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.

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.

D'SOUZA'S book could be used to illustrate the proposition that biographies come to resemble their subjects. It is jaunty, spirited, not too hardworking, prone to indignant misrepresentations of the positions of political opponents, unable to resist thinking of public life as a series of instructive myths and fables, and finally, somehow, impossible to dislike. Evidently, a true historical work about Reagan -- with extensive primary research that leads to considered judgments -- is still in the future. D'Souza has done some interviewing, but for the most part his book is written from contemporary journalistic sources and has the feeling of a partisan's brief for Reagan. The now slightly forgotten battles of the 1980s -- supply-side economics, Star Wars, contra aid -- reappear in pretty much their original form, rather than being reconsidered in some way that would prevent the arguments over them from sounding familiar.

When Reagan was President, his staff, like all White House staffs, would concede not one point to the opposition: the boss was right in every case. D'Souza's book represents a second line of defense, in that it is now safe to concede the truly unwinnable points, as a way of strengthening the overall argument for Reagan. So it's interesting to see where D'Souza is intractable and where he isn't. He freely admits, for example, that Reagan is incapable of personal intimacy, except perhaps with his wife; the only close friend he ever had, the movie actor Robert Taylor, has been dead for almost thirty years. D'Souza also doesn't bother to deny that Nancy Reagan, as First Lady, was "a socialite whose main concern was with the world of movies and high fashion."

D'Souza mounts a pro forma defense of Reagan's performance on tax and budget issues. He makes various tendentious claims that will be familiar to readers of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, such as that under Reagan the federal deficit did not grow significantly as a percentage of the gross national product, and that tax receipts from the rich increased, and that Reagan would have cut spending more if Congress had let him. D'Souza's true attitude, however (which was perhaps Reagan's, too), is Who cares? -- "The American public's relatively cavalier view of the deficit as a jumble of big, meaningless numbers proved to be a fairly accurate appraisal of the significance of the issue." The same goes for the increase in economic inequality during the 1980s, which, D'Souza argues, popped up in economic statistics mostly because "a substantial number of middle-class Americans became rich." D'Souza doesn't seem to feel that he has to portray Reagan as fiscally prudent or vitally concerned with the economic situation of working people in order to make the sale.

D'Souza makes his big stand for Reagan's performance in defense and foreign policy. While Reagan was President, it wasn't possible to argue that he had ended the Cold War and brought down the Soviet empire; these things hadn't happened yet. Now D'Souza presents them as the centerpiece of Reagan's historic achievement, which is interesting in that it requires attributing to Reagan a view he never quite embraced publicly -- that the Soviet Union could be brought down. D'Souza's proof does not meet the standards of a professional historian -- he doesn't offer a single document. But he is enough of an insider that it is worth heeding his assumption that this was what Reagan was doing all along.

It is also interesting that the chief means of destroying the Soviets, according to D'Souza, was very high defense spending that would force them into economic chaos as they tried to keep pace. When Reagan was in office, nobody in his Administration would admit on the record that he was spending on defense just to put pressure on the Soviet economy rather than to meet any specific strategic need. Now D'Souza tells us that that was exactly what was going on: "Senior officials like George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger confirmed to me that Reagan had a conscious strategy to impose intolerable strains on the Soviet regime, perhaps bankrupting it altogether." Moreover, D'Souza says, Reagan quietly abandoned his stated goal of shrinking the federal government, because breaking the Soviet Union through defense spending was so important to him: "Reagan reconciled himself to presiding over a large federal government as the price worth paying for his defense policy."

In mining D'Souza's book for policy nuggets, I'm in danger of conveying the wrong impression of it. Its main note isn't argumentative, it's emotional. D'Souza loves Reagan. Not only that, the question of whether something like Reaganism can be revived in American politics can better be answered by looking at D'Souza's feelings than by looking at his thoughts. Reaganism in the policy sense would be quite difficult to practice today, because the Cold War is over and it would be tough to sell the idea of enormous tax cuts after we have devoted so many years and so much effort to deficit reduction. Reaganism as a cultural stance, however, could still be quite potent politically.

The exhilaration of not having to care about the good opinion of the centrist-liberal establishment seems to be the essence of Reagan's appeal to D'Souza, and surely it was to millions of other people as well. It's amazing, in retrospect, what a long string of Presidents -- from Truman all the way to Carter -- felt a twinge of terror at the possibility of, to put it in shorthand, incurring the disapproval of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Reagan couldn't have cared less. It is with a feeling of throwing off the shackles that D'Souza reports on Reagan's reading the comics more closely than the news in his daily paper; telling jokes in dialect about minorities and homosexuals; proudly announcing that his favorite magazine was Human Events, which is so conservative that even conservatives don't usually read it; and regaling the head of the Soviet Union with a précis of an article he had read in People magazine about a really, really fat guy who got stuck in a doorway. ("Reagan was perhaps the wittiest occupant of the White House in American history," D'Souza writes.)

