writes an indispensable examination of recent political history and polling for the purpose of asking the all important question of whether the governing electoral majority in America is--as the popular narrative of conservative optimists tells it--"center right" or if that majority is merely, "anti-left." Olsen comes down closer to the latter interpretation but does not go so far as to throw a tall bucket of ice-water on the embers of the more optimistic "center right" narrative. He seems, instead, to say that the "center right" narrative should
be true and, if it isn't quite true yet, it could
be true with a little patience, education and determination from would-be Republican statesmen.
Olsen sees plenty of freedom-loving material to work with in the block of white working-class voters who have been the decisive voice
in all recent elections and have tended (at least since the 60s) to fluctuate between the
parties and confuse many observers of American politics. Instead of assuming that these voters are merely ignorant or schizophrenic about their electoral decisions--as some frustrated pundits and, even, politicians have been inclined to do--Olsen looks for a central and unifying theme that explains their voting patterns. Olsen wants to know who these voters are and what, in fact, they want from American politics. It is the first question that every politician who understands the American concept of "consent" ought to be asking--and given the wild fluctuation between the parties in the last several decades that has characterized their voting, it is painfully obvious that very few would-be statesmen have bothered to ask it. THIS, above all other sins, is the cardinal one afflicting all past Republican majorities. It is also the sin that they must seek to avoid the near temptation of if they mean to avoid future electoral penance.
Olsen does not hold all previous Republican victors in equal contempt of the American commandment to know and understand the electorate. He has a special fondness, for example, for Reagan and his ability to frame the argument for freedom in such a way as to not strike fear in the hearts of those whose notions of "rugged independence" and risk-taking included with it some reliance on the idea that society would provide a safety net to catch them if their best efforts failed. He took these Americans at their word that they did not expect to be carried but neither could they afford to be dropped. So Reagan sought to talk to Americans about the meaning and the purpose of freedom. Freedom, properly understood, is our best means of security. It means jobs and prosperity. It means independence and a better way of life for future generations. Security that comes at the expense of freedom is a meager and--ironically--insecure kind of security. It makes us weaker--both as individuals and as a nation.
This line of argument was also very successful in the 1994 welfare reform debates. Republicans then did not allow the opposition to paint a picture of them as being willing to pull the rug out from underneath people. Instead, they framed the argument by arguing that the best way toward security for individuals was to eliminate programs that worked against their interests in liberty and in economic prosperity. Welfare was reining in the unlimited potential of people and hurting them. It did not work as it was intended to do. Therefore it had to be changed--not merely because it was expensive--but because it was hurting the people WE seek to uplift.
Olsen offers solid advice to Republican majorities seeking to do something worthwhile with (and, of course, to shore up) their new-found political prominence. Olsen understands that a careful rhetoric that comprehends and re-directs the fears and misgivings of these voters without patronizing or pacifying them, is necessary. Moreover, he understands that the stakes have never been higher. Today's Republicans do not have the luxury of time or the hope that failure now will instruct them better in some future battle. They have to fight this battle now and to win it now. If they mean to do it, they had better understand the real character of the American electorate and what motivates them. The left has constantly underestimated the drive in Americans toward freedom. The right, conversely, has been too dismissive of the average American's desire for security. The job, then, is to give an honest accounting not only of how freedom and security can be reconciled--but of how these goods are indispensable to each other.