Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit Rancho del Cielo, President Ronald Reagan’s ranch, which is owned by Young America’s Foundation, a conservative non-profit. Over the weekend-long conference, we heard from conservative speakers such as Ben Shapiro and former Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain, and had the opportunity to tour the ranch located in the mountains outside of Santa Barbara, California. The part of my trip that sticks out the most to me, however, was being able to hear how sincere and principled President Reagan was from people who knew him, including his son, Michael Reagan, and bodyguard, John Barletta.
Barletta told us stories about his time riding alongside the president on horseback, including times where Reagan made politically unsavory moves to honor promises that he had made. Hearing those stories and touring the property for myself really showed me that Reagan was always very sincere, trustworthy and true to himself. Furthermore, he did not care about appearances or show; in fact, his ranch house was only 1800 square feet. Contrast Ronald Reagan with far too many of our political leaders today, who will promise conservative policies to get elected (and symbolically vote for them when they have no chance of actually passing), but then refuse to use any political capital on rolling back liberal policies. We are nearly a year into theoretically conservative total control of the federal government, but the only real conservative victory has been putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.
I do want readers to also note that I did not criticize any individual in my critique of where we are today. Michael Reagan illustrated one of President Reagan’s other key principles for us; it is well summed up by the president’s ‘11th Commandment,’ which is “thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” While Young America’s Foundation is a non-partisan conservative organization, the principle is still relevant. In elected office today, virtually every Republican, even moderate ones, are significantly more conservative than even relatively moderate Democrats. I had the opportunity to ask Michael Reagan a question about how to talk with right-leaners or Republicans who may disagree with one part of the three-pronged stool of traditional Reagan conservatism (free markets, traditional values, and a strong national defense). He responded by saying that his dad always said he’d rather work together with someone on the 80% of issues they agree upon instead of creating a needless enemy based on a few disagreements.
Again, without naming names, I think that some in the conservative movement today are too quick to declare each other political enemies over a couple disagreements. If, for example, someone is moderate on immigration, more nationalist conservatives should not disavow the first person. Likewise, it is healthy for there to be some disagreement in the movement (we actually had one speaker, Bay Buchanan, who did not completely support free trade). If we can build trust and respect across all wings of the conservative movement, it will help us politically as well because working together in coalition should allow all conservative positions to succeed over time. We did see a real-life example of this failure in the failed attempt to partially repeal Obamacare. President Trump and Senator McCain could not come together and find common ground because they let their differences on a few issues stop them from working together where they could. I say this not to criticize either individual, as I respect both of them, but to illustrate more clearly what happens when conservatives fail to work together.
Sometimes, I do get frustrated that not all conservatives see every issue the way I do. Sometimes, I even get angry when scrolling through my overwhelmingly conservative Facebook feed. I happen to be somewhat more moderate on immigration, but very conservative on social issues (especially the life issue) and so conservative on economic issues that I want the income tax repealed entirely, coupled with a dramatic reduction in government spending. I have some friends in the conservative movement who are much more anti-immigration and some who are not completely pro-life. It often happens that we discuss minute details of our points of divergence so greatly that we almost forget that we agree on pretty much every other issue. That desire comes from a good place of being passionate about what we believe in, but if we want to have success as conservatives, we have to be able to work together where we can.
Obviously, there are certain limits to that principle, such as attempts by neo-Nazis to infiltrate the conservative movement through the “alt-right.” But overall, especially when the problem is just a disagreement over what issues we should prioritize, differences in opinion should not divide the conservative movement. Of course, we also need to stand firm in what we believe in and stay true to our values and our promises with the American people, but we can do this while maintaining unity within ourselves. From my trip to the Reagan Ranch, I was able to gain an even greater appreciation for how we can further the conservative movement’s goals. With his optimistic conservative message, President Reagan was able to win 49 states on the most conservative platform at that point in modern America. If we can embody his qualities and messages today, it will truly be “morning again in America” for the conservative movement.
NOTE: If you want to become involved with Young America’s Foundation, Vanderbilt’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (their outlet on college campuses) will be having our first meeting of the year on Tuesday, December 5 to plan for the spring semester by learning about leadership opportunity planning activism events, and discussing bringing a conservative speaker to campus.