Conversely, D'Souza depicts as creepy and disgusting the distant liberal world that despises Reagan. President Clinton, for example, is "appallingly arrogant" by Reagan's standards for sometimes reading state papers while dressed informally. As Reagan himself did, D'Souza damns the other side with stirring, apocryphal-sounding, hard-to-untangle anecdotes like this one:

At the leftist Institute for Policy Studies, the research fellows shared the story of Nora Astorga, the Sandinista beauty who had lured one of Somoza's top generals into her bedroom, only to have him castrated and then murdered by guerrillas concealed behind the drapes. As the incident was recounted to me, the policy analysts present confessed that they had all studied the rhetoric of revolution, but confronted with the real thing, their only reaction was, "Wow."

D'Souza is right in saying that Reagan completely remade American presidential politics. Reagan didn't even officially become a Republican until 1962, when he was more than fifty years old. At that point the party looked like a spent force. When he left office, it appeared unbeatable in presidential elections. He made primary in national politics issues that had not been before, such as taxes and abortion, and moved the debate on virtually everything distinctly to the right. He altered the Republican coalition as fundamentally as FDR had altered the Democratic. As D'Souza puts it,

While the GOP had previously been the party of business, Reagan helped to make it the party of taxpayers and religious believers, with its base in the South and West. His tough stance in foreign policy and his advocacy of traditional values won the support of many blue-collar ethnics, the so-called Reagan Democrats.

The way Reagan did all this was by finding what D'Souza aptly calls "the common ground between conservatism and populism."

Today, D'Souza says, "the right seems to be returning to the fever swamps from which it first arose." He can't think of a solution to the problem more plausible than this: "We simply need to ask in every situation that arises, What would Reagan have done?" His book, though, offers clues to a much better way for the Republicans to get back their touch than holding séances and channeling Reagan's spirit. The key would be hitting the anti-elitist note as consistently and effectively as he did.

ANOTHER thing Reagan remade was the standard political-science view that in American politics ideology is unimportant, because the center always wins. Still, politicians are different from intellectuals: even a politician who comes through as being as clear and strong as Reagan almost never has a perfectly coherent and loyally followed set of views. That's why, as D'Souza reminds us, the intellectual right spent much of the Reagan Administration being furious at the most congenial President it will ever have. Greenberg and Skocpol and their fellow contributors are thinkers much more than politicians. Therefore they represent a worked-out system of belief in a way that Reagan did not. To call the New Majority group the left wing of the Democratic Party is only minimally useful, though, because the divisions in the party are more complicated than left versus right.

After Lyndon Johnson retired, the Democrats split into groups better understood in terms of interests than of ideology. One was a loose coalition of blacks, Hispanics, feminists, environmentalists, and urban interests; another was vestigially loyal southerners and non-Republican business interests; still another was organized labor. As these groups muddled along, making messy, unsatisfying deals with one another, the Democrats kept losing presidential elections. For twenty-five years or more, rival groups of party intellectuals have been trying to come up with a Democratic creed that voters would find vivid and appealing. The Democratic Leadership Council, for example, with which Bill Clinton affiliated himself during his rise in the 1980s, is the intellectual department of the party's southern-and-business wing.

The Greenberg-Skocpol circle would be most comfortable with the labor interest group. Most of the contributors to The New Majority are people who have over the years been pushing for the Democratic Party to become more like a Western European social-democratic party, with blue-collar workers its voting base and economic issues its central cause. They tend to be frustrated that the Democrats have so often veered off into a racial or cultural liberalism that alienates working-class voters; the party, in their view, needs to find policies that put the emphasis back on class and economics. A key text for the social democrats is The Declining Significance of Race (1978), by the sociologist William Julius Wilson, who is best known for The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), about the urban underclass. Wilson argued that class disparities are more important than racial ones, and that they work far better as a political organizing principle; any reform effort labeled as being for the black and the poor is bound to fail, because it will lack a powerful constituency to support it.

