A mildly successful actor who spent years researching and refining his political beliefs, he reached a new level of fame and success after beginning a career of frequent, thinly-veiled activist speeches on the dime of a major corporation. During a time of national upheaval, he decided to take the next step, launching a campaign for office predicated on disciplining young protestors and preserving states' rights to curtail progressive social progress.
Stripped of specific details, the political beginnings of Ronald Reagan and Stephen Colbert are remarkably interchangeable.
As the Comedy Central host enters his second week of "campaigning" for the Republican nomination for president in South Carolina, he's being dismissed by GOP activists as a nuisance and joker. And, of course, it's hard to argue their assessment, at least so far as Colbert's true conservative intentions are concerned; obviously, his stances are facetious, and he doesn't actually intend on winning office. But as the serious candidates make their plays to take on the mantle of and emulate Reagan, the man they dismiss as a joke is following their icon's political arc more closely than they are, both in parody and, if he wants it, perhaps true national impact.
Reagan's political activism began in earnest when he hit the road to make speeches on behalf of corporate interests such as the American Medical Association, on whose behalf he warned voters that Medicare would lead to socialism; in fact, he invented the term "socialized medicine." Colbert, for his part, has warned of the encroachment of socialism through government regulation on a near-nightly basis, including sketches vilifying an evil Karl Marx Santa Claus and slamming government-funded "Sesame Street."
Reagan would then move on to making speeches for General Electric, advocating pro-business policies with a homespun folksiness that would become his trademark. Following an era dominated by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, businesses began to control the national conversation, asserting a more robust corporate personhood that has become a flashpoint in today's post-Citizens United politics.
Colbert has used that decision to power his campaign, creating the Super PAC that is funding his new ads. The first ad he's running, in fact, addresses corporate personhood as it pertains to GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney's business history; sure, Colbert suggest Romney is a serial killer, but only because the candidate chopped up poor companies during his private equity days.
In "A Time For Choosing," the speech that he delivered at the 1964 Republican convention and would make him a political star, Reagan hit hard against the idea of a centralized government making decisions for the nation. Part of his neo-populist delivery was an attack on "a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital" who insisted, wrongly, that the world was "too complex" for "simple answers."
If that sounds familiar, in August of last year, Colbert playfully ranted against credit rating agencies as "unelected elites get to wave their Wall Street wand and tank our economy," and has, since the beginning of his show in 2005, advocated "truthiness," which values the appearance or feel of correctness over the actual truth provided by facts.
"I'm not a fan of facts. You see, the facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are," Colbert once said, summing up the state of political debate in this country.
After years building up a cult of personality and rabid supporter, Reagan decided to throw his hat in the ring for the governorship of California. It was a time of massive national unrest; racial tension was flaring, an unpopular war in Vietnam was growing and young people were protesting nationwide. Reagan promised to "send the welfare bums back to work" and break up the protests at University of California, Berkley, which was ground zero for youth activism. Colbert's character, for his part, is similarly against welfare, and has taken quite the opposition with the protestors of Occupy Wall Street.
Shortly after his election in California, Reagan floated the idea that he would be willing to run for president in 1968. Democrats were unhappy with their president, Lyndon Johnson, and Republicans were similarly unenthusiastic about their obvious front runner, Richard Nixon. Reagan was willing to be a compromise candidate, much as Colbert, by jokingly inserting himself into the GOP race of 2012, is doing for an electorate unhappy with Mitt Romney.
From his early activism up through his presidency, Reagan advocated his belief in states' rights, using his belief that the federal government should not regulate the actions of individual states to justify opposition to federal civil rights legislation.
"If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so," Reagan once said in his early days; years later, he played dog whistle politics by calling himself a proponent of states rights in his 1980 campaign launch in Philadelphia, Mississippi; and as President opposed Affirmative Action and threatened to veto an expansion of the Voting Rights act.
To get around accusations of bias, Reagan asserted that he himself was not racist; his policies, he said, were meant to help everyone. It would, indeed, be easy to envision him saying "I don't see race," which Colbert so often exclaims, winking at the ridiculous notion that one can profess a personal belief in defense of a policy that would specifically target a certain race.
To be sure, Colbert's conservative stances are all in jest, but the point is clear: if he can so accurately mock the guiding light and aspirational figure for today's GOP, what does that say about the relevancy of their causes and campaigns? And more pertinently, is he truly so dismissible? While his actual beliefs are, it would seem, the mirror images of those his character -- and Reagan -- espouse, he's on a near-identical trajectory, political career wise, if he does decide to enter into an electoral race as more than a media activist.