The Heirs of Reagan’s Optimism

Role reversal: the Democrats are the ones celebrating America's promise

One perennial prediction about American elections remains likely to hold this November. The winning party will be the one that is more optimistic about ­America—even in the midst of a struggling economy. “American civilization, from its beginnings,” writes historian Daniel Boorstin, “had combined a dogmatic confidence in the future with a naive puzzlement over what the future might bring.”

This confidence has not been confined to one party. Both Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt had it, as did John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Optimism in this sense is not a philosophy but more of a temperament, a comfort with the country’s eternal potential and a faith in its virtues. Reagan was the quintessential American optimist. He was an ardent conservative who wanted to turn sharply away from the liberalism of the 1960s and ’70s. But he was also a man who was clearly at home in the America of the ’70s—in Hollywood and in California, the diverse, complex, constantly changing state that he governed from 1967 to 1975.

In the ’70s and ’80s, to many Americans the Democratic Party seemed more concerned with America’s shortcomings than its strengths. Many of its leaders criticized the country relentlessly for its behavior at home and abroad, for its inequities and injustices. The Democrats, Jeane Kirkpatrick said at the Republican Convention in 1984, “always blame America first.”

Today it is the Republican Party that often seems angry with America. Read the best-selling books by conservatives these days, watch Fox News or attend a Tea Party rally. They are filled with rage, often combined with a powerful nostalgia for an America that has gone away.

Reagan was said to be three parts optimism and one part nostalgia. Recently, that formula has been inverted. In 1996, Bob Dole gave an astonishing convention speech that attacked those who believed the U.S. had improved over the past decades. “I say you’re wrong. And I know because I was there. And I have seen it. And I remember,” said Dole. So much for progress on civil rights, women’s rights or even toward a more open and merito­cratic economy and society.

Nostalgia is now commonplace on the right. Michael Savage, a leading ­radio commentator, recounts in The Savage Nation a time when he received a tasty recipe for meatballs from a fan, which got him thinking that “back when America was still moral and whole, our meatballs were big, soft and tasty. Today, thanks mainly to the Demoncats, the libs and the ­Commu-Nazis who rule the courts, America’s meatballs are small, hard and tasteless.” Who knew that even the food was better in the 1950s!

Anger and nostalgia are at the heart of the Tea Party. In their book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican ­Conservatism, two scholars, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, use polling data, surveys and interviews to explore the roots of the movement. Skocpol and Williamson describe a segment of the electorate that is in general older, white, religious and deeply troubled by America today. “It’s so sad the way the country is now,” they quote Bonnie Sims of southeastern Virginia, who then adds that values like hard work, thrift and obedience to the law are no longer taught in the U.S. “You have to select English” for daily transactions, Sims explains to the authors.

The Tea Partyers love America, but it’s an America that is an abstraction or a memory. The nation of today—with its many immigrants, liberated women, increasingly liberated gays, myriad government programs, open trade and a Spanish-­language option on every phone menu—seems to scare them.

For many conservatives, the rot set in a while ago. Ron Paul and his supporters argue, for instance, that the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 marked the beginning of the fall. Others see the New Deal as deeply illegitimate. For many, the culprit is the social changes ushered in during the 1960s. But these are shifts that have been with us now for 100 or 75 or 40 years. Those shifts broadened opportunities for women and minorities, gave income support to seniors and helped create stable economic growth that has been the envy of the world. At some point, the changes became part of the fabric of the country. Can you love America and hate so much about it?

The Republican Party has an important and powerful economic message for America today. But to sell it, it needs to convince voters that it understands and appreciates today’s America.

TIME MagazineFareed Zakaria