Ronald Reagan and the Conservative Movement – A Revolution? A Reaction? A Reform?

I have always joked that in the rural Illinois school district where I teach that there are two types of students: there are those who are conservative, and there are those who are more conservative. And such is the case throughout most of rural Illinois. What was once the Land of Lincoln is now Reagan Country. Conservative values reign in the small towns and countryside outside of Chicago. It has not always been that way. But, how did Reagan establish his values as a Conservative at a time when the Moderates ruled the Republican hierarchy, not only in Illinois, but all throughout the country?

For Ronald Reagan, he grew up in one of these small towns in northern Illinois, 12 miles from where I grew up. However, it took a while for those Conservative values to take hold in Reagan. Many people forget that Reagan was originally a Democrat in the 1940s and 1950s. As head of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan, while a staunch anti-communist, was quite liberal. Things for Reagan changed in the early 1950s. The first event that influenced his shift from the left to the right occurred when Reagan would meet, and marry, actress Nancy Davis. Combined with Reagan’s work for the General Electric Theater TV show, Reagan shifted to the right, an almost libertarian point of view. As part of his duties as host of the show, Reagan would travel across the country and met people at GE plants across America. It was during those tours meeting the middle class that his philosophy began to shift to less government intrusion and lower taxes. In the early 1950s, the tax rate for Americans earning $10,000/year was at 38% (which very few did – the minimum wage was not even a $1/hour). For 8 years, Reagan work for GE actually turned into a political apprenticeship of sorts.

Reagan’s conservative philosophy was rooted in the words of John Winthrop. The famous City” on Hill” from the 1600s defined Reagan’s vision, and version, of conservatism and of America.

“for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us”

It is out of the “City on a Hill” that the Reagan Conservative philosophy is born. At a commencement speech at his alma mater, Eureka College, in 1957, he stated:

Looming large in your inheritance is this country, this land America, placed as it is between two great oceans. Those who discovered and pioneered it had to have rare qualities of courage and imagination nor did these qualities stop there. Even the modern-day immigrants have been possessed of courage beyond that of their neighbors. The courage to tear up centuries-old roots and leave their homelands, to come to this land where even the language was strange. Such courage is part of our inheritance, all of us spring from these special people and these qualities have contributed to the make-up of the American personality.

Reagan had a vision of what America was supposed to be, what is was once, and what it could be again.

In the 1960s, Reagan’s philosophy began to move more to the right. At a time when America was moving to the left, and New Dealers were roaming the halls of Congress, Reagan stood in stark contrast to mainstream politics. In 1964, Reagan supported Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Reagan’s stump speech became the foundation of his philosophy.

I am going to talk of controversial things. I make no apology for this.

It’s time we asked ourselves if we still know the freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers. James Madison said, “We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self government.”

This idea — that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream-the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”

The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.

Public servants say, always with the best of intentions, “What greater service we could render if only we had a little more money and a little more power.” But the truth is that outside of its legitimate function, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector.

Yet any time you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we’re denounced as being opposed to their humanitarian goals. It seems impossible to legitimately debate their solutions with the assumption that all of us share the desire to help the less fortunate. They tell us we’re always “against,” never “for” anything.

We are for a provision that destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age, and to that end we have accepted Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem. However, we are against those entrusted with this program when they practice deception regarding its fiscal shortcomings, when they charge that any criticism of the program means that we want to end payments….

We are for aiding our allies by sharing our material blessings with nations which share our fundamental beliefs, but we are against doling out money government to government, creating bureaucracy, if not socialism, all over the world.

We need true tax reform that will at least make a start toward restoring for our children the American Dream that wealth is denied to no one, that each individual has the right to fly as high as his strength and ability will take him…. But we can not have such reform while our tax policy is engineered by people who view the tax as a means of achieving changes in our social structure….

Have we the courage and the will to face up to the immorality and discrimination of the progressive tax, and demand a return to traditional proportionate taxation? … Today in our country the tax collector’s share is 37 cents of every dollar earned. Freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp.

Are you willing to spend time studying the issues, making yourself aware, and then conveying that information to family and friends? Will you resist the temptation to get a government handout for your community? Realize that the doctor’s fight against socialized medicine is your fight. We can’t socialize the doctors without socializing the patients. Recognize that government invasion of public power is eventually an assault upon your own business. If some among you fear taking a stand because you are afraid of reprisals from customers, clients, or even government, recognize that you are just feeding the crocodile hoping he’ll eat you last.

If all of this seems like a great deal of trouble, think what’s at stake. We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars. There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is no fiscal and economic stability within the United States. Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation.

They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right. Winston Churchill said that “the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits-not animals.” And he said, “There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.

