When Reagan was a Democrat, he was a union leader, socially liberal Hollywood actor, starry-eyed liberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending FDR New Deal supporter, big government public welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.
And then when Reagan became a Republican, he instead was a union opponent (although still able to get labor union support to get elected), socially liberal political actor, starry-eyed neoliberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending permanent debt-creating militarist, big government corporate welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.
Nothing fundamentally changed about Reagan, as he admitted. He liked to say that the Democratic Party left him. This is in a sense true as Democrats turned away from their racist past. Other things were involved as well.
I’d say that his shifting attitude about the New Deal welfare state was more situational, as many white Americans were less willing to support a welfare state after the Civil Rights movement because it meant blacks would have equal access to those public benefits. Reagan probably was always a racist, but it remained hidden behind progressivism until black rights forced it out into the open. Even his union views were more of a situational change, rather than an ideological change, for the Cold War reframed many issues.
The combination of Civil Rights movement and Cold War were a powerful force, the latter helping to make the former possible. The Cold War was a propaganda war. To prove democracy was genuinely better, the US government suddenly felt the pressure to live up to its own rhetoric about civil rights. Black activists pushed this to their advantage, and many whites in response went from liberalism to conservatism. This created a strange form of conservatism that was dominated by former progressives turned reactionary, which in some ways just meant a reactionary progressivism that hid behind conservative rhetoric.
This is how Reagan went from a standard progressive liberal to the ideal personification of reactionary conservatism. Yet he did this while politically remaining basically the same. Reagan didn’t change. The world around him changed. There was a society-wide political realignment that went beyond any individual person.
Still, it wasn’t just a party realignment with the old racist Southern Democrats switching loyalties to the Republicans. There was that, but also more than that. Many old school Democrats, even those outside of the South, changed party identification and voting patterns. Prior to the shift, many Republicans would praise liberalism (from Eisenhower to Nixon) and there was room for a left-wing within the party itself. After the switch, all of that was replaced by a mix of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, an alliance between economic libertarians and war hawks. So-called conservatism became a radical and revolutionary force of globalization.
The deeper shift involved not just to the political spectrum but the entire political framework and foundation. Everything shifted and became redefined, as if an earthquake had rearranged the geography of the country to such an extent that the old maps no longer matched reality.
One major change is that the noblesse oblige paternalism of the likes of the Roosevelts (TR and FDR) simply disappeared from mainstream politics, like Atlantis sinking below the waves never to be seen or heard from again. Politics became unmoored from the past. Conservatism went full reactionary, leaving behind any trace of Old World traditionalism. Meanwhile, liberals became weak-minded centrists who have since then always been on the defense and leftists, as far as the mainstream was concerned, became near non-entities whose only use was for occasional resurrection as scapegoats (even then only as straw man scapegoats).
Two world wars had turned the Western world on its head. Following that mass destruction, the Cold War warped the collective psyche, especially in America. It’s as if someone took a baseball bat to Uncle Sam’s head and now he forever sees the world cross-eyed and with a few lost IQ points.
As with Reagan, nothing changed and yet everything changed. The Reagan Revolution was greater than just Reagan.
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He may be the patron saint of limited government, but Ronald Reagan started out as a registered Democrat and New Deal supporter. An F.D.R. fan, the Gipper campaigned for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her fruitless 1950 Senate race against Richard Nixon and encouraged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat in 1952. While he was working as a spokesman for General Electric, however, his views shifted right. “Under the tousled boyish haircut,” he wrote Vice President Nixon of John F. Kennedy in 1960, “is still old Karl Marx.” By the time it actually happened in 1962, Reagan’s decision to cross over to the GOP didn’t come as much of a surprise. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he famously said. “The party left me.”
Giller said Reagan endorsed the presidential candidacies of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 as well as that of Nixon in 1960 “while remaining a Democrat.” [ . . . ]
Historian Edward Yager, a government professor at Western Kentucky University and author of the 2006 biography Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican, said Reagan “was registered Democrat from the time that he voted for FDR in 1932, when he was 21.”
Yager said he’s never seen copies of the voter registration cards, but noted “virtually all the sources that refer to” Reagan’s party affiliation indicate that he was registered as a Democrat and that “he has two autobiographies in which he refers to his voting for FDR four times, then for Truman.” Reagan was a Democrat, added Yager, even when he voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Interestingly, Ronald Reagan himself did not always espouse the firm anti-government beliefs that eventually came to define Reaganism. As a young man, Reagan was actually a Roosevelt Democrat. The Reagan family only survived the Great Depression because Jack Reagan, young Ronnie’s unemployed father, was able to find a job in one of the New Deal’s work-relief programs. A few years later, Ronald Reagan found himself admiring Roosevelt’s leadership of America’s World War II effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (Reagan joined the military but performed his wartime service in Hollywood, acting in American propaganda films.)
Reagan was a New Deal Democrat. He joked that he had probably become a Democrat by birth, given that his father, Jack, was so devoted to the Democratic Party. The younger Reagan cast his first presidential vote in 1932 for Franklin Roosevelt, and did so again in the succeeding three presidential contests. His faith in FDR remained undimmed even after World War II, when he called himself “a New Dealer to the core.” He summarized his views in this way: “I thought government could solve all our postwar problems just as it had ended the Depression and won the war. I didn’t trust big business. I thought government, not private companies, should own our big public utilities; if there wasn’t enough housing to shelter the American people, I thought government should build it; if we needed better medical care, the answer was socialized medicine.” When his brother, Moon, became a Republican and argued with his sibling, the younger Reagan concluded “he was just spouting Republican propaganda.”