Today's Republicans have Ronald Reagan all wrong

Reagan was a true "working-class Republican" whose ideals were rooted in the New Deal, not against it

Published July 2, 2017 9:00AM (EDT)

Ronald Reagan   (Getty/Michael Evans)
Ronald Reagan (Getty/Michael Evans)

Excerpted from "The Working-Class Republican." Copyright © 2017 by Henry Olsen. Reprinted here with permission of Broadside, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

I grew up as a conservative Republican in Ronald Reagan’s California. To call me “die hard” would be understating my belief and commitment: I was the only volunteer in the Santa Clara County GOP HQ on August 9, 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned. Working my way up from a volunteer to a young political consultant to a candidate myself, I inhaled the standard California conservative belief in very low taxes, a minimum of government, and a maximum of personal freedom. And like all Californians of that age, I knew who our leader was: Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Leaving the Golden State in my midtwenties didn’t make me any less of a California conservative. I was part of the conservative Federalist Society while at law school and clerked for a former Reagan staffer on the U.S. circuit court. The candidate I helped elect to the Pennsylvania state House in 1994 was derided as an extreme right-winger. My postlaw career took me into the free-market think tank world, where for twenty years I held high executive posts in nationally known institutions. Ronald Reagan and limited government were as important to me in my forties as they were in my teens.

Barack Obama’s election and the Republican wipeouts of 2006 and 2008 were catastrophic events that shook me to the core. They should not have happened according to everything the conservative movement had been saying for decades. Republicans were increasingly becoming conservative, and increasingly winning more elections at all levels. Polls showed America remained a center-right nation where conservatives outnumbered liberals by about two to one. Yet this country had decisively elected the most liberal man ever to be nominated by a major party for president. How could this happen?

As dark as things looked in early 2009, I remembered they looked even darker in 1977 when Republicans held less than a third of the seats in the House of Representatives — and fewer than half of those Republicans were conservatives. Four years later, led by Reagan, conservatives had taken over the GOP and dethroned liberal Democrats from the political perch they had held for a generation. I resolved to look back to learn what Reagan did so that I could help today’s conservatives meet our rendezvous with destiny.

What I found shocked me. Everything I had been told about Reagan’s philosophy, by the Right and the Left, had been wrong. And I learned it was his own distinct and original philosophy, not his charisma or his pragmatism, that had allowed him to change his party, his country, and his world.

This book is the story of what I found. It is the story of a young New Dealer who moved to California and became a conservative, but never left his youthful admiration of Franklin Roosevelt behind. It is the story of a man whose conservative conversion did not lead him to abandon his belief that government—preferably state or local, but federal if necessary—should give people in need a hand up to help them pursue their dreams.

It is the story of a man who, while lionized by the Right and demonized by the Left, transcended left and right.

It is the story of the real Ronald Wilson Reagan—and how conservatives today could realize their dreams if only they knew who he was.

This story will revise what most people think about Reagan. It will lay to rest the claims that he sought to tear down the modern entitlement-welfare state in favor of a nineteenth-century “night watchman state” that protects peoples’ bodies while being indifferent to their souls. It will show that from the minute Reagan entered the political arena he rejected the idea shared by left and right that the major political question was purely over government power. It will show that while Reagan was suspicious of government power, he always believed that justice and fairness were more important measures of what government did than the simple fact that it did it.

In short, it will show that Reagan was a “working-class Republican”— and that this unique philosophy was the secret to his political success.

We will start our journey at the beginning, those youthful years when Reagan was what his older self called a “hemophiliac liberal.” His devotion to Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew no bounds; Reagan’s contemporaries remember him as hopelessly committed to the president who remade America and the Democratic Party. Our study will show, however, that his liberalism was not theoretical or ideological. Instead, it came from a deep love for the average individual and Reagan’s belief that every person was capable of leading a free and dignified life. His support for the New Deal, then, was based on the thought that Democratic policies were intended to enable people to live that free and dignified life—and that those policies worked.

