Reagan’s true legacy: The Tea Party

February 6, 2014


Challenging the status quo is the correct condition of American conservatism.

At the end of the American Revolution, Benjamin Rush, who had signed the Declaration of Independence, vowed that though the war with Great Britain was over, the Revolution would go on.

The stirrings of original American conservatism were found in such sentiments. For the proper state of American conservatism — from Thomas Paine to Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln — is to be in a perpetual struggle for intellectual revolution.

Ronald Reagan, whose 103rd birthday would have been Thursday, exemplified this. No surprise the Gipper regularly quoted all three men.

Reagan never saw himself as part of the Washington establishment — even after his two terms as president. As he was leaving the White House, Reagan said of the conservatives who had come to D.C. in 1980: “We were all revolutionaries.”

The modern American Tea Party embraces this attitude. Even as the Republican Party’s neo-conservative-Bush-establishment wing despises it. Which is one key reason why the GOP today looks like an unending war zone.

The GOP establishment, besides defending the indefensible, spends a great deal of effort attacking and impugning the Tea Party movement. They seem unable to grasp that the Tea Party is true American conservatism.

Reagan understood this even while president. “In the political world,” Reagan said in 1984, “the cult of the state is dying; so, too, the romance of the intellectual with state power is over. Indeed, the excitement and energy in the intellectual world is focused these days on the concerns of human freedom, on the importance of transcendent and enduring values.”

A commentator at the American Enterprise Institute recently slammed the Reagan legacy, saying it “was akin to being caught in a sort of amber.” This is the usual for the GOP establishment — which includes everyone from former Bush aides to the K Street corporatists. Many run down Reagan as a means to run down the Tea Party conservatives as foolish and dumb — rather than recognizing the movement’s “transcendent and enduring values.”

Reaganism and true American conservatism are both about celebrating the individual. Today, the American public is in agreement. It won’t tolerate any more bureaucracies. Consider, a recent Gallup poll showed that 72 percent of the public considered government their enemy.

Yet the GOP today resembles two warring college fraternity houses. The establishment Republicans seem to be like the Omegas of Animal House — arrogant, elitists and believers in a false utopia. The Tea Party Reaganites are like the Deltas — populists and individualists who celebrate freedom.

In that seminal film comedy, the Deltas prevailed. But the Tea Party’s efforts have been slowed because there is no inspirational leader today to carry its message. There is no one capable of bringing the insiders to heel — as Reagan did against the Rockefeller Republican establishment, which loathed him as much as the Bush establishment today despises the Tea Party.

The Republican Party’s current dilemma has been obvious throughout the National Security Agency revelations. The establishment has defended the NSA’s trampling of the 4th Amendment. They heatedly denounce former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and his revelations about government spying on private citizens.  Why? Because top-down Republicans believe institutions are more important than individuals.

Snowden should properly be regarded by American conservatives as the 21st century’s John Brown. Controversial? Yes. But Snowden is also the spark who ignited our crucial debate about human rights and the right of all Americans to be secure from government intrusion. The modern GOP has failed in its historic responsibility as the party of freedom.

Reagan spoke out often against government invasions of privacy. In 1978, for example, he campaigned strongly against California Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Amendment. It would have allowed the state to prevent gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools there. But Reagan felt government intrusion into the bedroom was deeply offensive.

Reagan did support the Census as a means to create fair representation in Congress. But that was about it, where he was concerned. He insisted that anything else Washington wanted to know about Americans was “none of their business.”

As the two parties continue to evolve, it may be that the neo-con Republicans, wedded to the notion of big government, will even migrate back to the Democratic Party, from whence they came. They may even take with them the coporatists and party commissars wedded to the notion of “bigness.”

Soon after Reagan died, former U.S. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had traveled her own road from Humphrey Democrat to neo-conservative to full-fledged conservative perceptively said, “Ronald Reagan believed … that the individual is the creative principal in history and society.”

Indeed he did.

