Fifty years ago this month, Ronald Reagan burst onto the national political stage for the first time with a televised speech in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign.
“A Time for Choosing” was the title of Reagan’s talk, and even though it failed to save Goldwater from a landslide defeat, it must be regarded as one of the most successful political speeches of the 20th century. This is because it clarified the grounds on which the eventual Reagan Revolution would be won. Reagan framed the choice as:
“Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Fifty years later, this choice remains at the center of our political debates. Our debt crisis has grown worse. The regulatory state has returned to high tide after ebbing temporarily under Reagan.
Where friends of limited government can take heart is that, today, there is a stronger voice than ever for Reagan’s style of principled-but-inclusive, libertarian-tinged conservatism. I refer to not just the presidential hopefuls who, thanks to their tea party cred, seem to most excite the base. But also the think tanks, litigation centers, and grassroots organizations that focus on winning long-term victories for our freedoms.
Look at the Goldwater Institute’s work to upend the education establishment through Education Savings Accounts that create competition in education services by empowering parents instead of bureaucrats.
Or how Illinois Policy Institute changed the terms of debate in that deep blue state, and ultimately defeated a movement to amend the Illinois Constitution and replace the state’s flat income tax with a progressive rate structure. Now, over the next five years alone, nearly $30 billion will stay in the hands of Illinois’ families and businesses instead of going to politicians in Springfield.
Or the success of Foundation for Government Accountability – working with its allies in several states to stop the Medicaid expansion provisions in Obamacare. This is a major win for taxpayers, keeping millions of able-bodied Americans from becoming dependent on government for their health insurance.
At the Atlas Network, we talk of the challenges embraced by these groups as some of “Today’s Berlin Walls.” The three organizations above are among the eight finalists for our 2014 Templeton Freedom Award, the biggest prize for honoring excellence by free-market think tanks.
The Berlin Wall seemed like a permanent barrier to freedom when Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” But less than three years later, it was gone.
The Berlin Wall, of course, did not fall merely as a consequence of that speech. It is now widely understood that a state-directed communist economy cannot keep pace with one powered by free people and a spirit of entrepreneurship. Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate gets much attention these days, but we should focus instead on the long-term vision — to restore American greatness and reset Cold War relations — that Reagan implemented during his Presidency, and had begun imagining decades earlier.
Most of us are beholden to the political realities of the moment, unlike Ronald Reagan – who suggested back in 1967, in a CBS broadcast debate with Robert Kennedy, “the Berlin Wall should disappear” as a first step toward normalized relations with the Soviet Union.
Today, we are 25 years removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 50 years from Reagan’s historic “Time for Choosing” speech.
More than ever, we need to take inspiration from those milestone events, and summon more discipline, more courage, more far-sightedness to imagine and work towards a future that cures America of its the government-created sclerosis.
Organizations like Goldwater Institute, Foundation for Government Accountability and Illinois Policy Institute are the heirs to Reagan in providing the limited government community with a vision of how we can tear down today’s Berlin Walls. We can all do our part to carry this message forward to friends and family, and remind them that, even in the bleakest of times, tremendous progress is possible if we keep freedom as our north star.