After the Wave

Published January 10, 2011

National Affairs

Conservative Republicans are rightfully giddy about the results of the midterm elections. The enormous Republican wave washed away hundreds of Democrats at all levels of government, giving Republicans their highest number of seats in the House of Representatives since 1946, and their largest number of state legislators since 1928. More important, the currents that caused the wave clearly work to Republicans’ benefit: Voters were expressing widespread opposition to the liberal direction in which President Obama and the Democratic Congress have taken the country. This has led many conservatives to argue that, on November 2, 2010, America returned to its normal equilibrium as a “center-right country” — one in which conservatism is the natural inclination and in which Republicans are the natural governing party.

This view is supported by considerable evidence. And yet it fails somehow to account for the continued difficulties that Republicans (at all levels of government) have had after past wave elections — principally, difficulties in implementing small-government agendas and in establishing lasting electoral majorities.

So what, exactly, causes the divide between the polling and the politics? A closer look at modern American political history yields an alternative, more complex reading of what voters are trying to tell us. It suggests that wave elections like the one of 2010 are not necessarily evidence of a pro-conservative majority, but rather of an anti-liberal one. It suggests that white working-class voters — the decisive component of wave-year electoral majorities — have a more nuanced view than the Republican base of what a commitment to freedom means in practice. Finally, it suggests that the same voters who are repelled by modern liberals are also leery of modern conservatives — because while these voters oppose rapid expansions of the welfare state and federal power, they do not favor rapid retrenchments of them, either.

This poses a political problem for any Republican coalition. If that coalition tries to rapidly reverse many liberal policies, particularly those serving the working and middle classes, it risks a political backlash. If, on the other hand, it merely presides over a continuation of these policies, it risks failing to offer voters any clear distinction between Republicans and Democrats. As conservatives have said for decades, if voters are given a choice between a real Democrat and a fake Democrat, they will choose the real Democrat every time.

This tension between the Republican base and the white working class has surfaced again and again when Republicans have risen to power in America. This time, though, the need to resolve that tension is especially urgent. Politically, the white working class is looking for a home. It does not currently hold a high opinion of Republicans, and if it feels spurned now, it will return to its Democratic roots (or perhaps turn to a third-party populist candidate). Such a move would destroy whatever hopes Republicans have of reversing the recent gains of liberal policymakers. Over the long term, the white working class will become only more important to Republicans — largely owing to the rising strength of loyal Democratic constituencies like secular elites and ethnic minorities. Unless Republicans reverse their low standing with these groups in the very near future, they will need to win 60% or more of the white vote in order to eke out a bare majority by 2016. They can do this only by sustaining the record margins they compiled this year among working-class whites.

Policy concerns compel a resolution, too. The primary policy challenge we face today is reforming our welfare state so that we can keep the promises we have made to ourselves and future generations, while also averting fiscal ruin. Liberals’ solution to this challenge is to dramatically hike taxes while ducking difficult changes to entitlement programs. Conservatives, on the other hand, seek to bring our entitlements into line with their (more limited) view of what welfare programs should encompass and what tax burden the public should be made to bear. But such reforms will inevitably be difficult — and if conservatives are to have any hope of achieving them, they will need the support of white working-class voters.

If resolving these tensions meant throwing away conservative principles, it would not be worth trying. Conservatives believe in freedom and in traditional values for a reason; these are the foundations of our American heritage, and the sources of our strength. Short-term political gain ought never to trump a devotion to principle — not least because that course always leads to both national and political ruin. Fortunately, however, addressing conservatives’ political and policy concerns will require no such abdication. Indeed, it is only by consistently articulating (and applying) the same convictions that have led to past conservative policy successes — like the welfare reforms of the 1990s, for instance — that conservatives can win over the white working class, shore up their political gains, and tackle the enormous policy problems now plaguing our nation.


