The Collapse of the Left

by Rich Lowry

Henry Olsen and Michael Lind (h/t RCP)take on the same phenomenon from different perspectives–both worth the read. I thought Olsen’s ending on lessons from Reagan in terms of presenting a limited-government agenda in a way that doesn’t chase away working-class whites was particularly instructive:

Conservatives often speak in language and propose policies that the working class perceives as threatening. Conservatives celebrate freedom, opportunity, achievement, being our own boss, entrepreneurship. Working-class voters want these things, but in moderation. They know that not everyone can graduate from college or own a business. They want a political and economic system that rewards and supports their modest vision for their own lives, rhetorically and practically. Conservatives must figure out how to reconcile their core principles with working-class desires if they are to form a lasting, stable political coalition.

We’ve done it before. Ronald Reagan in 1964 said “We represent the forgotten American — that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity, and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’” He knew that to attract the working- and middle-class voter, “that simple soul,” conservatives need to express what they already believe, that the simple soul has value as a creature made in God’s image.

Reagan did this in both word and deed. His State of the Union addresses often featured a reference to a person in the audience. This person was invariably an ordinary man who had had a moment of extraordinary heroism, not a captain of industry or a great entrepreneur. When Reagan went to Normandy, he did not laud the genius of Eisenhower or the courage of Patton; he praised “the boys of Pointe du Hoc.” His celebration of average men and women who did their duty, and oftentimes more, reassured and inspired them.

His deeds also struck a balance between advancing freedom and respecting stability. Rasher conservatives often criticized him for failing to do more to reduce the size of government, but he understood, having been a supporter of FDR himself, how much the safety net meant economically and spiritually to the working and middle classes. He knew that his task was to plant the tree of liberty in the garden of Roosevelt. As he said in 1964, “time now for the soft sell to prove our radicalism was an optical illusion.”

His success is manifest. For nearly 30 years, politicians have labored to define themselves in the light of his legacy. Even President Obama was said he wants to be transformative like Reagan. Thanks to him, conservative sentiments are today stronger among the American people than at any time since the Great Depression.