Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1980 is perhaps best remembered for his pronouncement that “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem However, he was quick to add that—as now president, its chief administrative officer—it was not his intention to do away with “the problem”, simply to make it more user friendly: “. . . make it work with us, not over us. . . Government can and must provide opportunity [and] foster productivity, not stifle it,” he said.
Those were no doubt reassuring, common sense comments welcomed by all his listeners. But, just who was Reagan talking to, or about? You and me? All Americans or just some Americans? Well, we really can’t know, but from historical political evidence, we can make a pretty good guesstimate: He was directing his comments to his conservative political base. In other words, he was talking to and for the benefit of some Americans, not all Americans. But, if little else, Reagan was a wizard with words. As author Geoffrey Kabaservice writes in his recent book, Rule and Ruin, “Throughout his presidency, Reagan would demonstrate his almost unique ability to stir the blood of the faithful while also mollifying moderates and framing conservativism in a way that made it appealing to a majority of Americans.” That’s a neat political trick, but it says little about good governing, or for whom. While both major parties indulge in such abstractions, conservatives and their Republican Party appear to have mastered it best.
Conservatives, struggling in the 1960s and 1970’s with how to present their political views such as to attract the broader American public, developed a concise and effective campaign message that, like Reagan’s above words, resonates with a public larger than their political base. They have, in effect, built a brand around it. What is it? Low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families (or family values). That’s it. That four-part ditty is and has been publically, and to some extent internally, the complete message, the creed, that supports their politics. It has proven effective. Why? Because it’s simple, and direct: i.e., easy to understand; it appears non-restrictive and doesn’t appear to be favoring any one group over another. It’s great marketing and P.R. So—in the abstract—who isn’t for lower taxes, smaller government, a strong national defense or traditional family values? Not too many. That means its potential is to influence a voting population wider than simply its own loyal base, a must if it is to win elections.
Unfortunately, this simple sounding abstract message is designed to influence peoples’ vote, not to communicate how—or more importantly for whom—Republicans will govern. The catch for conservatives is translating these abstract notions into palatable political meaning. It’s there the conservative message reveals its austere ideological spartanism which serves primarily one segment of society at, unfortunately, the expense of others. As a political party supporting an ideological movement, Republicans, and Democrats, for that matter, tend to govern in a manner that favors its own supporters. That’s not unreasonable, but it does mean that they do not—and ideologically cannot—govern for the good of at least most of the people most of the time. Thus, ideological politics produces governments that tend to disappoint the majority of Americans, at least most of the time. Ideological politics produces minority supported governments which tend to impose their preferences on everyone. That seems a questionable way to govern in a democracy where majority rule is supposed to be the standard.
Might there be an alternative to ideological politics and government? Yes, there just might be!
Thomas Richard Harry