The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 18, 2018

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Reagan Democrats
James Pontuso - 08/22/12

Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) was the most conservative American president elected in the second half of the twentieth century. He entered office vowing to roll back many of the social welfare programs that the Democratic Party had put into place during the New Deal and after. Reagan’s electoral victories in 1980 and 1984 astonished political commentators because a large block of his support came from traditional Democrats—union members and working-class ethnics—who had never before abandoned their party in such massive numbers.

The reasons for Reagan’s success with Democrats are complex, because opinion polls show that Reagan Democrats often disagreed with the particulars of Reagan’s policies even while supporting him at the polls. Perhaps the most obvious reason for Reagan’s victory in 1980 was President Jimmy Carter’s perceived weakness. During the Carter years energy prices rose, interest rates soared, inflation increased, and unemployment was high. Carter appeared helpless when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In addition, at the time of 1980 election fifty-three Americans were still being held hostage in Iran, having been seized the previous November.

Carter’s haplessness alone, however, cannot account for Reagan’s inroads among traditional Democrats. As Stanley B. Greenberg revealed in his 1985 study, “Forging Democratic Ideas,” Reagan’s platform appealed to many Democrats who were feeling increasingly alienated from their party in the 1980s. Greenberg points to middle-class Americans, particularly blue-collar workers and ethnic Catholics, who formerly constituted a significant portion of Democratic voters but objected to the tax increases and affirmative action advocated by their party. Resenting both the rich, who they believed to be virtually tax exempt, and the poor, who received welfare, many middle-class workers believed that the Democratic Party no longer represented them and so cast their votes for Reagan, whose pro-family and limited government policies appealed to their sense of values.

With the exception of West Virginia and, in 1980, Georgia (Carter’s native state), Reagan carried the entire South in both elections. Since then, the South has continued to vote almost exclusively Republican, a change which has significantly affected the House of Representatives, as more than half of the members from southern states are now Republican.

Once in office, Reagan proved to be a masterful politician, even though he often left the day-to-day administration of policy to his subordinates. Not only was he able to halt the growth of the welfare state, but he also convinced a large segment of the voting public that government bureaucracies were wasteful and that social spending was counterproductive. As he put it, “the government is the problem, not the solution.” So pervasively complete was Reagan’s influence that no presidential candidate since 1980 has described himself as a “liberal.”

In foreign affairs Reagan promised to restore American strength and prestige after its humiliating defeat in the Vietnam War. Although most voters prudently feared a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, they accepted Reagan’s view that weakness, not strength, was more likely to lead to conflict. Many Reagan Democrats’ families had emigrated from countries dominated by communist tyranny, and they agreed with the president that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.”

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