all efforts by the former center-right liberal establishment to deny him the GOP nomination and eventual victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, the Republican Party had been irrevocably altered.
Trump has often claimed Reagan’s mantle for himself, just as Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R) attempted to sidestep the differences between the 40th and 45th presidents in a recent speech (at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library nothing less). But all of these efforts amount to obfuscation.
The contrasts between Reagan and Trump are stark and insurmountable. Where Reagan spoke of America as a confident beacon of freedom and self-government for all who yearn to rid themselves of tyranny, Trump openly admires dictators and regularly portrays the country as beset by a litany potentially disastrous problems that only he can solve. Where Reagan prided himself on America’s ability to attract and assimilate immigrants from around the world, Trump treats foreigners as a dangerous threat to the nation that must be kept at bay with walls and brutal policies. Where Reagan believed in the power of free markets to benefit people around the world, Trump views them with suspicion and treats interactions between nations as zero-sum contests in which Americans often lose.
Then there are the myriad ways in which Trump (as well as his stylistic progeny at all levels of the party) diverges so profoundly from Reaganian liberalism that the placement of individual contrasts fails to capture the magnitude of the change. Trump displays complete disregard for the rule of law. He deliberately spreads civically corrosive lies, even when they incite violence against the fundamental institutions of American democracy. He demonizes the free press, calling journalists “enemies of the people.” Some of his closest advisers aim to “deconstruct the administrative state”, including replacing much of the nonpartisan career civil service with politicians personally loyal to the president.
Put it all together and we end up with a form of blatant anti-liberal politics that breaks decisively with Reagan – and indeed with the politics practiced by every American president since at least FDR. This is why the long-standing tendency to separate the Reagan era from that which preceded it must be rethought. The real (or at least much bigger) disjunction comes in 2016, not 1980.
Those who wonder about the moral and political character of the Republican future need look no further than the provision recently attached to several abortion-related bills in the Missouri Legislature by Rep. state Mary Elizabeth Coleman, a tenacious pro-life Republican. Relying on the unorthodox “bounty hunter” provision of Texas’ six-week abortion ban, which encourages private law enforcement by empowering civilians to sue anyone suspected of violating it, Missouri’s provision would allow for the prosecution of anyone crossing (or assisting others to cross) state lines for the purpose of obtaining an abortion.
It is true that every Republican president since Reagan has supported the overthrow Roe vs. Wade, which would return abortion policy-making to the states (where it stood until 1973), and appointed Supreme Court Justices to achieve this goal. But now that the High Court appears poised to do precisely that, at least some in the post-Reagan GOP aim to push much further — to infringe the freedom to travel between states and effectively empty the jurisprudence of federalism, which denies the legitimacy of extraterritorial criminal law. (Only federal law can apply beyond the boundaries of a single state.)
How will the courts ultimately react to what would be an alarming assault on individual liberty? As we learned last week, Texas law has survived a legal challenge. There’s reason to hope that Coleman and his Missouri and country cheerleaders will be disappointed. But the truth is, we just don’t know. The approach she takes – and which others in a series of red states are bound to follow if deer is knocked down – is so boldly and chillingly new that we can’t yet be sure what their fate will be.
What we can know is that something in American politics, and more specifically in the Republican Party, has changed. Ronald Reagan’s center-right liberal party has become the illiberal right-wing populist party of Donald Trump and his imitators. It’s something that all freedom-loving Americans, of every ideological variety, have reason to lament — and fear.