September 8, 2006

By chance, I had just finished rereading a famous speech by Ronald Reagan when I heard the news that President Bush had confirmed the existence of secret CIA prisons. Yesterday, while looking over it again, I heard the Judge Advocates General strongly resist the White House’s plan for military tribunals that would allow conviction based on secret evidence. When Reagan spoke in 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater, he presented TV viewers with a stark choice between those with the courage to make a principled stand for Freedom and Liberty, and those who would capitulate to the global threat of Communism for the sake of a quiet life. He didn’t pull any punches.

Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state have told us that they have a utopian solution of peace without victory. They call their policy ‘accommodation.’ … We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing and immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, ‘Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skin we are willing to make a deal with your slave masters.’ … Admittedly there is risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson in history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face … When Nikita Khrushchev has told his people [that] we are retreating under the pressure of the cold war, and … our surrender will be voluntary because by that time we will have been weakened from within spiritually, morally, and economically. He believes this because from our side he has heard voices pleading for “peace at any price” or “better Red than dead” … Where then is the road to peace? You and I have the courage to say to our enemies, “There is a price we will not pay.” There is a point beyond which they will not advance! … 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 last step into a thousand years of darkness.

Strong stuff. The parallels to present-day rhetoric from the White House are striking. Reagan’s vision of a cataclysmic fight between two alternative worldviews finds its direct counterpart today in the way President Bush and his supporters talk about the war on terror. Both raise the specter of appeasement by well-meaning liberals. In both cases the enemy’s leader is said to predict the collapse of the United States, while home-grown subversives help him by morally enervating the country. Millions awaiting liberation abroad are invoked in both cases. And the way forward is also clear: resolve to fight, unto the bitter end, lest we condemn our children to “a thousand years of darkness,” be it under Communism or Islamofascism.

The main substantive difference, of course, is the scale of the threat posed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s and that posed by international terrorism today, not least the fact that the Russians really did have a a huge army, an arsenal of nuclear weapons, and a country from which to launch them. Al Qaeda’s global counterinsurgency is serious, but pales in comparison. Even faced with the truly apocalyptic threat of a global nuclear conflict, most people at the time thought Reagan’s (and Goldwater’s) attitude was dangerous, guaranteed—even intended—to provoke a Third World War. Today, in the face of a much smaller threat, some conservative commentators simply assert that we are presently fighting World War III, as if saying it made it so.

Setting the real differences aside, it’s also clear that the parallel between Reagan’s rhetoric and current conservative tropes is not perfect. A decisive gap has opened. The parts of Reagan’s speech I quoted are really only half of his message. He also said this:

Alexander Hamilton said, ‘A nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one!’ … You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin—just in the face of this enemy?—or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the Pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the short heard round the world? … Well, it’s a simple answer after all.

It is this libertarian strand, focused on what individuals should be prepared to sacrifice to hold onto their freedoms, that is wholly absent from the official conservative line today. Rick Perlstein’s book, Before the Storm, chronicles the rise of Barry Goldwater culminating in his 1964 run for President. He argues that Goldwater’s apparent failure in the short-run—his crushing defeat by Lyndon Johnson—hid a long-term success, as his supporters put down the ideological and organizational roots of the Reagan revolution. Positions in American politics that were on the fringes when Goldwater began his national career were at the center of things when Reagan ended his Presidency. Reagan initiated the changes that helped do away with such “soup kitchens of the welfare state” as ever existed in America, and in that respect the libertarian program made its mark.

But almost the reverse has happened in the realm of national security, where a key component of Reagan’s message has been jettisoned. The libertarian strand has been replaced by extravagant promises of government protection against terrorist threats, and the constant fomenting of fear amongst the public. One odd result is that principled libertarians and left-leaning critics find themselves making common cause, often to the the surprise or irritation of both. From the libertarian side, present circumstances mean that a real commitment to individual liberty lines up with left-wing calls for the preservation and application of civil rights. On the left, concern about the burgeoning security state sounds a lot like libertarian critiques of the grasping hand of government bureaucracy and its insatiable desire for power.

Most conservatives now remember only half of what Reagan said—the lines about accommodation and appeasement, about having a rendezvous with destiny. They forget the other half, so much so that his words apply more accurately today to them than to liberals: don’t sell your liberty for the illusion of security. When faced with the choice, “… have the courage to say to our enemies, ‘There is a price we will not pay.’”

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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