The Evolution of President Reagan’s Conservative Legacy

Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan is often viewed by conservatives with a golden aura—but how did they see him during his administration in the 1980s? Dr. Marcus Witcher, scholar-in-residence in the Department of History and the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas, held a lecture at the Institute for Humane Studies about his recently published book Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism. The recording can be found on the Ideas in Progress podcast, hosted by Dr. Anthony Comegna.

Dr. Marcus Witcher

Dr. Witcher’s book aims to detail the tension between president Reagan and conservatives at the time.

“[This book] tries to do what I think historians have not done a great job at doing, which is describing the plethora of different ideas that exist on the American right,” Dr. Witcher said.

Right-of-center politicians and thought leaders had a few issues with Reagan’s policies. So much so, that an entire issue in Conservative Digest was dedicated to whether or not the president had deserted conservatives. Dr. Witcher explained that many were bothered by the administration’s focus on economic and foreign policy, rather than social issues. Even with his foreign policy, many were frustrated at the administration’s approach to the Soviet Union during a very tense time of the Cold War.

Dr. Witcher emphasized that Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist and believed that by developing and sharing Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) technology with the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons would become irrelevant.

In 1984, Reagan began arms reduction negotiations with the leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. Dr. Witcher said that conservatives at the time were concerned that their president was sharing SDI technology with what was considered the evil empire. He did not begin his presidency with these beliefs, but instead had evolved.

One of the things that [contemporary] conservatives take away from Reagan when they say that Ronald Reagan had these conservative principles . . . is they rob him of what is probably his greatest strength: his ability to evolve—his ability to take in new data, to process it, and then to address the world as it is, not as he would have it be.

–Dr. Marcus Witcher

After several talks, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed between the two countries and passed by the Senate. While many on the New Right at the time lambasted the president for this treaty, Dr. Witcher highlighted that this paved the way for the end of the Cold War and that this disapproval of Reagan’s actions would eventually ease.   

“There’s a reimagining that happens where conservatives begin to claim that Reagan won the Cold War single-handedly by confronting the evil empire, by sticking to his principles, and demanding that the wall be torn down,” Dr. Witcher said.

To learn more about why conservatives changed their view of Reagan, Dr. Witcher’s new book dives deeper into this history.

The New Deal

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