Evolution of a Revolution

Published December 1, 2007

Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican
By Edward M. Yager
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., June 2006
121 pages
Cloth 0-7425-4420-6 / 978-0-7425-4420-8, $66.00
Paper 0-7425-4421-4 / 978-0-7425-4421-5, $24.95

Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican reminds us that the “Reagan Revolution” did not begin when the nation’s 40th president took the oath of office on January 20, 1981.

The “revolution” represented the evolution of a man who believed individual Americans and their nation faced a journey toward a divine destiny.

Author Edward Yager, associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University, effectively chronicles Reagan’s dramatic, if gradual, conversion between 1945 and 1962 from his father’s New Deal liberalism to championing limited government and individual liberty.

No single person or event provided the defining moment in convincing Reagan that FDR’s New Deal policies represented a threat to individual liberty in the form of an encroaching government. However, Yager offers plenty of evidence that personal experiences had great influence on the former president.

The ideas of intellectual heavyweights and the passion of close personal friends, while important, simply reinforced convictions Reagan had formed on his own.

Dreams Need Freedom

Yager points to Reagan’s “early dreams of success,” which led him to become a sportscaster and movie star, as convincing him that without freedom, dreams cannot become reality.

“Reagan therefore learned to value freedom not as an abstract concept but as something very tangible and real that had allowed him to improve his life,” Yager writes.

Those values spurred Reagan to spend his life confronting serious threats to freedom.

As a movie star and president of the Screen Actor’s Guild (1947-52, 1959-60), Reagan received a front row view of communists’ attempts to infiltrate the industry.

Fought in Hollywood

Yager effectively mixes in analysis and material from others while allowing the former president to speak for himself in strategic spots. He quotes Reagan opining in his book An American Life about why communists targeted Hollywood: “Joseph Stalin had set out to make Hollywood an instrument of propaganda for his program of Soviet expansionism aimed at communizing the world.”

Reagan became so committed to fighting communism, Yager writes, “he met with the FBI frequently enough to be given the informer’s code number: T-10.”

Even so, it’s appropriate to note within the current conflict against terrorism that Reagan was “adamant that we not abdicate American values in the fight against Communism,” Yager observes.

Committed to Freedoms

Reagan did not partake in the McCarthyism of his day. Yager refers to the former president’s statement recorded in Peter Schweizer’s Reagan’s War: “If we get so frightened that we suspend our traditional democratic freedoms in order to fight them–they still have won. They (will) have shown that democracy won’t work when the going gets tough.”

Reagan’s commitment to eliminate communism was equaled only by his later determination to protect America from burgeoning government.

Another crucial experience on Reagan’s journey occurred when he returned to his movie career after the war, only to find taxes so high he questioned “whether it was worth it to keep on taking work.”

Market Lessons

Explaining his decision to continue working, in An American Life Reagan provided some clues to his later confidence in free-market economic policies: “If I decided to do one less picture, that meant other people at the studio in lower tax brackets wouldn’t work as much either; the effect filtered down, and there were fewer total jobs available.”

An important period of Reagan’s personal journey was his tenure as General Electric Co.’s spokesman from 1954 to 1962. Yager stresses the impact it had in reshaping Reagan’s thinking about corporations and businesses. The future president’s suspicion of big business was largely replaced by a suspicion of big government.

If the seeds of Reagan’s revolution were planted by experience, they were watered by intellectuals such as Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), whose journey coincidentally ran alongside Reagan’s (1911-2004).

Those fighting the war against encroaching government–whether at City Hall, state capitols, or Washington–will be delighted by Yager’s attention to the impact Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom had on Reagan.

Hayek initially chronicled the journey to serfdom to warn his adopted country, England, against moving toward greater centralized economic planning following World War II. But Hayek’s concerns became Reagan’s–concerns he carried with him on his journey to the American presidency.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank.