Author and elections analyst, Henry Olsen, joined American Greatness Publisher Chris Buskirk to discuss his new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism and the true lessons Republicans and conservatives ought to be learning both from Reagan and from the 2016 election. The abstract and rigid checklist conservatism that is favored by ideologues and too many “professional” conservatives forgets that to be successful in politics, ideas must engage in ways that are political. That means, first and foremost, that the ideas must be shown to address the concerns and interests of the people you are asking to advance them with their votes. Olsen explains how Reagan did that and the ways in which it made him different from most movement conservatives of his day. There are lessons in that for today’s conservatives in appealing to a broader electorate. You can listen to the audio and/or read the transcript below.
Chris Buskirk: I am Chris Buskirk. He is Seth Leibsohn. Welcome back to the Seth and Chris Show. We are joined by Henry Olsen. Henry is one of my very favorite scholars working and writing in the country today. He’s written a very important new book called The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism.
Henry, you are one of the … I was going to say one of the few, but maybe you were actually the only person looking at the numbers who called the election right back in November. Are you one of the few, or are you the only? Because I can’t think of anybody else now that I think of it.
Henry Olsen: I am the only significant person, yeah.
Chris Buskirk: Right. So, there’s that of course. Nate Silver made millions off it. I hope you do, too.
Henry Olsen: From your lips to God’s ears.
Chris Buskirk: But the book is a down payment here, Henry. I really like this book. I’ve just gotten it. I have not read the whole thing yet. I’m going to be on a plane tonight. I hope to try and finish it tonight, but I guess let’s start … Let’s kind of the back story here. How did you come to a place where this became clear to you that there was such a thing as the working class Republican? How did you come to have a somewhat heterodox view of Ronald Reagan? One that I think is correct, by the way, but how did this work out in your mind?
Henry Olsen: It started years ago when I was trying to come to grips with the election of Barack Obama. I started to look at how was it that Reagan brought Republicans back from an even worse debacle than was the case after the 2008 elections, and what I learned turned my understanding upside down. I learned who the real Reagan really was. That he wasn’t Barry Goldwater with better sense of politics, but he, in fact, had a blend of views that were highly original, that allowed him to talk to people that wouldn’t listen to other conservatives. I came to understand how the working class voter thinks and looks at politics, which is different, in a way, than partisans of either party take a look at it, and I’ve been looking at that ever since.
Chris Buskirk: So there’s sort of two different ways to look at politics, and you blended them there, but I think it’s an important way. It’s not either or. There’s ideology, but then there’s also an element of class distinction there, too. So you have people on the left and people on the right, but then you have what you describe as working class people who maybe are … I don’t know. Are you saying that working class people look at things a little bit differently? They could be ideologues, of course, but your kind of rank-and-file person … Are they more motivated by just the lived life?
Henry Olsen: Yeah. They are people who, if you’re looking at them from an ideological perspective, would be between left and right, and what they are looking at is things from the prospect of their own life experience, and what they need in order to live free and dignified lives. So, take one from column A, one from column B, and create your own column C, and that’s where working class voters tend to be.
Chris Buskirk: Do you think, Henry, is that different than what people call centrists? There’s always been this chase. “Well, we’ve got to get the center.”
These are people who value family and community, as much or more than career achievement, and they are also people who do not try and put politics as the forefront of their lives, or politics try to work out a consistent world view for the sake of having it. This is very much a type of person who views politics as a means towards an end, and the end is helping people of all backgrounds live free and dignified, within the context of your country, comfortable lives.
Henry Olsen: Yeah.
Chris Buskirk: But maybe it’s a different theory.
Henry Olsen: Yeah, well, the center, or the way people talk about the center often means that there is a consistent world view of the center, and that’s not what I’m talking about here. On any particular set of issues, the typical working class voter can be characterized as a progressive, a conservative, or neither. It is not a world view that aims for consistency. The type of centrism that people talk about tends to be a different type of ideology that people of more educated classes adopt, but it is not what these voters adopt. They exist between left and right, but they are not a centrist in any recognizable way.
Chris Buskirk: Would you say that these … I guess a couple things. Are these voters more pragmatic? Would that be a word that would be fair to use?
Henry Olsen: They’re more interested in what works than in what’s right.
Chris Buskirk: Yeah. So, what is a working class voter? Who is that person?
Henry Olsen: A working class voter is typically someone who has not graduated from college. It’s somebody who is working in the private sector, although there’s certainly many working class voters who are neither working by choice or not by choice. This is a person who has for decades, this type of voter, likes to values work and derives dignity from work, but does not prioritize career. This is not the typical type-A networker, or even somebody who aspires to own their own business, except to the extent that that’s the way that they support their family. These are people who value family and community, as much or more than career achievement, and they are also people who do not try and put politics as the forefront of their lives, or politics try to work out a consistent world view for the sake of having it. This is very much a type of person who views politics as a means towards an end, and the end is helping people of all backgrounds live free and dignified, within the context of your country, comfortable lives.