The high-water mark of the social democrats was probably the first year of the Clinton Administration. With Greenberg as his chief pollster and Wilson as a trusted informal adviser, Clinton signed on to the social democrats' idea that the Democratic Party should propose not explicit anti-poverty programs but wide-spectrum initiatives that would help the very poor while being billed as support for ordinary working people. Chief among these was the health-care-reform plan (Paul Starr, quoted above, had a hand in formulating it). When this failed, the social democrats began to lose influence; pollsters brought in by Dick Morris replaced Greenberg during the 1996 campaign.

Conceptually, the social democrats have had two main problems to wrestle with. First, Americans are persistently reluctant to think in terms of class: this is the country where origins aren't supposed to matter and anybody can make himself into anything. Even when people are willing to apply the word "class" to themselves, the preferred modifier is "middle," which sounds vaguely Republican, rather than "working." Race never seems to go away as an issue. As strong as populist sentiment is in this country, it seems, oddly enough, usually to be directed not against people who have a lot of money but rather against a culturally defined elite.

The social democrats' second problem is that in their model of governance putting together a majority coalition of working people is the first task, and meeting specific problems is the second. A program is appealing to them more because it will attract voters to the party than because it will fill a public-policy need. The social democrats' model of a successful government program is Social Security, which is lavishly and repeatedly praised in The New Majority: because all elderly people rather than just the needy are eligible, it is very big and politically unassailable. After the 1994 elections Newt Gingrich's forces were able to eliminate the federal welfare program entirely, but their tentative exploration of reductions in Medicare spending led to their fall from pre-eminence in Washington. The trouble with the social-democratic approach is that it leads to an almost blind defense of the big entitlement programs. In their chapter in The New Majority, Theodore Marmor, a political scientist, and Jerry Mashaw, a law professor, insist that Social Security needs only "modest adjustments" in order to avoid a spot of "mild trouble" thirty-five years from now. But they propose changes as major as transferring 40 percent of the trust funds into the stock market, which makes one wonder how mild the coming trouble really is.

THE news in The New Majority is that the group is working toward a new solution to the first of these problems, by emphasizing family issues instead of class ones. In Greenberg and Skocpol's introduction improved versions of the traditional social-democratic terminology appear. The core constituency sought by the Democratic Party is the "working middle class," instead of the working class; alternatively, its members are "working Americans of regular luck and ordinary prospects," which is a way of conceding that they probably share the dream of opportunity even if they haven't much benefited from it personally. In her own chapter in The New Majority, Skocpol rejects "an overtly working class-oriented populism" in favor of putting "working parents at the center of the new family politics." Greenberg, in his chapter, calls on the Democrats to tell "a progressive story" about "the loneliness and heroism of the family and the social support that makes it possible for families to succeed," rather than "a populist, antibusiness story."

Greenberg and Skocpol's rejection of class-based politics is a bow to reality. Their hopeful embrace of family-based politics seems to come partly from having looked at 1996 polling results and seen how amazingly female the Democratic Party has become -- Clinton carried single women by more than 30 points. Dick Morris also struck the family note in 1996, but mostly by proposing small, symbolic initiatives, such as permitting public schools to make their students wear uniforms. Clinton's main policy commitment during Morris's heyday as an adviser was a centrist one that horrified the social democrats -- balancing the budget over seven years. Greenberg and Skocpol would start from the family premise and try to build a truly ambitious social program that would include greatly expanded health benefits and child support. They surely must be pleased with Clinton's recent proposals to make Medicare available to certain people fifty-five or over who have lost their health insurance, and to subsidize child care through tax breaks.

Another theme running through The New Majority is reverence for political organization as the best way of giving working people a strong voice in government. Over the years, as Margaret Weir, a political scientist, and Marshall Ganz, a former professional organizer, write disapprovingly in their chapter, "political parties have ceased to be mass-based political organizations -- becoming instead national (and international) fund-raising organizations." The effect of this has been to make rich people, who can pay for television advertising, more influential within the Democratic Party than they used to be; it's no accident that the Democrats have moved to the right on economic issues. Most of the supposedly grassroots left-wing groups that arose within the party during the 1960s and 1970s relied on new techniques of public-opinion molding, such as direct mail and phone banks, so they, too, contributed to the diminution in the importance of organizing.

It has been the Christian Coalition and other conservative groups that have become true national membership organizations. As a result, the members of conservative organizations are involved and energized, and the members of liberal ones are unconnected to active politics. The left, Weir and Ganz imply, puts too much faith in campaign-finance reform as a magic solution to the problems of American politics: "Getting money out of politics is important, but getting people back in is more important."