In his own ideological journey from New Deal Democrat supporter to intellectual conservatism, Reagan spoke out against the tyranny of government over the individual.

On this, his birthday, it is well to remember not just who Reagan was — but what he stood for.


PHOTO (TOP): President Ronald Reagan addressing a news conference in Washington, October 19, 1983. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon 

PHOTO (INSERT): Tea Party stickers are displayed in the exhibition hall at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Maryland, March 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden’s photograph on his new refugee documents granted by Russia is seen during a news conference in Moscow, August 1, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The author seems to forget that John Brown’s actions were deplorable and universally denounced by even radical Republican’s of the age. Even Lincoln (whom the author laughably regards as the intellectual ancestor of the Tea Party) denounced Brown’s actions as a would be terrorist.

Furthermore, the author seems to think that the Tea Party are revolutionary. If the author understood history he would realize that the Tea Party is actually the ideological decedent’s of the Confederacy, arguing government over centralization in an effort keep minorities, particularly Blacks, in subhuman status.

Lincoln’s Republican’s were the party of abolition and the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Tea Party thinks the 14th Amendment is unnecessary and would like to burn welfare. Lincoln established a national banking system, the Tea Party wants to abolish the Federal Reserve.

This author try’s to romanticize the Hoover-esque and neo-Confederate ideology that has repeatedly caused the country grief and yet is able to manifest itself time and time again because people either don’t study American history or only study the sources that conform to their biases.

Posted by waveofbabies | Report as abusive

I find the inclusion of Paine, Jefferson, and Lincoln with Mr. Reagan and the TEA party quite contradictory. Paine was no conservative as he was all about making change; suggesting that man could govern himself without a monarchy, that the bible was just another literary work, and the kicker, that a progressive tax system was highly necessary. Jefferson was an intellectual and difficult to pin down in any conservative liberal category, certainly not a conservative of today. Finally, Lincoln expanded Federal power dramatically something of which the TEA party vehemently despises.

Posted by pantathalos | Report as abusive

Wow, I think this guy would have married Reagan if he were alive!!

This article is the biggest propaganda piece to come out from these tea party types. So now the Neo-Cons originate from the democrats??? Hahahahahah

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

There You Go Again!

At first opportunity these tea partiers, at power, not leadership will expand government and the debt to show they are the ones to grow the economy.

Just as Reagan did!

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

“populists and individualists who celebrate freedom”- Where do we find this alternate reality? Perhaps this understanding/perception is chemically induced.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Why impugn Reagan’s good name by associating him with the terrorist Tea Party.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

I want some of what this guy’s smokin’.

Posted by yermomzmom | Report as abusive

Like the majority posting here, I did a spit-take when I saw Paine, Jefferson and Lincoln listed as “conservatives”. Heck, even John Brown was more of a radical than conservative. Of course, when you start out by saying “Challenging the status quo is the correct condition of American conservatism.” I know we’re going to drift from reality really quickly. Have you looked up the definition of “conservative”? Defending the status quo is the very definition of conservative!

I honestly wonder if you actually believe this.

Posted by drmondo | Report as abusive

Reagan’s true legacy: Funding Al Qaeda in Afghanistan; and caving to Iran, giving them long-range missiles in exchange for some hostages.


Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“In his own ideological journey from New Deal Democrat supporter to intellectual conservatism, Reagan spoke out against the tyranny of government over the individual.”

Yes, the tyranny of it all. So in other words, once the Reagan family (like most families) was bailed out by the New Deal and they got theirs, it was time to bad-mouth the new deal and call all the OTHER poor people lazy and stupid.

Reagan was a phony from day 1. Never trusted the guy and I am glad I didn’t.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“They seem unable to grasp that the Tea Party is true American conservatism.”

No. The Tea Party is Mussolini’s Fascism for a new generation that didn’t live through WW II, didn’t see the carnage that the radical right wing produced, and are not educated enough to do anything other than try to rewrite history to fit their needs…. just like this entire article tried to do.

Posted by taggert | Report as abusive