Reagan’s belief came from many sources, but none of them were more important than the lessons he learned from his family and his early life experiences. We will learn that Reagan’s father was an Irish Catholic Democrat who preached tolerance, respect for hard work and country, and a belief in the nobility of the working person. His mother was neither Irish nor Catholic, but she shared her husband’s core political principles as well as his faith in the Democratic Party. Neither parent graduated from high school, much less attended college. Together with a hardscrabble upbringing—Reagan often said later in life that “we were poor, we just didn’t know it”—that included brushes with poverty, unemployment, and government relief, Reagan entered adulthood with a strong knowledge of what average, working Americans thought, felt, and faced in their daily lives.

These Americans also shared Reagan’s love of Roosevelt and faith in the New Deal. A large majority of the Americans who worked in factories, mines, and industry were European immigrants. While a large majority of the Irish had been Democrats since before the Civil War, most other immigrants had been progressive Republicans. They had backed the party that promised them prosperity—a “full dinner pail”—through high tariffs that favored industry. But within the GOP, these voters tended to prefer crusaders like Theodore Roosevelt, men who promised to break up big business cartels known as trusts, pass workplace safety and injury compensation laws, and generally back the average person when the big business owner seemed to get in the way of people’s ability to lead dignified and free lives. When the economy collapsed in 1929 and continued to sink throughout the presidency of Republican Herbert Hoover, these voters abandoned the GOP in droves and joined forces with the FDR-led Democrats. They would stay loyal to that party until, like Reagan, they came to believe that the Democratic Party had left them in the 1960s and 1970s.

These voters did not want socialism or significant changes to the American way of life. They wanted what the Republicans had promised and delivered for decades—a hand up that gave everyone a chance at dignity, comfort, and respect. Historians and professors argue even today about whether FDR and his staff really wanted to do this or if they secretly wanted to remake America into a less individualistic and more socialistic country. There were certainly those among Roosevelt’s coterie who did want to take the latter course—and they carried on their crusade within the Democratic Party for decades after his death. But what Roosevelt told the American people and what he sold them on was exactly what they wanted.

Understanding what I call the “public New Deal” is essential to understanding Reagan’s thought, his political journey, and the reason why he was politically successful. Roosevelt and his early heirs did not preach reliance on government or the virtues of an expert elite. Instead, they emphasized the virtue and dignity of the average American. They argued that these “forgotten men” could prosper with a government big enough to help them remove the obstacles in their path. To vote for Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s was not to vote to remake America, they argued, but to renew its eternal promise for all.

Reagan was faithful to the party of Roosevelt until the early 1950s. By then, however, he had begun to doubt that the party he had grown up in was still committed to the same ideals. He had learned firsthand in Hollywood that some of those on the left were in fact secret Communists dedicated to overthrowing the America he loved. His long acquaintance with intelligent and decent Republicans had shown him that one could be a moral person without sharing liberal politics. His brush with the extremely high marginal tax rates of that era, rates that reached as high as 94 percent when Reagan’s earning power was at its peak, left him cold. Finally he came to the conclusion that Democrats no longer cared for the working person, but instead sought to perpetuate an ever-growing government for its own sake.

He often said that he did not leave the Democratic Party, the party left him. That statement is usually considered to be mere political fluff, a ruse to disguise his own radical shift and make himself politically palatable to the voters who revered or held fond memories of FDR and the New Deal. Yet that view is both condescending and wrong. It assumes, as ideologues left and right do, that the essential political question then and now is the fact of the exercise of governmental power rather than its objective. A close reading of Reagan’s thought shows that he was always more concerned with what government sought to do than the fact that government was used to do it.

