The American Pageant (12th Edition)

Chapter 41 – Page 977

Our Critique

977 “Together the Old and New Right added up to a powerful political combination devoted to changing the very character of American society.”

Since the textbook refuses to explain conservative ideas, or their long historical roots, that leaves Bailey and Kennedy free to distort conservative goals and the place of conservatism in American history. Conservatives did not want to change “the very character of society.” They believed that liberals since Wilson and FDR had already been doing that. Conservatives wanted to restore original constitutional ideals of natural rights, individual liberty, and limited government.

The Founders feared a big government because they believed human nature was at least flawed, a mixture of good and evil, of virtue and vice, and that if leaders, such as the president, were granted extra-constitutional power, they would sooner or later restrict liberty and increase the chances of full-blown tyranny—a fate that had doomed republics ancient and modern. Conservatives agreed. But government did have a clear role for conservatives in enforcing laws and providing for a strong national defense. Conservatives were not simply “antigovernment,” as the textbook often suggests.

977 “Though Reagan was no intellectual, he drew on the ideas of a small but influential group of thinkers known as ‘neoconservatives.’”

The textbook repeatedly belittles Reagan in this chapter. He was “no intellectual” and he listened to neoconservatives. What about FDR? He had a “C” average in college, but the textbook treats him as the wisest of men. Reagan was very successful as president, and perhaps the authors are jealous of his success.

In any case, to say Reagan “drew on the ideas of a small” group of neoconservatives, only tells a tiny part of the story. He paid much more attention to classical liberal thinkers from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek and to the founding magazines of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, as well as Human Events and The Freeman, but the textbook refuses to mention those widely influential sources of conservative thought. Nor does the text ever mention talk radio and the rise of Rush Limbaugh, who, starting in the late 1980s, touted Reagan’s success and explained conservative ideas daily to tens of millions of listeners.

977 “An actor-turned-politician, Reagan enjoyed enormous popularity with his crooked grin and aw-shucks manner. The son of a ne’er-do-well, impoverished Irish-American father with a fondness for the bottle, he had grown up in a small Illinois town. Reagan got his start in life in the depressed 1930s as a sports announcer for an Iowa radio station. Good looks and a way with words landed him acting jobs in Hollywood, where he became a B-grade star in the 1940s In 1954 he became a spokesman for the General Electric Corporation at a salary of some $150,000 per year. In that position he began to abandon his New Dealish political views and increasingly to preach a conservative, antigovernment line.”

The authors discredit Reagan with one innuendo after another. He was an “actor-turned-politician” with a “crooked grin.” His father was a drunk and Reagan became merely a “B-grade” actor. But when he started making money with General Electric he “began to abandon his New Dealish political views” and instead decided “to preach a conservative, antigovernment line.” But if he was such a self-interested mediocrity, how did he win two of the largest electoral victories of any president ever? How did he cause the economy to expand faster and more spectacularly than any president in US history with the possible exception of Calvin Coolidge, whose picture Reagan put up in the Cabinet Room in the White House? Bailey and Kennedy ignore that question. They refuse to teach students what conservatism is or why the Reagan economy was such as spectacular success.