Reagan biographer Craig Shirley on what 21st century conservatism should look like

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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“People say this is a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” harrumphs Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. “That’s bullshit. This is a fight for the mind of the Republican Party.”

Shirley and I caught up over the phone to discuss his op-ed in the Washington Post. If you missed it, you missed a shot across the bow at Bush-era, big government Republicanism.

As Shirley wrote,

“If Ronald Reagan, Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater were still living, they would be shaking their heads in disbelief at the party’s devolution. They gave the modern GOP its intellectual and political underpinnings: federalism (limited federal government) and fusionism (the notion that business interests and social interests are united in their aversion to big government). Although those concepts weren’t always an easy sell to the American people, together they formed a philosophy that put its trust in the individual over institutions.

But then came the Big Government Republicans of the George W. Bush administration …”

Shirley firmly believes the GOP is facing a crucial test. “We have not come up with a 21st century version of conservatism in this modern framework,” he says.

And though he advocates sticking to conservative principles, Shirley also believes it’s time to reframe how conservatism is presented. “In ’80, Reagan was talking about a community of shared values,” he notes. “Well that’s not the way Robert Taft talked in 1952.”

Shirley says it’s time for the GOP to return to its intellectual roots, but he is careful not to define intellectualism as the obtaining of an elite ivy league degree. “One of the most successful presidents in America went to Eureka College,” he says.

Ultimately, Shirley’s message is that intellectualism (similar to what I call “cosmopolitan conservatism”) and populism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two go hand in hand.

And he reminds me of a quote from Bill Buckley to prove it: “I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO…”

So what is the future of conservatism? “Three phrases come to mind in defining 21st  century conservatism,” says Shirley: “‘Question Authority’, ‘Power to the People,’ ‘Give Peace a Chance.’
“This is a monumental a fight for the future of the Republican party,” says Shirley — “as it was after 64 and after 76.”

Matt K. Lewis