The problem is more fundamental than one man. At the level of its political and intellectual leadership, the party isn’t on the same page as a big chunk of its voters.
If you listen to most Republican politicians or read sympathetic publications like National Review, you get a pretty clear sense of who they imagine they are.
They’re the party of small government. They worship entrepreneurs. They’re innately friendly to business, big and small. They like free trade. They believe in individual responsibility and self-reliance. They’re the party of “the makers, not the takers.”
Here’s the rub, though. Working-class whites don’t share all these perspectives. And working-class whites are a voter segment critically important to Republican success.
While it didn’t necessarily begin with Ronald Reagan, there’s no doubt but that Reagan’s ascendancy epitomized the Republican ability to tap into a voter category that had hitherto been reliably Democratic. The term Reagan Democrat wasn’t conjured out of thin air. Beginning with 1960s California and proceeding to the national stage, he had a capacity to attract working-class voters who tended to be out of reach for most conventional Republicans.
But having Reagan as your patron saint isn’t enough to guarantee sustainable political coherence. For one thing, his appeal was rooted in the circumstances of his era, not those of the 21st century. And there’s also the consideration that you may be misunderstanding him.
A new book makes precisely that latter point. In The Working Class Republican, Henry Olsen argues that both Democrats and Republicans miss an essential thing about Reagan. Contrary to what they think, he wasn’t merely a smoother version of former U.S. senator Barry Goldwater.
Although demonized or lionized as a tax-slashing advocate of small government, Olsen says Reagan was subtler than that. He was, the thesis goes, a New Deal conservative who never lost his youthful admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Referring to Reagan’s 1980 presidential win, columnist George Will famously wrote: “Goldwater won the election of 1964. It just took 16 years to count the votes.” Reagan, in other words, was just a far superior messenger.
To Olsen, this misses the point: “But in many crucial elements, the philosophy Reagan was selling was not the same one Goldwater was hawking. In its tolerance of federal and state governmental power to advance the ability of the average person to live with comfort, respect, and dignity, Reagan’s conservatism was far more activist – and far less opposed to the principles of the public New Deal – than was the Arizona senator’s.”
Olsen believes that this differentiates Reagan from modern Republicans like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz. It wasn’t that Reagan was a fan of big government – far from it – but rather that his philosophy didn’t rule out an activist social role in specific circumstances. Individualism certainly mattered but community also counted.
Olsen may or may not be right about Republicans misunderstanding their patron saint but there’s another – unrelated – sense in which they’re liable to misconstrue their position.
Rather than being a positive endorsement of their world view, much of the Republican electoral success may be down to rejection of the Democrats. Winning because you were less disliked than your opponent doesn’t put you on a secure footing.
Ted Van Dyk is a long-standing Democratic operative who believes that his party has become culturally disconnected from its traditional working-class base. Enamoured of political correctness, Democrats seem to “care more about transgender bathroom access than employment, the cost of living, education or public safety.”
When leaders like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama let their guards down about “deplorables” and those who “cling to guns and religion,” the dislike is obvious. They want working-class white votes but they hold those voters in contempt. And the voters notice.
Republicans came out of recent election cycles in an enviable position, holding all three federal levels and dominating the statehouses. But if you don’t understand the basis and the fragility of your own success, it can easily slip away.
Posturing is easy, governing is hard.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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