Democrats for W! (And Reagan, Too!)
A new phenomenon has appeared on the left: the rise of Democrats who have discovered a strange new respect for former president George W. Bush. When he publicly came out against the rise of racism in the United States, many took it to be a slight against Trump, and liberals responded positively. But more than that, according to a recent poll by You-Gov, a majority of Democrats now have a favorable view of Bush. Yes, it may only be 51%, but just 10 years ago this man was on par with Satan in the mind of the average Democrat.
To be sure, much of this can be explained by human tendency to see the past through rose-colored glasses, and that includes seeing former opponents in a more favorable light as time goes on -- something that plays into the need both parties now have to make their current opponent out to be Hitler or worse. During the Obama administration, it was common to hear conservatives reminisce about how Bill Clinton was “at least willing to work with us” – or, during the Clinton years, praise Jimmy Carter for “at least being a good person”. Never mind that, according to conservatives during the actual Clinton administration, he was a draft-dodging amoral hippie, and during the Carter administration the president was a Communist dupe. Both men had become preferable by the simple virtue of no longer being the chief opponent. And yes, I am sure that in the future, conservatives will reminisce about how much they liked Obama more than the next Democratic president.
Liberals follow the same pattern. In addition to their newfound love of Bush, there is also the case of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was hated by the left when he was president, and his mental capacity (not to mention his abilities as an actor) were a constant source of jokes by left-wing comedians. The “search for Reagan’s brain” was a running joke on Doonesbury, while the then-emerging punk rock movement, as well as many others in the entertainment business, portrayed him as Hitler – there was even a band called The Reagan Youth. But years later, liberals actually offered some praise of Reagan: for his pulling the marines out of Lebanon, contrasting his willingness to cut his losses over the “if we leave, the terrorists win” mantra of the Bush administration. More recently, during the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton noted that Donald Trump has “taken the Republican Party a long way, from 'Morning in America' to 'Midnight in America,” contrasting Reagan’s incurable optimism (which was a source of left-wing ire) against the pessimism of a party that perceives itself and the nation as constantly under threat. Even Obama, the man many liberals had hoped would end the Reagan Era, has praised the man. The reason for this, again, is not that Democrats really find Trump so much worse than they found Bush or Reagan, but rather that there is simply a tendency to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. Had Trump been president from 2001-2009 and Bush were president now, I am sure that today’s liberals would be praising Trump for “the great concern he showed for the people who had been left behind by globalism” and “his willingness to show restraint on foreign policy.”
As amusing as all this is, it does point to a larger process: the de-politicization of history. This means that we must understand the historical process itself as de-politicizing. As time goes by, society becomes more and more detached from the particular controversies a historical figure addressed, and that makes it easier for a greater number of people to claim to be the “true inheritors” of their legacy. Take for example George Washington. For the vast majority of Americans, Washington is “the father of his country” and deserves to have a place of honor -- but he is also seen as a heroic figure in the fight against the federal government by the militia movement. Even the German-American Bund, a Nazi organization active in German immigrant communities during the interwar period, claimed him, even going as far as to hold rallies that featured a huge banner of Washington alongside one of Adolph Hitler.
We can see this with Abraham Lincoln as well. Republicans love to remind everyone that they are “the party of Lincoln”, while Democrats insist that if he were alive today he would be a Democrat. The Communist Party used to hold Lincoln-Lenin Days, arguing that Communism was the true heir of Lincoln, while the Americans that went to fight for the left-wing government of Spain did so under the banner of Lincoln. I’ve heard white nationalists praise him for “the concern he showed for the white worker” as well. Even in Dixie, where Lincoln’s legacy has been historically viewed as being more complicated than in the North, there has been a significant (though by no means universal) tendency to see him in a somewhat positive light, seeing him as basically a decent man who wanted to save the union – with the Radical Republicans being the real villains. This was certainly the position D.W. Griffith took in The Birth of a Nation, with the film’s one sheet even describing John Wilkes Booth as the man who “robbed the South of its best friend.” And it is also why it is almost a rite of passage for center-right publications to produce articles once a year about how Martin Luther King Jr. was a “true conservative.” We are seeing the beginning of this happening to Bush and Reagan.
Now in the case of Bush, a lot of this may be temporary, purely a product of Trump. I do not see Bush’s popularity improving significantly, though of course I could be wrong. Reagan, though, is different. Though the average American may not deify him the way Republicans do, he remains a very popular president, and even if the Reagan Era of tax cuts and de-regulation being the political norm comes to an end, this does not mean that the popularity of Reagan himself will come to an end, just as the end of the New Deal Era did not spell an end to Roosevelt’s popularity. But it does mean his legacy is being transformed into something liberals can handle, just as during the Bush years many Republicans openly admired Roosevelt for recognizing, as they saw it, the innate goodness of American military might. Remember, to hear conservatives openly praise Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have been as odd during the 30s and 40s as it would be to hear conservatives praise Obama for us today.
So yes, there is a new breed of Reagan (and maybe even Bush) Democrat. But these are not like the Reagan Democrats of the 80s, i.e. socially conservative, economically moderate working-class whites in what we now call the Rust Belt; voters we now call “Trump voters.” No, these Democrats are a diverse group – but one that sees Reagan as someone they can see as part of a straight line to the American present, pointing to his self-deprecation, his thick skin, his optimism, and his lack of hardline ideological tendencies (the man was willing to raise taxes, after all). And while it may appear to be peculiar, especially to those that remember all the jokes about Bedtime for Bonzo, it is also part of the historical process. Professional historians may continue to debate Reagan’s legacy, as they do with everyone (and even here they tend to remember him fondly) but the mainstream should prepare for a breed of Democrats that see Reagan in a positive light, just as so many Reagan voters saw the same in Roosevelt. To both voters, it was (or will be) a case of both men’s respective parties seeing to have lost their way. Reagan, after all, was one of those voters himself. He was a Democrat throughout Roosevelt’s entire presidency and for two decades later. And even after he switched parties, he still continued to admire him. Perhaps one day the nation will be transformed to a more Democratic one by a man who voted for Reagan twice and even continues to admire him long after that person became a Democrat. History, if nothing else, sure is funny.