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Ronald Reagan Was a New Deal Conservative

In this excerpt of Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism [1], Henry Olsen argues that Reagan’s unique brand of conservatism was based on his interpretation of FDR’s New Deal principles, and how a better understanding of Reagan’s thought can revitalize the Republican Party today.

Imagine if Trump were to leave office, for whatever reason, tomorrow. Where would conservatism and the Republican Party be? Would voters across the broad potential Republican coalition have started to think of themselves as Republicans? Or would they view a Trump-less party as just what it was before, something that excited hard-core conservatives and business types but seemed cold and uncaring to others who would prefer not to vote for progressive Democrats?

Republicans and conservatives need to face some facts. We have been a minority party and movement in America for eighty-four years. We have won elections in that time, but never have we really taken hold of government and changed the debate in our direction for more than a couple of years at a time. In the end, it always seems that government remains big, it remains run by progressives or those espousing progressive values, and the only debates we influence are on the margin or about cost. Unless we change this, unless we change the very nature of the political debate, we will forever be little more than tax collectors for the liberal welfare state.

Ronald Reagan had a grander vision. He envisioned a new majority party, one that embraced every broad strain of conservative thought. It was a party that expressed and acted on the majority sentiments in the country, a majority that did not fall neatly on the left or the right. It was a party that embraced freedom without forgetting human dignity. It was a party that praised initiative without denigrating the average. It was a party that called all to its banner regardless of creed, gender, or race, but did not treat everyone as merely an individual without a family, a community, or a nation to call home. It was a party that had a robust view of what American self-government entailed without placing government at the center of American life.

It was a party that interpreted rather than opposed the New Deal.

But doesn’t everyone today pay homage to the New Deal, pledging to retain its core elements like Social Security? At a surface level that is true: all but the most vocal libertarians or constitutionalists will say they want to retain the New Deal. But that commitment is for many only skin deep, and their underlying passive opposition comes through in what they say and, more important, what they do not say.

Reagan never had a problem saying that he believed it was society’s obligation to take care of its weaker members. He did not have a problem saying that free trade works both ways, and that government should step in to protect American jobs when unfair competition threatened. He did not have a problem saying that no one should be denied needed medical care because of a lack of funds, and that government had a role in helping those people out.

He did not have a problem saying those things, because in his heart he loved the average American. America was not great for him because it enabled great men to rise, although he admired men and women who showed ingenuity and initiative. America was great because it provided a home to let all people live free and dignified lives.


In his youth, tutored by his parents and his times, he found the answer to those beliefs in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Government intervention and action seemed to be what Roosevelt told Americans it was, new means to implement old, traditional American values. In the world that existed before the New Deal—where a man could be fired for joining a labor union, or be left penniless if he lost his job, because there was no unemployment insurance—it was surely easy for Reagan, as it was for many millions of others, to see the New Deal as restoring an individual’s freedom and dignity if he lacked bargaining power with his employer. When that era’s conservatives said the world’s problems were none of our concern even as Nazi Germany marched and Imperial Japan sailed to wage wars of conquest, it was easy to see Roosevelt’s Democrats as both the voice and the arsenal of democracy.

If the Democratic Party had stopped there, Reagan probably would have remained a Democrat all his life. But it did not, because there was an undercurrent to Roosevelt’s New Deal that did not simply seek to restore America but to transform it.

Starting with Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, some New Dealers believed America needed to be transformed, its individualist culture tamed to march to the beat of a centralized plan. Those who wanted a planned society also found it difficult to find communism as horrific or as threatening as did Reagan. For if America itself is something to be replaced, how can a regime whose central tenet was that America was inherently immoral, something to be loathed?

But as the Democratic Party left Reagan, he did not leave his core beliefs behind. His new conservatism did not pine for the days when men were men and employers could treat workers like beasts. He was against losing freedom by installments; he was against the rule of the many by the self-appointed few no matter what form that rule took. But he was also for human dignity. He was also for treating human beings with the respect they deserved and for giving each and every one of them a real fighting chance to live a decent life. He was for using government, when necessary, to accomplish these goals.

Barry Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative that “the Conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?” But Ronald Reagan could tell Americans in his famous speech endorsing Barry Goldwater that conservatives were for Social Security, even though that curtailed the freedom of a person to, as Goldwater wrote, “be free throughout their lives to spend their earnings as they see fit.” He could say that conservatives were for telling senior citizens that no one should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds, even though that takes money “from fellow citizens who may have different ideas about their social obligations,” against Goldwater’s beliefs.

