Ronald Reagan’s speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention provides a welcome jolt amidst the atmosphere of the current Republican nominating contest. Instead of hypocritical invective and mindless tribalism, Reagan offers a fundamentally optimistic and cooperative narrative of America.
Though this speech has moments of anger, it is not, at heart, an angry speech. Consider some of these lines near the opening:
I know we have had a quarrel or two, but only as to the method of attaining a goal. There was no argument about the goal. As president, I will establish a liaison with the 50 governors to encourage them to eliminate, where it exists, discrimination against women. I will monitor federal laws to insure their implementation and to add statutes if they are needed.
More than anything else, I want my candidacy to unify our country; to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose. I want to carry our message to every American, regardless of party affiliation, who is a member of this community of shared values.
Not a single word about destroying those rotten, freedom-hating “progressives” or “liberals.” Not even an invocation of “union thugs”! Instead, we see a defense of anti-discrimination laws and an advocacy for the broader purpose of bringing the country together. Rather than inveighing against enemies, Reagan reaches out to potential allies.
Though Reagan criticizes Carter throughout this speech, his criticism seems to emphasize Carter’s incompetence and unfitness for the task of government. He does not claim that Carter hates freedom or despises capitalism or has bad intentions for the country.
A politician today might be denounced by certain factions as a “statist” or “collectivist” for repeating these lines by Reagan:
Isn’t it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them–for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land?
Together, let us make this a new beginning. Let us make a commitment to care for the needy; to teach our children the values and the virtues handed down to us by our families; to have the courage to defend those values and the willingness to sacrifice for them.
Let us pledge to restore, in our time, the American spirit of voluntary service, of cooperation, of private and community initiative; a spirit that flows like a deep and mighty river through the history of our nation.
Reagan here seems to suggest that the needy should not be blamed for their poverty but helped from it. Praising “private and community” initiatives is not necessarily elevating government actions, but it does dismiss the celebration of selfishness. From this Reaganite perspective, liberty is more than the celebration of private profit; it is also the opportunity to do public good, beyond the scope of the business ledger.
Reagan goes on to embrace RINO apostasy in his defense of the social safety net and Social Security:
It is essential that we maintain both the forward momentum of economic growth and the strength of the safety net beneath those in society who need help. We also believe it is essential that the integrity of all aspects of Social Security are preserved.
This isn’t winner-take-all crony capitalism. This is instead a faith in the growth of markets complemented by a compassion for human need.
In this speech, Reagan is a defender of small-government thinking. And he does make a compelling case for it, but this case does not depend upon demonizing his opponents. Reagan knew that venom was the common friend of failure. Instead, a spirit of optimistic faith in the potential of liberty motivates this address.
Reagan speaks from a time when conservatism meant more than having the right enemies, when it offered a vision of bringing together Americans in the dream of a greater freedom. This dream does not merely entail getting rich but also emphasizes building, by oneself and in cooperation with others, a fairer, juster, and happier society.
2012 could be a great opportunity for conservative and Republican politics. If they are to make the most of it, Republicans should keep in mind that Reaganite spirit of hope over despair, unity over division, and empathy over scorn. It’s easy in a time of trials to settle into a complacent alienation. But, for the sake of this American republic, it is even more necessary as a matter of civic spirit to work to renew the civic compact and face our problems with temperance, reason, and, yes, some measure of good cheer.