Very sad news over the weekend of the passing of Jeff Bell, a truly original and important conservative thinker who first became well known in 1978 when he defeated the incumbent liberal Republican Senator Clifford Case in the primary election in New Jersey (going on to lose the general election that November to Bill Bradley). I didn’t know him especially well, but he was a big fan of my Reagan books, and frequently offered his public praise for them, which was deeply flattering, needless to say.
Bell was a top aide to Ronald Reagan during Reagan’s second term as governor in California, and in the course of doing research on Reagan for my book I came across numerous thoughtful memos from Bell to Gov. Reagan that clearly played a role in the unfolding of Reagan’s thinking in the mid-1970s and the runup to Reagan’s challenge to Gerald Ford in 1976. I recall one early memo in particular from around 1973 or 1974 in which Bell outlined why and how Reagan should criticize detente as it was unfolding under Nixon and Ford—a view later more widely adopted as the “neoconservatives” showed up with the same critique. Bell was also the author of what was considered one of Reagan’s larger political mistakes: his proposal in the 1976 campaign to cut the federal budget by $90 billion (at a time when the total budget was only around $300 billion or so) and return more responsibilities to the states. While critics pounced, Reagan stoutly defended the idea, which in retrospect looks better all the time given today’s runaway spending. (I tell this whole story in detail in chapter 10 of the first volume of The Age of Reagan.)
Bell could also be said to be the first person to anticipate the opening for Donald Trump—in fact as far back as 1992. In that year, which was soon to see the ignominious defeat of President George H.W. Bush at the hands of Bill Clinton, Bell published Populism and Elitism, in which he argued that Republican elites were growing increasingly out of touch with the grassroots, as the popularity of Ross Perot was showing. I reviewed the book at the time for Reason magazine, and noted:
Bell suggests that the real division between populism and elitism is not so much ideological class conflict but temperament: Populists have confidence in the people’s capacity to set social and political standards and make important decisions about how to run their lives, while elitists believe the people are incompetent to do so and wish to define the parameters of social and political life themselves. The elite, in other words, desire to be a de facto National Bureau of Standards and Practices. Hence, elitists exist across the political spectrum. . .
Bell’s book is important because his intended audience—the Republican leadership elite (one might call it the Busheoisie)—doesn’t have the first clue about most of his key themes. For a party and an administration of ambition without purpose, Bell provides a useful reality check. . .
It is astonishing that the party that won the last national election through an appeal to “values” does not have a better grasp of this. Although Republicans are adept at running on “values,” they fully appreciate neither Bell’s insight into the divide between elitism and populism nor the opportunity open to them were they to capitalize rightly on populism.
This isn’t to suggest that Bell buys into the simple “us vs. them” theme that Republicans seem to think they can exploit forever at four-year intervals. Bell understands that the liberal elites may succeed in undermining conservative populist sentiment over time through the relentless crusade to establish—wait for it—“moral relativism” as the preeminent principle in American society.
Also worth seeing the interview James Taranto did with Bell back in 2012 in the Wall Street Journal.