Political analyst Henry Olsen will teach a course this spring at Hillsdale’s Washington, D.C. campus on political coalitions, populism and the purpose of elections.
Following his one-credit course on the 2020 election this semester, Olsen will teach a three-credit course called “Politicking and Elections” to students at the Steve and Amy Van Andel Graduate School of Government.
“There are a lot of people who can talk about the nuts and bolts of political science, but we wanted somebody who knew about politics, elections, political districts, but also knew something about examples of how other people understood politics and elections, like Reagan or Roosevelt” Dean of Van Andel Graduate School of Government, Matthew Spalding said. “He pulls together on-the-ground politics and ties it back to larger interests in how a statesmen will use those tools to build a coalition.”
Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and he has written a column for the Washington Post since February 2019. He has also written two books, “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism” and “The Four Faces of the Republican Party.”
Before gaining recognition for his political commentary, Olsen was a political science student at Claremont McKenna College, where he came in contact with Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arnn while he was a Ph.D. student.
“As an undergraduate student, I knew Arnn from the early 1980s, especially being in the conservative movement. And, I knew about Hillsdale under President George Roche,” Olsen said. “I’ve been familiar with Hillsdale from the time that Dr. Arnn became president.”
After his time at Claremont, Olsen decided he wanted to become a political consultant. He advised Colleen Sheehan, a professor at Villanova who ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania State House and won. Sheehan, who now teaches at Arizona State University, spoke at the dedication of Hillsdale College’s James Madison statue in September.
“My experience as a political consultant and candidate helped me to understand how campaigns and politics actually operate, something that few professors in political science really understand,” Olsen said. “Politics is more than theory or rhetoric, even as theory helps us understand what a just regime ought to look like. Practical experience and theoretical understanding are both needed to truly grasp how democratic politics works.”
Olsen went on to attend the University of Chicago Law School and clerked for Judge Danny Julian Boggs on the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. He also worked at think tanks for nearly two decades, serving as president of the Commonwealth Foundation, vice president at the Manhattan Institute, and as vice president and director of the National Research Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute.
Olsen said these roles helped him gain and understanding of populist movements.
“Back in 2010, I talked about how Republicans needed to court the working class,” Olsen said. “I could see it happening around the world and it was not just an American phenomena.”
When presidential candidate Donald Trump came on the scene in 2016, Olsen said he was “not surprised when he won.”
“When he first came out, I thought he was going to crash, because people who have never run for political office make mistakes,” he said. “But I changed my mind the first few months of 2016, when it became clear that he was someone who wasn’t going to go away and he had developed his own brand.”
Olsen sees Trump as a decisive figure in American politics, even if not a “fully successful one,” if he isn’t reelected. He says that as a candidate and president, Trump has talked about issues that nobody was talking about at the time of his arrival on the political scene.
“As president, he has forced Americans to look at problems that they have not wanted to look at. A more conventional person would not have made that choice,” Olsen said. “The fact is Americans are now talking about Communist China, the dislocation that global trade causes, a need to control our borders, and our role in the world.”
Due to his interest in populist coalitions and voter bases, Olsen often makes election predictions. For the 2020 election, Olsen predicted a Biden landslide, and although not perfect, correctly anticipated that the states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin would swing in Biden’s favor.
“The biggest difference in the 2020 election in my prediction career was that I relied too much on polls,” Olsen said. “I ignored my instincts, instead of data. I got them all right that turned blue, but what I got wrong was the Southeast.”
He says Trump lost, and he lost due to the fact that he kept his coalition from 2016 but didn’t spread his coalition beyond that. Trump held the 2016 voters and even gained among white working class voters, but lost suburban votes, according to Olsen.
“The course in the fall was to give a quick drill down into what Americans actually look like and how to think about assembling coalitions while turning the country in your direction for reelection,” Olsen said. “Any statesman does not operate in a vacuum to win power. In an election, you have to understand the coalition defined in a way that moves you in a direction in a revolutionary way.”
Even undergraduate students at Hillsdale believe that Olsen’s unique perspective on modern politics will offer the college a wealth of wisdom as these topics continue to consume the American conversation.
“I’ve followed Henry Olsen’s work since before the 2018 midterms,” junior Andrew Nell said. “His understanding of swing state demographics and feelings toward different policies makes him one of the best political commentators in the game. Hillsdale College is blessed to have him bring his extensive knowledge to the Kirby Center.”
By bringing together both practice and theory, Olsen hopes to show graduate students how coalitions form and how statesmen can use those coalitions to move their revolutions forward. The class will focus on statesmen like Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.
Spalding says Olsen’s course will allow students to understand how elections and campaigns work. He says understanding elections is fundamental to cultivating statesmanship and carrying forth Hillsdale’s key principles.
“If one wants to advance the principles of the regime, you have to do so through politics and elections, so ignoring that one would ignore the process of pushing forward those principles,” Spalding said. “If you want to train people with the skills that a statesman needs, this is one of those skills. It’s not just knowing about politics, elections, and parties, but how to use those tools in a way that advances principles.”