Chris Buskirk: How big a block do you think that this is?
Henry Olsen: It’s definitely a block of voters that is somewhere in the 10 to 20 percent range of America. What makes them particularly important is because the way the parties have created ideological coalitions is they are the group of voter that can partner with either side, without completely fracturing the other party’s coalition.
Chris Buskirk: Right. I wonder if … We saw … I guess you may know the number better, but I think it was something like 12 percent of Bernie Sanders voters voted for Trump. I don’t know if you think that number is right. I’ve read that.
Henry Olsen: It’s in the ballpark. Different polls will say different things, but that’s the ballpark.
Chris Buskirk: Do you think that maybe that 12 percent was people who were loosely affiliated with Bernie? Maybe they’re part of your group of these working class voters? Some of the things that Bernie said in his diagnosis of problems that resonated with me were his prescriptions that I found to be wholly incorrect.
Henry Olsen: Yeah. I mean, some of the Bernie voters who voted for Trump were just progressives who hated Hillary. But the bulk were … Bernie within the Democratic primaries did better among the working class than people with his type of progressive background typically do. For the working class backer of Bernie who doesn’t like globalization and is suspicious of trade, they tended to be likelier to be attracted to Trump. So you had both of those: The hardcore progressive who was just going to make sure Hillary Clinton never made it because of the way they think of the world; but most of them, I think, were the working class person for whom Trump was choice number two.
Chris Buskirk: So, Henry-
Henry Olsen: But they wouldn’t have been a Romney voter because of the different way that … They would not necessarily would have been a Rubio voter. It had to be somebody who understood and prioritized the concerns of working class voters, particularly people who are manual laborers.
Chris Buskirk: So for in this political moment … I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but is this group the king-making group right now?
Henry Olsen: Yeah.
Chris Buskirk: Yeah. Henry, going back to your book, how did Reagan relate to this group, and was his relationship to working class voters … Was it a break from the way Republicans in the recent past, say, in the 60s and 70s leading up to Reagan’s election in ’80 … Did he do something different that made him stand out?
Henry Olsen: Yeah. Yes to the latter, and I’ll get to that after I answer the former. Reagan always was somebody who, because he came from a working class background … I don’t think either of his parents were high school graduates much less college graduates. They were mixed marriage: An Irish Catholic, and an Anglo-Saxon Protestant, back in a time when that mattered socially and culturally. And they were Democrats. So the way he lived his life, he came up with a world view and experiences that was identical to what these voters experienced, and so he could always sense their concerns because he often shared them, and to the extent that he didn’t completely share them, he was well aware of how they thought.
Republicans of that time tended to do one of three things. They tended to be conservatives that talked in a way that working class voters just did not find interesting. Conservatives of the time tended to focus on abstract liberty and saving money over using the government to advance patriotic values or using the government to help people.
[T]he future of the Republican party is coming to grips with the continued legacy of the New Deal. The future of the Republican party is figuring out how to limit the growth of the state in a principled way while not falling prey to the abstract devotion to ideology that is too often heard in conservative activist corridors. And Donald Trump was a person who figured out how to do that, but most national Republican politicians haven’t figured out how to do that yet.
Chris Buskirk: Henry, could I cut you there? We’ve got to go to a break. Can you stay one more segment with me?
Henry Olsen: Yeah, sure.
Chris Buskirk: I think this is important, so I want to make sure you can air it out without the tyranny of the clock impinging on us.
Henry Olsen is my guest. He is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism. I think it’s one of the most important books that has been written in the past five or ten years if you want to understand our current political landscape. We’ll be right back.
Hi, I’m Chris Buskirk. He is Seth Leibsohn. Welcome back to the Seth and Chris Show. We are talking with Henry Olsen. He’s the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism.
Henry, we had to cut you off. You were answering a question about how Reagan broke from, was different than the conservatives of that … I’m sorry. Well, I guess conservatives. Gonna say Republicans, but both who immediately preceded him. Let’s say from … I don’t know. Maybe we should say from 1955, the founding of National Review, up until 1980. Of course, the Goldwater years are in there. What made Reagan different?
Henry Olsen: What made Reagan different from conservatives was he put the average person at the center rather than an abstract devotion to liberty or the constitution. Didn’t mean he didn’t love liberty. It didn’t mean he didn’t revere the Constitution, but he always made clear that what he was talking about was interpreting the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt, not ending it. Before Reagan, conservatives tended to talk in a way that cast all of the social protections and innovations that working class voters valued into question, and Republicans who weren’t conservative tended to be what were then called “Me, too” Republicans, which was to say they didn’t really run on conservative themes at all. They ran on things like being better administrators of the modern state.
Reagan was one who took conservative themes, but didn’t try to overthrow the core things that people valued from the New Deal, and he was consequently able to unite the party, but also attract these people who he came to call Reagan Democrats.
