The Schism Between Reagan and the Modern GOP

Many self-appointed keepers of the Reagan flame are more ideological and uncompromising than the Gipper ever was.

If he were around today, a time-warped Ronald Reagan would probably be denounced as a RINO by Reaganites, especially if they’d read Henry Olsen’s new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism. Simply put, many self-appointed keepers of the Reagan flame are far more ideological and uncompromising than the 40th president ever was (an argument this magazine has long made—see “Reagan’s Liberal Legacy” by Joshua Green, January, 2003). Olsen seeks to set the historical record straight and use it as a lens for understanding life in Donald Trump’s America.

The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism by Henry Olsen.

Reagan is, of course, the central figure in the story of modern American conservatism. Yet the movement behind the man was just as important. The rebirth of conservatism in the U.S. is often traced to William Buckley’s founding of National Review in 1955. In the decades that followed, the magazine was, depending on one’s perspective, hailed or denounced for reviving an ideology that was on the verge of extinction. Just as importantly, it policed the boundaries of conservatism (purging extremist elements like the John Birch Society) while developing the ideas and policies that allowed the movement to reach beyond abstract intellectual discourse and establish a foothold in the realm of practical politics, taking root in the GOP.

By 1964, conservative Republicans were in open revolt against their party’s old guard and had gained enough strength to wrestle the presidential nomination away from the squishy moderates—epitomized by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The San Francisco convention that nominated Barry Goldwater is routinely seen as the moment that conservatives began their hostile takeover of the Republican Party. But while GOP delegates may have been ready for change, the country wasn’t, and Lyndon Johnson was reelected in one of the great landslides of American political history.

It took another 16 years before conservatives would finally claim the presidency. (In this telling, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford represented the moderates’ last hurrah.) But fittingly, it was Goldwater’s loyal protégé and ideological heir who finally succeeded in taking conservatism to the White House. And while the wait was long, for conservatives it was well worth it because that 1980 election ushered in a fundamental realignment of American politics in which a bloated government grounded in Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was to be transformed into an era of liberty, limited government, and individualism.

But, as Olsen convincingly demonstrates, there’s a big problem with this tale: Ronald Reagan saw himself as an intellectual descendant and modern-day champion of FDR’s New Deal. To be sure, Reagan bolted from the party he’d been devoted to as a young man and become a Republican. Yet, as he famously put it, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party; the Democratic party left me.” For Olsen, this was more than a clever rhetorical flourish. Reagan really did see himself as the legitimate heir to Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and the New Deal, properly understood. Moreover, he routinely spoke and governed in that mold.

Olsen argues that Reagan never signed on for the sharp-elbowed, libertarian-fueled brand of conservatism popularized by Goldwater. And at first glance, this reinterpretation strains credulity. After all, there’s good reason the two are often linked. Reagan launched his political career as a surrogate for the Goldwater campaign. “The Speech,” as it came to be known, gained national attention and is still looked to as a defining statement of Reagan’s philosophy.

Yet Olsen’s careful analysis of Reagan’s political thought demonstrates that while he endorsed Goldwater’s bid for the presidency, the philosophical distinctions between the two were significant. Three consistent key features of Reagan’s thinking, Olsen maintains, were evident at his political debut and would remain touchstones of his public philosophy until the end. At his core, Reagan was a believer in self-government (understood to encompass at a least a degree of communal obligation), defended public provisions for those in need, and sought to ensure a basic level of dignity for all Americans. Each of these guiding principles was at least partially out of step with conservative orthodoxy. They also were exactly the set of principles that spoke to the white working-class voters who had for decades constituted the Democratic base and who—in 1980 and 1984—became known as “Reagan Democrats.”

It is an understatement to note that this characterization of Reagan is inconsistent with his popular image on both the left and the right. One key takeaway from Olsen’s careful study of Reagan’s political thought is that time and distance can distort our memory of both heroes and villains. For Olsen, Reagan definitely falls into the hero category, a point made clear in a smattering of memoirish coming-of-age interludes featuring the author as a young GOP devotee growing up in Governor Reagan’s California and transitioning into adulthood as Reagan transitioned to Washington. It was only in recent years that Olsen—after years in the political trenches at leading conservative think tanks—came to recognize that the right’s ritualistic invocations of their hero misrepresent his record.

