April 4, 2009

COOLIDGE LIMITED IMMIGRATION, REAGAN EMBRACED IT:

Fighting Bob vs. Silent Cal: The Conservative Tradition from La Follette to Taft and Beyond (Jeff Taylor, Fall 2008, Modern Age)

Conservatism did not simply spring forth from the wit of William F. Buckley Jr. or the dossiers of Joe McCarthy or the scholarly works of Russell Kirk. While Barry Goldwater was a political forerunner to Reagan in the 1960s, Reagan also had conservative predecessors as far back as 1920. If we examine their ideas, in several important ways, Calvin Coolidge was less an antecedent to Ronald Reagan than were Robert La Follette and Robert Taft. The link to Taft can be discerned with ease. The influence of the La Follette tradition on Reagan’s conservatism is more surprising.

The fact that Reagan had Coolidge’s picture on the wall instead of La Follette’s is just a sign that Reagan did not scratch below the surface of the “conservative” label attached to Coolidge. Unfortunately, Reagan was not deeply familiar with the history of ideas or movements—even his own. The McKinley-Root-Coolidge tradition was conservatism of a very different sort from the modern conservatism of Taft and Goldwater. The McKinley-Coolidge tradition was one that went back through Daniel Webster and Henry Clay to Alexander Hamilton. In contrast, the Taft-Goldwater tradition was quite Jeffersonian.

Labels can be deceiving. The conservative, standpat, reactionary, Old Guard Republicans of the 1890s and 1920s became the liberal, progressive, modern, Middle Way Republicans of the 1940s and 1970s. The labels changed—in fact they did a 180 degree turn—but the ideas stayed constant: big government and monopoly capitalism at home; empire and military bellicosity abroad. And the seat of this sort of Republicanism stayed the same: the metropolitan centers of the East Coast.


Actually, the peculiar genius of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and the Bush brothers was to meld this capitalist, strong government, democratic interventionism to the social values of the middle American moral majority. The BosWash types were particularly alienated from this last, but, post-Vietnam, from the liberal imperialism as well. Thus their flirtation with Bill Clinton, which was looking disastrous until 1994, and with Barack Obama, who they already have to be hoping is similarly disciplined at the mid-term.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 4, 2009 9:29 AM
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