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Wash­ington Post Columnist Henry Olsen will teach a graduate course on elec­tions at the Kirby Center this spring. Courtesy | Henry Olsen

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.”