Was Reagan a Reaganite?

Having discussed The University Bookman below, perhaps I ought to say a few words about its neoconservative counterpart, The Claremont Review of Books, the Spring 2006 issue of which arrived today. The first thing to catch my eye was Ashland University history professor John Moser's reply to Andrew Busch's piece in the previous issue arguing that Goldwater was not a "Goldwater Conservative." Moser makes short work out of Busch's attempt to turn Goldwater into a Bushite and demolishes his misleading portrait of libertarianism:

The term "libertarian" appears several times in the essay, but always as a straw man. Busch's purpose seems to be to contrast an allegedly valueless and amoral libertarianism with the healthy natural-rights conservatism of the founders. … There is nothing fundamentally un-libertarian about respect for religion and morality. If there is a difference between traditional conservatives and libertarians along these lines, it is that the former see the promotion of these institutions as an essential function of government, while the latter view them as the products of a healthy civil society. If traditional religion and morality are so weak that they require government force to prop them up, surely they are not likely to serve as reliable pillars for the republic.

Whatever his rhetoric, Goldwater was almost always on the side of libertarian-conservatism in his policies, Moser shows: "The only ones Busch mentions are voluntary school prayer (the operative term being 'voluntary') and commitment to local control of education–and once again, I know of no libertarian opposed to either of thse." Then Moser, good historian that he is, raises a question that movement-types don't want to answer:

One might compare these to the difference between Reagan's rhetoric on social issues, and his lack of tangible accomplishments along those lines after eight years in office. Perhaps the question we should be asking is not whether Goldwater was a Reagan Republican, but whether Reagan was.

Busch's comeback to all this is to recite the party line: "The 'fusion' between economic libertarians and social traditionalism that defined Goldwater's and Reagan's presdiential candidacies [why just "candidacy" in Reagan's case?] is good for Republicans and, more importantly, good for the country. If Republicans have become too weighted toward social conservatism in the Bush years, it is not because he has added too much social conservatism. It is becasue he has subtracted too much limited government."

The rest of Busch's response actually repudiates, or at least greatly qualifies, what he originally wrote, admitting that Bush is certainly no Goldwaterite when it comes to questions about the size of government. Busch makes no attempt to refute anything Moser has said; the only point he offers in defense of his characterization of Goldwater is the speculation that the Arizonan "would not have been uncomfortable … hearing Bush discuss the religoius roots of natural rights, call for a 'culture of life,' or point out the benefits of faith-based charities." Not only are all of these items rhetorical — Busch can only make his case on the discussion, not policy — but they are all rhetoric that most libertarians would be "not uncomfortable" hearing, regardless of whether they agreed or not. "Culture of life" is so non-specific and anodyne that I have no doubt abortion-rights activsts could come to support it — divorced from policy, that is. And hardly anyone who is not a Randian would say that faith-based charities are not a good thing: the question is, should they be receiving government funding?

Busch's response illustrates two of my least favoriate qualities of the conservative establishment. First, rather than enter into a possibly fruitful and, at the very least, interesting discussion of the differences between libertarianism and traditionalism (or between either of those and Bushism), he simply refuses to admit there is any conflict, any difference, any internal dissension. This is party-think, and I find it telling that Busch includes in his response a consideration of what's good for the GOP. (What does the health of the GOP have to do with the truth of the matter under discussion?)

Second, and more fundamentally, what is fusionism? Christ was fully man and fully divine. I don't think anyone has ever tried to claim that "fusionist" conservatism can be wholly traditionalist and wholly libertarian. You can have very different kinds of fusionism depending upon which parts of each perspective you choose to throw out the window. It's possible to splice together a paleo-fusionism — not without its tensions and ultimate incoherence, but functional nonetheless — that emphasizes decentralism and a non-interventionist foreign policy; and of course, as Moser implies, one can be wholly libertarian in politics and quite traditionalist in culture. The "fusionism" midwifed by the Republican party, on the other hand, combines the very worst elements of both: the self-righteousness and crusader mentality of the traditionalists with the vulgar materialism and utilitarianism characteristic of many libertarian types. It's a marriage of Ayn Rand and Elmer Gantry, a union that issues in George W. Bush.

My own take on Busch's Goldwater piece is "Prospecting for AuH2O." I have a review of Moser's recent book Right Turn: John T. Flynn and the Transformation of American Liberalism in the current issue (April 2006) of Chronicles. I'll post some brief thoughts on the book, and Flynn, soon.

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2 thoughts on “Was Reagan a Reaganite?

  1. John Moser April 10, 2006 / 7:04 pm

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m looking forward to seeing your review of my book (which was also reviewed–briefly–in the same issue of the CRB that carried my letter).

  2. Tim July 26, 2006 / 10:51 am

    Was your review of Moser’s book on John T Flynn posted on the ToryAnarchist blog? I attempted a search for same on same and got a nul result. I have read some Flynn over the years and am contemplating puchasing Moser’s book, but am reluctant to make the plunge without reading a few reviews. Not much about it on Amazon.

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