Ronald Reagan often said that he did not leave the Democratic party, the party left him. That statement is usually considered to be mere political fluff, a ruse to make himself politically palatable to the voters who revered FDR and the New Deal. Yet, that view is both condescending and wrong. A close reading of Reagan’s thought shows that he was always more concerned with what government sought to do than the fact that government was used to do it.
Reagan’s preferences always matched those of working-class Americans. Like him, these men and women voted for the Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Like him, these voters were increasingly willing to vote for other Republicans who promised to respect the New Deal’s achievements while maintaining America’s traditional values. Reagan’s political transformation was more thorough and complete than his compatriots’, but it occurred at the same time and for the same reasons.
Reagan had won his two terms as governor of California with a large measure of support from these working-class traditional Democrats. Reagan won places these voters lived by huge margins that were mirror images of the margins of defeat other Republicans suffered. Reagan won reelection by a handsome margin in 1970 and remained popular when he stepped down in 1974. The stage was set for him to launch a national campaign.
Despite liberal caricatures that he sought to undo the New Deal, Reagan ran for president on essentially the same platform on which he ran for governor. Government would be trimmed but not repealed; taxes would be cut but not slashed; programs or actions that helped the “truly needy” or assisted average Americans to achieve their dreams would remain in place. Reagan’s two terms did much to halt the growth of a government-directed society, but they did little to undo the legacies of the New Deal — because the man in charge never sought to do that.
This philosophy also came through in the one moment that more than any other propelled him to victory, the famous “there you go again” debate exchange with President Jimmy Carter. Carter tried, as so many opponents had tried before, to “Goldwaterize” Reagan by charging that he opposed Medicare. Reagan replied with the famous line, and then went on to explain that he had opposed Medicare originally because he thought another proposal (the Kerr-Mills Act) “would be better for the senior citizens and provide better care than the one that was finally passed. I was not opposing the principle of providing care for them.” Reagan’s clear belief that government should help the deserving live decent, dignified lives came through loud and clear.
Reagan’s victory was again dependent on votes from pro-New Deal working-class Democrats. This support was so strong that these voters not only elected Reagan, they also gave the Republican party control of the Senate for the first time since 1954. While Democrats made a comeback in the late 1980s, these voters again rose up in opposition to modern liberalism in the 1990s when they revolted against Bill Clinton and Al Gore. The same coalition Reagan built starting in 1966 gave Republicans control of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years and has made the GOP competitive in congressional and state-level elections ever since.
Today’s conservatives fundamentally misunderstand Ronald Reagan’s legacy, because they remain unreconciled to the New Deal’s core principle.
If Reagan’s New Deal conservatism was so politically powerful, why do Republican presidential candidates lose so often today? The answer is simple: even as every candidate pledges allegiance to Reagan, none clearly conveys his or her genuine love for, and belief in, the average American in the way Ronald Reagan did.
Whether they are of the “establishment” variety (Paul Ryan, Rob Portman) or the Tea Party flavor (Ted Cruz), today’s conservatives fundamentally misunderstand Ronald Reagan’s legacy, because they remain unreconciled to the New Deal’s core principle: the primacy of human dignity sanctions government help for those who need it.
Conservatives like these men fail to understand that conservative election victories since 1980 have not been rejections of the New Deal’s promises but rather representations of the public’s wish for their fulfillment. Correcting that error will give conservatives control of the moral high ground in American public life.
Trump won because he recaptured some of Reagan’s magic. Trump’s primary appeal was that he would squarely place government on the side of the “forgotten American,” the man or woman whose job was lost because of foreign competition, whose life was jeopardized by a feckless fight against terrorism, and whose contributions and beliefs were scorned by America’s self- appointed best and brightest. Trump’s policies are in many cases the antithesis of Reagan’s, but the core thrust of his argument regarding government’s ultimate purpose bears poignant similarities to Reagan’s New Deal conservatism. It is thus no surprise that the sons and daughters of the Reagan Democrats, the grandchildren of Roosevelt’s voters, find Trump appealing.
The public believes with good reason that government delivers too little and costs too much. It believes with good reason that the academic, business, media, and political elites who govern us have stopped caring about whether their dreams and whims benefit anyone other than themselves. Recovering the real Reagan allows today’s conservatives to address those beliefs precisely because it allows us to interpret, modernize, and reapply the cardinal principle enshrined in the New Deal, that government has a limited but strong role to play in helping the average person achieve his or her dreams. Recovering the real Reagan will give conservatives the moral legitimacy to complete our 60-year journey from the margins of American public life to its center. In so doing, we will finally realize our dream to make America the shining city on a hill that we have wanted for so long.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.