Monday, June 07, 2004

Ronald Reagan and a Canadian Political Life

In Canada, it’s a general rule of thumb that one should never overly praise an American president, especially one as far to the right as Ronald Reagan. So to be contrary, I’ll go further and suggest that, not only does Reagan deserve praise from north of the border, but he deserves to be emulated. Such an assertion won’t go over well with many Canadians, or at least that’s what the Canadian intelligentsia would have us believe. I, however, contend that this view isn’t exactly true, that in fact Canada has already emulated Reagan to some extent, even if few people in my homeland are willing to admit it.

In order to explain my views, I’d like to begin with something everyone is saying about the former president. From across the country, from admirers and detractors alike, we hear that one of Reagan’s undeniable attributes was his ability to lift up the American spirit, to give Americans confidence in themselves and their country after years of self-deprecation and disappointment. With his unwavering confidence in America and its mission, with an unbounded optimism, Reagan sought to restore the patriotism of a nation’s citizenry.

Unfortunately, most commentators stop here. They think it sufficient to make this point and then move on. But it is worth wondering what exactly was involved in rebuilding American patriotism, what were its effects? On the one hand, restoring patriotism means simply inspiring people to political things. Pride in one’s nation is, essentially, a public sentiment because it causes the individual to take an interest in public matters. And on this score, Reagan was a romping success. One of the key things that Reagan did was to inspire people to enter public professions. Watching television today, I saw two different speakers in two separate interviews remark that, prior to Reagan’s appearance on the scene, each man had been involved in private pursuits, in these two cases, the legal profession. After encountering Ronald Reagan, both men turned from their private lives and pursued public professions. However, they were not the same professions. One, like Reagan, became a politician and today serves as a senior member of the House of Representatives. The other became a political commentator and writer, which means he makes a defense, through his writing, of the political good.

Now, this is significant because it flies in the face of two widely held perceptions. The first is that Reagan is to Republicans what Kennedy is to Democrats. That may be true to some extent, but what’s interesting here is that many Americans I know who are involved in politics today, especially in the Republican Party, were once avid supporters of John F. Kennedy. The casual commentator sees only the partisanship - Kennedy inspires Democrats and Reagan inspires Republicans. In fact, the reality is that both Kennedy and Reagan inspired people to a political life, to seek the political good, not as activist liberals or old school conservatives, but as citizens of a republic.

The second perception that is mistaken but often repeated regarding Reagan, was that he was not particularly intelligent or scholarly and that only those not too well-educated would ever vote for such a man. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, and here’s where we see the significance of the man who became a political commentator and writer, many of those inspired by Reagan, especially the young, took to studying great works of political philosophy, of history and of biography. Moreover, this group did so in a way that significantly shook up the staid and boring universities through which they passed. Some became political journalists, others continued in the academy and today are professors, while others have pursued careers closely allied to the broad field of political commentary. Here it’s also worth mentioning that many of the academics influenced by Reagan were influenced, to varying degrees, by Leo Strauss. This, it would seem, is the source of much recent speculation regarding the confluence of Straussian thought and the Reagan revolution. In reality, this was a confluence without causal link. Ronald Reagan was not a Straussian. What he shared with Leo Strauss was a wide-ranging spirit and an abiding respect and interest in the political good. And there are many conservatives who admire Reagan who remain firmly outside the Straussian fold.

In any case, if you’re looking for politicians and political writers with a real respect and love for political things, you almost always will find Reagan and often Kennedy in their pantheon of heroes, along with Churchill. These are people, unlike so many academics, with a vast and deep interest in history, in things political in the biographies of great men and women. These are truly cultured citizens in the Greek meaning of the word.

But there is another side to restoring American patriotism, precisely because it is American, and here too Reagan’s role is indisputable. As Reagan himself said, his beliefs and his actions were inspired by the America that bore him. He believed America was a shining city on the hill, and that is, even if presented in a somewhat lyrical manner, what America truly is. America was conceived on the principles of Enlightenment reason, which were at the time of the Constitutional founding, already partly present in the country’s English and puritan traditions. America is the most universal nation on the planet precisely because it constantly seeks to embody the liberal principles of sixteenth and seventeenth century European political philosophers, men and women who themselves were both political and intellectual.

