In this excerpt of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, Henry Olsen argues that Reagan’s unique brand of conservatism was based on his interpretation of FDR’s New Deal principles, and how a better understanding of Reagan’s thought can revitalize the Republican Party today.
Imagine if Trump were to leave office, for whatever reason, tomorrow. Where would conservatism and the Republican Party be? Would voters across the broad potential Republican coalition have started to think of themselves as Republicans? Or would they view a Trump-less party as just what it was before, something that excited hard-core conservatives and business types but seemed cold and uncaring to others who would prefer not to vote for progressive Democrats?
Republicans and conservatives need to face some facts. We have been a minority party and movement in America for eighty-four years. We have won elections in that time, but never have we really taken hold of government and changed the debate in our direction for more than a couple of years at a time. In the end, it always seems that government remains big, it remains run by progressives or those espousing progressive values, and the only debates we influence are on the margin or about cost. Unless we change this, unless we change the very nature of the political debate, we will forever be little more than tax collectors for the liberal welfare state.
Ronald Reagan had a grander vision. He envisioned a new majority party, one that embraced every broad strain of conservative thought. It was a party that expressed and acted on the majority sentiments in the country, a majority that did not fall neatly on the left or the right. It was a party that embraced freedom without forgetting human dignity. It was a party that praised initiative without denigrating the average. It was a party that called all to its banner regardless of creed, gender, or race, but did not treat everyone as merely an individual without a family, a community, or a nation to call home. It was a party that had a robust view of what American self-government entailed without placing government at the center of American life.
It was a party that interpreted rather than opposed the New Deal.
But doesn’t everyone today pay homage to the New Deal, pledging to retain its core elements like Social Security? At a surface level that is true: all but the most vocal libertarians or constitutionalists will say they want to retain the New Deal. But that commitment is for many only skin deep, and their underlying passive opposition comes through in what they say and, more important, what they do not say.
Reagan never had a problem saying that he believed it was society’s obligation to take care of its weaker members. He did not have a problem saying that free trade works both ways, and that government should step in to protect American jobs when unfair competition threatened. He did not have a problem saying that no one should be denied needed medical care because of a lack of funds, and that government had a role in helping those people out.
He did not have a problem saying those things, because in his heart he loved the average American. America was not great for him because it enabled great men to rise, although he admired men and women who showed ingenuity and initiative. America was great because it provided a home to let all people live free and dignified lives.
In his youth, tutored by his parents and his times, he found the answer to those beliefs in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Government intervention and action seemed to be what Roosevelt told Americans it was, new means to implement old, traditional American values. In the world that existed before the New Deal—where a man could be fired for joining a labor union, or be left penniless if he lost his job, because there was no unemployment insurance—it was surely easy for Reagan, as it was for many millions of others, to see the New Deal as restoring an individual’s freedom and dignity if he lacked bargaining power with his employer. When that era’s conservatives said the world’s problems were none of our concern even as Nazi Germany marched and Imperial Japan sailed to wage wars of conquest, it was easy to see Roosevelt’s Democrats as both the voice and the arsenal of democracy.
If the Democratic Party had stopped there, Reagan probably would have remained a Democrat all his life. But it did not, because there was an undercurrent to Roosevelt’s New Deal that did not simply seek to restore America but to transform it.
Starting with Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, some New Dealers believed America needed to be transformed, its individualist culture tamed to march to the beat of a centralized plan. Those who wanted a planned society also found it difficult to find communism as horrific or as threatening as did Reagan. For if America itself is something to be replaced, how can a regime whose central tenet was that America was inherently immoral be something to be loathed?
But as the Democratic Party left Reagan, he did not leave his core beliefs behind. His new conservatism did not pine for the days when men were men and employers could treat workers like beasts. He was against losing freedom by installments; he was against the rule of the many by the self-appointed few no matter what form that rule took. But he was also for human dignity. He was also for treating human beings with the respect they deserved and for giving each and every one of them a real fighting chance to live a decent life. He was for using government, when necessary, to accomplish these goals.
Barry Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative that “the Conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?” But Ronald Reagan could tell Americans in his famous speech endorsing Barry Goldwater that conservatives were for Social Security, even though that curtailed the freedom of a person to, as Goldwater wrote, “be free throughout their lives to spend their earnings as they see fit.” He could say that conservatives were for telling senior citizens that no one should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds, even though that takes money “from fellow citizens who may have different ideas about their social obligations,” against Goldwater’s beliefs.
In short, Reagan was against returning to the America before the New Deal. He was for interpreting Roosevelt’s legacy in a way that maximized freedom and minimized bureaucratic control and the direction of Americans’ lives.
Reagan could be for these things because he was for addressing “the realities of everyday life,” not simply implementing an abstract theory. Can today’s Republicans, especially those who proclaim his name the loudest, say the same?
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how to address, consistent with conservative principles, the electoral challenges facing modern American conservatism. This is the subject of his new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, out now from Broadside Books.