We shall see that Reagan’s increasingly political speeches on behalf of his employer in the mid-1950s, General Electric, focused on the power of the bureaucracy to tell people what to do, not on the cornerstone achievements or aspirations of the New Deal. He did not attack laws that favored labor unions in bargaining. He did not argue against the building of roads, the implicit subsidy of suburban housing provided by the FHA and the GI Bill, or the massive expansion of public universities pushed by New Deal devotees in the states. He never attacked the legitimacy or constitutionality of Social Security, and when subsidized medical care became an issue in the late 1950s he backed the Kerr-Mills Act, a bill that provided federal aid to the states to craft their own plans to support “medically needy” senior citizens.

Reagan’s preferences again matched those of working-class Americans. Like him, these men and women had voted for the Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Like him, these voters were increasingly willing to vote for other Republicans who promised to respect the New Deal’s achievements while maintaining America’s traditional values. Reagan’s political transformation was more thorough and complete than his compatriots, but it occurred at the same time and for the same reasons.

We can see all these trends clearly in the speech that made Ronald Reagan a shooting political star. Known officially as “A Time for Choosing” and delivered nationwide on television on October 27, 1964, this presentation—written solely by Reagan and based on his years of thought—set forth a unique brand of conservatism, distinct from that of the man whose candidacy Reagan was endorsing in that talk, Barry Goldwater. By comparing “the speech” with Goldwater’s bestselling book, "The Conscience of a Conservative," we shall see that Reagan’s conservatism was less doctrinaire, less abstract, and less antigovernment than was Goldwater’s. It was more tolerant of the use of government power, even federal government power, to help those in true need. It was, simply put, more rooted in the public New Deal consensus and less rooted in the hyperindividualistic creed that many of Goldwater’s backers worshipped.

Reagan’s interpretation of what the New Deal’s promises meant to 1960s America resonated with that coalition’s primary voting bloc, working-class whites. Upset at rising crime, rising taxes, and a seeming disrespect for simple American virtues, many of these men and women increasingly backed Republicans for statewide and national office. Republicans made significant gains in the 1966 midterm election as voters reacted negatively to Democratic president Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious expansion of federal government activity known as the Great Society.

Reagan was one of those newly elected Republicans, who entered political life with a massive million-vote victory over the incumbent Democratic governor of California, Pat Brown. Both during his campaign and for his first two years in office, Reagan sought to contrast his vision with LBJ’s by promoting what he called the “Creative Society.” Again, this vision, promoted when Reagan’s ideas were freshest, is quite different from Goldwater’s.

Reagan’s Creative Society envisioned a government that in many respects was not too different from that which FDR advocated in the public New Deal. Government would continue to have an important role in providing education, welfare, and other services. Permanent aid would be limited to those who were in genuine need “through no fault of their own,” but most of the important—and costly—New Deal and New Deal–inspired programs would remain substantially intact.

The Creative Society would break with the increasing pattern of relying on bureaucrats and government officials to determine how government should work and how society should respond to perceived problems. Reagan’s vision extolled the expertise of private citizens such as businesspersons and favored private-sector action to address social needs. Government in Reagan’s Creative Society would be limited in its aspirations, but energetic, efficient, and effective in its actions.

Reagan’s two terms as governor hewed mainly to this path. He reluctantly agreed to raise taxes by a record amount in 1967 to solve an inherited budget deficit, over the opposition of some of his allies whom he came to refer to as “ultraconservatives.” He reformed welfare to require able-bodied recipients to work, but also proudly increased the basic benefit for those who remained on the rolls; he called it “giving them a raise.” He tried to limit government growth, but never sought to undo the massive expansion of state government that had been initiated by his liberal predecessor. The “ultras” lost faith in Reagan early on because of this, but most conservatives approved.

All the while, Reagan continued to expound on the principle that had animated him all of his adult life, that government should help but never guide. This comes through clearly in a famous interview he gave in 1975 to a then-new libertarian journal, Reason. While many libertarians today repeat Reagan’s statement that “the heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” it is clear from the piece itself that Reagan himself meant something different by that term. Time and time again the interviewer sought to elicit statements from Reagan that government ought not to be involved in something—providing higher education and regulating drug safety, to name two—and just as persistently Reagan refused to echo those sentiments. Government action that responded to a legitimate need for self-protection or self- advancement was acceptable to the conservative Reagan as much as it had been acceptable to his younger, FDR-loving self so many years before.

