THE WORKING CLASS REPUBLICAN: RONALD REAGAN AND THE RETURN OF BLUE-COLLAR CONSERVATISM
By Henry Olsen
Broadside Books, $27.99, 348 pages
It’s the thesis of Henry Olsen, a thoughtful, widely-published and energetic conservative political activist, now a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, that Ronald Reagan, whom he deeply admires, was the heir not so much to Barry Goldwater’s conservatism but more to FDR’s New Deal.
It’s true that Ronald Reagan began his political career in Hollywood as a Democrat, albeit a Democrat who fought the pervasive Communist influence in the screen unions of the day. And he would also campaign enthusiastically for Harry Truman, who was opposed by Henry Wallace, FDR’s former vice president, and his Communist-tainted Progressive Party.
During those years, he admired much about FDR’s New Deal and the safety net he believed it provided to American working men and women. But then so did a majority of Americans — and if not in programmatic particulars, then in the sentiments that animated them.
In part, the appeal was generational. Like so many others born early in the 20th century, coming of age during the Depression, and fighting for the survival of our country during World War II, he felt a special allegiance to and faith in the government that had brought them through.
This was in no way to support, as did some of FDR’s advisers, transforming America “into a less individualistic and more socialistic country.” Rather, in the eyes of Ronald Reagan and many of his contemporaries, to vote for FDR and his New Deal was to renew America’s promise by emphasizing “the virtue and dignity of the average American,” and providing a hand-up, not a hand-out, to those in need.
And when Ronald Reagan finally decided that virtue and dignity had just become cliches for political speeches, that “Democrats no longer cared for the working person, but instead sought to perpetuate an ever-growing government for its own sake,” he left the party — or more accurately, as he put it, the party left him.
As Mr. Olsen points out, Ronald Reagan always made a “distinction between government help for the needy, which was good, and government direction of society, which was bad.” In his view, FDR’s New Deal represented the former, LBJ’s Great Society the latter.
Mr. Olsen quotes from President Reagan’s diary: “’[T]the press is dying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal. I remind them I voted for F.D.R 4 times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society.’ It was L.B.J.’s war on poverty that led to our present mess.’”
The nature of that opposition and the principles underlying it were clearly stated in 1965: “‘We too want to solve the problems of poverty and hunger, health and old age and unemployment. We can put a floor below which no American will be asked to live in degradation without erecting a ceiling over which no citizen can fly without being penalized for his initiative and his effort.’”
As was demonstrated in the Nixon/Agnew landslide of 1972, the great Reagan victories, and most recently the extraordinary victory of Donald Trump, FDR’s “forgotten Americans,” who like Ronald Reagan were abandoned by their party, are still there — diminished by demographic and workplace forces, but still there in sufficient numbers to carry national elections.
President Reagan, once asked about how to account for his popularity among America’s working people, reportedly answered, “Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves and that I’m one of them? I’ve never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them.” There’s no doubt that Donald Trump spoke to and for these “forgotten Americans,” and they responded with their votes. “The media,” writes Mr. Olsen, “said Trump was nasty, bigoted, misogynistic, rude, and a fascist. For his core voters, though, he was the only one who really cared.”
And beyond that, for Mr. Olsen, President Trump’s victory should offer Republicans what might be the last chance to build what Ronald Reagan had envisioned, “a new majority party, one that embraced every broad strain of conservative thought.”
Are Mr. Trump and his party up to the task? This strongly written, thoroughly researched and readable book may help to answer that question.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).
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