America Right and Left

Political intellectuals of both parties call for something more bracing than Bill Clinton's flabby syncretism—and think we want it too.


RONALD REAGAN: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader

THE NEW MAJORITY: Toward a Popular Progressive Politics


THESE are both movement books, but from opposite movements. Dinesh D'Souza has been a prominent member of the conservative movement ever since his undergraduate days as editor of The Dartmouth Review. He worked in the Reagan White House. Stanley Greenberg was President Bill Clinton's lead pollster in the 1992 campaign, and he and the sociologist Theda Skocpol are the founders of a loose group of intellectuals and political strategists who want to tug the Democratic Party further to the left. Therefore it is interesting that the two books have some points of agreement.

Both are nostalgic and gloomy. D'Souza misses the great days of Ronald Reagan's presidency ("I like to think of him ... a lone horseman silhouetted against an open sky") and finds that "the Republican party and the conservative intellectual movement are now aimless and frustrated." In his essay in The New Majority the sociologist Paul Starr says the Democrats "do not have a believable narrative of the future that explains how and why they can become the majority party again," as they were from 1932 to 1968. The two books agree that Reagan remade American politics, especially presidential politics, by persuading a large part of blue-collar America to defect from the Democrats. Both find it frustrating that domestic policymaking since Reagan has been preoccupied with promoting economic prosperity through deficit reduction.
Part of the explanation for this assonance is that we seem to be in a centrist period in American politics--so naturally the wings are unhappy. There is no crisply defined, ascendant ideology sweeping all before it, and as politics takes the form of a series of inelegant compromises, it declines in importance in the consciousness of the country. Another clue to the source of the books' unexpected commonality is that both are almost stridently anti-intellectual (though written, of course, mostly by intellectuals and professors). The main motif of D'Souza's book is a constant counterposition of Ronald Reagan against "elites," "pundits," "intellectuals," "experts," "wise men," and "critics." Whenever members of any of these groups are brought onstage in his book, you can be sure it is to serve as a foil for his hero. The authors assembled by Greenberg and Skocpol aren't as single-minded, but every one of the scattered mentions of elites, experts, and policy wonks in the essays that compose The New Majority is pejorative.

Greenberg and Skocpol's introduction mentions in passing that Clinton and the Republican leaders of Congress are moving toward "a 'bipartisan' elite agenda." From their point of view, and also D'Souza's, that is the real problem. Both books dream of a populist American politics. (They would lay bets differently on how a populist politics would turn out.) But we are living in a low-inflation investors' paradise where ordinary people seem -- to these authors, at least -- more palliated than represented by Washington.

It is amazing how quickly this placid political situation has developed. Only ten years ago, when George Bush and Michael Dukakis were running for President, it looked as if Reagan had engineered a permanent conservative triumph under the terms of which any politician who publicly associated himself with the word "liberal" or displayed any attitude toward federal taxation except stagy horror would be instantly obliterated, as if by a death ray. Six years ago, when Clinton won by painting the Republicans as rich people insensitive to the suffering of the middle class during a recession, the hope among the eventual contributors to The New Majority was that the tide had turned and a time of the left rising had begun. Four years ago the conservative landslide in the 1994 elections, which was the event that led Greenberg and Skocpol to form their group, seemed to foreshadow the death of the Democratic Party itself. What all these gyrations had in common was that -- rhetorically, at least -- the winning formula was the anti-elitist one. Now, unaccountably, the ideological forces are in balance, and Clinton does not shy from endorsing unpopular policies that the establishment likes, such as entitlement reform, military engagement in Bosnia, affirmative action, and free trade.

The politics of this moment is substantially the work of a man lurking beneath the surface of both these books but never mentioned in either -- Dick Morris, the strategist of Clinton's rescue between the 1994 and 1996 elections. Two things about Morris greatly aided the rise of Greenberg and Skocpol's "'bipartisan' elite agenda": first, he is a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat, and so not one to promote ideological purity; and second, he believes in very heavy television advertising as the crucial political technique. Morris's huge, more-than-a-year-long ad buy for Clinton had to be paid for, which meant that Clinton could not afford to offend Democratic individuals or interest groups who had a lot of money. So Morris polled and tested and found popular, consensual causes for Clinton to emphasize, such as promoting family togetherness and preserving the beauty of the West, rather than leading him toward a Reaganlike grouping of his portion of the country on one side of a clearly drawn line.

There is no reason why the Morris polity should last longer than its recent predecessors. These books provide an occasion for looking at alternative polities proposed by one element of the right and one element of the left, and for wondering how good a chance either would have to rise to a dominant position.

Presented by

Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

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

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

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

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

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

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

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

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

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

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

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

Video

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