In this winter of their discontents, nostalgia for Ronald Reagan has become for many conservatives a substitute for thinking. This mental paralysis — gratitude decaying into idolatry — is sterile: Neither the man nor his moment will recur. Conservatives should face the fact that Reaganism cannot define conservatism.
But he notes that Reagan’s theory was radically unlike that of Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, and very like that of Burke’s nemesis, Thomas Paine. Burke believed that the past is prescriptive because tradition is a repository of moral wisdom. Reagan frequently quoted Paine’s preposterous cry that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Reagan’s popularity was largely the result of “his blaming government for problems that are inherent in democracy itself.” To Reagan, the idea of problems inherent in democracy was unintelligible because it implied that there were inherent problems with the demos — the people. There was nothing — nothing — in Reagan’s thinking akin to Lincoln’s melancholy fatalism, his belief (see his Second Inaugural) that the failings of the people on both sides of the Civil War were the reasons why “the war came.”
As Diggins says, Reagan’s “theory of government has little reference to the principles of the American founding.” To the founders, and especially to the wisest of them, James Madison, government’s principal function is to resist, modulate and even frustrate the public’s unruly passions, which arise from desires.
“The true conservatives, the founders,” Diggins rightly says, constructed a government full of blocking mechanisms — separations of powers, a bicameral legislature and other checks and balances — in order “to check the demands of the people.” Madison’s Constitution responds to the problem of human nature. “Reagan,” says Diggins, “let human nature off the hook.”
The founders as “true conservatives”? Not of their time. Of their time they were the “true liberals;” knocking down the conservative construct of the British system.
Modern “true conservatives” are the result of classical “true liberals” like Jefferson.
Take a read of Mike at SaveTheGOP.com’s take on this.