Politics & Policy

Head of the Class

(Leighton Mark/Reuters)
Reagan's workers.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the August 5, 1988, issue of National Review as the lead article in a package of “The Reagan Legacy” articles.

Remember the “little old ladies in tennis shoes”? That was the term dreamed up in the 1960s to characterize the constituency of Barry Goldwater’s version of the conservative movement. After Goldwater’s rout in the 1964 election it seemed accurate enough.

It was used again two years later when another avowed conservative, Ronald Reagan, ran for governor in California. But Reagan won, a result so astounding that for the next ten years columnists spoke of the California electorate as “volatile.” Reagan’s popularity in California increased steadily, however. So the voter surveys began in earnest–with another astounding result. At the heart of Reagan’s support were California’s new, young, and very numerous working-class families.

In the 1940s, when a war economy finally hoisted the United States out of the Depression, the boom occurred earliest in California, with its aircraft plants and other key military industries. Wages climbed rapidly. It was in California that the term “worker” first ceased to mean someone who is defined (or enslaved) by his job. The California worker became an owner: first, of an automobile; then, soon enough, of a house (and then of a second automobile). He began to think of civic life in the same way as any new property owner. He wanted stability, including one of its major prop: moral decency. He wanted freedom from government intrusion, particularly high taxes. He wanted public policy to favor people like himself, people who had earned what they possessed. He wanted to take pride in what he had accomplished; and two of pride’s most popular forms were official optimism and patriotism.

How much of this had Reagan figured out analytically? Perhaps none of it, although it seems to me he has always been much more of an issue-oriented (shall I try out the adjective intellectual?) politician that those who call him “the great communicator” are willing to admit. In any case, his views resonated perfectly with those of the new California working class. (It might even be worth mentioning that Reagan is the only labor-union member who ever became President.)

Since the 1960s the prosperity and ethos of the California working class have spread to workers all over America–so much so that the terms working class and workers have become archaic. Today electricians, air-conditioning mechanics, burglar-alarm installers, cablevision linemen are routinely spoken of as middle-class. Many journeymen mechanics live on a scale that would have made the Sun King blink. They are a new class that has seriously altered the political make-up of this country over the past 25 years. And Ronald Reagan was their first spokesman, their first leader, their first philosopher. The existence of this class continues to baffle Democratic Party leaders. Their biggest problem in the presidential election this fall is what to do about these people whose goals they still do not understand.


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