Don’t Fence Me In A new book argues that Reagan made conservatism nimble.

The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism

By Henry Olsen (2017, Broadside Books) 345 pages including notes and index

     Henry Kissinger: This election [1976] is one of the most crucial ever.

Gerald Ford: Look at the alternatives. Reagan would be a disaster.

Henry Kissinger: He is incompetent.

—Conversation between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford, May 12, 1975[i]

 

The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism is an unabashed hagiographic exercise (Reagan “transcended left and right”) of the sort that will in part fuel the common liberal belief that there is an active conspiracy among conservatives—Henry Olsen is bred to the ideological bone, in this regard—to make Reagan as mythic a president as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a result, such an effort, in the eyes of many liberals and leftists, is bound to overesteem and overestimate Reagan’s accomplishments. For conservatives and for the GOP, he is the sole Republican president—not Eisenhower, certainly not Nixon, not Ford, not Bush pére or fils that gives post-World War II American politics, to borrow a quaint phrase, a useable conservative past, a useable conservative tradition in the art of persuasion and governance. This is no small thing. If Roosevelt gave us the apparatus and the justification for the welfare state; Reagan has given us, according to Olsen, not the anti-welfare state as many conservatives and libertarians have believed or hoped for, but rather the well-tempered welfare state, “an interpretation of Roosevelt,” as Olsen puts it, not a renunciation. Reagan was a “working class Republican,” “a New Deal Conservative,” to use Olsen’s descriptions. In some ways, if Olsen’s formulations are correct, Reagan did something as important as Roosevelt and even more difficult: he re-justified and re-articulated the New Deal in conservative terms, a considerable political feat. He did not acquiesce to the welfare state in a form of “me tooism” that would have resulted in his being completely dismissed by conservatives and libertarians alike as a sellout, an opportunist, a dimwit or all three; rather, he assumed it and took ownership of the welfare state. He was, in a complex and contradictory way, both a choice and an echo.

In some ways, if Olsen’s formulations are correct, Reagan did something as important as Roosevelt and even more difficult: he re-justified and re-articulated the New Deal in conservative terms, a considerable political feat.

Reagan gave us Reaganomics, which Olsen vehemently reminds us was not supply-side economics in his informative evaluation of former Reagan ombudsman David Stockman’s book, The Triumph of Politics (1986), although it was a combination of tax cuts and deregulation that resembled aspects of and recapitulated the claims of supply-side economics. It produced, supposedly, the longest peacetime economic boom in American history. Reagan also gave us the end of the Cold War and victory over the Soviet Union, which Olsen describes at some length, though not quite long or as compellingly or as persuasively as Ken Adleman in Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-eight Hours That Ended the Cold War (2014).[1]  Reagan was, whatever his shortcomings as an administrator or an especially incisive thinker (although he was a far more engaging and trenchant thinker than his critics acknowledge), a successful two-term president, winning two landslides over lackluster Democratic candidates, and whose presidency defined, even named, his era. He is today beloved by conservatives, embraced by Republicans without reservation, even grudgingly accorded a measure a respect by many liberals and intellectuals. He is, for admirers like Olsen or even measured critics like historian Sean Wilentz, the giant in whose shadow are all other post-war Republican presidents.

Eisenhower seemingly governed during a less turbulent and challenging time than Reagan and because he was less partisan, despite his huge electoral victories, was far less helpful to his party. He also never questioned the existence of the welfare state which made him unpalatable to movement conservatives in the 1950s. Nixon was far more unprincipled and insecure than Reagan which is why his presidency ended in such disgrace as to nearly wreck his party. Ford lacked vision, seemed at times inept, pardoned Nixon (a costly mistake), and never inspired his base.  Bush the first also admittedly lacked vision or at least the ability to articulate it and not only did not inspire his base but seemed to hold segments of it in contempt. Bush the son manipulated and inspired aspects of his base much better than his father but overplayed his evangelical Christian hand; he too seemed inept, imprudently opportunistic, and unable to deflect or redirect criticism well enough to withstand the growing discontent with his presidency. Trump? As Chinese premier Chou En-Lai responded to Henry Kissinger when Kissinger asked him about the long-term effects of the French Revolution: too soon to tell.[2]

It is obvious why Reagan is the only Republican president who gives both conservatives and the party a useable past. There is no doubt that Olsen believes all of this about Reagan and more. It is not a matter of whether he should but rather why he does.

In this Republican presidential muddle of capability, mediocrity, neurosis, intelligence, pathology, and tenacity, Reagan would seem the best of the litter if for no other reason than that his presidency worked better, first, strategically because of the coalition he put together to support it, the reinvention of the many of the basic elements of the Roosevelt coalition with the notable absence of African Americans, and, second,  symbolically as many Americans thought he seemed to be what a president should be, tough yet comforting, common yet dignified, approachable yet majestic, articulate yet plain-spoken, sincere yet appropriately performative, optimistic yet gimlet-eyed. It is obvious why he is the only Republican president who gives both conservatives and the party a useable past. There is no doubt that Olsen believes all of this about Reagan and more. It is not a matter of whether he should but rather why he does.

