Friday, March 15, 2013

Examining Early Reagan: "A Time for Choosing"

Lately historians and rhetorical theorists have alighted upon Richard Nixon's dual move to a rhetoric of the "Silent Majority" and the "Forgotten Americans" to explain some key elements of the reconfiguration of American political space. In the popular press two books by Rick Perlstein have been enormously influential: Before the Storm, his treatment of Barry Goldwater, and Nixonland both focus on how the turbulent 1960's came to be read as an indictment of liberalism rather than an expression of certain structural politico-economic dilemmas facing American society. In the field of communication studies, we have both foundational and contemporary interventions that find Nixon's "Silent Majority" to be key: both the intitial debate about the "Vietnamization" debate between Forbes Hill and K.K. Campbell and the recent Rhetoric Society Quarterly essay on victimization and the "Silent Majority" by Jeremy Engels have proven informative.

The goal of this blog post is to move back a little bit and closely examine how Ronald Reagan helped set the stage for this move. Conservatism was in a crisis by the middle of the 1950's, facing the very public repudiation of its most virulent anti-Communist wing, and also the public repudiation of much of its orthodoxy in the policymaking of Dwight Eisenhower, whose policy preferences on a number of domestic issues came as disappointments to many conservatives. Conservative anxieties reflected not just a temporary concern over being politically sidelined, but reflected a structural change in the American ideological environment here summarized by Daniel Bell in The End of Ideology:

"In the long run the problems of the distribution of burdens and the nature of controls cannot be
deflected. The “statist” needs of a semi-war economy with its technical imperatives must clash with
the restless anti-statist attitudes of the corporate managers. The first Republican administration in
twenty years, even though it represents these anti-statist corporate managers, is not able to change
drastically the course of government spending. The international situation imposes the same
imperatives on Republicans as on Democrats, and the semi-war that is made necessary by it
inevitably casts government in the role of controller and dominator of the economy. The real
political question in domestic affairs will then become which of the groups will bear the costs of
added burdens."

This shift reflected a major change wrought over time by a combination of influences from Populists, Progressives, and the Great Depression. The great political question of the late 19th century (whether to use the state to extract and redistribute wealth from the private sector) had been displaced in favor of a "to what extent" question regarding the matter of state capture for redistribution. Rendered a presumptive fact of politics, market interventionism became a fact of life rather than an object of political struggle.

In this way the "state-phobia" within economics that Michel Foucault tracks in The Birth of Biopolitics could easily be taken up as a new constitutive political discourse by the New Right in the middle of the twentieth century. Suspicion of the state articulated neatly to recent and current political struggles against the demon of totalitarianism, represented both in the Axis in WW2 and the contemporary enemy of the Soviet Union. State-phobia made a certain kind of logical sense but there was the challenge of how to institute it as a critical discourse when the presumption of the political field lied in favor of the state (domestically) rather than against?

Ronald Reagan addressed this conundrum in his famous "A Time for Choosing" speech, a stock speech of his that was adapted and delivered in support of Barry Goldwater a week before the 1964 presidential election. Scholars mostly hold that Reagan's move here was the first salvo in his attempt to go mainstream and adapt his message from the "hard" anti-Communist right to a more broad political audience. I disagree with this assessment because I believe a careful analysis of Reagan's speech shows a continuance rather than a reversion of a hardline rhetorical trend. 

Reagan opens by addressing one of the key challenges of his rhetorical situation: the apparent and overwhelming sense of optimism and happiness about the state of the American economy in 1964. Reagan addresses this fact head on:
“One side in this campaign has been telling that the issues of this election are the maintenance of peace and prosperity. The line has been used, ‘We’ve never had it so good.’ But I have an uncomfortable feeling that this prosperity isn’t something on which we can base our hopes for the future. No nation in history has ever survived a tax burden that reached a third of its national income. Today, 37 cents out of every dollar earned in this country is the tax collector’s share, and yet our government continues to spend 17 million dollars a day more than the government takes in….now our national debt is one and a half time bigger than all the combined debts of all the nations of the world.”[i]

