early and often

No, Ron DeSantis Isn’t the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan

Photo: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

Despite what I am about to write, I really do appreciate political journalists who make an effort to contextualize their analysis with some history instead of looking at elections as isolated phenomena determined by game-changing moments. And so Olivia Reingold’s argument in the Free Press, a new media company founded by Bari Weiss, for the existence of something called “DeSantis Democrats” as analogous to the famous Reagan Democrats of a bygone age merits an E for effort — but not a particularly good grade in history or political science.

Let’s start with the fact that Reingold projects Ron DeSantis’s strong performance in the 2022 midterms onto a Republican Party that did not do so well in other states. Is the Florida governor obviously the wave of future or an anomaly? Reingold comes up with a handful of anecdotal accounts of DeSantis flipping Democrats and suggests, without much evidence, that they are illustrative of what’s happening in Florida and across the country as a whole. And here’s where she brings in the Reagan analogies: DeSantis voters, she says, “are not all that dissimilar to the Reagan Democrats who fueled the Republican’s 1980 White House victory”:

Like the Reagan Democrats, the DeSantis Democrats feel condescended to, abandoned by the progressive elites who bankroll Democratic candidates and shape the party’s agenda.

Then, like now, inflation was out of control. Then, like now, the leadership in Washington seemed tired, out of ideas. Then, like now, the country seemed adrift. In 1980, America was losing ground to the communists in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, to the mullahs in Iran. In 2022, it is gripped by a polarization and economic stratification that have been building for years, with eight in ten Americans dissatisfied with how things are going, and two in five fearful a second civil war is on the horizon.

Actually, the Democratic president Reagan vanquished was hardly the vehicle of “progressive elites.” He was Jimmy Carter, the Baptist deacon who ran against Washington in 1976 and was endorsed by an array of southern reactionaries including George Wallace and James Eastland. He then ran for reelection after defeating liberal icon Ted Kennedy in the 1980 primaries. He lost reelection in part because of inflation and unemployment, but nobody back then blamed inflation strictly on Democrats; it began under Richard Nixon and was so bad under Republican governance that his successor, Gerald Ford, launched a feckless but politically essential crusade to “Whip Inflation Now.”

There was a big shift in partisan politics that Reagan benefited from more than he engineered: the abandonment of the Democratic Party by racists not just in the South but among white working-class voters across the country in the wake of the Kennedy and Johnson administration’s championship of civil-rights and voting-rights legislation. It was first manifest in the Nixon landslide of 1972. Carter actually delayed this realignment toward the GOP by his own regional appeal and relative cultural conservatism (in conjunction with the reaction to the Watergate scandals). By 1984, there was no longer any moderate-to-conservative southern Democratic president to allay the realignment of these voters. And, yes, Reagan’s personal qualities helped consummate the transition. It was all, by the way, temporary: By the end of the 1980s, a counter-transition of more progressive former Republicans into the Democratic Party was fully underway, which helped Democrats win the popular vote in all but one of the 21st century’s presidential elections.

So the Reagan Democrats were simply part of a realignment that occurred when the two parties finally became identified with liberal and conservative ideological views. Reagan was lionized as a political giant mostly because his act hadn’t alienated soon-to-be-former Republican voters by the time he left office.

As for “DeSantis Democrats?” All we know is that a powerful Republican incumbent governor of an increasingly red state with an inferior Democratic Party had a good midterm election. There’s no particular evidence his appeal is contagious; at this point, he certainly seems far less charismatic than the Gipper. The shift of Latino voters to the GOP, which many Republicans predicted would give them huge gains in 2022, did intensify in DeSantis’s Florida. But it didn’t spread much west of Pensacola and may have been the result of eccentric factors attributable to the particular mix of voters in southern Florida and the fecklessness of the Sunshine State’s Democrats. DeSantis may build a national constituency of voters opposed to a Democratic Party that is committed to equality on economic and cultural issues if he runs for president in 2024, but it’s not a self-evident majority.

Whether you think Reagan himself was racist, he most definitely battened on the transition of racists from one party to the other. A similar trend may serve DeSantis’s presidential ambitions. But if exemplifying a right-wing backlash is all DeSantis has going for him, he may not go much further than becoming a lightning rod for Republicans who want to rid their party of Donald Trump’s influence. The idea that DeSantis represents some sort of new or restored Reaganesque governing coalition is far from passing the laugh test.

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No, Ron DeSantis Isn’t the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan