|Ronald Reagan's swearing-in, Jan. 20, 1981|
Did Reagan anticipate the iron machinery that he was setting in motion? I doubt it. One, out-of-context comment, subsequently transformed into a mindless slogan, has come to drive the Republican ideology:
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”The lesson in this is that slogans aren’t ideas. Enthusiasts do not need to think when they chant a slogan. Ideas, however, require people to think before they speak.
Did Reagan really mean it? Yes and no. Context always matters. Let’s look at the context.
Reagan did not say the government was always the problem. He did not say that government was bad. He said that government was bad “in this present crisis.”
The crisis to which Reagan referred was the burst of inflation under the Jimmy Carter administration, which was followed by a series of unpleasant economic shocks. Those shocks caused problems—I lived through them myself—but they only lasted a few years. But “government is the problem,” taken out of context, sounds like a long-term issue.
However, before discussing those long-term issues, Reagan spoke up firmly against all forms of discrimination. A Republican of 2023 would most likely call Reagan “woke.” Dismissing special interest groups, Reagan said that the only special interest group that mattered was the American people, regardless of rationalism, ethnicity, or race. Indeed, even the most liberal politician of 2023 could utter this same passage and mean every word:
“Well our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries, or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we’re sick -- professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers. They are, in short, ‘We the People.’ This breed called Americans.”
Yes, Reagan promised to reduce the size and scope of the federal government, which, like many conservatives, he considered to be a potential threat to liberty. Note, however, that he did not stand for destroying or disrupting the government, but rather for an orderly redistribution of power. He stated his economic principle:
“It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the states or to the people.”Note that he did not call for shutting down the government or defaulting on government bonds.
Unfortunately, like many conservatives before and since, Reagan neglected to list the government programs that he intended to reduce. So, although his promise was based on traditional American ideals of liberty, this speech laid out no specific program.
Predating the concept of a “compassionate conservative,” Reagan insisted that reducing government power did not entail dumping people to flounder on their own. He did not speak for a Darwinian contest, in which the winners would announce themselves to surpass the losers. No, Reagan emphasized community responsibility. He said that we should love all our fellow Americans, help them when they were in need, and ensure that they have the chance to become self-sufficient. I fear that Reagan’s remarkable statement of values seems to have disappeared from the conservative movement of 2023. How sad. This is what he said:
“We shall reflect the compassion that is so much a part of your make-up. How can we love our country and not love our countrymen -- and loving them reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they’re sick, and provide opportunity to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?”
Ending this epic speech, Reagan reminded his audience that the United States of America can accomplish whatever we want to accomplish. Insisting that success required ambition and determination, Reagan assured the American people that the crisis of 1981 could be resolved:
“It does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.
“And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”
Let’s look back at how Reagan began his magnificent speech. He started with the American tradition of orderly transfer of power. Former President Jimmy Carter himself sat in the front row to recognize Reagan’s ascension to the presidency. It was, Reagan reminded all of us, a momentous occurrence. It was a remarkable thing that the loser conceded and the reins of power were handed over smoothly, in accordance with the Constitution and the law, with no violence or disruption. As Reagan said:
“The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”George W. Bush on 9/11: A Forgotten Vision
Yet, 40 years later, in January 2021, the losing candidate, Donald Trump, heir to Reagan’s party, refused to concede victory. Instead, swarms of his supporters attacked the Capitol to interrupt the counting of the electoral votes and halt the peaceful transfer of power. Reagan had commented that “few of us stop to think how unique we really are.” Sadly, we are no longer unique, as Reagan’s own party, and the conservative movement he proudly ensconced, has now utterly rejected that keystone of the United States Constitution.
Did It Work?
Did Reagan say “crisis?” Yes, he did. And now, in September 2023, Republicans in Congress are threatening to shut down the American government until someone meets their poorly articulated demands, on which they themselves do not even agree. Isn’t that a crisis? And does it not arise from the slogan, “government is the problem?”
While in office, Reagan cut domestic spending but greatly increased military spending. Overall, it’s questionable whether he articulated a clear program of how to reduce the federal government, much less to leave an ongoing program that could inspire his successors. So, unfortunately, even today, in angry voices that contradict Reagan’s affable style, Republican politicians continue to insist on massive cuts in increasingly unspecified government programs, in dollar amounts that they rarely state aloud.
Reagan’s speech was destructive and dangerous, not because it was a bad speech (it was a wonderful, inspiring speech), but because its ongoing influence today is now mired at the slogan stage. Republicans today have sadly forgotten the contexts that Reagan gave to this speech. “Government is the problem” is not a policy. It’s only a slogan. Unfortunately, slogans only take us so far.
Earlier posts about Reagan’s speeches:
"Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!" How Ronald Reagan’s One Sentence Changed Berlin
Reagan versus Trump: The Unifier and the Divider. Two Public Speaking Styles. Same Message, Different Songs