When I sit down to review a book, I think it's essential to recognize if and when the author is writing for a limited audience. It's not fair for me, as a reviewer, to judge a book for something it's not trying to do, which is clearly the case with Henry Olsen's new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.
Olsen is writing for people who are already well-versed in Reagan's story and he is not trying to give us a cradle-to-grave assessment of the man. He's certainly not writing to win over left-of-center readers, either. This is a book of ideas, rather than of specific details and these ideas are aimed squarely at today's conservatives.
Olsen wants to show the Reagan faithful that they're missing a key element to the man they admire so deeply. As he sees it, Reagan is in the inheritor, not the repudiator of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. This may come as a surprise, considering Reagan's statement that "government IS the problem," but Olsen makes a commendable argument that Reagan believed that government could do great things in our lives.
Citing Reagan's advocacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Olsen talks of Reagan's "Creative Society" speech, which backs up this FDR connection quite well. Olsen writes: "If it is legitimate for popular government to decree that 'the problems of human misery can be solved,' then it follows that 'the big question is not whether--but how and at what price.'" This is a Reagan who sees government as a solution that only becomes a problem when it is not allocated correctly.
Ultimately, Olsen is writing this book for conservatives who deeply admire Reagan. As he sees it, however, by ignoring his admiration of FDR, they are overlooking an essential part of the former President's outlook on government. He writes: "They left the most crucial element of his appeal behind: the love of average Americans and the willingness to always use government to express their values. Republicans and conservatives spoke his words, but they did not carry his tune."
In his final chapter, Olsen offers a passionate call to arms based on this notion and offers his interpretation of what Reagan really wanted as a way forward for today's conservative movement. He writes:
"Ronald Reagan...envisioned a new majority party, one that embraced every broad strain of conservative thought. It was a party that expressed and acted upon 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 an individual without a family, a community, or a nation to call home."
While I found this book to be an interesting read and a compelling clarion call to the right, whether or not it is persuasive will be left to a more conservative audience to decide.
Grade: 3 out of 4 stars.