Magazine | November 29, 2010, Issue

Blue Collars, Red Voters

Ronald Reagan articulated the principles that must underlie a lasting conservative majority

Less than two years after a Time magazine cover proclaimed Republicans an “Endangered Species,” the GOP is back in black. With its largest number of House seats since the election of 1946 and its largest number of state legislative seats since 1928, the Republican party seems to have repopulated its native environment.

Questions lurk underneath this phoenix-like rebirth. Who composes the newly emerged Republican majority? How can this coalition be transformed from one defined by its opposition to Obama into one defined by its support of a coherent set of principles and policies? What principles and policies can bind these Americans together into a group with a common identity and make one out of many?

Articles addressing these questions typically look at the American people as ingredients in a demographic recipe. But such an approach inevitably falls short, because it lacks the most important ingredient: principle. So I’m going to start where Ronald Reagan did when he considered the question of how to build a renewed Republican party, with a discussion of conservative principle.

Go back to Reagan’s 66th birthday, Feb. 6, 1977. If you thought the death knell had been sounded for conservatism after 2008, you clearly did not live through 1976. Reagan had lost the GOP nomination, and President Ford had been defeated by a fresh face who promised hope to a discouraged nation, Jimmy Carter. What’s more, the Republicans had been reduced to a mere 143 seats in the House and 38 in the Senate, many of which were held by men well to the left of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

Reagan, however, saw what the others could not. Addressing a then-young Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) holding its fourth convention, he proclaimed that “the principles and values that lie at the heart of conservatism are shared by the majority.” This majority comprised more than Republicans and independents concerned about the economy; it included “blue-collar, ethnic, and religious groups themselves traditionally associated with the Democratic party” who focused on “so-called social issues.” 

Reagan argued that these groups could form not merely an alliance but “one politically effective whole.” They could do this because they adhered to a shared set of values that ultimately derived from one core principle, the primacy of human freedom. Arguing from this principle, conservatives could contend that government needed to be limited in its scope, in order to create the sphere inside which individuals, families, and voluntary associations could act for the betterment of adults, children, and the community. Since government existed to protect freedom, it needed to be energetic in the defense of human rights, whether at home or in the then-paramount conflict with the Soviet Union. Housed in a Republican party that would be “the party of the individual,” conservatives could show Americans that “modern conservatism offers them a political home.”

Now come back to 2010. We’ve just fought an election that was focused on the question of human freedom to a degree not seen since 1980. The Tea Party arose to defend freedom and persuade its fellow citizens that freedom was at risk. Opposition to Obamacare’s individual mandate was based on Reagan’s maxim that “liberty can be measured by how much freedom Americans have to make their own decisions, even their own mistakes.” Poll after poll showed that those who voted Republican did so because they had been persuaded that the administration and Congress were making government too large and spending too much. The result was a historic victory.

#page#2010 resembled 1980 in more than the centrality of freedom to the electoral debate; the GOP majority came from exactly the same sources as those foreseen by Reagan in 1977. Republicans won the economically conservative suburbs, home now to half of American voters, by twelve points. They won independents by 18 points, a huge swing from 2006, when the Democrats carried them by roughly the same margin. They received 54 percent of the Catholic vote, rising to a record-high 59 percent among white Catholics. And they carried America’s white working class by a record 29 points, even winning such hard-core Democratic working-class districts as Minnesota’s 8th (Jim Oberstar) and Illinois’s 17th (Phil Hare), which had not voted Republican for president in decades.

Superficially, then, the task before the GOP seems easy. By running against the liberal excesses of the last two years, today’s Republicans can simply recreate the coalition of economically conservative suburbanites and socially conservative working-class voters that reelected Reagan in 1984 and elected George H. W. Bush in 1988. This view is incomplete, however, in that it fails to address a key development since Reagan’s speech that makes such a simple reconstruction difficult.

That development is the failure of many of Reagan’s heirs to fully understand the working-class half of the new majority. Reagan forcefully argued that his new Republican party would have room for the “man and the woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat.” It would achieve this “not by simply ‘making room’ for them, but by making certain they have a say in what goes on in the party.”

By the early 1990s, though, it was clear that many working-class voters felt they did not have this say. Some blame must be laid upon then-president Bush, whose tax increases and patrician air led working-class conservatives to revolt twice against his leadership, first in Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge and again in support of Ross Perot. But if that had been the only reason for discord, the working class would have returned to the GOP later in the decade. They did to some extent in the South, although even there many continued to elect Democrats to Congress. But elsewhere they often did not, leading to Clinton’s reelection, Gore’s popular-vote victory, George W. Bush’s close reelection, and the narrow GOP majorities in Congress.

These northern and midwestern ethnic, often Catholic, voters felt out of place in the GOP in part because it did not seem to appreciate their lives. Ronald Reagan had warned his heirs in that 1977 talk that they “must be able to communicate [conservative] principles to the American people in language they understand.” The new American conservative majority should not be “based on abstract theorizing of the kind that turns off the American people.” But not everyone listened. Too often, some conservatives’ defenses of freedom and the market have seemed to be just the sort of abstract theorizing that “ignor[es] the realities of everyday life.”

For the working class, those realities include a hope for the future but also a fear about the present. As I argued at length in a recent essay for National Review Online titled “Day of the Democratic Dead” (Nov. 1, 2010), working-class Americans are very conscious of their tenuous place in the middle class. They support free enterprise because it enables them to rise economically and make use of their God-given talents, but they also support mass-welfare-state measures like free public education, Social Security, and Medicare because they believe these enable them to be more secure and provide for their children’s future. They oppose exorbitant taxation of the rich, but they also oppose measures they perceive as enabling the rich to treat them as mere pawns in a global economic game. Profits, yes, but people too.