The popular conservative notion that America is a center-right country with a clear conservative majority rests on both poll data and election results. For decades, polls have shown that self-described conservatives substantially outnumber liberals — and the 2010 exit poll was no exception. It showed the conservative ranks to be larger than the liberals’ by a margin of 41% to 20%, with 39% of voters claiming to be moderates. Admittedly, this exit polling might over-represent conservatives, insofar as pre-election polls showed conservatives were more likely to vote because of their anger about the country’s direction (thus skewing the exit poll’s participant pool). Still, the results were consistent with the June 2010 Gallup poll of all registered voters, which showed conservatives outnumbered liberals by 41% to 22%. Indeed, similar results have been the norm for decades: These data have remained essentially unchanged since at least the mid-1970s.

Advocates of the center-right-nation thesis also point to polling data that regularly show Americans prefer smaller government that does less over larger government that does more. For decades, such questions revealed a roughly 5-3 split in favor of the small-government position. Shortly after President Obama’s inauguration, the NBC/Wall Street Journal and CBS/New York Times polls each showed a small majority in favor of the larger-government position — 51% to 41% in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and 51% to 40% in the CBS/New York Times poll — leading some observers to question whether Americans had changed their minds. But this newfound support for larger government quickly faded. Within a few months, polls again showed a majority in favor of the smaller-government position, and the 2010 exit poll showed the smaller-government position favored by a margin of 56% to 38%.

The center-right-majority thesis is also backed up by election returns, particularly at the presidential level. Republicans have won the White House in five of eight elections since 1980, and two of their losses were to Bill Clinton, who voiced many conservative views and themes. For many years, Republicans lagged at the congressional and state-legislature levels, but by 1994 they had broken through. For the rest of the decade preceding the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, Republicans held narrow but consistent majorities in the House and (with a very brief exception just before the 2002 election) the Senate — the first time they had done so since before the Great Depression. They also held state-level legislative majorities that were larger, and lasted longer, than Republican majorities at any time since the Supreme Court’s one-person, one-vote decisions changed the way state legislative districts were apportioned in the mid-1960s.

This compelling information clearly suggests the existence of an anti-liberal majority in America. But does it really point to a pro-conservative one? One problem that arises in addressing this question is that, in using poll data to show that the answer is yes, conservatives too easily assume that respondents understand terms like “conservative,” “moderate,” and “liberal” the same way they do. It is not a crazy assumption, of course, but it may simply not be true.

Consider the June 2010 Princeton Survey Research Associates/Pew poll, which included the standard questions asking voters to name their party affiliations and to place themselves on the ideological spectrum. This poll, however, also asked where voters placed the political parties on the ideological spectrum. Combining the answers to these questions yields a fascinating picture: It shows that people’s understanding of their own political views and those of the Democratic Party vary substantially based on partisan affiliation. According to the Pew data, Republicans viewed themselves as falling somewhere between moderate and conservative, but viewed Democrats as being between liberal and very liberal. Independents viewed themselves as being very slightly right of center, but considered the Democratic Party to be a center-left party, closer to liberal than to moderate. Democrats, however, viewed themselves as being only slightly to the left of center; they saw the ideological orientation of their party, meanwhile, as nearly identical to their own.

In other words, a very large portion of the people who tell pollsters they are “moderates” are in fact loyal, partisan Democrats who view their own party as representing moderate views. These voters are clearly not open to persuasion by the right or center-right, and they constitute a hidden “liberal” component of the electorate that traditional poll questions tend to overlook.

The existence of this hidden liberal bloc makes election results below the presidential level, and at the presidential level since 1992, more comprehensible. If there were a consistent, strong conservative majority in America, one would expect to see the more conservative party win frequently and decisively. But this has not happened. Since 1992, Democrats have won three of the five presidential elections (and they carried the popular vote in a fourth, in 2000). Even John Kerry’s loss in 2004 was narrow, as he received about 48% of the vote. Congressional majorities after 1994 were generally slim, with the Republicans effectively losing their Senate majority in 2000 and dropping to a mere 221-214 margin in the House before recovering slightly in 2002 and 2004. Such close results are more consistent with a nation that is ideologically balanced than with one that is tilted decisively toward the right.

