British Conservatives have been searching their souls since the General Election result. It has been thirty years since the party won a landslide majority, and so the Tory modernisation dialogue is being revived. As blue-collar conservatives think about their contribution to this debate, it would be useful for them to look across the Atlantic. Blue-collar conservatives in America have been grappling with similar questions about how to address the consequences of globalisation and move beyond their old ideological hang-ups.
The beginnings of a new blue-collar conservatism in America came about when two journalists, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, co-authored Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream in 2008. Their analysis focused on how working-class Americans were being disadvantaged by weak social mobility and outdated welfare systems, and were also being alienated by the Democratic party’s cultural liberalism. This left blue-collar voters open to voting Republican if the party adopted a new economic message. It was advice which John McCain and Mitt Romney chose to ignore during their failed presidential campaigns.
After the 2012 defeat, there was greater recognition within the party that Republicans would need to change. This led to the formation of a “Reform Conservative” movement (a.k.a. “Reformicons”) made up of blue-collar conservatives as well as compassionate conservatives, green and localist conservatives, and assorted moderate Republicans. They were on a mission to modernise American conservatism and move past the orthodoxies created by Cold War-era Republicanism. But during the 2016 primaries, none of the mainstream Republican candidates had taken in this message. Instead, they were all gripped by “Zombie Reaganism”. In their mind, every election year was 1980, every Democratic candidate was Jimmy Carter, and they were all auditioning to be the new Ronald Reagan.
The only candidate who offered anything new for blue-collar Americans was Donald Trump with his brand of economic nationalism. By winning over Democratic voters in rustbelt states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Trump managed to take the White House in a stunning victory. Tragically and inevitably, Trump has betrayed his blue-collar base since taking office. The Obamacare repeal bills, the tax reform plan, and the 2018 budget all provide giveaways for the wealthy whilst leaving blue-collar Americans worse-off.
Despite these setbacks, Reformicons are still pursuing their modernisation project. A major part of these efforts is the restoration of Reagan’s true legacy. A new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism by Henry Olsen, a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the most significant contribution to this debate. Olsen dismantles the mythologised image of Reagan as a libertarian ideologue. He reminds readers of how Reagan was a New Deal Democrat in his youth who loved and admired Franklin Roosevelt, and was President of the Screen Actors Guild (Hollywood’s very own trade union).
Anticommunism paved the way for Reagan’s conversion to conservative politics, but the liberalism of his youth stayed with him in certain ways. Despite the promise of radical free-market reform, Reagan still pledged himself to the defence of the economic and social safety net created by the New Deal. This allowed him to win over blue-collar Democratic voters, the “Reagan Democrats”, in a powerful winning coalition. It was a far cry from the anti-statist ideology which has prevented the Republican party from adapting to the post-Cold War era.
It remains to be seen how the Trump presidency will change America and the Republican party, but it should be a cautionary tale for Conservatives in Britain. Failure to move on from old doctrines and respond to the post-Brexit landscape can only be disastrous for the party. This makes it essential that the Conservatives continue to craft a positive and inspiring message which can win over working-class voters as part of a broad, new winning coalition.
David Cowan is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Cambridge with an M.Phil. in Political Thought and Intellectual History. He blogs at The Tory Democrat. This blog represents David’s views.