In 1964 Ronald Reagan delivered a speech that we now refer to as “A Time for Choosing.” Reagan was not, at that time, a politician. His acting career was slowing down, but he was becoming a popular public speaker. This speech was on behalf of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and would prove to be a pivotal moment in Reagan’s career. In this speech Reagan set up some binaries that would define conservative politics for years to come:
“This is the issue of this election: 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 capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down – [up] man’s old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.”
It was a classic Reagan speech, rife with folksy and poignant narratives about the evils of government assistance, spending, and socialism. And, he noted with relish, the present administration, smacked of that very socialism.
This speech proved to be so popular and have such an impact on conservative politics that the Reagan library today has launched a speaking series called “A Time for Choosing” which is “a new forum for leading voices in the conservative movement to address critical questions facing the future of the Republican Party.”
The speeches in this series will address questions like:
- Why are you a Republican?
- What should the Republican Party stand for?
- How as a party are we succeeding? How are we failing?
- What foreign and domestic policy positions are critical for the Republican Party to take in the future?
- What are the Republican philosophies we can all agree on?
The first speaker in the series was Paul Ryan this las week. Ryan’s speech was not particularly well-received by the base. In some ways, this should have been expected because Ryan has never been particularly Trumpian, and his “Time for Choosing” speech was like Reagan’s in that he said conservatives had a choice – stick to conservative principles or follow a cult of personality.
This is the second week in a row I am focusing on conservative politics, but this week I am going about it in a very different way. Instead of just a review of policies, I’m going to look at how one conservative leader develops an argument for conservatism, and how he argues for a different kind of conservatism than what has taken hold of the nation in the last few years.
Paul Ryan was the Speaker of the House from 2015-2019. He ran as VP with Mitt Romney. He was a major proponent for the privatization of Social Security and Medicare. Ryan was a kind of a rising star in the Republican party but he left the House with a tarnished reputation. As the Washington Post said, Ryan was “leav[ing] behind a legacy of dramatically expanded government spending and immense deficits, a GOP president unchecked, a broken immigration system, and a party that’s fast abandoning the free-trade principles that he himself championed.” Most notably, Ryan left having been unable to make any kind of real challenge to Trump, basically overturning the reigns of the GOP to a man that in the primaries many people had called dangerous, racist, or worse. Those people would go on to be Trump’s biggest allies. Ryan chose to leave politics instead of having to bow to Trump’s worst whims.
So he is an interesting choice for the “Time for Choosing” series. On the one hand, he is ideal because he has championed Reagan-style policies and politics for his whole career. And the audience at the Reagan library should appreciate that. However, Reagan politics and policies are not what defines conservatism today. Trumpism is not Reaganism. Ryan is not the kind of conservative that is leading the party. So it is risky to give this message to an audience of conservatives today.
Ryan’s delivery was competent but not particularly noteworthy. He was sincere and measured, though I would be hard-pressed to call him passionate. In some ways he channeled Reagan, though not as skilled – believable, relatable, calm, and reassuring. But he lacked Reagan’s charisma. He isn’t an actor like Reagan. But overall I thought his delivery was adequate. It was appropriate for the time and the place. I don’t think the Reagan library would be the right space for a sermonic barn-burner, and Ryan wouldn’t be the right person to give it. Ryan did what he needed to do. All in all, the delivery was good.
Ryan was very in control of the speech. His language was exacting and measured. He looked out over the audience. He was confident and rehearsed. Ryan came across as an assured and knowledgeable speaker. He seemed trustworthy. Even though I disliked the content, I found his mastery of the situation impressive.
Stylistically, the speech was very plain. Ryan did not depend on any poetical devices. There were no repeating metaphors nor was it particularly rhythmic. It didn’t have a lot of analogies or similes to show the rhetors creativity. However, you wouldn’t describe it as particularly “folksy” or “charming,” either. It wasn’t academic. It was appropriate for a lay-audience but more formal than it was populist. This is actually an important note on style to remember when we get to the argument he makes.