Still another way to examine America’s ideological alignment is to look at the public’s response to the behavior of Republican majorities. The 1995 attempt at cutting spending by shutting down the government has been widely interpreted as a failure, because it lacked public support. In the decade after, state-level spending — even by Republican governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures — increased dramatically; the same trend emerged in Washington after the election of President George W. Bush. This sharp spending increase of course rankled conservatives — but it is not clear that it was opposed by genuine moderates and independents, so long as the deficit stayed under control (thanks to the growing economy) and taxes remained fairly low.

The supposed public support for small government, too, demands re-analysis. The same polls that show a clear preference for small government also show robust support for the largest big-government programs, Social Security and Medicare. Other polls show strong voter support for public-education spending. Indeed, this preference is often borne out in the results of referenda in conservative-leaning states, in which voters choose to break state spending limits to preserve public-education spending (as in Colorado in 2005) or to increase spending dramatically to bring down public-school class sizes (as in Florida in 2002, which had no spending limit to break, but where voters approved a large spending increase). It seems, then, that voters may hate the house of government, but love the bricks used to build it.


The notion that American political attitudes are more balanced than they might initially appear is also backed up by the evidence of prior Republican wave elections. Though these other waves might not have been as large as the 2010 sweep, they were not fundamentally different in character.

Democrats have held the presidency and Congress with filibuster-proof (or very nearly filibuster-proof) margins only four times since 1960 — after the elections of 1964, 1976, 1992, and 2008. Following each of those victories, Democrats sought vast expansions of government — through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the Clintons’ attempt to implement “HillaryCare,” and the agenda of Barack Obama. In each case, voters swung dramatically toward the Republicans within four years of having handed government to the Democrats. Indeed, sudden, sharp swings approaching the scope of the 2010 wave have occurred only three other times since the end of World War II, in 1966, 1980, and 1994. And in each case, the demographic group that swung most fiercely away from the Democrats was whites without a college degree — that is, the white working class. Those who wish to interpret what happened this year — and what it means for the future — would therefore be wise to study the causes of these prior Republican victories, as well as what happened in their aftermaths.

In each of the three Republican wave elections prior to this latest one, enormous victory was not followed upon by a period of unquestioned political dominance. Richard Nixon won the presidency narrowly in 1968, but Democrats still held Congress. Even Nixon’s 1972 landslide win over liberal Democrat George McGovern was accompanied by only moderate congressional gains. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory gave Republicans control of the Senate for the first time since 1954, but most of the gains in the House were lost in 1982. Even a huge presidential landslide in 1984 failed to produce significant Republican congressional gains. And the GOP lost control of the Senate when the class of 1980 came up for re-election in 1986.

The victory of 1994 proved somewhat more lasting and extensive, but even in that case, the political landscape was not what one would have expected were the American electorate really of a center-right bent. The Republicans failed to recover the presidency in 1996, as they had after the previous two wave elections. Furthermore, the GOP lost seats in each of the subsequent three House elections and briefly lost their Senate majority in 2000 when the class of 1994 came up for re-election (Republicans retained operational control in a 50-50 chamber because Vice President Dick Cheney cast the deciding vote).

The recurring difficulties Republicans have had in turning wave elections into lasting majorities cannot be easily dismissed; they have not been caused primarily by the quirks of particular leaders, or the circumstances of the times. Instead, they are directly tied to the values and policy preferences of the group that, for more than a century, has been the fulcrum of American politics: the white working class.

Although they are a shrinking share of the electorate, white working-class voters remain a kind of bellwether constituency in American politics — as they have been since the end of the 19th century. Northern working-class voters formed the base of the McKinley-era Republican coalition, which dominated American politics from 1896 to 1932, and Northern and Southern working-class whites backed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, which dominated between 1932 and 1966. The modern chapter of American political history began, in a sense, when these voters became unmoored from the Democratic Party and began to oscillate between left and right. Major Republican successes at the ballot box since the 1960s have all involved major rightward swings by this group of voters; the Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats, NASCAR dads — each declared responsible for one of the prior GOP waves — were merely euphemisms for the white working class.

The 2010 swing was no different. For all the talk of the Tea Party, the sheer magnitude of the congressional victory was caused by a record-high 29-point Republican edge among whites without a college degree. This bested any previous GOP margin among this group in a presidential election, and was dramatically better than prior Republican margins in congressional elections.