In short, Reagan was against returning to the America before the New Deal. He was for interpreting Roosevelt’s legacy in a way that maximized freedom and minimized bureaucratic control and the direction of Americans’ lives.

Reagan could be for these things because he was for addressing “the realities of everyday life,” not simply implementing an abstract theory. Can today’s Republicans, especially those who proclaim his name the loudest, say the same?

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how to address, consistent with conservative principles, the electoral challenges facing modern American conservatism. This is the subject of his new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism [1], out now from Broadside Books.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Ronald Reagan Was a New Deal Conservative"

#1 Comment By Thrice A Viking On June 28, 2017 @ 12:50 am

Are there quotations from Reagan backing up these claims? I ask because I’m not familiar with them.

#2 Comment By libertarian jerry On June 28, 2017 @ 3:54 am

What Mr.Olsen is trying to tell us is that Ronald Reagan was a confirmed conservative socialist. In essence it is either or. You cannot have it both ways. To set up a system where the fruits of one’s labor is subject to redistribution by some bureaucrat for the “better good” is an anathema to liberty. This is one of the reasons why America today is hopelessly in debt and bankrupt. Also,Mr. Olsen does a disservice to history by not pointing out that America has always been generous to its down and out. The family,the Churches,private charity,associations,insurance companies,local government and other mechanisms were used and are being used to help the downtrodden. After almost 85 years of the New Deal,Social Security,Medicare,Medicaid and the rest the welfare state in America is bankrupt. Our money is becoming worthless due to overprinting to pay for a bankrupt welfare system along with paying for endless wars. Future generations have been placed into debt bondage in order to pay for Mr.Olsen’s “treating people with the respect they deserve.” In other words “socialism works fine until you run out of other people’s money.” What Mr.Olsen is saying is that it is perfectly fine to trade liberty for security. But as it turns out,in the long run,you will have neither.

#3 Comment By Liam On June 28, 2017 @ 8:48 am

The fact in front of our noses is that Reagan taught Americans that they could have their cake and eat it too. Had the budget been balanced on the backs of middle and upper class Americans, as true conservatives would have required, they would have revolted. So it was an illusory success. We are paying the interest on it in the form of a saving glut at one end of the spectrum that is creating successive asset bubble-busts.

#4 Comment By Gerri Perreault On June 28, 2017 @ 11:37 am

Regarding American being “hopelessly in debt and bankrupt,” perhaps if we raised taxes for what we do this would not be the case. The Iraq “war”(2003 and continuing)and other wars were not funded (how many trillion dollars so far!) and the medicare prescription drug bill of 2003 was also not funded.

Democrats are criticized all the time for raising taxes. But one could view democrats as tax and spend, and Republicans as borrow and spend.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On June 28, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

I miss Ronald Reagan.

#6 Comment By rhine-gold cowboy On June 28, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

By 1980, the affluent proletariat, aka “the middle class”,aka The Reagan Democrats aka the white unionized working class, had had enough of post-Great Society liberalism and voted for Reagan, the same way they voted for Nixon (as the Silent Majority). See Jefferson Cowie’s “Stayin Alive: The Last Days of the Working Class”.

Thus began 4 decades of the GOP getting high on its own supply and believing that the heartland voters had all signed up for Hayek, Friedman and Von Mises en masse.

Now that the private sector union movement has been completely obliterated and now that the smiley clown mask has come off of high tech global neoliberalism, exposing the shiny metal Terminator skull beneath, now that the white working class which used to own boats and second homes are being supervised by AI in fulfillment warehouse jobs while their children are babysat by sythentic opiates and smart phones…now we get Trump.

Watching the GOP wake up in real time, in the pages of NRO this election season, was the high point of my life as a fan of politics.

#7 Comment By Jon S On June 28, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

If I recall correctly, Reagan lead the effort to ensure adequate funding for Social Security and Medicare as they were running up against funding limits in the early ’80’s. It required modest long-term reductions in inflation adjustments along with payroll tax increases.

Imagine how popular the Republican Party would be today if President Trump and Congress were to do the same. The fact that it could never be considered shows just how far to the right the GOP has moved over the last 40 years.