One thing Ryan does stylistically that echoes his hero Reagan, and this is also part of making his argument, is that he depends on narrative. Like Reagan, Ryan includes stories of individual people to make his speech personal and relatable. This is why I hesitate to call it truly formal. He does do work to make it something that his audience can identify with. For example, he includes specific people, saying,
“How do you think this representative, born in the Soviet Union, began her service in Congress? She arranged to take her Oath of Office standing by a portrait of Ronald Reagan. If we’re looking for good signs in the Republican party, this freshman member of the House, along with others, like Young Kim from down in Orange County, Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida and Tony Gonzales of Texas. They are high on the list.”
This is as much making an argument as it is style, but one thing it does is it keeps his speech from becoming too stilted. He brings real people into it so the audience can relate.
Organizationally, the speech is not particularly complicated. It starts with a chronological narrative, then moves into something topical. The first few moments of the speech are about Reagan’s original speech, his career, Ryan’s background, new members of Congress, and then the party of 2016 and 2020. But the fact that so early in the speech he makes a poignant comment about the party of 2016 and 2020 sets up a powerful framework for the rest of his speech. In this way the organization is important. Ryan is setting up the choice for conservatives in the very beginning. He says,
“Of course, since 2016, we have learned to get used to big and unexpected things happening in American politics. Even for our good showing in the House, 2020 left Republicans powerless in Washington. Even worse, it was horrifying to see a presidency come to such a dishonorable and disgraceful end. So once again, we conservatives find ourselves at a crossroads and here’s the reality that we have to face. If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality or of second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere. Voters looking for Republican leaders want to see independence in metal. They will not be impressed by the sight of yes-men and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago. We win majorities by directing our loyalty and respect to voters and by staying faithful to the conservative principles that unite us. This was true even when the person leading our movement was as impressive, polished and agreeable as they come.”
So the organization of this speech is basic, but very important. Ryan isn’t pulling any punches. In the very beginning he is making it clear that the choice he is focusing on isn’t between socialism and conservatism, but between a cult of personality and true conservatism. So the rest of the speech will lay out the details of this choice. He has given us a narrative that will lead to a topical explication of this choice.
His topical section of the speech begins with recalling Reagan, so once again he takes us back in time. But this is important to his argument because he is grounding us in his foundational ideas – Reagan conservatism. He is setting up the contrast between Trumpian politics and Reagan politics. His organization is part of his argument.
THEN he moves into his attack on the left. It is interesting to note that his attack on the left doesn’t come until AFTER he has set up the contrast between Trump and Reagan. The choice between Trump and Reagan comes before the choice between the right and the left. And his argument is that Reagan-style politics are the proper choice between both.
Ryan touches on taxes, the military, and works his way through the successes (as he paints them) of conservatives from his time in office up to 2020 when America was experiencing unprecedented growth. He claims these gains were because of conservative principles but it was all undercut by the pandemic.
He says he is pleased that so many voters have joined the party in the last few years. But these new voters need to be coupled with classic conservative principles for the party to be a stronger party than it has been in the past.
He attacks identity politics and grievance politics and says that one of the central tenets to conservatism is that every individual has worth and dignity. And this focus on shared humanity, individual rights, and the idea that everyone deserves a chance to be successful will always draw people to their cause.
Once again he turns to Reagan, saying,
“Conservatism draws heavily on the wisdom of natural law, which can raise our sights beyond the selfishness and the grievance collecting of tribe against tribe. And conservatism also places a premium on private virtue, believing as our founders did that a free society depends on personal values like honesty, duty, self-discipline, and a basic concern and respect for other people. The state does not exist to remake society, or to reorder our lives. As President Reagan observed, government cannot be clergyman, teacher, and parent. It is our servant beholden to us, and along with this comes a confidence in the people themselves to make their own decisions as responsible members of the good caring, fair-minded society that our Constitution was designed for.”