The thesis of Olsen’s book is that: 1) Reagan never abandoned his principles of his young adulthood as an ardent New Deal partisan and Roosevelt admirer, that Reagan was right when he claimed that the Democratic Party left him as it became increasingly more enamored of socialism and less committed to fighting communism aggressively. 2) “Reagan’s love of the average American knew no boundaries,” and this empathy with the ordinary as representing the true glory of the country made him see the welfare state as a right and a protection for the American masses against the greed of the classes. This made him attractive to blue collar voters in ways that conservative and libertarian candidates almost never are. Thus, he never, in any of speeches, which Olsen reviews comprehensively, sides with either Barry Goldwater or William F. Buckley as being opposed to the welfare state on principle. He expressed his unhappiness with the waste, bureaucracy, and inefficiency of government programs but did not oppose their existence. Olsen makes this point over and over again. Olsen calls Reagan “principled” as opposed to being an “ideologue,” the person relentlessly and uncompromisingly trying to fit the world into his or her theory of the world, an unwarranted trust in and devotion to abstraction, so Reagan believed. He never wanted to be fenced in by the strictures of an ideology.  3) Reagan’s conservatism, avoiding the ideological excesses of movement conservatives and libertarians who hated the welfare state for different but related reasons, has been misunderstood and misappropriated but it is the only form of conservatism that appeals to the hearts and imagination of working-class whites because it does not make an enemy of the idea of the government helping people.

The Working-Class Republican is thesis-ridden, repetitive, and does what any “Gospel According to … ” book does: it gives all the best lines to the Messiah-figure, in this case, Reagan. In this way, despite the informed and accurate contrasts Olsen makes between Goldwater and Reagan, a central part of the book, everyone who is not Reagan in the book feels a bit like a straw man or a mere foil. Thus, a sense of reductionism pervades the book and the reader is not given Reagan’s development in a more dynamic and deeper context of the various ideological and political conflicts in the worlds of conservatism and libertarianism. Reagan emerges as the hero of this tale without the reader understanding the complicated stakes involved in killing the dragons he had to slay or co-opting the dragons he felt he had to co-opt. In making the case for Reagan as it does, political virtue and political genius, unadorned, where Reagan is depicted as apparently completely un-nurtured and never legitimately challenged for his own weaknesses and contradictions, never afflicted by doubts, so utterly sui generis; this paean actually makes its subject less interesting and less vital because he is so unflawed.

Reagan was the major reactionary politician to rise from the white backlash of the 1960s and it was this tide that carried him to the White House. Much to his credit, he extended the Voting Rights Act and signed into law the Martin Luther King federal holiday while in office (although he did so reluctantly and only after he had to apologize to Coretta Scott King for saying uncharitable things about her husband). He challenged European communism in a way that helped bring down that system of tyranny, but his “Constructive Engagement” defense of the white regime in South Africa was appalling, as was his support of murderous right-wing, anti-communist regimes around the world. The Iran-Contra affair was horrendous; his attacks against public welfare were racialized and cynical, and blacks benefited little from his so-called economic boom. He also vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, the first president to veto a piece of civil rights legislation since the 19th century.  In fairness, he did propose an alternative bill. Congress overrode his veto. There was always something subtle and symbolic about Reagan that suggested he was the candidate of white grievance. I take Reagan at his word that he was not racist but I do not think he had much empathy of any sort with people of color. “For all my so-called powers of communication,” Reagan said, “I was never able to convince many black citizens of my commitment to their needs. They often mistook my belief in keeping government out [of] the average American’s life as a cover for doing nothing about racial injustice.” As biographer Iwan Morgan writes in Reagan: American Icon, “Why he should have been surprised that African Americans did not warm to him spoke volumes about his incapacity to understand their problems.”[3] Olsen’s sunny picture of Reagan never touches on any of this.

In making the case for Reagan as it does, political virtue and political genius, unadorned, where Reagan is depicted as apparently completely un-nurtured and never legitimately challenged for his own weaknesses and contradictions, never afflicted by doubts, so utterly sui generis; this paean actually makes its subject less interesting and less vital because he is so unflawed.

Reagan loved the New Deal, but as Olsen points out several times, he hated Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which, in some ways, was meant to expand, democratize, and un-racialize the New Deal. The distinction between the New Deal and the Great Society was crucial for Reagan and it should be equally crucial in our understanding of Reagan and his legacy. How fenced in Reagan was temperamentally and ideological remains a real and difficult question.

But Olsen is absolutely correct in concluding that the Republican Party and conservatives have not learned the right lessons from Reagan. But one clear lesson is that whatever he was, good and bad, Reagan is not repeatable. 

[i] Adam Clymer, Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right, (Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 2008), p. 16

[1]  There are books that, naturally, dissent, quite vigorously, from this view of what Reagan accomplished in his presidency including Haynes Johnson, Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years (1991), Will Bunch, Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future (2009), William Kleinknecht, The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America (2009), among others.

[2] Olsen, to the contrary, writes: “The election of Donald Trump has led many to conclude we are witnessing the de-Reaganization of the Republican Party. In fact, it is the opposite. The spirit that Trump awakened and the constituency that spirit attracted is essentially the same in each case as that Reagan communicated and attracted.  Trump’s election gives the conservative movement and the Republican Party its last, best hope to finally build Reagan’s New Republican Party and once again make America a shining city on the hill.”

[3] Iwan Morgan, Reagan: American Icon, (New York and London: I. B. Tauris and Company, 2016), p. 243

 

  • Jan Castro

    You’re such a keen observer and analyst. I don’t think this book addresses the darker hidden agendas that lie behind some Republican rhetoric.
    jan castro