#8 Comment By KD On June 28, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

The key to understanding the past 50 years through tomorrow in politics is in the politics of a man named Wallace. But not Henry Wallace.

#9 Comment By HobbesFanClub On June 28, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

Those of us who hoped that Trump’s rise and the continued passage of time would extinguish the obsessive devotion to Reagan, or at least shelve it in the past where it belongs, were sadly mistaken.

#10 Comment By EarlyBird On June 28, 2017 @ 3:22 pm

Reagan was a great man and surely cared about the common man and his dignity. But let’s face it: the Trickle Down, supply-side economics he brought into vogue was hardly helpful to the little guy, nor was the stripping down of so many social safety nets. During his time, whether directly related to him or not, the notion that the wealthy and powerful had some moral obligation to the masses also evaporated.

We can talk all day about the social hazards of getting fat on the teat of government, but objectively his policies did not help the little guy. They objectively helped the Big Guy. It’s that simple. And of course, the GOP hasn’t had a new idea in this respect since ’80.

#11 Comment By bt On June 28, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

Jon S:

As I recall it, gigantic deficits opened up after the Reagan tax cuts.

So when the time came to “fix social security”, the answer was higher payroll taxes and other adjustments to working people / recipients. And the surpluses that these increased taxes raised were allocated to the general fund, to offset other government spending and deficits.

So, the wealthy got a big tax cut, and working people got a tax increase. This was not some little mistake, it’s all by design. And the GOP has been doing this little shuffle ever since. Cut the taxes, complain about the deficits, then cut the programs.

It’s a lot like the New Deal! Except in reverse.

#12 Comment By Ed On June 28, 2017 @ 5:38 pm

You can’t have it both ways? Of course you can.

That was a common experience of people who lived through the 1930s. They appreciated the New Deal. They thought it kept them from starving.

But they also didn’t like being dependent on the government. They didn’t want all power to be concentrated in Washington.

It was pretty common for people who came through the Great Depression and the New Deal to feel that the country had achieved a synthesis of capitalism and socialism that avoided the excesses and vices of both systems in their purest essence.

So, yes, they wanted to have it both ways. They wanted some kind of safety net, but they didn’t want to become so entangled in it that they couldn’t achieve things on their own.

The thing about Reagan was that when he became president we still believed in something called the national economy. We believed that if we could get the national economy moving again, that Chrysler and AMC and US Steel and International Harvester and Sears and IBM and Kodak and Pan Am and Eastern Airlines and Woolworth’s and A&P and other American companies would create more jobs in America for Americans.

We didn’t understand what globalization would mean. We didn’t understand that many of those American companies would go out of business and others would move production overseas.

Reagan didn’t understand that. Maybe he thought everything would work out for the best in the end. But his opponents really didn’t grasp what was going on either, and their policies might not have given us any better results if they’d been applied.

#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 28, 2017 @ 5:53 pm

My mother, the fiscally conservative Republican in the family, bemoaned from 1980 on that her party was running up record deficits by cutting taxes without cutting spending, or, in some cases, increasing spending without raising taxes. In the end, there has to be enough tax revenue to pay the bills, otherwise, we end up in massive debt.

#14 Comment By ImissBuckley On June 28, 2017 @ 9:21 pm

“He did not have a problem saying that no one should be denied needed medical care because of a lack of funds, and that government had a role in helping those people out.”

Well I guess it depends on what you mean by “helping those people out”:

I agree that Reagan had little interest in returning America to the era before the New Deal. But I think that had less to do with him being a “New Deal Conservative” and more to do with him being a “Pragmatic Conservative.” Reagan didn’t embrace Goldwater’s approach, because Goldwater lost, badly.

Hell, if Nixon and the Democrats had come to a deal on Universal Healthcare, and it became popular among the public, then Reagan wouldn’t have gotten rid of it either.

#15 Comment By cka2nd On June 29, 2017 @ 1:55 am

Ronald Reagan was a union-busting SOB and a murderous imperialist. He deserves to be rotting in Hell side-by-side with his loathsome soul mate, Margaret Thatcher.

#16 Comment By max smart On September 17, 2018 @ 8:35 pm

the gop has not been fiscally conservative in ages and any true fiscal conservative gets quickly branded by the press as some kind of darth vader.

it is portrayed as evil to say “people should work for a living and not suck on the tit of everyone else’s contribution”