Political analyst Henry Olsen has written an iconoclastic portrait of a man conservatives thought they knew: Ronald Reagan. Olsen, a veteran of several conservative think tanks in Washington, D.C., is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who writes frequently for National Review. A stalwart of the GOP, he has a track record of highly accurate predictions of the outcomes of U.S. elections. In 2014 he coauthored (with Dante J. Scala) The Four Faces of the Republican Party: The Fight for the 2016 Presidential Nomination. His new book is his first as sole author. The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism closely examines the entire span of the 40th President’s speeches, correspondence, and other writings and finds a decidedly non-libertarian Ronald Reagan—the Reagan who modeled himself on Franklin Roosevelt and was not hostile to, but supportive of, the social safety net.
For our latest installment of Conversations, Law and Liberty Associate Editor Lauren Weiner put questions to Olsen about The Working Class Republican. Here is our Q and A.
Lauren Weiner: A phrase from President Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address is often invoked to summarize his philosophy: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Is this book an attempt to dislodge that phrase from people’s minds?
Henry Olsen: No. It is an attempt to understand Reagan as he understood himself, which was as someone who both loved liberty and supported many of the government innovations launched after the 1932 election.
LW: You write that Reagan’s politics were a “unique mix of New Deal liberalism and freedom-loving conservatism combined with his principled, non-ideological view of the world.” People were generally aware that his political beginnings were as a New Dealer and a labor leader (head of the Screen Actors’ Guild). All the same, does The Working Class Republican make a figure whom people thought they understood into a rather incoherent one?
HO: No. It makes something that was otherwise incoherent about Reagan—how he could raise taxes and increase spending as California’s Governor and as President of the United States, as well as approve of new regulatory bodies or actions, while condemning government action generally—completely coherent. My research explains how Reagan could do both things out of a coherent philosophy whereas other explanations rely on post hoc rationalizations such as his prudence, his sentimentality, or something else.
LW: The Democratic Party, to which Reagan belonged until 1962 (or at least he did not register as a Republican until that year), changed over time. This is part of the historical context that readers get from you: that by the early 1960s, Democrats had embraced social and economic planning. One might say the book presents the man who supposedly defines the modern Republican Party as, in essence, a pre-1960s Democrat. To what degree were the political views of Ronald Reagan sheer adjustment to the ever-leftward drift of American politics?
HO: Reagan always denied he changed his views much, and I think it is good to credit that as truth. He certainly changed his positions on many issues, which he freely acknowledged, but for him, those were to be distinguished from his underlying views. On those, I think he was amazingly consistent. I believe that had the Democratic Party not moved leftward on economic, defense, and, later in his career, on social issues, he likely would have remained a Democrat throughout his life. But it did, and hence he did not.
LW: You refer often to the difference between ideology and principle. Can you explain the difference in relation to Reagan the man and Reagan the politician?
HO: My book goes into that in detail in pages 152 through 158. Reagan himself made that the focus of his first major post-1976 political speech, given at the Conservative Political Action Conference, entitled “The New Republican Party.” In that speech, Reagan distinguished principle, on which that new party would be based, from ideology. He defined ideology as a “rigid, irrational clinging to abstract theory in the face of reality,” something that “chopped off and discarded [facts if they] don’t happen to fit the ideology.” He further noted that “ideological fanatics” are people “who would sacrifice principle to theory, those who worship only the god of political, social and economic abstractions, ignoring the realities of everyday life.” Reagan as a man and as a politician acted from principles, which meant he could change his specific views regarding how to act considering circumstances or new evidence.
LW: You write that “crucial to understanding Reagan’s thought” is the “distinction between government help for the needy, which was good, and government direction of society, which was bad.” What if in giving the needy more and more help, or in classifying more and more Americans as in need of assistance, government funds its efforts by imposing itself ever more heavily on (i.e. directing) the citizenry? In other words, is the distinction Reagan was trying to make really tenable in the end?
HO: Reagan believed that need was an objective concept and as such could be known and acted upon. His political life as a conservative was very consistent in defining the circumstances under which true need could be found, and in supporting action in those instances, while decrying efforts to expand assistance beyond those people. Reagan also distinguished between “help” and “payments.” Sometimes “help” meant deferring tuition for college students, something he proposed in an interview he gave with Reason magazine in July 1975. Sometimes it meant helping welfare recipients find work, or funding a real job rather than sending a no-obligation check.
This really comes down to a question of assessing the capacity of citizens for self-government. I discuss this on pages 134 through 141 when analyzing the Reason interview. Reagan resisted every effort of his interviewer (the magazine’s founding editor, Manny Klausner) to say that some specific action was completely outside the competency of government to act. He believed that the people, acting through their representatives or directly, could hear different arguments and decide wisely. Most, if not all, libertarians do not share this faith, hence they make arguments like the one presented above: that any governmental action at all inevitably leads to tyranny. If the distinction Reagan believes in is not possible, the American experiment in self-government is not tenable, either.
LW: It has been said that Donald Trump isn’t ideological. When Rush Limbaugh says it, it’s intended as a sympathetic description of the President. But it could also be referring to the fact that his politics are not very coherent. How would you compare Trump and Reagan?
HO: Trump, unlike Reagan, has no clear political principles. In that way he is completely unlike Reagan. He is also angry where Reagan was pleasant, combative where Reagan was conciliatory. They are totally dissimilar in mien.
But in one important way, they are very much simpatico. Both men placed the needs of the average American worker at the center of their worldview, and both pledged to put the full power of the federal government toward advancing average workers’ interests. This sense of caring, combined with their embrace of an active executive, allowed them to win over the same sort of person who normally eludes conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans alike: the working-class voter.