After addressing the prosperity side of the equation Reagan takes on the claims about peace, pointing to the many Americans dying daily in Vietnam. Mentioning these dying Americans, Reagan then pivots to a broader theme about the cold war, noting “We’re at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars, and it’s been said if we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom or ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.”[ii] One here detects an appeal with some chance of ringing true in light of our observation’s about the immortality offered by “the public,” a moment where death and life become conflated in envisioning a functioning polity put to death by its inability to care. Reagan addresses the existing feelings of optimism while also reminding his audience that the future might strongly disagree with their assessment of the present: like the heat being slowly turned up on a frog in a frying pan, the struggle of war against the enemies of freedom is ongoing, if difficult to perceive. Reagan further exceptionalizes not only the conflict but also the stakes, delivering an anecdote about a Cuban √©migr√©’ who reminds an American of the special relationship American possesses to the world, with its status as a beacon of freedom. [iii]

After this anecdote, Reagan then turns to the meat of his appeal, generating a relationship with the audience on the basis of discussing government and “the people”, contrasting the common Americans from “a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol” that haughtily believes itself a superior manager of people’s lives. Reagan is careful not to construct the American “people” as a mass, which would threaten to activate enthymemes associated with America’s own vibrant demophobic tradition. Instead, it is the government that theorizes the “people” as an unthinking mass. “I, for one, resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me, the free men and women of this country, as ‘the masses.’ This is a term we haven’t applied to ourselves in America.” Reagan’s speech cannily distinguishes between a impoverished European peasantry and the vibrant American “people” defined by virtue of their commonly held individuality: a being together by virtue of singularity. Here Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” is understood as a specific appeal made at “vote-harvesting” time, a reference whose agricultural imprimatur is not lost on an audience whom the Cold War has made familiar with the dangers of collective agriculture. Historically, too, one can see the agrarian spirit of the proud Populists at work as well in Reagan’s words.

Reagan then moves to themes of Big Government, describing bureaucratic bloat, inefficiency, and permanence. “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth…proliferating bureaus with their thousands of regulations have cost us many of our constitutional safeguards. How many of us realize that today federal agents can invade a man’s property without a warrant?” In only a couple paragraphs time, Reagan is connecting these violation of liberty with the greater international struggle against Communism, arguing that:
We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now enslaved behind the Iron Curtain, “give up your dreams of freedom, because to save our own skins, we’re wiling to make a deal with your slave masters.”
The “soup kitchen of the welfare state” is transmogrified into grim and dark bread lines, no doubt summoning not only of projections of life in the Soviet Union but also memories of domestic rationing during the Second World War. The analogy to slavery also does opposition work to emphasize the progress made by America in comparison to the Soviets. This metonymic move allows Reagan to close with a call that “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.”

Reagan’s speech was moderated from his ordinary stump speech to conservatives, but his speech’s capacity to generate support still derives from tapping into a discursive economy loaded with energy and anxiety. Martin Medhurst observes that a similar pattern can be detected in Eisenhower’s push for the Atoms for Peace program, which contained two levels, an explicit and an implicit argument. The explicit arguments were dispassionate reports about the power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but the implicit arguments were threats directed at the Soviet Union whose nuclear programming had them nipping at the heels of the U.S.[i] Reagan’s speech operates similarly, with a set of explicitly segregated topoi (foreign policy, over-regulation, high taxes, agricultural creep) connected a second level with the noisy conflation of the causes and impacts of each. The continuing atmosphere of risk in the Cold War, not to mention that rapid changes America had undergone since the Second World War, made citizens sympathetic to arguments that linked the increasingly difficult to understand world littered with threats. In this sense, “A Time for Choosing” was a move away from apocalypticism to the jeremiad in a formal sense, because it privileged a message of American uplift over a traumatic story of apocalypse. However, the continued presence of a set of threats articulated to Big Government, the victory of Communism, and a “thousand years of darkness” give this critic reason to qualify his statements about this move to jeremiad.

