Gramsci at Grove City College
In early 2013, I had the honor of speaking at Grove City College in Pennsylvania as part of its Ronald Reagan Lecture Series. The lecture series is an annual event at this excellent small Christian college. Grove City College gained a deserved measure of fame in the 1980s when it resisted federal encroachment and decided not to accept any form of federal aid. This would enable this college to maintain its independence and integrity and, not incidentally, keep tuition remarkably low.
We in the Reagan administration cheered Grove City College on. We wanted more of America’s institutions of higher education to take such a principled stand. In those days, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) wanted to bring every education institution in the country under the heavy thumb of the federal government. And liberal Connecticut Republican Lowell Weicker believed that if you had a federal dollar bill in your wallet, the feds could expand their authority over you.
So, when I was invited to speak on President Reagan and his miraculous victory in the Cold War, I jumped at the chance. As part of the program, I got to meet over lunch with some of the best and brightest of this high achieving student body. I was expecting questions about Ronald Reagan’s ideas and actions vis-à-vis the now-defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It was Reagan, after all, who had famously warned the National Association of Evangelicals not to turn a blind eye to “the machinations of an evil empire.” The president did not directly call the USSR the evil empire. He let Pravda, the Communist Party daily newspaper, howl in protest when he used that term.
They thereby admitted that he meant them! And in giving such prominent coverage to the Reagan “Evil Empire” speech, Pravda informed everyone in the USSR of what Reagan had said. And thus, Pravda condemned itself in the eyes of millions in Russia, Ukraine, and the captive nations of Eastern Europe.
Dealing with the Soviets was very dangerous. They had 27,000 nuclear warheads targeted on the U.S. It was estimated that in the first hour of a hypothetical “massive thermonuclear exchange” between the U.S. and the USSR hundreds of millions of people would die in both countries. And for those who managed to survive, as President Kennedy said, “the living would envy the dead.”
With all that drama, I thought the students would be focused on the Cold War. They were not. Instead, these top students pummeled me with question after question about President Reagan and marriage. What would he have thought about men “marrying” men? And women “marrying” women? And should it be legal? And should conservatives and Christians simply go along with all this?
The whole scene was a reminder of Antonio Gramsci. That influential Italian Communist philosopher famously urged his fellow Marxists to establish “ideological hegemony” over their bourgeois opponents. That meant, get your adversaries to think in your terms. Most people, Gramsci argued, do not really understand why they believe what they believe. If you can create a Marxist culture, you do not have to overthrow the state by force. Instead, by staging a “Long March through the Institutions,” organizations like the news media, academia, the political parties, and even charities, you can bring about Marxist revolution by largely peaceful means.
Gramsci did not disavow Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia. If you have an opportunity to violently seize control of a country, he wrote, do it. But most modern bourgeois democracies are more stable than Tsarist Russia was. So you must work overtime to create a Marxist culture. Get people to think and act in Marxian terms and the State, wrote Gramsci, will drop into your hands like ripened fruit.
Grove City College was, frankly, the last place in America I expected to see an example of what Gramsci wrote about. But it was nonetheless the case that by having these bright young Christians thinking about the marriage question in the other side’s categories, they had scored something of a Gramscian coup.
I am not suggesting that my student questioners were all liberal. Quite the contrary. But their persistence on this topic demonstrated what veteran CBS Newsman Roger Mudd meant when he told a college audience decades ago: “We in the mass media cannot tell you what to think; but we can tell you what to think about.”
What did Reagan think about this matter? I was tempted to quip: He didn’t think about it. Lucky guy. But thanks to my being pinned down by these polite but pressing students, I realized that President Reagan did indeed contend with this and other issues on the Left’s agenda for undermining America.
Ronald Reagan opposed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. He was the first Republican presidential nominee since 1928 to oppose the ERA. He had been listening to the legal arguments of the redoubtable Mrs. Phyllis Schlafly. She was leading a women’s movement to block ratification of the ERA. Mrs. Schlafly taught us all that the seemingly innocuous ERA, once it was a part of the U.S. Constitution, would mandate several alarming things: 1. Women could be drafted into the army and ordered to kill in combat; 2. Abortion-on-demand would be fully funded by the federal government; 3. Men would be able to “marry” men, and women to “marry” women, and probably this would also mean polygamy (multiple wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands) would be permitted.
So, why don’t we hear that Reagan opposed all those developments? Because Ronald Reagan was so genial, so firm but friendly, and so persuasive that he made his historic breach with 60 years of Republican nominees seem just a matter-of-fact.
No one was ever kinder or gentler in American politics.
Mike Deaver served Ronald Reagan for decades. He described him as seeming like a warm, comfortable feather pillow you just wanted to hug. But once you actually hugged him, you felt this iron bar within.
We need a leader who has that backbone of steel and that friendly and disarming manner. We cannot “finesse” the marriage issue. This matter goes to the core of nations and peoples. If we give up on marriage, we give up the future.
President Reagan knew that. That’s why he asked Gary Bauer to draft a report on the family in America. That report warned against taxes and regulations that could harm family life, to be sure, but it spoke eloquently to the need to maintain the historic Census definition of a family: A group of people united by blood, marriage, and adoption. Ronald Reagan and Gary Bauer knew what was at stake: That’s why they titled the report: The Family: America’s Future.
Robert Morrison is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council.