Nevertheless, the white working class remains uncertain in its political allegiances. Throughout most of the modern period, Southern working-class whites have split their tickets, voting Republican for president and Democratic for Congress. This trend diminished somewhat over the past 20 years, but still persisted until the 2010 election, when white Democrats representing rural, white, working-class districts were obliterated. Northern white working-class voters have been less supportive of Republican presidential candidates through the years, but even when they have voted Republican in presidential races, they have often supported Democrats for Congress. In the past 30 years, their two favorite politicians have been Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Why do these voters oscillate between the two parties? What do white working-class voters want? Patrick Muttart, a pollster and strategist who once served as Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, is perhaps the leading authority on working-class voters in the English-speaking world. He notes that America’s experience is not unique: Australia’s and Britain’s transformative conservative leaders — John Howard and Margaret Thatcher — also relied on the votes of working-class former Labor Party supporters for their historic majorities. And their experiences can teach us a lot about American working-class voters. Muttart’s research tells him that working-class voters do not fit neatly into the left-right divide that characterizes debates between party elites: These voters favor low taxes and balanced budgets, but support government welfare-state programs like public education and state-sponsored retirement benefits. They are economically populist, and suspicious of free trade and high finance. They are culturally orthodox but morally moderate, meaning that, while they often hold conservative views regarding social issues, they do not think that debates about social issues will affect their own lives very much. They are patriotic and supportive of the military, but are as suspicious of “big military” as they are of “big government” and “big business.”

This last point, the fear of “big” anything, gets to the heart of the working-class identity. Working-class voters are very aware of their position in national economic and social life. Muttart notes that they do not aspire to be “Type A business owners”; they want to spend time with their families, go to work, and do what is asked of them. They value structure and stability. They are hopeful for their economic future, but fearful it could all be lost. They value programs that can protect them against losing everything they have, and also those that can help their children achieve more than they ever had.

They also crave respect. In the 1930s — when members of the working class were frequently laid off or forced to work in unhealthy settings — they felt business owners did not value them as human beings; they therefore turned to labor unions and government for help. Today, the working class continues to fear that management does not respect them. But they believe that intellectuals, public elites, and government bureaucrats disdain them and their aspirations, too.

The working class’s ambiguous political status becomes easier to understand once we compare these beliefs and views to those of the two party bases. White working-class voters do not like modern liberal Democrats, whose tax-and-spend policies hamper their ability to prosper. Indeed, polls of American white working-class voters show that, by nearly a two-to-one margin, they believe in the free market and think more government intervention in the economy is not in their interest. They also think liberals show disrespect for their beliefs and priorities and focus on issues of more concern to educated elites — such as cap-and-trade — than on issues closer to the hearts of the working class.

But white working-class voters also have problems with what they take to be conservative ideas. They do not want to see entitlements and education cut for the sake of being cut; they do not believe these programs are inconsistent with modern American freedom. Nor do they trust that conservatives understand the working class’s precarious economic perch. They fear the consequences of an untrammeled market and wonder, as they have since the Great Depression, if conservatives really have their best interests at heart. To put it simply: Working-class voters believe in capitalism, but they also believe in the importance of a social safety net.

This presents conservative Republicans with a political dilemma. If they try to sharply reduce government spending, as congressional Republicans attempted to in 1995, they risk re-awakening working-class fears and sending these voters into the arms of the Democrats. If they merely seek to provide better administration for the existing set of government programs — as Richard Nixon did after 1968 — working-class voters might find no real difference between the parties and again swing back to the Democrats (provided they do not perceive the Democratic Party to be dominated by its liberal wing).

The best model for how to navigate these complex currents was President Ronald Reagan. Reagan attempted to rein in government spending, but did so in the name of economic recovery and growth that would benefit working-class voters. By and large, he left untouched the main programs of concern for the working class, even sanctioning tax hikes in 1983 to prevent Social Security’s bankruptcy. For pulling off this balancing act, Reagan was rewarded with immense political support from the white working class.