A look at later Reagan speeches shows this conflationary maneuver was par for the course. I name it “threat conflation” (to distinguish it from “threat inflation” in international relations,) an operation which mixes claims, warrants, and data in such a way to prey upon the confused attitudes and affects of a public conditioned by sensitivity to conflict, warfare, and anxiety. When confronting the new threat of international terrorism in the mid eighties, Reagan faced a unique rhetorical situation, wherein the U.S. faced threats both from terrorists who operated independent of the nation state system and also traditional geopolitics threats. Jackson observes that Reagan successfully abolished this confusion by engaging in a strategy of rhetorical conflation, by interspersing and using almost interchangeably rhetoric of “’international terrorism’ and ‘state-sponsored terrorism’ constructs” that “both amplified the danger” and “conflated terrorists and enemy states. Conflating terrorism with certain states allows a ‘war’ on terrorism to be re-targeted at countries which are the focus of American interests.”[ii]

Something similar is at work in this version of “A Time for Choosing.” In a United States that found itself increasingly beset by instability, confusion, and violence, the conflation of inputs and outputs of ear and anxiety was certainly possible. While audiences may not have explicitly generated whole chains of argument linking increased government regulation to a totalitarian horror, Reagan’s shifting in between stories of the horrors of Communism and Big Government overreaches produced an environment where the enthymematic insertions of an audience could have generated sympathetic relays between accounts of the dangers of Big Government and the present and past totalitarian horrors against which an exceptional America had been defined.

These moves succeeded because Reagan’s vision was able to draw from ground fertilized by earlier traditions of American populism and progressivism. Reagan emphasized the vision of a hard working and virtuous American individual, but refigured this individual not as the subject of elite market forces (or a government tied to economic interests through the practice of crony capitalism) but instead produced the state as the negater and destroyer of liberty and freedom. His recapitulation of the stakes of the American Dream through the lens of state-powered totalitarianism created a mechanism to ally the various forces constituted by the New Right’s cadre of suburban activists and tireless workers. The New Deal consensus, perceived as the exigency driving calls for a new conservatism, ironically threatened rhetorically the very opportunities it nominally sought to defend by investing in the rhetorical power of the government to move and change the world. Because the spirit of American individualism is driven by the fantastic elevation of the individual’s capacity for achievement as a universal rather than a particular one, state intervention came to be understood as a prima facia “no confidence” vote in the American “people” according to the discourses of the right. Fears and anxieties linked both to the existential dangers of the Cold War but also the more quotidian uncertainties regarding moral and virtuous life were externalized upon a rapidly growing state bureaucracy that threatened to “manage” individuality and spontaneity of human life out of existence. Conceptualizing “freedom from” government intervention as a key trope encourages the investment in individual singularity as the raison d’etre of politics. 

The Arendtian point about immortality and public space takes on an increasingly prominently role here: the specter of government encroachment, with its attachments to the figure of a mass public that it turns into an unthinking herd by virtue of its moralizing substitution for virtue, can here be theorized through Reagan’s rhetoric as an explanatory mechanism to account for how the new right threaded the needle on a rather difficulty argumentative proposition: how to simultaneously claim the mantle of “the people” while avoiding elements in the American republican tradition that were suspicious of “the people.” Reagan successful resuscitates the old demophobic anxieties about the “people” but positions them as a consequence of big government gone off the rails, articulating the only possibly dangerous version of the “American people” as a consequent of the adoption of policies that translate them into a herd or mass similar to the droning and alienated populations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The only “people” capable of constituting a public that might outlive their conditions is a “people” freed of the domineering force of government. In this way Reagan constructs a populism simultaneously suspicious of the implicit “people” authorizing centrist policies in America while at the same time clearing space for a conservative “people” defined deductively from their status as free individuals rather than derived inductively from their social standing and actual position relative to opportunity.

This speech does not, I think, represent a strong break from the anti-Communism of the 1950's. Instead, the speech mostly carries over those anxiety-ridden warrants for policy action and smuggles them into domestic policy by preying on the difficulties found in distinguishing between sources of various and sundry political anxieties. As a key moment in Reagan's emergence as a broad public figure, this moment deserves more attention, and its a key moment to contextualize the mainstreaming of "state-phobia" that would drive conservative political populism through the second half of the 20th century.

[i] Martin J Medhurst, "Eisenhower's ‘Atoms for Peace’speech: A Case Study in the Strategic Use of Language," Communications Monographs 54, no. 2 (1987): 210-12.
[ii] Richard Jackson, "Genealogy, Ideology, and Counter-Terrorism: Writing Wars on Terrorism from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush Jr," Studies in Language & Capitalism 1(2006): 170.

[i] Reagan A Time for Choosing
[ii] Reagan Time for Choosing
[iii] Reagan, A Time for Choosing

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