Sergeant Jeremy Mendenhall of the Ohio State Highway Patrol is really mad. He is the president of The Ohio Troopers’ Association and is busy working to defeat Republican-sponsored legislation that, he says, would gut Ohio’s collective bargaining arrangements and seriously enfeeble the power of unions like his. “People won’t forget this in 2012,” he indignantly told The New York Times this week. Yet the really interesting bit in this story is that Trooper Mendenhal is himself a registered Republican. His shock and anger then is a bit perplexing. What kind of political party did Sergeant Mendenhal think he was joining? Did he not notice that the 2008 Republican Party platform called for just the sort of labor initiatives that the G.O.P. is pushing in Ohio?
Mendenhall is not alone, of course, if he’s been thinking that the Republican Party is the champion of the American worker. One of Ronald Reagan’s singular achievements was convincing working Americans that the G.O.P. was on their side. The Democratic Party of the 60s and 70s made that an easier sell: The radical left-wing antics of the 1968-generation alienated a lot of American workers; the party of Franklin Roosevelt, they thought, had abandoned and perhaps even betrayed them. As Democratic stalwart Tip O’Neill observed in the wake of the Reagan landslides: “The Democratic Party created the middle class in this country, but we no longer represent it.”
Just how did that happen? True, the implosion of the New Deal coalition was evident by 1980, but the ‘conservatization’ of the American worker had been underway since the 1950s, the product of a collaboration of sorts between Reagan and a little known executive at General Electric, one Lemuel Boulware. Boulware was in charge of GE’s labor relations and over a career spanning twenty years, his take-no-prisoners, take-it-or-leave-it negotiating style was so effective that it inspired a corporate labor strategy still known as Boulwarism. A leading union official once described this strategy as essentially "telling the workers what they are entitled to and then trying to shove it down their throats." Reagan met Boulware in the early fifties when the out-of-work actor and future president was hired as GE’s corporate spokesman. We can say then that, in a big way, GE brought Reagan’s ideology to life and Boulware was the mid-wife. He was the one who “came up with the idea of trying to change the politics of blue collar America,” as Reagan historian Will Bunch has remarked. Boulware “wanted to wean blue collar workers off of the New Deal politics of Franklin Roosevelt and trade unionism and turn them toward a new politics of anti-communism, patriotism and progress.”
As Reagan traveled about the country making endorsements and meeting GE employees, Boulware’s ideas began to crop up in his remarks. It was here, on “the mash potato circuit,” as Reagan called it, that he developed and honed what later Reaganites called “the speech”: a folksy, yet forceful treatise on free enterprise, democracy, anti-communism and patriotism, the same speech he would give in different forms and forums for the rest of his career. “Progress” was the theme and for Reagan and Boulware "progress" meant that which was good for GE. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; both men believed in the adage that the business of America is business. Unions weren’t exactly capitalism’s anti-Christ, but as Boulware said in an interview late in his life, compulsory union membership was "wrong in principle and bad in practice." This sentiment is widely shared among Republicans to this day and lies behind many of the proposed reforms in Ohio and elsewhere.
Reagan had the charisma that Boulware lacked. In “the speech” Boulware’s ideas found a sophisticated, eloquent and friendly expression. Reagan had the talent and the smarts (yes, the smarts) to take Boulware’s ideas—ideas that were not obviously in the interests of workers—and convince people like Sergeant Mendenhall that they were. That was no small feat. No wonder they call him “the great communicator."