For one reason or another, I thought it would be a good idea to wear my friend, Christien West’s, “Reagan-Bush 1984” hat to parties last Saturday. I’m not particularly conservative. Not particularly liberal either. I voted for candidates of both major parties in the 2012 election; I try to vote for the individual, not the party affiliation. However, I do consider myself very engaged in politics. I hope to make a career of public service.
On more than one occasion on this evening, an unwitting, inebriated individual came up to me and slurred out a compliment about my Reagan hat. You said the magic words, my friend. Always ready for a lively political debate, this was my queue. Never mind the fact that our generation seems to have bought into the baby boomers’ “Reagan as god” zeitgeist, it seems everyone has forgotten the not-so-good things Reagan did during his presidency. Iran-Contra, anyone? His entire folklore can be summed up in that one epic shot, when he tells Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Reagan beat the commies, man; nothing else mattered. The Gipper made Americans more free while liberating Eastern Europe and displaying the military might of America to the rest of the world, drastically increasing defense spending during his presidency.
Listen, the debate over Reagan’s presidency can be had from now until Barack Obama becomes a conservative savior. But, from Syria to sequesters to Social Security, Fox News seems to ask, “What would Reagan do?” It seems we’ve retreated from analyzing Reagan’s actual policy to accepting it as revolutionary and trying to implement 20-year-old ideas into the modern world.
On Saturday night, people would tell me Reagan was their favorite president. I’d ask why. I heard a lot of reasons: he won the Cold War, people would tell me. Never mind the Soviet Union was already falling apart inside. He was a great public speaker they’d say; the aforementioned “tear down this wall” speech was exhibit A. Never mind Obama and JFK could tap into the American ethos just as strongly as Reagan. And both cut taxes upon entering office!
Americans have become so scarred by actual policy debate that they’d rather sit back and watch their country tear itself apart than actually think about the best course of action. Don’t question any of Reagan’s policies because he is a god- a flawless and fearless leader who led the Western world, along with Margaret Thatcher, into a new, deregulated and liberated economic era. Infallible as the Pope, his policy decisions have been taken as conservative doctrine, a sort of GOP catechism that tests one’s readiness for the national stage.
This isn’t to say liberals don’t do the same thing. They’ve become so enthralled with defending Obama’s policy initiatives from the right that they never seem to stop and think if a particular idea is actually a good one.
Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in last week’s New York Times made the case that
“it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” But what about this current state of affairs is exceptional? Instead of passing laws and waging wars for moral reasons, we base our opinions on political allegiances or personal vendettas. The GOP has spent the last two years trying to defund the Affordable Care Act, seemingly forgetting that its roots can be traced to conservative ideas. We used to fund the sciences and arts while also allowing American individualism and innovation to become the envy of the world. Now, science and education funding are the first to go. Intelligence was cherished and idealized. Now, politicians hide their Ivy League degrees in a closet, pretending to be folksy and talking down to Americans. Instead of following the smartest person in the room, we listen to the one talking the loudest.
America is exceptional. But instead of telling me Reagan is your favorite president because of his beautiful baby blues, tell me it’s because he signed the INF Treaty with the Soviet Union, reducing the nuclear threat. Tell me it was his efforts to curb runaway inflation while reducing unemployment that made you love the Gipper. Having those conversations is at the root of American exceptionalism. We used to be informed; now we’re afraid of what we might find out.
So next time you see someone wearing a “Reagan-Bush ’84” hat, be ready for a debate. Don’t just tell me Reagan’s your favorite; teach me something. That’s how you win one for the Gipper.