Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Conservatives Finally Have Their Rendezvous With Destiny

I recently assigned Ronald Reagan's famous speech supporting Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election to one of my classes.  This speech, known alternatively as "A Time For Choosing," "The Speech" and "Rendezvous With Destiny" suddenly struck me with its relevance.  Reagan spoke during the conservative movement's infancy, and the man he spoke for went on to take one of the worst clubbings of any presidential candidate in this nation's history.  A short sixteen years later, and Reagan would be president.  This very night the operation of the government and its ability to pay its debts are being held hostage by the political descendants and disciples of Reagan and the conservative movement.

In re-reading the speech, I noticed the extreme binaries it contained, and the assertion, made time and again, that America faced destruction if it did not deviate from the path of big government.  Responding to the New Deal and Great Society, Reagan claimed that the Democratic party had changed from the party of Jefferson and Madison to the party of Marx and Stalin.  Anything to the left of conservatism was socialism, and socialism inevitably led down the path to totalitarianism.  I hear much the same rhetoric today from the hard-liners in Congress, who consider the modest (and quite conservative) reforms of Obamacare to be a major step down the road to serfdom.

Just sample this extended section, where Reagan promotes an aggressive Cold War policy in the face of Communism, which closes the speech:

"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 shot heard 'round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn't die in vain....You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.  We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness."

Again, there's a binary between good and evil, and the notion that not to take extreme measures to defend conservative principles means enslavement.  Of course, when Reagan himself took power he compromised many of his principles.  He raised taxes to shore up Social Security, he left Medicare alone, and he offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants.  You can bet your bottom dollar that he would have been drummed out of today's Republican party.

As much as I dislike Reagan, I do think that at some point he realized that governing was about more than preserving ideological purity, and that it was not the all or nothing "rendezvous with destiny" he had once described.  Today's conservatives, however, really and truly still abide by this mental frame.  I think that they really do see the Affordable Care Act as a step towards a new socialist order, and that their actions are extreme, but justified to protect the nation's very soul.  I really and truly think that if the debt limit is exceeded, and the government then defaults and crashes the economy, the likes of Ted Cruz will say thirty years from now that their extreme actions saved the country, much like the patriot minutemen at Concord.  Fifty years after Goldwater, conservatives are finally getting the political Armageddon they've always wanted.

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