Ronald Reagan and the Role of Humor in American Movement Conservatism
In this paper, I argue that analysis of Reagan’s rhetoric, and particularly his humor, illuminates many of the attitudes and tendencies of both conservative fusionism—the combination of traditionalist conservatism with libertarianism—and movement conservatism. Drawing on Ted Cohen’s writings on the conditionality of humor, I assert that Reagan’s use of humor reflected two guiding principles of movement conservatism that distinguish it from other iterations of conservatism: its accessibility and its empowering message. First, Reagan’s jokes were accessible in that they are funny even to those who disagree with him politically; in Cohen’s terms, his jokes were hermetic (requiring a certain knowledge to be funny), and not effective (requiring a certain feeling or disposition to be funny). The broad accessibility of Reagan’s humor reflected the need of movement conservatism to unify constituencies with varying political feelings and interests. Second, Reagan’s jokes were empowering—they presume and therefore posit the competence of their audience. Many of his jokes implied that if an average citizen were in charge of the government they could do a far better job than status quo bureaucrats. This tone demonstrated the tendency of movement conservatism to emphasize individual freedom and self-governance as a through line of its constituent ideologies.
In the first part of this paper, I offer some historical and political context for movement conservatism, emphasizing the ideological influences of Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley as well as the political influence of Barry Goldwater. I then discuss how Reagan infused many of Meyer, Buckley, and Goldwater’s talking points with a humor that is both accessible and empowering. I will conclude by analyzing how Reagan’s humor was a concrete manifestation of certain principles of fusionism.
Post-war conservatives found themselves in a peculiar situation: their school of thought had varying constituencies, each with different political priorities and anxieties. George Nash writes in The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945:
“The Right consisted of three loosely related groups: traditionalists or new conservatives, appalled by the erosion of values and the emergence of a secular, rootless, mass society; libertarians, apprehensive about the threat of the State to private enterprise and individualism; and disillusioned ex-radicals and their allies, alarmed by international Communism” (p. 118).
Conservative intellectuals like Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley attempted to synthesize conservative schools of thought into a coherent modern Right. In 1964, Meyer published What is Conservatism?, an anthology of conservative essays that highlight the similarities between different conservative schools of thought. Buckley founded the National Review, a conservative magazine that published conservatives of all three persuasions. Its Mission Statement simultaneously appeals to the abandonment of “organic moral order,” the indispensability of a “competitive price system,” and the “satanic utopianism” of communism.2
Both Meyer and Buckley thought that the primacy of the individual was an ideological belief through the line of traditionalism and libertarianism. Meyer wrote in What is Conservatism? that “the freedom of the person” should be “decisive concern of political action and political theory.”3 Russell Kirk, a traditionalist-leaning conservative, similarly argued that the libertarian imperative of individual freedom is compatible with the “Christian conception of the individual as flawed in mind and will” because religious virtue “cannot be legislated,” meaning that freedom and virtue can be practiced and developed together.4 The cultivation of the maximum amount of freedom that is compatible with traditional order thus became central to fusionist thought.
Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona and the 1964 Republican nominee for president, championed the hybrid conservatism of Buckley and Meyer. Like Buckley in his Mission Statement, Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention included a compound message in support of “a free and competitive economy,” “moral leadership” that “looks beyond material success for the inner meaning of [our] lives,” and the fight against communism as the “principal disturber of peace in the world.”5 Goldwater also emphasized the fusionist freedom-order balance, contending that while the “single resolve” of the Republican party is freedom, “liberty lacking order” would become “the license of the mob and of the jungle.”6
Having discussed the ideological underpinnings of conservative fusionism, I turn now to an analysis of how Reagan used humor as a tool for political framing.
First, Reagan’s humor is distinctive for its accessibility: by this I mean that there are few barriers one must overcome to laugh at Reagan’s jokes. In his book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, philosopher Ted Cohen calls jokes “conditional” if they presume that “their audiences [are] able to supply a requisite background, and exploit this background.”7 The conditionality of a joke varies according to how much background it requires to be funny. In Cohen’s terms, Reagan’s jokes are not very conditional since many different audiences can appreciate their content. Cohen presents another distinction that is useful for analyzing Reagan’s humor: a joke is hermetic if the audience’s “background condition involves knowledge,” and it is affective if it “depends upon feelings … likes, dislikes and preferences” of the audience). Reagan’s jokes are not very conditional because they are at most hermetic, merely requiring some background knowledge to be appreciated— not a certain feeling or disposition— and that this makes his jokes funny even to people who disagree with him.
There are two ways in which Reagan’s humor is accessible. The first is that many of his jokes have apolitical premises. By apolitical, I mean that the requisite knowledge required to make a joke funny does not directly relate to government or public affairs. For instance, Reagan said at the 1988 Republican National Convention, “I can still remember my first Republican Convention. Abraham Lincoln giving a speech that sent tingles down my spine.” To appreciate this joke, one only needs to know that Reagan is the oldest president to even hold office. This piece of knowledge does not pertain to the government in any direct way— in fact, this joke would remain funny even if it were told by a different person at a nonpolitical conference with a reference to a nonpolitical historical figure. Another example of Reagan’s apolitical humor is a joke he made in the summer of 1981: “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency, even if I'm in a cabinet meeting.” All one needs to understand here is that long meetings are often boring and sleep-inducing. One can even love long meetings and still find this joke funny because they understand the phenomenon of a boring, sleep-inducing meeting. Reagan made hundreds of these jokes during his time in office, all of which were, with few exceptions, funny to just about any listener. Their apolitical content ensured that no one political constituency would be unable to “get” Reagan’s jokes.
