Skip to main content

Culture Books

Blue-collar concerns

Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Associated Press/Photo by Scott Stewart)


Blue-collar concerns

Pondering the demise of compassionate conservatism

Henry Olsen is a New York Yankees fan but otherwise knows what’s good for America—and it shows in his new book, The Working Class Republican (Broadside).

The subtitle, Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, is a BLUF (bottom line up front) and also a bluff, because he shows how Reagan’s conservatism was a reaction to leftward-ho Democrats rather than a staunch ideological doctrine: Reagan retained many New Deal sympathies but realized in the late 1940s that communism is evil, in the 1950s and 1960s that liberal formulas weren’t working, and in the 1970s that Democrats were becoming an elite party and giving up on democracy.

The results were huge. In foreign policy, he knew the Soviet empire had to be dubbed as evil and undermined. In domestic policy, he was a conservative with compassion for not just those on welfare and those in ghettos, but those who proceeded paycheck to paycheck and wanted to know they had a social safety net if the factory closed, the business went bankrupt, or an injury left them unable to work.

Since I was involved in developing “compassionate conservatism,” I’ve thought often about what went wrong, and have even had enough ego to think had I not become WORLD’s editor and instead gone whole-hog with George W. Bush instead of remaining semi-aloof, maybe the idea would have had more legs. That’s dumb, in part because God suited me well for WORLD and poorly for Washington, but also because I never analyzed the problem as well as Olsen has.

Here’s what he writes: Compassionate conservatism failed politically because it “offered nothing to the working-class whites whose votes determined the outcome in Midwestern states. … They weren’t members of Baptist, Methodist, or nondenominational Christian churches. They weren’t poor so the Bush administration’s focus on helping the poor didn’t affect their daily lives. … Suppose you were a non-evangelical trucker or a cashier listening to the radio while ‘W’ spoke about compassionate conservatism. Did you hear anything during the talk that made you think he cared about people like you?”

Turning to today, Olsen writes, “Reagan would want to cut the federal budget, especially since a number of programs he always tried to cut such as farm subsidies and the Export-Import Bank remain part of the federal government. [He would find] ways to cut spending within entitlements without endangering core social commitments.” For example, part of the $200 billion in disability spending each year is not for disabled people but people over 55 who have lost their jobs, feel useless, and are—surprise, surprise—depressed. Challenging, personal, and spiritual help could reinvigorate lives—and save billions.


Witty Nebraska Sen. (and Ph.D.) Ben Sasse said in a recent interview, “I wrote a 520-page dissertation because I didn’t have time to write a 220-page dissertation. That thing is woefully under-edited.” Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult (St. Martin’s, 2017), is better written (or edited). He argues—with good evidence—that the United States has “a collective coming-of-age crisis without parallel in our history.”

Sasse offers pungent data: Most men ages 18 to 30 view pornography more than once a week, and more Americans 18 to 34 live with their parents than with a spouse (or partner, which suggests another problem). He shows how parents can help kids learn to work hard, become truly literate, resist peer culture, and learn the difference between “need” and “want.” But he also knows how hard this is.

Anthony Esolen is a brilliant writer, and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery, 2017) abounds in pungent phrases. He criticizes abstraction and proposes, since we are embodied souls, that we “immerse ourselves in things: trees, stars, mud … dogs, fire … shovel … wheel.” He shows “how inhuman it is to project history onto the flat template of political action or political ideology. We do not, in the first instance, want to know about the politics behind Ellis Island; we want to know the stories of the people.”

Esolen also offers some unconventional ideas: Conservatives complain about government work, but the New Deal’s WPA was superior to today’s welfare: We still have bridges and roads to show for it. One reason we don’t see that today: “The training and hiring of craftsmen would shift funds away from women indoors and toward men outdoors, and that will be viewed as harming the women—even though the same men might then be able to marry and support a wife and their children.” —M.O.