‘‘These guys sound like Reagan.’’ An undergraduate said this to me during
a tutorial sometime in the mid-1980s. He was talking about Emerson and
I don’t know whether I put this idea into his head or he into mine, but I
do know that my interest in the subject of Negative Liberties dates from the
period now known as the Reagan era. Its roots lie in my amazement that so
many Americans could find Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric to be so persuasive
when I found it to be so patently full of rationalizations and deceptions. I
had read Christopher Lasch’s best-selling study The Culture of Narcissism
(1979), which claimed that ‘‘the culture of competitive individualism’’ was
‘‘a way of life that is dying’’ (21), destroyed by its own internal contradic-
tions. But, everywhere I looked during the 1980s, I saw American popular
culture celebrating individualism, led by Reagan, who described ‘‘the
dream conceived by our Founding Fathers’’ as the achievement of ‘‘the
ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society’’ (1989,
212–13). Garry Wills wrote that Reagan ‘‘believes the individualist myths
that help him to play his communal role,’’ and he described Reagan as ‘‘the
sincerest claimant to a heritage that never existed, a perfect blend of an
authentic America he grew up in and of that America’s own fables about its
past’’ (1987, 94). What was it that was so appealing about this rhetoric, that
could lead American voters to say, as one retired brewery worker did after
the 1984 election, ‘‘He really isn’t like a Republican. He’s more like an
American, which is what we really need’’?∞
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