The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism, by Henry Olsen (Broadside Books, 338 pp., $27.99)
Ronald Reagan, who presided over the longest continuous period of peacetime economic growth in modern American history, was also, argues Henry Olsen, the most misunderstood of modern chief executives. Liberals and Democrats—categories that include most of the media—had a vested interest in depicting Reagan as the twin of Barry Goldwater. Olsen’s book is directed not at the media but at fellow conservatives, who sometimes make what he sees as the same mistake.
A senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, Olsen grew up as a young Republican in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley during the time that Reagan was governor of California. In his very readable new book The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism, Olsen argues that Reagan has long been misidentified as a Goldwater-like, libertarian conservative. That’s a mistake because, as Olsen demonstrates, Reagan always saw himself as a defender of what he calls “the public New Deal.”
Indelibly influenced by Franklin Roosevelt’s radio Fireside Chats, Reagan never renounced his youthful admiration of FDR. Government, preferably on the state or local level, should give people in need a hand up to help them pursue their dreams, he insisted throughout his career. He came to national political prominence with his televised speech, “A Time for Choosing,” delivered on Goldwater’s behalf shortly before the 1964 election. Reagan’s speech effectively linked the two Westerners as emblematic of the Sunbelt’s rising conservatism, but Reagan’s ideas, argues Olsen, differed from Goldwater’s: they were less libertarian, Olsen writes, “less doctrinaire, less abstract and less antigovernment,” and more willing to use federal power on behalf of both the deserving poor and the average American. His New Deal, explained Reagan, didn’t aim to change America’s ideals but to “bring [them] into effect.” Reagan’s notion of the New Deal as merely a “fulfillment of old and tested American ideals” is historically dubious, but it served him well among independents and the once-numerous tribe of blue-collar and conservative Catholic Democrats. “The young Reagan,” argues Olsen, “as much as the mature Reagan, was always on the side of the common man from every background.” Reagan’s assumption, as crystallized in what came to be called “the speech,” was that Americans, as Olsen puts it, could have “the economic and physical security they craved and the freedom they deserved.”
Olsen criticizes George Will for insisting that Reagan’s triumph in 1980 showed that Goldwater had won—“it just took 16 years to count the votes.” Will fails to appreciate that Goldwater lost in a landslide when he campaigned against the New Deal in 1964, while Reagan won in 1980 by running against the vast bureaucracy spawned by the Great Society. That bureaucracy, Reagan insisted in an argument that still resonates today, has only grown more intrusive, as it wrests political control from the people’s elected representatives.
An underlying theme of Olsen’s book is the continuity of Reagan’s principles, which evoked libertarian ire when Reagan proclaimed, while governor of California, “my views haven’t changed much since I was a Democrat.” That was an overstatement, but what was true is that the 1960s sent the Democratic Party on a leftward trajectory that eventually produced Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide, the emergence of the Reagan Democrats, and, most recently, Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016. Reagan repeatedly argued for core principles and against rigid ideology, observes Olsen, who sees the Gipper’s seemingly inconsistent decisions as governor and president in the context of his belief in the dignity of everyday Americans.
When Reagan ran for the White House in 1980 against feckless incumbent Jimmy Carter, the GOP was at its post-Great Depression nadir. Republicans held only 143 of 538 House seats, only 38 of 100 Senate seats, and just 12 of 50 governorships. Carter, who had to fight off a strong challenge on his left from Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, rued the “crisis of confidence” that had supposedly struck the land. For the first but not the last time in American history, the leaders of a major American political party had doubts about America’s traditional ideals and the virtues of its citizens. By contrast, Reagan asked: “How can we love our country and not love our countrymen?”
In 1980, promising to “make America great again”—sound familiar?—Reagan won the White House in a landslide, with 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. The GOP picked up 12 Senate seats to take control of the upper chamber for the first time since 1954, while adding 34 seats in the House. The GOP surged thanks to Reagan’s strong showing among working-class Democrats in the Midwest, which had become the “Rust Belt,” as the steel and coal industries were undermined by technological changes. With an eye on those Midwesterners, President Reagan would slap tariffs on Japanese imports.
President Carter had spoken of America’s “inordinate fear of Communism.” President Reagan, who revived the Cold War policies begun under FDR’s successor Harry Truman, had no inordinate fear of negotiating with the tottering Soviets under their youthful new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan’s diplomatic maneuvers, combined with his military buildup and proposed missile-defense system (derided as “Star Wars”), precipitated the Soviet collapse. (Ironically, it was the material demise of the Soviet Union that would allow socialist ideals to flourish among American college students of a subsequent generation.)
Concluding his book with an examination of the 2016 Republican primaries, Olsen deems Ted Cruz a new version of the unyielding, free-market ideology once associated with Barry Goldwater. By contrast, he sees the bumptious Trump as the heir to the Reagan spirit. Olsen’s conclusions will justifiably draw fire from Trump’s many conservative critics—but they should hold their fire until they’ve read this intriguing, sure-to-be controversial book.
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