It is no coincidence, then, that working-class voters regularly turn from Democrats when liberal progressivism is on full display. In this election, with liberal progressivism on display as boldly as it has ever been, the reaction will be stronger than it has ever been. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Kansas; working- and middle-class voters just want something different from what liberal progressives offer.
THE CONSERVATIVE CHALLENGE Will the American middle and working classes’ turn to the GOP end the partisan and philosophical conflict of the last two years, or are there tensions between the conservative movement and those groups of Americans that remain to be worked out before a new, more stable political era is created? This is a topic well beyond the scope of this memo, but I will conclude by offering a sober, yet positive, assessment.
Conservatives often assume that elections like 2010 show America has a consistent conservative majority. I think it is more accurate to say that they show that America has a consistent anti-progressive majority. The task conservatives have today is to transform the anti-progressive majority into a pro-conservative one. This will be harder than it seems.
The American conservative movement was founded in explicit opposition to the progressive project. It was also founded on the premise that a return to the governing principles of the Founders’ Constitution was feasible and desirable. The first principle is anti-progressive; the second is pro-conservative. The dynamics of working- and middle-class attitudes I have outlined above raise the specter that these principles in their pure forms can be politically incompatible.
The same abhorrence of rapid change that fuels working-class fear of liberal progressivism works against rapid conservative political action. In that 1964 article, Reagan argued that conservatives lost not because of their ideas, but because liberals portrayed them “as advancing a kind of radical departure from the status quo.” Today’s Tea Party enthusiasts have displayed a desire for rapid transformation of public policy nearly as strong as that of the liberal progressives. Moving too far, too fast down this road will alienate the very voters who just came over to the GOP.
There are other, deeper tensions at work. Working-class voters crave order and stability. They value the degree of these things that the welfare state and public institutions have provided. They also respect entrepreneurs but have no desire to be forced to emulate them. They respect private economic activity, but fear that business will cast them aside in the pursuit of profits. A conservatism that conveys the message that we seek to abolish the welfare state or that people have value only if they enthusiastically participate as risk takers in a dynamic, turbulent economy will not appeal to them.
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.
Today’s conservatives have a rendezvous with destiny. The peculiar political challenge of our time — repairing our nation’s finances and avoiding national bankruptcy — requires us to reform our welfare state. This forces us to confront the tensions outlined above, and to do so in a way that reassures rather than frightens the vast American middle that has turned to us now in response to the last two years. If we seize this opportunity and act with principle and prudence, we truly can say we have met our challenge. In so doing, we truly will have “preserved for our children this, the last best hope for man on earth.”
— Henry Olsen is vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and director of its National Research Initiative.