Goldwater lost and lost big. Despite the loss, Reagan’s views did not waver. In 1965, Reagan came out against Medicare and other government programs including welfare. In 1966, Reagan dipped his feet into politics when he ran for Governor of California.

Despite cat calls for his lack of actual political experience, Reagan surprisingly defeated incumbent Governor Pat Brown. His charm, and down home family values, sparked an interest in the populace. Over the next eight years, Reagan further established his conservative values. It is one thing to have those values, it is another to govern with those values. Reagan struggled and at times compromised his values and then wished he hadn’t. His first action, a 10% across the board cut in government spending, met with disruptions and discontent at many college campuses across the state. For the first time, many college students in California would have to pay tuition. They were not happy. Protests broke out. Reagan was not afraid to use force to keep the peace on those campuses. Using the National Guard to occupy Berkley for 17 days, while Conservative, came across as an extremist at the time. However, Californians did not see it that way. The majority of Californians liked Reagan’s reaction. To 1960s Californians, they now had a hero in a time of massive change in the country.

Whether it was abortion, dealing with the antiwar movement, or communism, as Governor, Reagan honed his media and governing skills. After his 1970 re-election, Reagan set out in his second term to follow through on his own values of less government, lower taxes. He succeeded in restructuring welfare by working with the Democratic legislature of California. His second term was quite a success in California. A groundswell began for Reagan to run for President.

The national political scene had changed by 1976. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Republican mainstream was very moderate. With Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the mood of the Republican Party was slowly changing. President Ford’s firing of Nixon’s appointments was shocking as the moderate wing of the party was replaced by more Conservative thinkers. Ford, using his Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and a young Richard Cheney, began a shift in the party away from Nixon moderates. In 1976,  America was not ready for a Conservative President. Ford beat out Reagan for the Republican nomination but the experience brought Reagan’s political views to a nation. Jimmy Carter would win the presidency and the next four years set up Reagan and his conservative views as a stark contrast to Carter’s. A new Republican Party would be born.

The 1980 campaign saw Reagan run on a just a few key ideas
1. Less Government
2. Stronger Defense
3. Anti-Communism
4. A belief that America could be strong again

Here is an ad that touted Reagan’s experience as Governor and his views on Government

America responded overwhelmingly to Reagan, and against Carter, and a shift to Conservatism in America reached fruition. Reagan’s effect on future Republicans would be huge. This coming school year (1011-2012) sees National History Day using the theme of: Revolution, Reaction, and Reform in History. While Reagan’s conservative beliefs have reshaped the Republican Party, these beliefs, their formation, and influence would be an excellent topic to do a project on. I know two of my students have already expressed an interest. For me, as a paper judge as well, what I would look for in this project is how the times and experiences of Reagan shaped his political philosophy. And was that philosophy a reaction to the times? Finally, how did the Conservative philosophy actually reform politics besides beliefs about the role of government? What actions are considered Reaganesque? I would really enjoy a project that delves deeply into this issue.

For further Reading and Resources for any student doing a NHD project on Reagan
Not only is there a 4 hour video on Reagan, but there is wealth of resources including primary documents, quotes, and interviews.



  1. The “founding fathers” were liars and hypocrates. The ones that bleated the loudest about freedom and justice and all that were slave holders. They were a dispicable class, the lowest of the low, the equivalent of our contemporary owning class. Reagan, too, was a liar and a hypocrate, to the extent he had contact with reality (it’s up for debate just when his dementia set in). While he bleated of making America strong, he squandered blood and treasure turning Central America into a killing feilds, giving cakes and bibles to Iranians to seal secret deals (the US arming and funding both sides of the Iran / Iraq war, and perhaps in payment for the Iranians to continue to hold the hostages long enough for Reagan to get elected. It was dismissed as the ravings of conspiracy theorists, but when America learned that Reagan was dealing with “terrorists” – Iran (something he swore he would never do) in order to raise money to fund people who were indisputably terrorists in Nicaragua (an act that Congress, which had a few now-long=gone scruples had passed a law against) it made any act of duplicity and criminality from Reagan seem possible. His resignation seem assured. However, by the time the hearings were all over, they made it seem like the whole thing was a flap over Fawn Hall’s underwear, a few underlings were convicted and pardoned, and I knew we’d never have decent government again. All of this pales, of course, compared to Reagan losing the cold war (yes, we did lose the cold war along with the Soviet Union. China, India, Brazil, and other nations wise enough to stay out of it and spend money wisely instead of on waste were the winners of the cold war) and destroying the economy in the process. I’m disappointed you didn’t mention any of these things in your essay about Reagan, but I guess that’s why God put me hear on earth, so I could do it.

  2. I didn’t mention the things you did because that’s not what the blog was about (it was about how his views developed before he became President and not what he did and did not do as President) and I only have so much space and time. If you want to, go ahead.

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