So what is the takeaway from our excruciatingly long and terribly close reading of Reagan’s 1989 farewell address? It’s one that isn’t unique to Reagan, certainly; it’s a conclusion Americans have drawn almost for as long as there has been an America: mandating an ill-defined patriotism as the measure of our national good is un-American.
Many presidents have urged Americans to support “my country right or wrong”. Reagan was not the only one. Many presidents have urged Americans to define patriotism as never questioning or criticizing national policy. And many presidents have urged Americans to see every war the U.S. fights as just, and never to question our military actions overseas (and to see military service as the highest or only form of patriotism).
But those presidents were usually countered immediately and publicly by Americans who realized and pointed out that this is not the American Way. High-profile Americans were willing to demand real patriotism, which means putting our founding principles of liberty and justice for all first above all other goals and desires, and taking personal responsibility for the preservation and exercise of those principles
Since Reagan, however, there has been an increasing trend away from real patriotism. So much has changed, even since 1989. The Internet has created a wide avenue for shaming and attack that deters many people from even getting involved in debates because those “debates” are actually uninformed dogfights focused on personal attack. Cuts to education funding have dumped civics education onto the scrap heap, so that most Americans have no idea what our founding principles are, and have to rely on the warped interpretations they get from political campaigns run by people as uninformed as themselves. History education has been hit hard, too, so that many Americans do not know their own history and have few examples of real patriotism to summon up for inspiration. Terrorist acts, beginning with September 11th, have been made an excuse to hail military action and military service as the only real patriotism, which is an astounding turnaround from the national opinion when Reagan took office, when the long ordeal of the Vietnam War had made U.S. military action unpalatable for most adults.
Since Reagan economic growth has been prized above all else, and is so important that corporations have been given rights of personhood, corporate money openly controls elections from the state to the presidential level, the federal government failed to take any substantial or lasting legal action to prevent another financial collapse like the 2008 Recession because big business is so much more powerful than the federal government, and Congress is working hard to remove any taxation of estates valued at over $5 million. The shining corporation on a hill is king.
In his speech, while reflecting on the “trickle-down economics” that he introduced, Reagan said this about the critics who pointed out that it would begin a terrible wealth gap: “What they called “radical” was really “right.” What they called “dangerous” was just “desperately needed.”
Sometimes it seems that we live in an America where radical and dangerous stances (anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-separation of church and state, anti-environmental health) are considered right and desperately needed to return America to a mythological perfect past where everyone was white, straight, either born here or a “good” (read white) immigrant, and Christian. That is a depressing legacy of Reagan.
But we must not give in to despair. The pendulum always swings, and it will swing back away from this radicalism because there will always be Americans who fight for our founding principles. Our job is to be those Americans.