Ronald Reagan's America - Vol. 1

By Eric J. Schmertz; Natalie Datlof et al. | Go to book overview

7
Ronald Reagan and the Reformation of American Conservatism

Paul Peterson

In their textbook American Political Thought: The Philosophic Dimension of American Statesmanship, Morton Frisch and Richard Stevens observed the politics of post-Franklin D. RooseveltAmerica. They saw a liberalism that had become complacent, and they thought part of the reason for the complacency of liberalism was "the lack of a respectable alternative to that liberalism, for in the place of healthy conservatism with sound and generous principles and with eloquent spokesmen, there exists only a shadow which can be easily dismissed as mere reaction or mere selfishness." This shadow conservatism was "crackerbarrel conservatism," which is a blend of "a merely older liberalism, on the one hand, and sheer mean-spiritedness on the other." 1

These observations were initially made in the book's first edition in 1971. They were repeated without alteration in the second edition, in 1983. Perhaps this commentary could have been justified by the status of American conservatism in 1971. Although, even in that case, it would seem too blanket a condemnation and certainly would not seem to be a fair characterization of the conservatism of a Robert Taft or a Barry Goldwater. Whatever legitimacy this characterization might have had in 1971 had disappeared in mainstream conservative circles by 1983.

The fact is that Ronald Reagan engaged in a significant reworking of American conservatism. Borrowing from Frisch and Stevens, it could be said that Reagan's brand of conservatism is partly "a merely older liberalism," but it is completely devoid of mean-spiritedness. And Reagan himself became an eloquent spokesman of "a healthy conservatism with sound and generous principles."

American conservatism as it has been known for the last sixty years is defined in large part by the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt. That is to

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