But his efforts did not translate immediately into an enduring partisan majority. Reagan’s campaign to reduce inflation was necessary, but it had the effect of ending the informal bailout of inefficient manufacturers in what is now called the Rust Belt — costing many Northern working-class voters their jobs. Republicans lost working-class seats in Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and coal-mining districts in West Virginia in 1982, for example. Though Reagan’s legacy for conservatism was decisively positive over the long term, in the short term, working-class voters hedged their bets by splitting their tickets. Their attitude toward conservatives was clear: trust, but verify.

The growing economy and more stable national fiscal footing of the 1980s gave Reagan the time to educate Americans about his brand of conservatism. His heirs do not have that luxury. Today, the rapid expansion of entitlement spending, the stagnant economy, and the looming debt crisis force modern conservatives to confront the size of the welfare state sooner rather than later. They cannot simply extend the lives of government entitlements by tinkering around the edges: These programs scream out for thorough structural overhaul. Yet these needed reforms will inevitably unsettle the GOP’s newly sizable share of the working class. How conservatives handle those concerns will determine whether the Republican Party can solve both its own political problems and the nation’s daunting fiscal dilemma.


Above all, conservatives need to persuade working-class voters that their efforts to reform key safety-net programs are intended not to shred those safety nets but, rather, to save them. Conservatives must demonstrate that, through their work to create more rational and sustainable versions of these programs, they aim to offer protections to people who are truly in need while also supporting a thriving free-market economy — a pre-requisite for any safety net capable of enduring over the long term.

Fortunately, in seeking to clear up the misperception that the right reflexively opposes the social safety net, conservatives have history on their side. Ronald Reagan regularly reaffirmed his commitment to this idea, and his example has been followed by virtually every conservative leader of note since. Most recently, Representative Paul Ryan’s proposal to rehabilitate federal budgeting — the “Roadmap for America’s Future” — maintains significant federal commitments to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Even that paragon of free-market thought, Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, endorsed in his 1944 classic The Road to Serfdom state organization of “a comprehensive system of social insurance” and government attempts to “combat general fluctuations of economic activity and the recurrent waves of large-scale unemployment which accompany them.” Moreover, he wrote, “there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody.”

Indeed, champions of democratic capitalism have long understood that some safety-net protections are essential if people are going to take the kinds of risks required for a free-market economy to flourish. In the 18th century, those who wished to make entrepreneurial investments risked losing much more than their money: The common law held individuals liable for the discharge of their debts, and permitted creditors to throw debtors into special “debtors prisons” if they could not repay. Such harsh penalties obviously discouraged risk-taking by both investors and entrepreneurs, so capitalism’s champions amended the common law to create safe havens for these individuals. Foremost among these protections were the corporation (which shields investors from liability) and bankruptcy (which allows debtors to pay creditors back in an orderly fashion without losing their freedom). Over time, other participants in the market economy — like farmers, industrial laborers, and general consumers — pursued safeguards of their own, and a system of rules and protections arose. It was a system of safety nets intended to protect and enable free enterprise, not to undermine or replace it.

But just because safety nets are an integral part of the modern economy does not mean that they are not fraught with peril. Those who seek a safety net can be tempted to demand protections so strong that they encourage people to drop out of active labor-force participation. Individuals can band together into special interests and manipulate the programs or rules to prevent healthy economic competition. The potential is always there for safety nets to be pulled so tight that they hamper economic vitality.

Many on the left and the right offer seductively easy answers to these problems. Some liberals see no harm that government cannot cure. For every subjectively felt pain, they propose a program or a law designed to eliminate it without regard for economic or social cost. Soon, safety nets evolve into an anti-market regulatory state. Some libertarians take the opposite tack, seeing no harm that the government can ameliorate or cure. In this view, every subjectively felt pain is simply a market signal for the individual to process and act upon. Government interference would be a market distortion and an imposition on freedom, and hence an unacceptable social and economic cost. Thus safety nets are shunned altogether.

Conservatives are neither cheap liberals nor closeted libertarians. They follow Ronald Reagan in rejecting those “on the left or right…who would sacrifice principle to theory, those who worship only the god of political, social and economic abstractions, ignoring the realities of everyday life.” They understand that principled prudence is required to sort through the particulars that make up political action and to solve, as Hayek said, the “difficult question about the precise standard [of economic security] which should thus be assured.” Conservatives appreciate the desire of many citizens — especially working-class citizens — for some protections from the sharpest edges of the market. But they also know that these protections must not dull the market’s capacity to produce wealth, growth, and economic mobility.

