In sociological social psychology, role theory examines the effects of the various social roles that individuals take on. A recent article by Jacob Weisberg at Slate (excerpted from his recent biography) examines how Ronald Reagan transitioned from being a “liberal anticommunist” (and sociology major!) to the man who would become a conservative icon during his time working for General Electric from the mid-1950s until 1962. Reagan’s tasks for General Electric included hosting a weekly show called “General Electric Theater” and traveling the company’s plants as a “goodwill ambassador,” which included giving speeches to employees.
As Weisberg states,
For Reagan, it was a dry run for politics. He learned how to interact with a live audience, and not just perform for the camera and microphone. He learned how to test which jokes went over and refine the way he told them. He learned how to preserve his voice and manage his energy during weeks of uninterrupted travel. He learned how to come across not as a distant matinee idol, but as a man of the people.
His interactions with company officials, though, may have had an even bigger impact. He traveled from plant to plant with a GE public relations officer named Earl Dunckel, a strong conservative who challenged Reagan’s liberal views. Weisberg also reports that he was influenced by GE’s chief labor negotiator, Lemuel Boulware, through his interactions with countless midlevel executives and plant managers. He states,
Over time, Reagan’s speeches came to match the message from headquarters about the inefficient, irrational, and meddlesome federal government. After a couple of years, Reagan was professing concern about the “business climate,” a term Boulware coined, and recounting tales of “government interference and snafus.” Now that he could no longer shelter his income through the “temporary corporation” loophole, high marginal tax rates were a constant preoccupation of his.
Thus, as his roles changed, so did his attitudes, and he became the man that conservatives revere today. It is interesting that changes as a result of our roles often seem “natural” in hindsight. Reagan probably looked back on his younger self as foolish and inexperienced, ignoring the fact that different roles would have led to different attitudes.
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