Not since the era of the late junior Senator from Wisconsin has an American political figure given this country an eponymous ism. Reaganism is now an established movement and an important historical event. Its roots can be discerned in periods long past, and its consequences will carry beyond the Presidential tenure, and perhaps the earthly existence, of the man who gave it a name. In the coming few years, at least, it will surely engage and dramatically alter the institutions and activities of American civic culture.
Like other native American movements–Populism, Progressivism and the various “new radicalisms” of this century–Reaganism lacks sharp ideological definition and programmatic coherence. It has not yet produced a unitary creed to resolve the differences among its components: the Moral Majority, the corporate class, blue-collar ethnics and the country-club set. The contest between monetarists and supply-siders is still undecided. Reaganism seems vague, trendy, spontaneous, opportunistic, impressionistic and contradictory. But not always: those who are making the movement have a precise idea of their goals and a fair sense of the strategies to achieve them. They have located a social base to support their campaign; they have developed an institutional network to maintain it; they are fashioning an economic system to feed it; and they have invented educational policies to supply it with manpower for generations to come. However amorphous any of those elements may look at the moment, the whole Reaganist project has the spin, the feel, the significance of a force of history.
The rise of Reaganism is focused in the electoral arena this year, but it is not primarily a phenomenon of political campaigns, public office or even Republican Administrations. A landslide victory for Reagan and his allies next week would certainly advance the movement, but a good Democratic showing would not stop or reverse it. For power is already in place to continue the movement’s mission in the coming years. The first targets of choice are clear: all those liberal institutions that have defined and shaped American culture for fifty years or more–the press, the churches, unions, academia, local public education, urban government, philanthropic foundations, the artistic establishment, Hollywood, publishing, Federal service, the liberal professions and their organizations. They will come under increasing pressure to redirect their orientation along lines that have already been drawn, to change their social roles, to reassess their values, Even the term “liberalism” has been dropped from polite political discourse. A major ideological conflict is under way.
It’s not necessary to establish a conspiracy or identify a cabal to confirm the reality of Reaganism. The course of the movement may be directed, as an editor of The Times of London once said of his paper’s editorial policy, “by a committee that never meets.” Actually, subcommittees do meet: the Madison Club of right-wing strategists in Washington, working groups of religious leaders and their political associates, forums of economists, military experts and foreign affairs specialists. But the degree of self-consciousness is less significant than the amount of motivation the movers and shakers possess. And anyway, a committee of conspirators with a published nomenklatura would offer too easy a target for critics eager to personify the enemy.