After an election where they saw their biggest single loss since 1938, in which the populist conversation was steered by the Tea Party movement, Democrats face an identity crisis as the party of the underprivileged. Sensing panic, pundits have invoked the spectre of the "Reagan Democrat", that fickle creature who strikes fear into liberals insecure about their ability to connect with Real Americans.
As the story goes, sometime in the 1970s, Democrats abandoned their once loyal blue-collar base for (take your pick) Hollywood, Wall Street, environmentalism, feminism, free trade and/or gay rights. And they are now paying the price. But there are a few problems with this narrative.
First and foremost is that Reagan Democrats never really existed. True, a large number of Democrats did vote for Reagan. And by now, the expression has become cable news shorthand for a variety of stereotypes, whether blue-collar values voters or suburbanite independents. But the term "Reagan Democrats" was originally coined to describe something much more specific: union members who supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election.
As a trend, this was greatly exaggerated. Only one major union, the Teamsters, actually endorsed Reagan. This was in no small part due to Reagan's relationship with the famously mobbed-up Teamster VP (later president) Jackie Presser, whom he named his labour adviser. Presser, who at the time was working for both the Cleveland mafia and the FBI as an informant, threw his union's weight behind Reagan, both in 1980 and 1984, in exchange for a pledge by Reagan to call off a justice department corruption investigation into Teamster leadership.
Of course, Reagan went on to become one of the most anti-union presidents in history. So, whatever rewards Teamster members got out of the deal – aside from not seeing their leaders thrown in jail – are dubious. But for Republicans championing their blue-collar bona fides, the image of the Gipper surrounded by hardhats is the gift that keeps on giving.