Chris Buskirk: Henry, have you read Conrad Black’s biography of FDR?
Henry Olsen: I have not. I suppose I should.
Chris Buskirk: Yeah, it is very good, but he strikes some similar chords to those that you’re describing here because he tries to make the argument that Conservatives would do well not to distance themselves from everything FDR did. There are places where we can make good critiques, but he actually makes the point that Reagan did not do that, that a lot of people wanted to repeal the New Deal, but Reagan was much more circumspect when it came to that subject.
Henry Olsen: It sounds like not only was he more circumspect, he, in fact, was very clear. He didn’t do it in ways that would alienate or anger people. He didn’t come out and say, “I think Franklin Roosevelt is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” but he was very clear that basic social protections were things that he said had been settled long ago. That’s one of the things my book shows is that Reagan’s very consistent about that throughout his political career as a conservative.
Chris Buskirk: Henry, one of the things that strikes me in your description here of working class voters are the way Reagan thought about them and the way Reagan brought them into his political coalition … It just strikes me that we’re in a similar time now. That we’ve got a professional conservative class that thinks about liberty in the abstract, whereas we have a significant chunk of voters that think about liberty in very practical terms. I don’t want to overplay this, but Donald Trump is part of this, but there are other people looking to run for office who have, I think, recognized the same thing. Is this a theme that could play out over the next few election cycles as it did with Reagan?
Henry Olsen: Oh, absolutely. Look, the future of the Republican party is coming to grips with the continued legacy of the New Deal. The future of the Republican party is figuring out how to limit the growth of the state in a principled way while not falling prey to the abstract devotion to ideology that is too often heard in conservative activist corridors. And Donald Trump was a person who figured out how to do that, but most national Republican politicians haven’t figured out how to do that yet.
Chris Buskirk: Why do you think that is? Where’s the disconnect?
Henry Olsen: I think the disconnect is being able to say and feel in your heart two things. One is that the average person ought to be the focus of government policy as opposed to the exceptional person. That tends to be a default view on the right that what makes America great is that it allows the great to rise, whereas what Reagan believed and what most Americans believe is that what makes America great is that it allows the average to thrive.
What that means is things like tax policy that actually helps everybody rather than just focuses on the large corporations or the people in the top tax bracket. It means focusing on entitlement programs as something that actually helps the majority of people smooth consumption, or avoid undeserved poverty, or access medical care when they otherwise couldn’t afford it as opposed to a matter of liberty or cost.
And the other thing is continuing to be unable to say that sometimes government actually acts in our interest and does a pretty decent job.
Chris Buskirk: I think that’s a great distinction, this idea that we should think about policy in terms of how it impacts the average person as opposed to the exceptional. You just don’t hear that. What do you think that looks like in terms of policy? Start anyplace. I don’t care if it’s trade or immigration or social policy. Wherever. How do you think it plays out in practical terms?
Henry Olsen: Well, in practical terms, what it means is figuring out ways sometimes to get government out of the way, but sometimes to have government to act. That when Reagan, to use trade as an example, was an ardent free trader, but he was somebody who, when he felt that the countries that he was working with were not trading fairly, he had no problem with levying tariffs or sanctions or quotas on the countries. In fact, every time you see a Harley Davidson motorcycle, that company exists because Ronald Reagan put quotas and other penalties on Japanese motorcycle companies. And in his autobiography, he says he’s proud that he saved Harley Davidson. That’s the sort of practical mentality that modern conservatism at the national level tends to lack, which is what people in ordinary life crave.
Chris Buskirk: Yeah. We’ve got some work to do in order to bring some of what we sometimes call conservatism, and professional conservatives along. It maybe is just a matter of getting to grips with the way you describe it is to reorient policies, to reorient our thinking towards something that is very practical. Not just practical, but focused on the average person. If you do that, guess what? The exceptional are going to rise, too.
Henry Olsen: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Chris Buskirk: Interesting.
Henry, we’re going to have to have you back. We’re running up against the clock again. This is great. I would like to, as I finish the book, I’d like to have you come back on and talk about it more. The book, of course, is The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism. Henry, thanks so much for being with us. I appreciate it.
Henry Olsen: Thank you much for having me on.
Chris Buskirk: Seth, this is one of these books that I think is must reading. Every time somebody tells me, “I’ve got a book for you. It’s must reading. You’ve got to do it,” I sort of roll my eyes because people tell me that about three to four times a week. And several people that I respect tell me I’ve got to read this book. I finally got it. I started reading it, and, yeah, this is one of those books you have to read. I don’t say that about too many books. But this is one of those ones because I think Henry Olsen is onto something that a lot of people have missed, which is the way to look at politics in a very practical way from the way that middle America thinks about it. Not always from ideology. There’s an ideological role. There’s a role for principle, the way it guides us, but, Seth, I would argue that the principles of the founding tell us to do what Henry just described which is focus on how government treats the average person, and if we do that, we would be much better served than we have been recently.