If you grew up in America in the 1980s, as I did, your first memory of politics was almost certainly of Ronald Reagan. His dignified patriotism, moral decency, sunny optimism and positive vision of our country set the tone for a decade that was the last time Americans as a whole really felt good about ourselves as a people. Our country was so united, in fact, that in 1984, President Reagan was reelected in a historic landslide, winning a stunning 49 out of 50 states over his competent and experienced opponent, the former Vice President Walter Mondale.
How different it must be for children growing up in America today. Their childhood political memories will be of a nation of people who despise each other — united only by the feeling that our country is in decline — so deeply divided by partisanship that a landslide election like 1984 would be unthinkable.
Reagan offers a historic example of political leadership that can give rise to national unity and renewal. Part of his success was undoubtedly his personal charisma, as well as the economic recovery of the early ’80s. But it takes more than that to win a presidential election by a remarkable 49 states to 1. That feat has never been matched by any other candidate for president — not even close.
What Reagan understood — which few politicians today, whether Republicans or Democrats, seem to understand — is that you can’t unite a nation by making people feel bad about themselves. You have to make them feel good. You have to tell a positive story about America. And if you do, lots of people will choose to believe that story, not because it’s perfectly, literally true, but because they want it to be true; they aspire to embody it and fulfill it.
Liberals point out that America in the 1980s had plenty of flaws, and Reagan himself was far from a perfect president. In the left-wing view, Reagan’s presidency was little more than a Hollywood script about a great and glorious America, concealing the true reality of a country filled with racism and other forms of inequality.
Liberals have been saying the same thing about America for decades — no matter who is president. Their viewpoint contains some truth, because despite our continued progress in the areas where we could do better, America is never perfect. But what Reagan realized is that to focus excessively on America’s flaws is to condemn the country to the kind of malaise and division we experienced in the late 1960s and ’70s.
Instead, Reagan believed that Americans will unite to improve ourselves and our country only when we are inspired by a vision of our highest values and ideals. In a classic TV commercial for his 1984 campaign, called “Prouder, Stronger, Better” — but popularly remembered as the “Morning in America” ad — the narrator tells a story of an America filled with hard-working, morally upstanding citizens who are filled with love for their country and hope for the future. Images fill the screen of life in a good society, evoking a shared vision of the America of the 1980s as we wanted it to be.
I think members of Generation X and the oldest of Millennials perhaps appreciate the ’80s more than any other Americans, because our childhood — a magical time for people of any generation — was also a time that was magical for America. The economy was roaring. The United States defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War, without firing a single shot. The “Greatest Generation,” which won World War II and built America into the greatest superpower on earth, was leading the country — in political office, as well as the wholesome type of neighborhood churches and civic organizations that had not yet declined into irrelevancy after their generation’s passing.
People born around 1980 are the last Americans to remember that era. The contrast between the politics and culture of today and that of the ’80s is so stark, and so depressing, that for many people it feels like we were born into one country and now live in another, having been transported not to somewhere else in the world, but to the America of a dystopian parallel universe.
Today, Americans are offered the choice between, on the one hand, Republicans who spread lies about nonexistent election fraud, tolerate the toxic influence of conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and domestic terrorists for the sake of political convenience, and resist getting vaccinated against a deadly pandemic disease; and on the other hand, Democrats who take a sour view of America as a systemically racist country, wish to teach this pessimistic narrative to our children in school, and believe the answer to every problem is more virtue signaling, cancel culture, protest marches, and government interference in our lives.
Where are the political leaders who respect the rules of American democracy, believe in the virtues of honesty and decency, appreciate the wonders of modern science, and celebrate the tremendous progress our nation has made in overcoming the injustices of the past and expanding the equal rights of freedom to every individual?
Yes, there is much that is good about America. But we shouldn’t have to go back almost 40 years to hear a politician make us feel good about the country we share.
In his farewell address to the nation, President Reagan spoke these memorable lines about the nation we have, at times, aspired more fully to be:
I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim… [who] journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
That’s the spirit of “morning in America.” It is a vision that is neither Republican nor Democrat, conservative nor liberal as defined today in this twilight age. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too much longer for a new dawn.