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Ronald Reagan’s version of conservatism was far more pro-government than was Barry Goldwater’s. Compassion, not liberty, was Reagan’s guide. This raises the question: To what extent is the success of modern political conservatism dependent upon the conservation of liberal, even progressive, reforms?…

The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism by Henry Olsen (345 pages, Harper Collins, 2017)

Just what is blue-collar conservatism? At base, Reagan biographer Henry Olsen defines it as acceptance and endorsement of what he calls the “public New Deal.” Therefore, it would seem that the “return” that Mr. Olsen has in mind constitutes a return to the era of FDR. Yes…. and no.

In this book, which is at once a biography of Ronald Reagan and an analysis/history of blue-collar conservatism, Mr. Olsen refuses to shy away from Reagan’s connection and attraction to Franklin Roosevelt, the presidential candidate for whom he voted all four times. At the same time, the “return” that Mr. Olsen seeks to revitalize is the original Republican message of Abraham Lincoln, as well as the expansion of that message by both a conservative Republican president by the name of William McKinley and a progressive Republican president by the name of Theodore Roosevelt.

Of course, the issues and the times have changed between the birth of the GOP in the mid-nineteenth century and today. But Mr. Olsen’s essential message is Lincoln’s message—and Reagan’s message, not to mention the messages of Republican presidents in between and beyond. And that message is that the party of Lincoln is the party of the common man (and today the party of the common woman as well).

There have been times when that message has been easier to sell than at other times. There have also been times when it has been downright difficult to sell. And there have been times when it has not sold well at all.

To be sure, the content of that message has evolved as well. A vote for Lincoln was not just a vote to restrict slavery, but a vote for free soil as well. A vote for McKinley was not just a vote to hike tariffs, but a vote to benefit wage workers across the board. And a vote for Theodore Roosevelt was not just a vote for bigger and cleaner government, but a vote to expand opportunity for the little guy as well.

Cases could be made for the Republican triumvirate of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover as well. After all, working-class folks voted for them in droves. But that decade did not end well for too many folks, working class or otherwise.

Enter FDR—and a twenty-one-year-old Ronald Reagan, who cast his first presidential vote for the Democratic governor of New York. Mr. Olsen spends little time on the New Deal itself, but he repeatedly invokes the “public New Deal” and Reagan’s refusal to repudiate it.

So just what is the “public New Deal?” At base, it is the notion that the federal government is responsible for providing a safety net for the truly needy, as well as a helping hand for those deserving it. Fair enough. Still, it’s all quite vague, not to mention unremarkable. What politician of any stripe opposes help for the truly needy?

The larger problem here is that Mr. Olsen seems intent on making Reagan out to be little more than a latter-day Eisenhower. That would be the same Dwight Eisenhower that a William F. Buckley rebelled against. And that would be the same Ronald Reagan that Buckley embraced. Was Buckley mistaken? Is Mr. Olsen?

Perhaps it’s possible to conclude that Mr. Olsen’s approach steers us somewhere in the direction of explaining working-class conservatism. But does it explain enough?

If there is an enduring symbol of the Public New Deal, it must be social security. That would be the very same system that Ike did not touch and that Ronnie sought to save, rather than reform. It would also be the same system that George W. Bush did attempt—and fail—to reform, not to mention that same system that Donald Trump has pledged to leave untouched.

Mr. Olsen sees President Trump as a logical successor to Reagan. Perhaps a sequel of sorts will be in order: “Donald Trump and the Resurgence of Blue-Collar Conservatism.” All of this raises an important question: To what extent is the success of modern political conservatism dependent upon the conservation of liberal, even progressive, reforms?

Mr. Olsen would have us believe that the Democrats began to take a wrong turn with Henry Wallace and the Progressive party of 1948. If so, not many Democrats took that path. He further asserts that the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson built upon and solidified that fateful plunge of two decades earlier. Here he has a stronger case. But how much stronger?