Discerning the dividing line between reasonable, effective safety nets and wasteful anti-market statism is not always easy. To succeed, that discernment must be guided by some key principles that conservatives have articulated (and embraced) in several past reform efforts. These efforts have demonstrated that effective social programs involve a careful balance of individual liberty and traditional values — and that these programs must, above all, be judged by whether they actually help the people to whom they are directed.

The foremost example of conservative reform in recent decades was the welfare overhaul of the mid-1990s, which culminated in a dramatic restructuring of federal welfare programs in 1996. Throughout that process, conservatives voiced concern not so much about the cost or size of the welfare system, but rather about the ways in which it denied welfare recipients basic independence and wreaked havoc on the structure of poor families. Welfare reform could never have been enacted if most Americans had thought conservatives were motivated primarily by a desire to save money or by the belief that all welfare recipients were undeserving cheats. Instead, reformers showed the public how economic and moral ideals can work together to produce a sensible safety net for the poorest Americans.

A similar approach governed another great conservative policy reform: New York City’s policing revolution. Many observers saw the devastation of New York and other cities in the 1980s as proof that no large public entity could efficiently address crime. Purists on the left argued that government therefore needed to spend billions of dollars to attack the supposed root causes of crime: poverty, lack of jobs, and underfunded public schools. Purists on the right, meanwhile, argued that only by introducing market forces into policing — through extensive contracting and the use of private security forces — could order be restored. Rudy Giuliani, however, knew better. As mayor, he made a quintessentially conservative argument: that policing was a natural public function — a safety net against physical violence — and that police officers could succeed in their jobs if they focused on truly helping the people they were tasked with protecting (rather than on the supposed suffering of criminals or on the agitations of either the victims’-rights lobbies or the police unions). Giuliani knew that, in the name of halting a vicious assault on New Yorkers’ quality of life — and of demonstrating that any victimization of the innocent would not be tolerated — police had to take even petty crimes seriously as violations of public order. The result was crime at five-decade lows and, in recent years, gradual reductions in the number of police officers and a shrinking police budget. In other words, New Yorkers got better policing and smaller government.

Virtually every welfare-state program or reform idea can be evaluated against the criteria that emerge from these examples. Does the program reinforce or undermine an individual’s freedom, independence, and ability to contribute to our society and economy? Does it support or weaken traditional social values proven over time to be the bedrocks of a successful, free nation? And, very simply, does it work as advertised? This way of thinking about our public problems — grounded in the real human experience of Americans pursuing good and decent lives for their families — offers the possibility of applying conservative principles to the challenges America now confronts. It also offers a chance to persuade voters — especially those working-class voters around whom our politics so often revolves — that conservatives understand their concerns and have real solutions for dealing with them. In the past, conservatives have too often taken power only to forget this important point. In 2011, that is an error they cannot afford to commit.


When Napoleon was overthrown, the Bourbons — heirs to the deposed Louis XVI — were restored to the throne. The French hoped their new rulers would learn from their ancestors’ mistakes and govern in accord with modern sensibilities. Instead, the royals quickly returned to their ancient habits. Concluding (as Talleyrand famously put it) that the Bourbons had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” the people revolted in 1830 — permanently removing the Bourbons from French political life.

Conservative Republicans rejoicing at their recent victory should keep this history in mind. They have not been restored to their natural ruling place by a grateful people: They have been turned to by an angry people who harbor as many doubts about conservatives as they do about liberals.

The impending fiscal crisis presents conservatives with a great test — and the 2010 elections have given conservatives an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of governing America in a manner consistent with the public’s values. If conservatives can show they understand that Americans want opportunity and stability, freedom and a safety net, then they can fix some of the country’s alarming policy problems — and, at the same time, cement their majority.

In short, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, the elections have given conservatives a majority, if they can keep it. Now they must show they are up to the task.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today