As compelling and convincing as Olsen’s account is, there are certainly limits to how revelatory these insights will prove to skeptics. A few examples will illuminate this broader point. Olsen, for instance, emphasizes Reagan’s repeated insistence that he supported providing government assistance to those who, “through no fault of their own,” needed it. Progressives are unlikely to swoon over this signal of compassion. That’s because many social policy experts regard the long history of distinguishing between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor—ostensibly to avoid rewarding bad behavior like promiscuity and drunkenness—as having led to and justified discrimination and injustice. From this perspective, Reagan’s eagerness to help the virtuous and deserving poor (in contrast, one infers, to poor people deemed as falling short of that rather subjective standard) hardly ranks as a humanitarian gesture. And in the age of Trump, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the worst impulses of the current president could be given cover under the guise of separating the deserving from the undeserving.

Also likely to fall into the unconvincing category for most liberals is Reagan’s distinction between the New Deal (good) and LBJ’s Great Society (bad). Olsen writes: “Reagan’s [1964] attack on [LBJ’s] Medicare shows this clearly…[and] was evidence that the Democrats who proposed these things were really using Harry Truman’s party to advance Henry Wallace’s agenda.” But none other than Truman himself would clearly have disagreed. Indeed, the signing ceremony for the Medicare bill—the lynchpin of the Great Society—was held at the Truman Library in Missouri with the former president beaming. Even if one is willing to grant that aspects of LBJ’s dream like the War on Poverty went beyond the New Deal formulation, the health programs for the elderly and the poor will strike many as entirely consistent. And that presents a serious complication for Reagan’s effort to distinguish between the admirable New Deal and the corrupt post-Truman Democratic Party.

For a book so attuned to the subtleties and nuances of Reagan’s major speeches, liberals will also likely wonder about Olsen’s silence regarding Reagan’s 1980 “states rights” speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site—16 years earlier—of a notorious triple murder of civil rights workers perpetrated by law enforcement officials. Olsen defends Reagan on the issue of race, noting several times the well-known and genuinely admirable story of Reagan sticking up for a college teammate denied service at a business because he was black. But nice as that may be, many are unlikely to forget Reagan’s Mississippi speech widely viewed by the left as a wink and a nod to racists and a key episode in the Republican Party’s morally deplorable “Southern Strategy.” The fact that the South is now solidly Republican only serves as a reminder of the GOP’s original sin and establishes that the party and the conservative movement cannot be properly understood outside of this racialized context, one in which Reagan—be it enthusiastically or reluctantly— was a willing player.

Yet even if liberals resist joining the legion of Reagan devotees, they’d be well served to recognize that his legacy is more complicated than is generally recognized and that the white working-class voters who propelled him to the presidency shouldn’t be entirely abandoned in pursuit of what, after last year, appears to be an elusive “Enduring Democratic Majority.” Simple partisan politics is part of the reason. The Ending Democratic Majority thesis was predicated on the party maintaining some viability with the white working class. This group may no longer need to constitute the Democratic base, but it still has to make a respectable showing. Thus, to the extent that Republicans can continue winning the support of this group at Trump-like levels, Democrats have a serious electoral challenge. But the other reason to reengage working class whites is because, as Olsen demonstrates, what they want isn’t nearly as incompatible with today’s Democratic Party as is often assumed. In fact, it fits well with the “New Democrat” agenda of Bill Clinton’s presidency—defending core social program like Medicare, Medicaid, and education while looking for opportunities to make government more efficient at the margins.

Whatever lessons the book may hold for Democrats, Olsen’s primary audience is his fellow Republicans. The basic takeaway message is to be less ideologically doctrinaire and more attuned to Reagan’s insistence on ensuring human dignity. For instance, perhaps the GOP should follow in Reagan’s footsteps and drop its apparent assumption that the necessary response to any governing situation—be it national or local; in times of economic recession or growth—is to cut taxes for the wealthy.

Yet whatever distance the Republican establishment has strayed from the real Reagan, many of Olsen’s lessons ultimately point to a GOP that looks more like the Trump coalition. It is beyond the scope of this book to grapple with the full range of implications of the 2016 election and the elevation of a demagogue to the White House. But one disturbing feature of 2016 is that the Republican nominee did reach out to the very voters Olsen points to and that they did in fact rally to his cause, despite or—one worries—because Trump appealed to the antithesis of the statesmanship embodied in the decent, ideas-based Ronald Reagan that Olsen celebrates.

Robert P. Saldin

Robert P. Saldin is a professor of Political Science at the University of Montana and the author of When Bad Policy Makes Good Politics (Oxford University Press, 2017).