Election Day, 1984 — twenty five years ago — many thought that the ideological battle of America was won. President Reagan, the disciple of “Mr. Conservative” Barry Goldwater ran against Walter Mondale, the disciple of “Mr. Liberal” Hubert Humphrey. Reagan got into politics with “The Speech” endorsing Barry Goldwater. Here is what Reagan said in 1964:
This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down — [up] man’s old — old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
Reagan stayed with that theme, regardless of whether it cost him primary victories or elections. When America had the chance to vote for the conservative Reagan or the liberal Humphrey in 1984, Reagan won every state except Mondale’s Minnesota, which Reagan almost won. In many states across the nation, Reagan carried every county in the state. Twenty-five years ago, the ideological war seemed clearly won.
What has happened in the last quarter century? The conservative ideal still overwhelmingly prevails in America: the 59% percent of the vote which Reagan got in 1984 is exactly the percentage of the American people who have defined themselves in “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative” in the last fifteen consecutive Battleground Polls. (The respondents in these polls can also choose “moderate,” “undecided,” “somewhat liberal,” or “very liberal.”)
Too many Republicans since Reagan presumed that the party, not conservatism, mattered. They saw the two political parties, not the ideology of freedom, as the crux of politics. The Republican bureaucrats believed pragmatism and compromise were what made America great. They were wrong. Goldwater nailed the matter when he said in 1964: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” That short phrase summed up the greatness of America. That was the message of Goldwater and Reagan in 1964 and the foundation of the Reagan Landslide in 1984.
Republicans before Goldwater and Reagan and Republicans after Goldwater and Reagan did all they could to purge the clarion call of liberty from the business of partisan politics. The party should care about winning, and if it won power, then a set of “core values” could be constructed after the fact.
Republican presidents after Reagan could break “no tax pledges,” pick ideologically indifferent judges to the Supreme Court, dismiss Reagan’s legacy in pursuit of a “kinder, gentler America” or “compassionate conservatism” (as if conservatism itself — the celebratory defense of liberty — was not the essence of political compassion) and create “practical” government solutions to problems, rather than embrace the truth that government itself is usually the problem.
The result was as predictable as the dreary study of all rulers: it is not that power corrupts — power derived from free market competition purifies and liberates — it is that power derived from the state corrupts the greater it grows. Republicans, in power and unconnected to principles, began acting like Democrats, then a criminal class of Republicans like Bob Taft, Duke Cunningham, and Bob Ney began a corruption of partisan power which had long been the hallmark of Democrat one-party rule.
It is not odd that the rebirth of political opposition has come less from the Republican Party than from citizens acting in the spirit of Reagan and Goldwater. The revolt last May in California was one such example (as was the earlier recall of Gray Davis, however poorly his replacement performed.) The sprouting of tea party demonstrations spontaneously throughout the nation is another example. And, of course, the success of citizen candidates like Doug Hoffman, whose political party is the Party of Reagan, personifies that spirit.
It is not odd that the rhetorical opposition to growing statist power and its close sibling partisan dominance has come from people disconnected with the Republican Party or from people like Sarah Palin, Republicans treated disdainfully because of their principled commitment to limited government and Judeo-Christian morality by Republican “regulars,” who actually represent that much greater part of America than the Republican Party.
Twenty-five years after Reagan almost swept every state in the nation, his guiding ideals, so clearly captured in his speeches, his manuscripts, and his books, burn just as fiercely in the hearts of most Americans as ever. That is why Rasmussen polls show that Americans today are turned off by every political figure today…except Reagan. The principles he championed are the same that Washington, Madison, and Henry defended. It is not a question of “right” or “left.” Reread what Reagan said in “The Speech” about this myth:
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right.
Once all Americans understood that the greatness of our land was simply liberty. The vast majority of Americans now, as in 1984, still know this truth in their hearts. The Founding Fathers, rightly, loathed political parties. The last twenty-five years have reminded us why they felt that way. But one quarter of a century after the political landslide of liberty, the mandate for liberty still remains.