The New Shape of American Politics

An analysis of the forces at work in both parties which have dramatically altered the political landscape over the past twenty years—how they brought Ronald Reagan to power and how they will influence the race to succeed him in 1988.

After six years in office Ronald Reagan has changed everything about American politics except ideology. Democrats and Republicans agree that Reagan has transformed the agenda, but in a peculiar way. We want to do the same things as before--stabilize the economy, protect the poor and the elderly, fight drug abuse--only with less government. Public opinion, however, hasn't shifted to the right. If anything, the voters have moved slightly to the left since Reagan took office--there is less support for military spending, more support for domestic social programs, increased concern about arms control, hunger, and poverty. Why hasn't there been a discernible conservative shift in public opinion? Because the impact of the Reagan revolution is more likely to be felt in the long run than in the short run. The President has not, after all, dismantled the New Deal welfare state. As Hugh Heclo, of Harvard University writes in *Perspectives on the Reagan Years,* "Much as F. D. R. and the New Deal had the effect of conserving capitalism, so Reaganism will eventually be seen to have helped conserve a predominately status quo, middle-class welfare state."

Fair enough, but in the same volume Jack A. Meyer, of the American Enterprise Institute, in what he calls "a long-term perspective," offers a different view of the Reagan legacy. "The administration seems to highlight its *social philosophy* toward federal programs, an area where most of its accomplishments seem rather marginal. By contrast, it downplays and is defensive about its *fiscal politics* which, while incomplete, herald a major accomplishment for the administration." That accomplishment was to "pull the revenue plug" on the federal government. First came the 1981 tax cut, and then year after year of record budget deficits. Now and for the foreseeable future everything the federal government does must accommodate to one central fact: there is less money.

The President sold his tax and budget policies as a means to an end: curbing inflation and restoring the nation's economic stability. From the public's point of view they did just that. But tax cuts, budget deficits, and tax reform are no longer passing items on the political agenda. They form the basis of a new institutional order that will set the terms of political debate far beyond the Reagan years.

One element in this new institutional order is the restoration of confidence in the presidency. "Many close observers of the Washington scene and system saw Reagan as a media success who would be overwhelmed by the immense substantive and managerial demands of the presidency," Richard P. Nathan, of Princeton University, writes. ( "An amiable dunce" in the words of one insider.) Writing before the Iran fiasco, Nathan concluded that "Reagan's abilities...have restored a belief that an extraordinary, but mortal, person can give leadership and a sense of direction to the American national government." The crisis over covert U.S. arms sales to Iran is the strongest test yet of that achievement. The President will end up either "out of it" and overwhelmed by the issue or "above it all" and therefore able to draw on the reserves of confidence he has built up over six years.

Another element in this new institutional order is the new coalition structure that the Reagan revolution has given to American politics. Reagan brought together a variety of interests united by a distaste for big government. That coalition is not only larger than the traditional Republican Party but also more diverse. It includes business interests and middle-class voters who dislike taxes and regulation. It includes racial and religious conservatives who dislike the reformist social agenda embraced by the federal government in the 1960s, as well as neo-conservatives who want a tougher foreign policy.

Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter, of Cornell University, have analyzed how the Reagan Administration has "reconstituted" American politics. Some groups, for example, have changed their political identity. Middle-income urban and suburban voters who used to see themselves as beneficiaries of government programs now identify themselves as "taxpayers, individuals whose chief concern is the cost of federal programs." Groups that used to have a common interest, such as public-sector and private-sector professionals, have been divided by the Reagan program. The Reagan revolution has also created new political forces by uniting disparate interests: for example, Catholic and Protestant religious conservatives, upper-income managers and professionals, big business and small business.

What keeps the Reagan coalition together is not affection or agreement but the perception of a common threat. The threat is that liberals will regain control of the federal government and use it, as they have in the past, to carry out their "redistributionist" or "reformist" or "anti-military" program. The threat will not disappear when Reagan leaves office, and neither will the Reagan coalition--not even if it loses the 1988 election. A coalition may be defeated, as Reagan's was in the 1986 Senate elections, but that does not mean it has been destroyed. In the short run the Republicans are likely to lose many elections, just as the Democrats did over the fifty-year history of their New Deal coalition. The short-term fate of the Republican Party is highly dependent on the condition of the economy. That is what brought the party to power in 1980 and kept it in power in 1984. A major recession would spell the end of Republican rule. But the Reagan coalition would dissolve only if the various groups that compose it no longer felt they had a common interest in limited government. The Republicans are now the party of a weak government and a strong state, attracting people who are committed to one or both objectives. The Reagan revolution, not just Reagan himself, has acquired a popular constituency.

Presented by

William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In