Scalia with Reagan: An Iconic, but Fading, Photo

Many obituaries of Antonin Scalia were accompanied by a picture of the justice and Ronald Reagan standing together on the day of his nomination. And that photograph perfectly captures Scalia’s importance to the American polity. Scalia changed our jurisprudence as much as Reagan changed our politics.

In an essay at City Journal I explore some of the deep connections between these two iconic figures of the conservative movement:

The connections between the original meaning of the Constitution and Reagan’s political vision ran deep. The case for free markets and the case for constitutionally limited government flow from a similar view of human nature. At the time of the Framing, man was understood to be mostly self-interested. Yet the Framers were confident that institutions could harness individual self-interest for the greater good. Markets, for instance, transmuted that individual interest into a shared prosperity.

The Constitution did the same, pitting, in James Madison’s words, “ambition against ambition” in the political realm to make sure that the government was powerful enough to sustain contracts and defend property, but not so powerful as to become tyrannical and distort or suppress the market. The Constitution was thus a finely wrought Enlightenment device that harnessed the natural passions of man to preserve the social good. It also presupposed the capacity of men to bind themselves to a plan of governance that would do the harnessing.

But the age of this iconic photograph tells a less heartening story. We are 30 years from Scalia’s appointment, and Reagan’s first inauguration is separated from the coming one by 36 years—a shorter period than that between George Washington’s and Andrew Jackson’s administrations. The political world and its possible coalitions change a lot over a generation. Pining for another Reagan is like hoping for the return of Washington in Jacksonian America. We need another formula for bringing together a coalition for liberty.

Unless we elect a new political figure committed to the values encoded in the original Constitution, we are not likely to see any originalist like Scalia on the Court, let alone someone who is a crusader for the original Constitution. Originalism may well remain an important academic theory—far more important than it was when Scalia joined the Court—but it would no longer make the weather in the larger world.