The left, he argues, is dangerous because they will expand the government, raise the deficit, and harm our relationships with other countries.”
America, he argues, is an idea. A great idea. And it is the alternative to tyranny.
And he finishes with Reagan again.
“Americans, as our 40th president said, “Our hopeful big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair.” Those words describe the man himself and the reminders of the generous spirit that overcome setbacks and achieves great things. With that example, with the best that is in us, and by speaking to the best in our country, let’s press on with the conservative cause and return that cause to a governing majority.”
So before we even get into an analysis of Paul Ryan’s argument, we have a good idea of what his argument is just based on his organization. He has used his organization to set up his argument clearly, even if it wasn’t necessarily artfully or stylistically done. The organization goes hand-in-hand with the argument. It sets up choices for the argument to make, and this is a speech about choices.
As for the argument itself, it is grounded in ethos, much of it masquerades as logos, and Ryan attempts pathos, but this is largely an unemotional speech.
Ethos is probably the most important appeal throughout this speech. First there is the constant connections to Reagan. Conservatives at large view Reagan as a kind of hero. Ryan begins by connecting himself to that hero. He says,
“Even 40 years after President Reagan’s first inauguration, we all remember him with a special respect and affection. He was exactly the man America needed at a crucial moment. We appreciate him only more from a distance of time now. To this day, whenever I’m asked to describe my own political outlook, there is no term that fits more comfortably than Reagan conservative.”
He then gives us a bit of history about himself.
“I guess it started with my dad, who was also named Paul. He wasn’t really a political type, but there was never a more enthusiastic Reagan voter in the state of Wisconsin. I remember in 1980, I was 10 years old. My dad pointed out a geographical connection, that the rock river that ran straight through Janesville, Wisconsin flowed straight down past Dixon, Illinois where our new President spent his childhood. For a kid, there was something nice in knowing that he had come from the same part of the world that we did.
It was a long time before I ever took an active interest in politics. And when I did, I just naturally identified with the ideas of Ronald Reagan. Early in my career, I spent a lot of time in the company of a guy named Jack Kemp, a wonderful guy I still miss. Being around Jack was a daily immersion in the big-hearted spirit of Reagan conservatism. Its whole creed of free enterprise, of endless opportunity, of limited government and a limited role of government in a free society, respect for the rule of law, a system of checks and balances, the rights and dignity of every person in America as a country like no other, with work in the world that only we can do. The eight years of the Reagan presidency stand as evidence of all that those ideas can accomplish. Just think how different the world would look today without this one man whose arrival in American politics still seems providential.”
This does two things. It reminds the audience that he is a regular “everyman” who they can identify with, but it also identifies him with the hero of the cause, Ronald Reagan.
And Ryan keeps this going throughout the speech. As we noted in the organization, Reagan is a theme throughout. Ryan grounds his speech in Reaganism. And he has attached himself to Reaganism. This gives him credibility and gravitas.
He also sets up a sense of shared community in the speech – the community of Reagan Republicanism. This is where the organization lends itself to the argument. After the choice has been made to select Reaganism over Trumpism, he crafts a sense of shared community about what conservatism is, both as an ideology on its own and in contrast to progressivism.
“Conservatism draws heavily on the wisdom of natural law, which can raise our sights beyond the selfishness and the grievance collecting of tribe against tribe. And conservatism also places a premium on private virtue, believing as our founders did that a free society depends on personal values like honesty, duty, self-discipline, and a basic concern and respect for other people. The state does not exist to remake society, or to reorder our lives.”
“For the left, it’s always about and expanding government power. I think of the federal debt, which hardly comes up anymore, even though the debt is now $28 trillion. Look, we were forced to take extraordinary measures to respond to a global pandemic, but that effort is not permission to adopt a policy of limitless spending. Many consequences would arise out of a debt crisis. All of them bad. Some of them catastrophic.
