Reagan’s journey from Democrat to GOP traced in new book
Ronald Reagan is best known as the Republican president who helped defeat the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union. But before he was a Republican, he was a Democrat, and during the 1940s, Mr. Reagan unwittingly joined two organizations that were “fronts” for the Communist Party.
How did a New Deal Democrat who had once been a “dupe” of the communists emerge as a staunch Republican anti-communist? That’s the story Edward M. Yager tells in his new book, “Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican.”
An associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University, Mr. Yager conducted research at the Reagan Presidential Library for his book. The following are excerpts of a recent telephone interview:
Q. Why is Ronald Reagan’s early identification as a Democrat important to understanding his political career?
Because over about a 17year period, from 1945 to 1962, he struggled to make sense of the political world. And he learned from his personal experiences there in Hollywood. He also learned from his personal experiences while on tour [as a spokesman for] General Electric, and he consistently discussed and debated political philosophy and policy issues with friends and family. And he also learned from a variety of books and magazines. [. . . ]
So he was an engaged citizen, trying to make sense of the political world during the postwar period. Through these different sources [. . . ] he developed his own political philosophy of having a hard-line position toward the Soviet Union in particular and international communism in general. His domestic policy views, those evolved later, during the mid- to late-1950s.
His political development was over a long period of time. It was gradual and sequential. [. . . ] So that by 1962, when he changed his party affiliation, he had a coherent political philosophy that would guide him throughout his political career.
Q. It was as a union leader in Hollywood that Mr. Reagan first came in conflict with the Communist Party. How did that affect his understanding of the communist threat?
He reacted at that time to their tactics. When he was president of the Screen Actors Guild [. . . ] there was a minority faction within the Guild that were communist sympathizers and possibly Communist Party members. He perceived that there were deceptive and manipulative tactics employed by that minority faction.
Q. Mr. Reagan emphasized Communist Party tactics, rather than ideology, in his opposition to communism. Why?
During this early period, in his political development, he was still learning about the ideology, but he was encountering the tactics first hand. And it wasn’t just in his union. He had also observed similar tactics with two humanitarian organizations he belonged to — one was the American Veterans Committee and the other was a Hollywood arts and professional organization.
He observed communist infiltration and a small minority employing unethical tactics to gain control. He, along with others, left those two organizations.
The other important experience he had during that period was a jurisdictional strike where one of the unions in Hollywood, representing crafts workers, the leadership [. . . ] had linkages to the Communist Party [. . . ]and Reagan’s own Screen Actors Guild was in conflict with this union, the Conference of Studio Unions, the CSU. The leadership of the CSU resorted to intimidating tactics [including] violence to get their way. Reagan believed that it was communistinspired.
All three of those episodes occurred in a brief time frame, from 1945 to 1947.
Q. You write that Mr. Reagan tended to distrust intellectual elites, yet at the same time he was influenced by such intellectuals as the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. What was the difference between these two types of intellectuals?
On the one hand, those intellectuals that called for elite control of government, thereby violating democratic norms of majority rule by the people, Reagan opposed. But intellectuals like Hayek and others, that opposed elite control of the political and economic system, Reagan supported. [. . . ]
It’s also consistent with his populist message to the people. Even though he was a Republican, he was an ardent democrat — with a small “d” — and felt that the people could best run their lives, rather than Washington elites. Thus, he favored limited government, especially a smaller role for the federal government.
Q. You emphasize that Mr. Reagan saw his personal story as part of a larger narrative, “the American Dream.” Why was that important to Mr. Reagan’s success?
He was able to realize the American Dream — he came from a poor family in the Midwest and, after graduating from Eureka College in Illinois, he launched out on his own during the Great Depression. [. . . ] Before he even ran for public office in 1966, he was able to enjoy success. [. . . ]
He attributed that to the freedom that he had in America to realize his dreams. Out of that personal experience, freedom really became the core value in his political philosophy. [. . . ]
Q. Has the Reagan philosophy had any impact in the academic world?
In general, Reagan isn’t one of the more popular presidents in the academic world. However, it’s interesting that you’ll find in schools of business and economics departments, you’ll find greater support for Reagan. But you move over to humanities and social sciences, and support for his presidency declines precipitously. [. . . ]
Unfortunately, I think that academics that haven’t studied Reagan [. . . ] often give significant weight to a stereotype of Reagan not being much of an intellectual. If they probe more deeply, they would find that he valued ideas more than most presidents, even though he would be the first one to say he wasn’t an intellectual. [. . . ]
Q. Many veterans of the “Reagan Revolution,” including Richard Viguerie and Bruce Bartlett, have accused Republicans of abandoning many of Mr. Reagan’s principles. Do you agree?
Yes, I do. I think that many of the Republicans in Congress have become preoccupied with holding onto power, fundraising, earmarking [. . . ] and they’ve lost their message. It’s not just the message of fiscal restraint and fiscal responsibility [. . . ] but that’s a larger reflection of their lost philosophy of limited government, which Reagan was always emphasizing. [. . . ]
I think there are dramatic differences between the Bush administration and the Reagan administration. In many ways, the Bush administration [. . . ] has become a party of big government. It’s important to remember that Reagan, between 1955 and 1962 [. . . ] he criticized both Republican and Democratic parties as being parties of big government — high taxes and high spending. It think it’s safe to say [. . . ] if he were alive today, he’d be critical of both parties — more so on the spending side.