Mainstream conservatives have co-opted Ronald Reagan’s image to stress their agreement with his commitment to free markets, low taxes, entitlement reform, and even amnesty. These policy preferences are an important aspect of Reagan’s legacy, but they are also only one chapter in Reagan’s story. It is no accident that parts of the Reagan story have been assiduously accentuated, while other aspects of his legacy have been thrown down the memory black hole.
Henry Olsen’s new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, seeks to change limited perception.
Like many conservatives, Olsen admits to having misunderstood Reagan: “I started my studies as one of those who thought… he was as antigovernment as I had been told. Years of carefully reading his speeches and writings, however, have convinced me I was wrong.”
A lifelong fan of Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan was telling audiences as late as 1988 that the party of FDR and Harry Truman had taken over the GOP. Olsen surmises that The Gipper always viewed himself as siding with FDR and Truman.
Olsen interrogates various theories to explain Reagan’s transformation from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican (his battle against Communists in Hollywood, the excessive taxes he paid as a movie star, the influence of his in-laws, etc.), but the evidence indicates that Reagan’s quip about how he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic party left him, is the fundamental truth.
Reagan might have fought against the excesses of big government that destroyed people’s dignity and self-respect, but Olsen quotes columnist George Will noting in 1980 that “Americans were indeed conservatives; with Reagan’s win, they had voted to conserve the New Deal.”
Olsen frequently cites Reagan’s observation that society had a responsibility to take care of those “who through no fault of their own” could not take care of themselves, and he quotes a 1968 letter from Reagan that says, “No one in this country should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds.”
And Olsen cites Reagan’s first inaugural address. Although conservatives like to cite the line about how “government is the problem,” you rarely hear other parts of the speech, like this one: “How can we love our country and not love our countrymen; and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they're sick, and provide opportunity to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?”
This topic wasn’t anything new. Reagan had been talking like this for decades. “In talk after talk,” writes Olsen—who dug up some old 1950s speeches from the Reagan Library that other historians have missed—Reagan “both inveighed against a government that regulated and taxed too much and endorsed the post-New Deal expansion of federal power that helped the poor and the common person live more comfortable lives.”
As I read this book, one thing bothered me. Although it’s fair to say that Reagan appealed to working-class Republicans, this book could just as easily be titled How Reagan Was More Moderate Than You Think. For example, as I’ve written in the past, Reagan raised taxes eleven times as president—and, as governor of California, Reagan deserves some credit for the invention of the electric car.
Although issues like the environment and abortion (as governor of California, Reagan signed a very liberal abortion law) aren’t obvious blue-collar issues, as Olsen explained to me, “The working-class voter is more moderate… the blue-collar worker that Reagan attracted and that Trump attracted does not like traditional Republican conservative philosophy… they like Social Security, they like Medicare, they like environmental protection.”
I might also add that the average working-class guy is not a religious zealot, either, which might explain why Donald Trump performed better than some of the more devout populists who sought the GOP nomination in the interregnum between Reagan and today.
Trump’s presidency, of course, looms large over this book. Both men were celebrities before becoming president, and both tapped into issues working-class Americans cared about like trade, manufacturing, and a distrust of elites. Olsen, however, points out that the two men have their differences. The Peggy Noonan book about Reagan, When Character Was King, hints at the first difference. Unlike Trump, Reagan had character. The second difference is that Reagan came to the presidency with a coherent worldview. “Trump has a lot of insights,” Olsen told me, “but he doesn’t have a developed philosophy.” (Listen to streaming audio of my conversation with Henry Olsen, and download the podcast on iTunes.)
So why is this side of the Reagan story just now being told? It’s really in nobody’s interest to do so. Olsen believes that modern-day conservatives “spoke his words, but they did not carry his tune.” In 2012, there was a lot of talk about entrepreneurs and “makers and takers.” That would have been foreign to Reagan, who heralded the “working men and women” like the waitress and the cop walking the beat. While championing Reagan, conservatives have also become more dogmatic—behavior that Reagan wouldn’t have endorsed. “Conservatism,” Reagan told the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1977, “is not a narrow ideology, nor is it the exclusive property of conservative activists.” In reading some of Reagan’s laments about ultraconservatives, I was reminded of Sen. Ted Cruz, of whom Olsen says: “Nobody quotes Reagan more—and understands him less.”
It would be a mistake to read this book and conclude that Ronald Reagan wasn’t a conservative. But it would also be a mistake to avoid this book and continue to view the greatest president of my lifetime as a two-dimensional icon. This is not a revisionist history slapped together by a Reagan-hater to undermine his legacy; Olsen’s mission is to tell, in the words of Paul Harvey, “the rest of the story.” What we are left with is a fuller understanding of America’s 40th president. Every conservative should go out and get this book.