Mr. Olsen would also have us believe that there was a fundamental difference between the Ronald Reagan of 1964 and the Barry Goldwater of that same year. He dwells at some length of Reagan’s famous “A Time for Choosing” speech, which he delivered on television near of the 1964 campaign. It was this speech that prepared the way for former Democrat Ronald Reagan’s successful Republican political career. Delivered to endorse Goldwater, the speech did not mention the GOP standard-bearer “until the twelfth paragraph and then only in passing.” Mr. Olsen then proceeds to contend that Reagan also emphasized that his version of conservatism was far more pro-government than was Goldwater’s. Compassion, not liberty, was his guide.

Furthermore, Reagan and Goldwater differed on key priorities. Reagan favored cutting taxes first and then addressing spending cuts. Fearing deficit spending and inflation, a President Goldwater would reverse this sequence.

Mr. Olsen also focuses on an important philosophical difference between the two men. Goldwater’s conservatism “bore the stamp of a more traditional conservative belief,” namely that “America was great because it enabled the naturally great to rise.” Reagan, on the other hand, favored an America in which everyone could live according to “his or her choices.” Following Reagan’s lead, one could distinguish, as Reagan did, between “government efforts to lift up and those designed to pull down.”

While Mr. Olsen does not deny that blue-collar conservatism includes all three stools of conservatism, his emphasis is clearly on matters economic, as opposed to those stools concerned with foreign policy and social issues. That stipulated, he clearly aligns Reagan’s anti-communism with blue-collar conservatism. Nonetheless, given the book’s title, his priorities are understandable. Maybe it always is “the economy, stupid.”

If so, it’s hard to judge the Reagan eighties and the post-Reagan nineties as anything other than a success, with the end of the Cold War serving as a nice little bonus. What’s somewhat harder to judge is Mr. Olsen’s take on the state of contemporary conservatism.

Just how much government is too much government? And how much government is consistent with blue-collar conservatism? The Great Society was clearly a thrust leftward, but where are objections to Medicare? Medicaid is another matter, but even here reform proposals are minimal.

Republicans on the order of Paul Ryan see the red ink rising and seek serious reform. They see a constricted future and no doubt also see themselves as working-class Republicans. Donald Trump disagrees. Apparently, so does Henry Olsen. Would Ronald Reagan?

Who is right? Time will tell. But in the meantime, if Henry Olsen is right, a return to some pre-1932 version of America will likely be a conservatism without a significant blue-collar appeal.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Several terms are tossed about in this essay which need to be defined, especially when discussing how the thought of Reagan relates to that of Goldwater.

    I phrased it that way to emphasize my contention that Modern American Conservatism ™ has become hardened into an ideology with icons and holy texts as much as Communism did in the last Century. That this has happened is mainly (I think) a result of the bloviators and erstwhile talking heads on radio and TV, who live on outrage and peddle divisiveness along with golden trinkets. (calves, anyone?)

    Does “limited government” mean a minimalist ‘night watchman’ state, or one constitutionally limited in what it can do?

    Does a “robust” government mean one which meddles in the private affairs of citizens or one able to do what it needs to do?

    For that matter, what is the proper role of a government? To abide by some arbitrary set of abstractions (derived from whatever source, Left or Right) or to do what the people, its citizens, want it to do? Who decides? Pundits? Academics? Patricians? Commoners?

    The solutions which worked fine in a nation of less than ten million, mostly farmers, huddled on a narrow strip along the Atlantic seaboard with an entire continent before them are not those of a nation of 300 millions packed into asphalt and concrete cities. A people whose fastest transport is a horse, whose fastest communication is the mailman on foot will have different problems than one which deals in jet-lag, satellite TV, and pocket cell phones. An economy which has its food and clothing and implements made locally is far different from the one which combs the world for product. The principles, which are eternal, will surely apply, but the specific solutions will not, cannot, be the same.

    This is a needed discussion, as “conservatism” has hardened into a prescriptive ideology trapped in shibboleths. The discussion needs to happen since many have forgotten “conservatism” is an approach to necessary change which will enrich society and culture, not impoverish it. It is necessary because we (all of us) have forgotten the Permanent Things whilst pursuing narrow partisan political advantage.

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