#page#Some might think that support for these concerns is inconsistent with conservative principle. I don’t, and neither did Ronald Reagan. He always expressed support for a safety net, and in his 1977 speech he said that “government must . . . be compassionate in caring for those citizens who are unable to care for themselves.” Reagan loved liberty, but he was no libertarian.

George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was an attempt to implement this Reaganesque vision, but it did not succeed politically for two reasons. First, its ambitions were transformative, not reformative. Seeking to leave no child behind and leave no senior without the prescription drugs he wants is a laudable goal, but in practice it entailed giving the federal government power to act with minimal concern for cost or feasibility. Therefore, traditional economic conservatives felt out of place in a coalition dominated by “compassionate conservative” thinking. Today, the Tea Party might rail primarily against earmarks, but the out-of-control federal spending the movement complains about is directly the result of the cost of enacting compassionate-conservative measures.

Second, the object of compassionate conservatism’s ambitions was the poor, not the working class. Today’s working class is doing well but under many pressures. Its members would like to see leaders who at least try to understand how they struggle to maintain their middle-class lifestyle in the face of downsizing, offshoring, and other features of modern economic life. Compassionate conservatism’s rhetoric and imagery were directed almost exclusively at “the least among us,” the urban poor child trapped in a bad public school, the prisoner seeking reentry to mainstream life, those addicted to drugs or alcohol. Working-class voters wanted to help these people, but they wanted attention and help too.

Failure to fully appreciate these sentiments led to the continuation of the longstanding belief among working-class, and particularly ethnic-minority, Americans that conservative Republicans did not care about their lives. This is an old caricature that has bedeviled conservatives since the Great Depression. Reagan himself noted it when he observed that Republicans were, “for reasons both fair and unfair,” burdened with a “country club–big business image” that his modern conservatism was meant to dispel.

Conservatives have always bristled at this image. I’ve been involved in conservative circles for over 30 years, and I’ve never failed to observe an instinctive reaction from my friends when the “uncaring” label is hung around their necks. Conservatives do care about more than themselves and profits. Our very involvement in politics is motivated by caring concern that lives will be impoverished by a government that, with the best of intentions, treats too many citizens as incompetent mendicants and chokes off the entrepreneurial growth that alone lets the least among us get up and walk. It’s time we stop keeping our true nature to ourselves and let others see us as we are.

Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, wrote of “faith, hope, and love,” and said that “the greatest of these three is love.” The love that Paul speaks of is patient and kind, neither envious, nor boastful, nor proud. It is not something one does for another person out of a sense of noblesse oblige. It is something one does for another person as an equal, concerned about the other’s well-being as one is concerned about one’s own.

When applied to politics, this spirit of love motivates policy that aims to build people up, rather than condescending down in the name of charity. Consider, for example, the Republican Congress’s greatest domestic-policy achievement: welfare reform. Conservatives genuinely loved the poor, and knew that the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program was a millstone around the necks of poor single women. They reformed the program not simply to save money, as their critics suggested, but to save lives. It worked, and the principles behind welfare reform can be applied to welfare-state programs that mainly serve the working class.

#page#The reform of our welfare state is the great policy challenge of our time. It’s important in part because of our looming fiscal crisis, but if “reform” is only a code word for “cut,” we shall not succeed. Americans will trust us with this task only if we can show them what we already believe, that we want to reform Social Security, Medicare, and public education not merely to save money, but to create the best possible conditions for all to live joyful lives — in short, that we are motivated by love.

This fulfillment of Reagan’s dream will create a renewed Republican party. It will cement the loyalty of the working class and attract the economically mobile suburbanite. It will deliver a growing economy whose tide will lift all boats, and it will restore fiscal sanity without violating our national promises.

At first the new Republican majority will be much like our supporters on November 2, concentrated primarily among whites. But as members of ethnic minorities see that our faith in freedom and our love are real, many of them will join our cause. This will be true particularly if we follow Reagan’s advice that the new Republican party not be “based on a principle of exclusion.” In this time of immigration and assimilation, we should take Reagan’s words to heart: “You do not get to be a majority party by searching for groups you won’t associate or work with.”

This shift will accelerate as minorities see genuine conservative leaders like Marco Rubio and Susana Martinez, Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, Allen West and Tim Scott, being treated as equals and not tokens. Already election polls show that Rubio and Martinez attracted nearly 40 percent of non-Cuban Hispanics, well above the normal. Forty percent of Asians also voted for Republicans; this number will surely rise in the coming years if we renew our movement in line with what Reagan intended.

Even in 1977, Reagan saw that conservatives had already moved mountains. He noted that in the mid-1960s, two-thirds of Americans believed government could solve all problems, but that as he spoke two-thirds no longer believed this. Today’s polls show that those mountains keep moving. This year’s exit poll showed a significant increase in the number of voters who call themselves conservative, even while it showed no significant increase in the number calling themselves Republican.

Reagan concluded his speech by reminding us that a political party is merely a structure created to further a cause. “The cause, not the mechanism, brings and holds its members together.” There is no reason a renewed Republican party, rededicated to the cause of freedom and reanimated by the spirit of love, cannot bring America’s natural majority together into America’s natural majority party. And if we do that, America surely will be, as Reagan said, “as a city upon on a hill, with the eyes of all people upon us.”

– Mr. Olsen is vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and director of its National Research Initiative.

Henry Olsen — Henry Olsen is an elections analyst and political essayist who studies conservative politics, both here and abroad.  He looks at election returns and poll data to understand why ...

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