Reagan believed these principles and he made Americans believe them again. But this goes a long way to explaining why he had so many detractors, not least among the intellectuals, the media, the Europeans and the religious left. All these groups, in one way or another, dislike the claims of liberalism. Modern intellectuals prefer to deconstruct or critique liberalism’s claims usually under the pretext that liberalism is naïve; the media, when it’s not being purely cynical is contrary and self-important; the Europeans have had much less success, for the most part, with stable liberal governments and are, as the twentieth century attests, prone to totalitarian solutions; and finally the religious left is a mix of the worst of all these things watered down for the intellectual pygmies who people their shrinking ranks. And naturally, all these are vehemently opposed to Reagan, to liberalism and to the patriotism demanded of the political life.

Of course, there are other criticisms that might be made of America and politics, but the wisest of these come not from the apolitical hack but from those who have themselves seen both the inestimable values of political life and its inherent limits. And, in addition, from those who recognize that America, perhaps more than any past political entity, seeks to overcome the failings of politics with the ideas of liberalism. This is America’s particular strength and also its particular fault, but it is one that can be moderated with prudent action, another trait for which Reagan has been surprisingly lauded these last few hours since his death.

In short, Reagan embodied the optimism and practicality of America, and in doing so he embodied a whole host of political and philosophic ideas and debates as well. Generally, these ideas resonate with Americans which explains why Reagan continues to have such a high approval rating. The opponents of these ideas, those who most disliked Reagan, remain a minority in the US though they have large followings in other nations.

But what does all this have to do with Canada? The best response here is to consider one of the liveliest political elements in modern Canada – the new Conservative Party, based in Calgary. Calgary, more than any other Canadian city, sympathizes with the American approach to politics, most notably with the highly independent political mindset of Americans. In Canada, this approach is denigrated as lacking in caring and communal concern, a criticism identical to that coming from the American left. And in the present politically charged election campaign going on in Canada, the Liberal government, along with the New Democrats, are doing all they can to suggest that Stephen Harper is a right-wing extremist bent on making Canada a less caring, more American nation.

To some extent this is true. As I’ve said, Calgary, where the Conservative leader’s riding is located, is the most America-friendly place in Canada. Many people in Calgary are descendants of American immigrants or do business with Americans in the oil industry. But just as importantly, Alberta, and much of western Canada, are not the product of British loyalists (such as we find in the Maritimes and Ontario) or the product of seventeenth and eighteenth century France (Quebec). As such, the practical views of many western Canadians are closer to Americans than are those of other Canadians. And in this regard, Canadian conservatism has undergone a significant change from its past incarnations. No longer is it dominated by the upper classes of Toronto. Instead it is a fundamentally more western Canadian phenomenon. This isn’t to say the party will necessarily be more prone to religious fundamentalism or social conservatism – a point I’ve argued before. Rather, it means that the Canadian conservatives are moving closer to all those things we saw in Ronald Reagan. They are, despite claims to the contrary, more intellectual than the old Tories as well as the chatty Liberals and the pseudo-intellectuals of the New Democrats. And the Conservatives are also more overtly political; they seek significant political reforms to increase direct citizen participation.

But the Canadian Conservatives are not Americans, they must adapt to a nation with different traditions and somewhat less liberal (in the philosophic sense) views. By doing so, the Conservatives can have a shot at real power in Canada. They must, however, make a defense of their ideas, remembering that prudence and moderation and also central political virtues. Perhaps, with the new Conservative Party, with its real challenge to the Liberals and with its intellectual and social coming-of-age, the party is making a true political life possible again in Canada. In this sense, Reagan should be emulated by Canadians. But, unlike the petty-minded Canadian intellectuals who think sanctimonious fulmination before the Americans is part and parcel of “Canadian values,” I would not run in fear of such a prospect. A mature nation should instead be magnanimous enough to see the greatness of leaders in other nations, giving them their due and following their examples where appropriate.

Canadians, as patriotic citizens, also owe something to Ronald Wilson Reagan.

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