On Reagan, the GOP, and Loving America

I was a Republican, before, during, and after Reagan. And I went straight from moderate centrist by heritage (but pro-life) to acute fiery libertarian Republican without any Reagan phase. Still, he was the first President I was able to vote for, and did. But a certain phrase I saw written about Reagan, a claim by mourning admirers, reminded me of why he was so likeable to so many. And in that phrase is something which explains much Republican electoral success.

The phrase that struck me was simply “America loved Ronald Reagan.” It was a stray sentence, a claim uttered by an admiring eulogist. Somehow I dyslexically reversed it. Doing so, I stumbled on a simple but more important and measurably accurate fact: “Ronald Reagan loved America.”

I think that fact is undeniably true. In Reagan’s style, actions, and speech, an overt sincere love of America came through loud and clear. And it made him extraordinarily popular.

And I think that love-of-America statement is true of Republicans generally, in fact, or at least in appearance. Like it or not, vent or rant at it or not, foam at the mouth or not to hear it, but hands down, Republicans are seen as loving America more than the opposition. I admit I too sense that and believe that it is to a degree also objectively true.

Let me use a cliché -- “some of my best friends are.” Some of my best friends are progressive Democrats (with whom I have an affinity on certain issues like foreign affairs) and the truth is: many of them really do have barriers in loving America and/or Americana.

They roll their eyes at patriotic displays, express far too little skepticism of government in general while oddly expressing far too much skepticism of government because it is American. They hate Red Staters, they disdain traditional values of religiosity or military service; they don’t resonate to a patriotic melody. They think American free enterprise is a curse, and gun-ownership a relic of barbarism.

Now I know good and well that very very many lefty Democrats are real lovers of America – George McGovern comes to mind. Kerry paid his dues in heroic warfare and his change of mind was expressed in honorable internal dissent. But both of them were tainted with followers who seemed to despise Americanness itself.

And that’s one of the appeals of the GOP: there is no doubt for example that G.W. Bush loves America. One can carp at his policies and their “objective” effect on this country from right and left, or from good and bad. But one FEELS he loves this country and that other Republicans do too. Yes, more so than their adversaries.

A good example is Pat Buchanan. One realizes that even if he doesn’t like the current war, he is still someone who thinks this country is grand. There’s lots I don’t agree with in Buchanan but he is someone who comes from a mind-set required of Republican politicians – respectful of Americans, and of Americana, respectful of its free enterprise (even while demanding protectionism), its religiosity, its soldiery, its sense of a community spirit built around liberty.

One can embrace all that even if one knows that that liberty wasn’t always for all, and that perhaps, the concept has today become overblown and distorted in external directions (“liberating Iraq”).

In the end, Reagan exemplified that popular dimension of Republicanhood – an overt and sincere love of America. That was the draw he had towards “Reagan Democrats” as their party seemed to fall into the hands of those who did not seem to love it enough (especially in a time of drawn-out uncertainty). It may be more perception than fact, though I suspect not so, and in any case, in competitive politics, perception is fact.

Posted by Matthew Hogan at June 11, 2004 11:04 PM