Reagan had won his two terms as governor with a large measure of support from traditionally working-class Democrats. As these voters began to move away from other Republicans after their initial flirtation with the GOP in 1966, they remained loyal to Reagan. But while many 1966 winners went down to defeat in subsequent elections, Reagan won reelection by a handsome margin in 1970 and remained popular when he stepped down in 1974. The stage was set for him to launch a national campaign.

Most readers will know Reagan primarily from these later years, the time when he ran for president three times, winning twice. Despite liberal caricatures that he sought to undo the New Deal, Reagan ran for president on essentially the same platform on which he ran for governor. Government would be trimmed but not repealed; taxes would be cut but not slashed; programs or actions that helped the “truly needy” or assisted average Americans achieve their dreams would remain in place. Reagan’s two terms did much to halt the growth of a government- directed society, but they did little to undo the legacies of the public New Deal—because the man in charge never sought to do that.

We can best see evidence of that by looking at his most important speeches. This philosophy also came through in the one moment that more than any other propelled him to victory, the famous “there you go again” debate exchange with President Jimmy Carter. Carter tried, as so many opponents had tried before, to “Goldwaterize” Reagan by charging that he opposed Medicare. Reagan replied with the famous line, and then went on to explain that he had opposed Medicare originally because he thought another proposal (the Kerr-Mills Act) “would be better for the senior citizens and provide better care than the one that was finally passed. I was not opposing the principle of providing care for them.” Reagan’s clear belief that government should help the deserving live decent, dignified lives came through loud and clear. A race that polls had shown tied before that debate became a ten-point Reagan victory less than a week later.

Reagan’s victory was again dependent on votes from otherwise loyal, pro-New Deal working-class Democrats. This support was so strong that these voters not only elected Reagan, they also gave the Republican Party control of the Senate for the first time since 1954. While Democrats made a comeback in the late 1980s, these voters again rose up in opposition to modern liberalism in the 1990s when they revolted against Bill Clinton and Al Gore. The same coalition Reagan built starting in 1966 gave Republicans control of the House in 1994 for the first time in forty years and has made the GOP competitive in congressional and state-level elections ever since.

Reagan’s unique, New Deal–tinged conservatism dismayed many of his more doctrinaire contemporary antigovernment activists. Determined antigovernment types opposed Reagan in 1980, backing the Libertarian Party ticket of Ed Clark and David Koch (today better known as one of the famous Koch brothers). Other, more ideological conservatives rebelled or voiced frustration with Reagan throughout his presidency. More revealing was the ultimate disillusionment of his first director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman. Stockman penned a behind-the-scenes look at his time in the White House, a look that found Reagan wanting. He criticized Reagan for many things, but his strongest charge was that Reagan was not committed to the “revolution” to undo big government that many were waging in his name. We shall see that Stockman was wrong. As Reagan said many times, publicly and in his diaries, he never sought to “undo the New Deal.” He sought to undo only the Great Society, and even here that was true only insofar as the programs he targeted were excessively bureaucratic or inefficient.

If Reagan’s New Deal conservatism was so politically powerful, why do Republican presidential candidates lose so often today? The answer is simple: even as every candidate pledges allegiance to Reagan, none clearly conveys his or her genuine love for, and belief in, the average American in the way Ronald Reagan did.

Whether they are of the “establishment” variety (Paul Ryan, Rob Portman) or the Tea Party flavor (Ted Cruz), today’s conservatives fundamentally misunderstand Ronald Reagan’s legacy, because they remain unreconciled to the New Deal’s core principle: the primacy of human dignity sanctions government help for those who need it. Americans believe, and have believed for nearly a century, that a government committed to this allows all Americans to live lives of comfort, dignity, and respect, making the American promise of the pursuit of happiness real for all.

