Thirty six years ago today a man who epitomised the American dream was elected to the nation’s highest office. The son of a second generation Irish immigrant salesman, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in 1911 in the rural mid-west. He overcame those humble beginnings to become first a radio sportscaster, then a Hollywood actor, then Governor of California before claiming a landslide victory on November 4th 1980 to sweep Jimmy Carter, one of America’s most inept 20th century Presidents from office. Along this journey Reagan made the transition from Democrat to Republican.
The Reagan revolution is often said to have begun with the ultimately unsuccessful Presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater some sixteen years before. While Goldwater is widely credited with sparking the re-birth of American Conservatism and ending the new-deal consensus, Reagan’s aspirational dream to ‘Make America Great Again’ and unifying message which led to the phenomenon of ‘Reagan Democrats’ was a million miles away from the bitter campaign with barely concealed racist undertones fought by Goldwater in 1964.
Fast forward to the present day and the campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ first used in 1980 is once again being trumpeted by the Republican standard bearer in the 2016 Presidential election. Rather than a message of hope however this slogan is now accompanied by promises of building walls, banning Muslims, defunding abortion clinics and prosecuting opponents. Not since Reagan’s Vice President and successor George H.W. Bush could a Republican candidate legitimately claim to be defending his legacy. Since Pat Buchanan’s insurgent primary campaign against Bush in 1992, the GOP has lurched further and further to the right, nominating a string of divisive and polarising candidates of which Donald J. Trump is the latest, and his candidacy by some distance represents a new low.
While the 1980s saw a transatlantic meeting of the minds between Reagan and our very own Margaret Thatcher, the paths of the Republican Party and the Conservative Party in the UK have since then wildly diverged. The Conservative Party has evolved into a compassionate and socially reforming party: legalising gay marriage, increasing rather than abolishing the minimum wage and championing a country with equal opportunity for all. The Republican party has increasingly pandered to a middle America where polls show as many as 42% reject the theory of evolution, 20 years of candidate selections from Dole to Trump appear to support their anti-Darwin stance. Opposition to gay marriage, abortion and rejection of climate change by a staggering 77% of Republicans would be anathema to the vast majority of UK Conservatives. Those in our party enthusiastically declaring their support for Donald Trump should take a serious look at his party’s policy platform rather than nostalgically dreaming of a return to the Conservative/Republican partnership of the 1980ss.
I firmly believe that both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would be horrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency. Hillary Rodham Clinton cut her political teeth as a Republican working on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign and made the opposite transition to Reagan, becoming a Democrat in her early twenties. While listing Clinton’s flaws would require an article much longer than this, she is nonetheless eminently qualified to take on the role of President, perhaps more so than anyone since Bush 41. Her presidency is unlikely to inspire notions of Ronald Reagan’s ‘shining city upon a hill’ but in a troubled world she represents the best hope of preserving the last vestiges of Reagan’s American dream.
Graham Hutchison was the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party candidate for Glasgow Southside at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. A lifelong Conservative and Edinburgh resident, Graham is currently employed as an Accounting and Valuations Manager with one of the UK's largest financial institutions.