8/20/1984 President Reagan during a trip to Cincinnati, Ohio at a Reagan-Bush Rally at Fountain Square

Presidents’ Day has passed, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop reflecting on the legacy of some of our country’s greatest presidents.

We know that coalition building is key to some of the most successful presidencies. In part, it’s what makes groundbreaking legislation possible.

Let’s talk about an example of some very successful coalition building.


Ronald Reagan’s Majority

In the 1984 presidential election, Ronald Reagan won 49 of 50 states in a landslide victory. He also won a solid majority of the popular vote.

Americans don’t see election outcomes like this anymore. Most races are decided with campaigns within just a few points of each other. They’re usually very close.

So, what explains Reagan’s success? Coalition building!


The Three-Legged Stool

You may be familiar with Reagan’s “three-legged stool” coalition. It was a combination of policies that would promote a strong defense, limited government and traditional family values. These priorities attracted anti-communists, fiscal conservatives and those on the “religious right,” respectively.

It’s important to note that many of the people who made up this coalition were “Reagan Democrats” — that is, people who were staunch believers in FDR’s New Deal but were disenchanted with the Democratic Party after Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Many of these Democrats were critical of Carter’s foreign policy, his attitude toward the expansion of federal power and where liberalism had been moving socially.

Irving Kristol, an American journalist often dubbed the “godfather” of this new conservative movement, joked that these Reagan Democrats were liberals “mugged by reality.”

Reagan sought to unite them.


The Tie-In

He skillfully tied the threat of the Soviet Union to the threat of big government, arguing that the shortages, poverty and general economic dysfunction of the Russians were natural consequences of a top-down, heavy-handed approach to economic policy.

In other words, the problems of the Soviet Union, Reagan asserted, could be recreated here with big government’s help. This strategy created a bond between fiscal conservatives and anti-communists.

Meanwhile, Reagan also reaffirmed his commitment to traditional religious values, which, he argued, ran counter to the ideology of the Soviet Union, and were essential for the maintenance of a strong and wealthy country.

He referred to the success of this movement as “the great rediscovery,” calling his coalition “a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.”


The Coalition’s Legacy

That rediscovery outlasted Reagan’s presidency, too. Future presidents ran on promises of low taxes and strong defense. President Bill Clinton announced during his campaign that “the era of big government is over,” and even signed welfare reform to curb the excesses of the President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs.

Though Presidents Day has passed, think about what it takes to build your own coalition for your activism. Consider ways to tie different priorities for many individuals together, how to help your coalition specialize and what it takes to maintain it.

Maybe you’ll even be responsible for another rediscovery of common sense!


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