If we want to remain the biggest economy, keep our standard of living, keep the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and meet our obligations to the seniors, to our veterans, to the poor and the disabled, it all comes down back to spending discipline and the tax revenue that comes only with a pro-growth agenda. Everything rides on America getting ahead of this problem and if conservatives do not show the way, and too often we have not, then no one else will.
The same way is true when we think about complex and growing challenges to the security of our country. It’s more than just a matter of sustaining military intelligence capabilities, in which we can never afford to be second best. That’s the most basic of our responsibilities. We are in an all-inclusive competition against authoritarian regimes that want to supplant American influence wherever they can.”
Ryan builds the community of conservatives by grounding that group in Reagan, highlighting the beliefs and achievements of the last few years, and contrasting them with the left. It is an exercise in community building that can create identity for both himself and the audience. And as he creates that community he creates credibility for himself because he can show that he is part of, if not a leader in, that community.
The argument has a veneer of logic, so there are appeals to logos, though there are not really anything like syllogistic arguments made. Ryan certainly provides information – he gives narratives that support his ideas, and in that way makes an argument, so there is an appeal to logos, but it is not logical argumentation. Ryan’s approach is to focus on simply providing an idea, Reaganism, and then listing achievements that he thinks are indicative of the success of that philosophy. There are no if, then, or logical syllogisms or enthymemes. It is simply a list of things that happened and ideas. It works as an argument because it is a narrative, which audiences find convincing, but it is not a logical one. But, logic does not have to be the goal. The goal seems to be to show that Reaganism is the ideal for the conservative movement and that can be done with appeals to community and with a narrative that shows its success, which Ryan attempts to provide. It is not always necessary to provide formal logic. Ryan is appealing to an audience that loved Reagan, and possibly Trump, and neither were known for there appeals to logic. Ryan doesn’t have to be a logician to reach his audience. In many ways, his speech, with its narrative list of successes, was more logical that a typical Reagan or Trump speech.
As for appeals to emotion, the attempts to construct community may have stirred the heart a bit, but Ryan didn’t tell too many stories designed specifically to appeal to his audience’s emotion. He mentioned the new Congress people who were being sworn in, but otherwise this is an area where he diverged from his idol Reagan a great deal. Reagan was known for sharing small anecdotes that hit you right in the gut and made a huge impact – Ryan’s speech is notable lacking in that respect. Between his lack of poetic language and his lack of emotional stories it is very different from a Reagan speech. That is not to say it is emotionless. His appeals to ethos give it some life. But he does not directly appeal to the heart the way his role model did.
So why bother with this speech that got so little attention and seems to be for such a specific audience?
For the exact reason that the Reagan library says and that Ryan sets up in his speech – this is a time for choosing for the Republican party.
Look, I’m no fan of Reaganism. I think it was a disaster. And I don’t think you have Trumpism without Reaganism. But Reaganism is different than Trumpism. And there aren’t many Reagan Republicans left. They have all slipped into Trumpism. So Ryan says this is a time for choosing, and it is – but it appears as if most people are choosing Trumpism.
So what does that mean for everybody else? Will moderate conservatives swing to the right? Will they join the Democrats? This could completely alter the left. If moderate conservatives join the Democratic party then the Dems will become an even more moderate party, even as some flanks of the party become increasingly more progressive. Or, will those moderate conservatives join the Trump train? If they do, will the left respond by defining itself as anti-Trump as possible and swing left? Ryan is right, this is a time for choosing, and the choices people make will affect politics all the way around.
Unfortunately for Ryan and his ilk, the future of Reaganism doesn’t look good. But we had forty years of it. It defined politics for decades. As it slips into obscurity the whole landscape of American politics will change. And the Paul Ryans of the world will find themselves pretty much irrelevant. So it is worth it to know what they stood for. If nothing else to know what is gone.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.