I don't mean to make The New Majority sound like the work of a tightly disciplined political movement. As a whole, it has an interestingly loose, suggestive feeling, because several of the essays don't quite fit with the Greenberg-Skocpol message. Alan Brinkley, a historian, contributes a criticism of the Democrats' shift in emphasis from public investment to consumer welfare, but the tenor of the rest of the book is that the highest purpose of government is to send people checks in the mail. Michael Sandel, a social theorist, calls for a renewal of civic life in a way that makes it sound small, local, and voluntary, whereas Skocpol's vision of civic renewal would bring back old-fashioned political machines to make claims on the national government in behalf of working people. Michael Dawson, a political scientist, calls for a class-based pitch of just the kind that Greenberg and Skocpol think won't sell politically. Weir and Ganz criticize organizations on the left for seeking foundation funding that carries with it a prohibition on political activity, but Karen Paget, another political scientist, calls for greater foundation involvement. William Julius Wilson is less determinedly nonracial than he was twenty years ago. The whole book, in fact, doesn't quite know how Democrats should handle the race issue, which is a tribute to the authors' honesty about the prospects of race's being successfully subsumed under broader economic concerns.

BUT there is enough coherence here to make it worthwhile to wonder whether Greenberg, Skocpol, and their co-authors are onto a potentially winning new political formula. The New Majority doesn't concern itself with specific politicians (except, in passing and ruefully, Clinton), so it leaves unanswered the question of who would give voice to its views in the next presidential election. Richard Gephardt seems too much the old-fashioned labor populist, Al Gore too close to the southern-and-business wing of the party. There are, however, a couple of interesting essays proposing plausible electoral strategies. Paul Starr argues that Hispanics, the fastest-growing ethnic group, can be courted successfully in a way that will cause California and Texas to become reliably Democratic again. Ira Katznelson, a political scientist, makes a convincing (because cautiously presented) case that the South, although essentially conservative, need not vote as heavily Republican as it has voted in most recent national elections.

The idea that there is a slumbering Democratic majority out there that might be stirred awake is not the tough part of the sell. D'Souza, for instance, would freely acknowledge it. What will be harder is finding the animating idea to do the job. The contributors to The New Majority usually refer to themselves and like-minded Americans as "progressives," a code word used to avoid "the left" or "democratic socialists" or "liberals." Their kind of progressive is different from the Progressives of the early twentieth century -- in fact, they are almost opposite. The original Progressives believed that experts could rationally assess the country's problems and then solve them in a neutral, practical, nonpolitical way. The Greenberg-Skocpol progressives want to put working-class, interest-based politics back in government and get the experts out. They most definitely do not believe in a neat, tidy government that crisply handles tasks as they arise, keeping the accounts in balance, helping individuals mainly by educating them rather than by sending them money, and giving aid only to those people who really need it.

These days most public political discourse takes place within the psychological parameters of the educated, affluent elite (as was also the case during the Progressive Era). Poll questions are asked, ads are scripted, evening news shows produced, from inside an elite mind. Greenberg and Skocpol would probably say that if we believe that the American people want deficit reduction, entitlement reform, and a practical, problem-solving government, it is because we are prisoners of the narrowness of the discourse. For their program to be a potential political winner, they have to be right that all these ideas are much less popular than press accounts make them out to be.

It is definitely the case that the budget-balancing, inflation-reducing, socially tolerant elite is unpopular -- D'Souza reminds us of that quite effectively. The question is why. Is the elite's problem its individualist market ideology (in which case the larger public would be receptive to the views in The New Majority) or its secular, knowing, sophisticated cultural stance (in which case the right could rise again)?

Even though D'Souza has been associated with a much more successful political movement than have the contributors to The New Majority, the temptation to count the Greenberg-Skocpol group out as a bunch of Cambridge-residing naifs ought to be resisted, because they are holding a trump card. The Republican Party did a brilliant job of making "government" a negative word for political purposes, but the truth is that government is popular. As D'Souza admits, Reagan didn't heavily cut government, and hence ran up big deficits, precisely because most people like such expensive programs as Social Security and Medicare. Skocpol's work elsewhere has demonstrated that the federal government has been running substantial, popular benefits programs for more than a century. The Republicans have had to keep attention focused on the elite that runs the government because their position on the thing itself is not a clear winner. That's a tough job to do forever. If the Democrats can figure out a way not to seem elitist -- Greenberg and Skocpol's way, or some other way -- they'll be in a better position to give the American people what they want from politics.

Nicholas Lemann is the national correspondent of The Atlantic and the author of (1991).

Illustration by Christophe Vorlet

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; America Right and Left; Volume 281, No. 4; pages 103-110.