The second way in which Reagan’s humor is hermetic is that his political jokes were playful and had relatively innocuous premises, meaning that one did not have to agree with their sentiment to laugh. Reagan’s political jokes can be differentiated from his apolitical jokes because they do require knowledge about government or public affairs in order to be funny. One such piece of knowledge is the inefficiency of government bureaucracy. For example, in his speech, “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan says that “the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this Earth is a government program.” In another speech, Reagan quips, “I have wondered at times about what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress.” The premises of these jokes, though political, are not very contentious. To find them funny one simply needs to know that bureaucracy can be inefficient, or even that there exists a sort of joke in which bureaucracies are teased for being inefficient; one does not need to hate bureaucracy or even want to reduce bureaucracy. Cohen might offer the following analogy to explain the conditionality of Reagan’s bureaucracy jokes: one does not need to think that Polish people are actually stupid to laugh at a Polish joke, one simply needs to understand that there exists a sort of joke in which Polish people are held to be stupid. Reagan’s inoffensive political jokes are playful, lighthearted, and careful not to alienate or antagonize the opposition by presuming a controversial belief.
The accessibility of Reagan’s humor reflects the overall need for fusionism to appeal to a wide variety of conservative groups— traditionalists, libertarians and anti-communists. Instead of converting libertarians to traditionalism or vice versa, Nash writes that fusionists looked to foster agreement on “several fundamentals” of conservative thought. Reagan’s broadly accessible humor is both a concretization and a strategy for fusionism’s broadly accessible ideology. The strategic potency of Reagan’s humor lies in its ability to bond people together. Cohen writes that the “deep satisfaction in successful joke transactions is the sense held mutually by teller and hearer that they are joined in feeling.” Friedrich Nietzsche expresses a similar sentiment when he writes that “rejoicing in our joy, not suffering over our suffering, makes someone a friend.” This joint feeling brings people together even more than a shared belief since the moment of connection is more visceral and immediate.
One might ask, however; is it not the case that all politicians value humor as a means to connect with their audience and unify their constituencies? Why is Reagan’s humor any different? While humor can be used for a broader range of political goals, politicians often connect with one group at the expense of another. For example, when asked what she would tell a male supporter who believed marriage was between one man and one woman, Senator Elizabeth Warren responded, “just marry one woman. I'm cool with that— assuming you can find one.”9 Some democrats praised this joke for its dismissal of homophobic beliefs, but others felt that the joke was condescending and antagonistic. This is the sort of divisive joke that Reagan was uninterested in— one that pleases one of his constituencies at the expense of another. Reagan would also avoid much of Donald Trump’s humor. For instance, Trump wrote in 2016, “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!” Trump’s dismissal of “political correctness” is liberating to some but offensive to others. By contrast, Reagan’s exoteric style of humor welcomes all the constituencies of conservative fusion. Nash writes that fusionists were “tired of factional feuding,” and thus Reagan had no motivation to drive a larger wedge between traditionalists and libertarians.1
The second thing to note about Reagan’s humor is its empowering tone. This takes two forms. First, Reagan elevates his audience by implying that if they controlled the government, they could do a far better job, a message which presumes and therefore posits their competence. For instance, in “A Time For Choosing,” Reagan argues that one complicated anti-poverty program could be made more effective by simply sending cash directly to families. In doing so, Reagan suggests that if any given audience member were in charge of the program, they could do a better job than the bureaucrats. Second, Reagan’s insistence on limited government affirms the average citizen’s capacity for self-government. Reagan famously states that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Since this implies that government aid will leave you worse off, it also posits the average citizen’s capacity for autonomy and therefore their maturity, level-headedness, and overall competence.
The empowering tone of Reagan’s humor reflects fusionism’s emphasis on individual freedom and independence. Meyer writes that “the desecration of the image of man, the attack alike upon his freedom and his transcendent dignity, provide common cause” for both traditionalists and libertarians against liberals. Yet, a presupposition of a belief in freedom is a belief in people’s faculty to be free, to not squander their freedom on pointless endeavors or let their freedom collapse into chaos. This freedom-order balance is fundamental to fusionism as an ideology that straddles support from libertarians who want as little government intervention as possible with traditionalists who want the state to maintain certain societal values. By positing the competence of the free individual in his jokes, Reagan affirms Russell Kirk’s idea that moral order will arise organically from individual freedom, not government coercion.
In this paper, I argue that one of Reagan’s marks on the development of conservative thought was his careful use of humor to reflect certain ideological and practical commitments of post-war fusionism. By making his jokes accessible to the varying schools of conservatism and propounding the capacity of the individual for self-government, Reagan’s humor functioned as both a manifestation and a strategy for fusionism’s post-war triumph.
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