Ryan and Portman err by implicitly disregarding the primacy of human dignity when it comes to the economy. Their approach—cut taxes for the rich and cut entitlements for the rest of us—fails to treat the average American as worthy of recognition. Their view that America is great to the extent it frees the few (the entrepreneurs) to create a better life for the rest of us directly contradicts FDR’s and Reagan’s view of the relation between the people and the economy.

Cruz misunderstands Reagan differently. He views Reagan as someone who was essentially a libertarian, a person for whom freedom was the ultimate political value. As Reagan said once of liberals, “The problem is not that our liberal friends are ignorant; it’s that there’s so much they know that isn’t so.” Reagan loved human freedom and thought it essential to a good life, but he followed FDR in believing that government action was good when pure freedom would lead to some people living lives without dignity or hope.

Cruz’s faith in supply-side economics is central to his misunderstanding. This creed holds that low marginal tax rates on the wealthiest Americans is the most important engine for ensuring strong economic growth. Tax policy, then, should not be focused on lowering taxes on all working Americans; instead, it should be focused on lowering that top rate above all else. Indeed, David Stockman got into political hot water in 1981 by saying just that to a Washington Post reporter and claiming it was Reagan’s true agenda.

But, contrary to popular belief, Reagan was not a “supply-sider.” We shall see that Reagan never argued that fostering entrepreneurship and enacting low taxes on the rich were the primary reasons for his tax cuts; nor did he contend that freeing the rich was the best way to spur economic growth. He argued for a “humane economy,” one in which everyone’s taxes were lowered and one in which everyone’s contributions were valued. In doing this, Reagan easily avoided the classic Democratic Party charge that Republicans are the party of the rich and the boss. Today’s conservatives are sitting ducks for this charge.

Conservatives like these men and women fail to understand that conservative election victories since 1980 have not been rejections of the New Deal’s promises but rather representations of the public’s wish for their fulfillment. Correcting that error will give conservatives control of the moral high ground in American public life.

Many conservatives have argued that Donald Trump’s election, fueled as it was by blue-collar men and women from all backgrounds, is reminiscent of Reagan’s rise. Some contend that he is the new Reagan; others believe that Trump’s appeal to American greatness is a Reaganesque clarion call that will lead conservatism into a new century.

These people are wrong when it comes to Trump’s not-so-veiled racialism and white nationalism. Ronald Reagan was remarkably free of bigotry. He was raised by his parents to look beyond color or creed at a person’s worth, and he showed that he was his parents’ son time and time again. Reagan loved Americans from all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. He would no sooner think that an immigrant was any less of an American than he would think communism represented mankind’s future.

Trump’s backers are right, however, that some of their man’s appeal overlaps with Reagan’s. Trump’s primary appeal was that he would squarely place government on the side of the “forgotten American,” the man or woman whose job was lost because of foreign competition, whose life was jeopardized by a feckless fight against terrorism, and whose contributions and beliefs were scorned by America’s self-appointed best and brightest. Trump’s policies are in many cases the antithesis of Reagan’s, but the core thrust of his argument regarding government’s ultimate purpose bears poignant similarities to Reagan’s New Deal conservatism. It is thus no surprise that the sons and daughters of the Reagan Democrats, the grandchildren of Roosevelt’s voters, find Trump appealing.

The public believes with good reason that government delivers too little and costs too much. It believes with good reason that the academic, business, media, and political elites who govern us have stopped caring about whether their dreams and whims benefit anyone other than themselves. Recovering the real Reagan allows today’s conservatives to address those beliefs precisely because it allows us to interpret, modernize, and reapply the cardinal principle enshrined in the New Deal, that government has a limited but strong role to play in helping the average person achieve his or her dreams. Recovering the real Reagan will give conservatives the moral legitimacy to complete our sixty-year journey from the margins of American public life to its center. In so doing, we will finally realize our dream to make America the shining city on a hill that we have wanted for so long.

By Henry Olsen

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