The Right’s Reagan Fixation


This whole conversation is so last week, but damnit I’m only now getting around to it. As all normal people understand, contemporary American conservatism has a bizarre cult-like obsession with Ronald Reagan. Over at MSNBC’s First Read they injected a dose of false equivalence into the conversation about this, equating it to Democrats’ love of JFK. Jon Chait and Steve Benen got at some of what was wrong with the analogy, but I’d take another angle on it—what’s really weird about the right’s relationship with Reagan is how exclusive it is.

Scratch a liberal, and he’ll find some good things to say about FDR. Some good things to say about JFK. These days there’s more and more appreciation of the fact that Lyndon Johnson did some very great things along with some very bad ones. Jimmy Carter’s not so popular, but there’s still stuff to like in his legacy. Bill Clinton’s administration was in many ways a disappointment but also in many ways an exemplar of successful governance. And so it goes. History is a mixed bag, and major historical figures in the progressive tradition all have their praiseworthy aspects along with their shortcomings.

In the conservative official view, by contrast, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George HW Bush, and George W. Bush were all big government sellouts who strayed from the True Path as defined exclusively by Ronald Reagan. And yet at the very same time we’re supposed to believe that America is an intrinsically conservative country that yearns for hard-right policies. There’s an obvious contradiction. And the portrait of Reagan as a down-the-line man of the right isn’t even accurate. The whole thing is bizarre, and there’s genuinely nothing like it on the left.