From the archives:
"The Day Reagan Was Shot" by Richard V. Allen (April 2001)
The author reveals previously undisclosed transcripts of the deliberations in the White House Situation Room.
"Gravedigger of the Revolution" by Richard Brookhiser (October 1992)
Whether George Bush wins the election or not, he has already lost the affections of the conservative movement, for forgetting what Ronald Reagan, no deep thinker, never forgot—that ideas matter in politics.
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
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.
PASSION AND PRAGMATISM
There are two sides to politics, the passionate and the pragmatic. The passionate side involves values, loyalties and commitments, issues of right and wrong, conflicts between "us" and "them." Passions are embedded in institutions--the conservative movement, the Republican Party--and so they tend to persist over the long run. The passionate side of politics is where the effects of the Reagan revolution have been most deeply felt. Reaganism has had little effect, however, on pragmatic politics--the procedures of governing and the strategies for getting elected and re-elected. Reagan did not challenge the rules of the game. He mastered them. That is why the impact of the Reagan revolution is so hard to detect in the short run.
Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader, who was responsible for shepherding most of the Reagan program through Congress, told me recently, "Reagan has been very much an establishment President. He has worked well with the government, with the Congress, and with the executive departments. Unlike President Carter Reagan is a real pro....Every Tuesday morning at ten o'clock I used to sit in the Cabinet Room with the congressional leadership and the President. It was a good give and take. It was traditional American politics." Reagan's mode of governing--pragmatic, cautious, moderate--has not suggested any revolutionary intent.
Nor have his campaigns. Every presidential election offers voters two kinds of choice. The first is a pragmatic choice, a referendum on the performance of the incumbent party or candidate: Do I approve or disapprove of the way the government is being run? The other choice is passionate, a contest of ideologies: Which candidate is closer to my beliefs and values?
In 1980 Jimmy Carter tried to keep the campaign focused on the ideological decision. He described the election in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention as "a stark choice between two men, two parties, two sharply different pictures of what America is and what the world is....It's a choice between two futures." Reagan emphasized the pragmatic nature of the voters' decision, the election as a referendum on the past and present rather than the future. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Reagan asked in his closing statement at the debate one week before the election. "Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?" Those questions are certainly relevant to the voting decision. But they are not ideological. By recasting the election as a referendum on the incumbent rather than an ideological decision, Reagan attracted vast numbers of voters during the final week of the campaign.
The 1984 election was won by the incumbent for the same reason that the 1980 election was lost by the incumbent--performance. President Reagan had done the two things he had been elected to do. He had curbed inflation and restored the nation's military security. Reagan's campaign never got much more ideological than "It's morning in America." Democrats like Walter Mondale, Edward Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Mario Cuomo railed against the underlying values of Reaganism, to no avail. The voters followed their commonsense instinct--"You don't quarrel with success."
A conventional explanation of Reagan's electoral success, one especially popular among Democrats, is the Great Communicator theory. "I was no good on the mastery of modern communications," Walter Mondale told me. "We've got to learn how to communicate. We've got to know how to lift people. It's a mysterious process. We need people who can play in that arena."
Reagan can certainly play in that arena, and it has been crucial to his success--but not because he does better on television than most Democrats. Reagan's relaxed, reassuring television style is important because his ideological image is neither relaxed nor reassuring. He used television in 1980 to persuade the voters--during the last week of the campaign--that he was not dangerous or extreme. despite the dangerous and extreme things he was on record as having said. Millions of angry, dissatisfied voters felt it was safe to replace Carter with Reagan. A man with such a nice, avuncular personality would not blow up the world.
The point is that Reagans television style is crucial *for him,* because of the special problems he has as a candidate. It counteracts the divisiveness of his ideology. But one can hardly imagine less effective television performers, or less congenial personalities, than Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter, and yet they managed to get elected. And for all his skill as a communicator, the polls make it clear that if Reagan had run for re-election under the conditions that prevailed in 1982, when it was definitely not "morning in America," just about any Democrat would have beaten him.
Thus the most ideological President in American history was elected and re-elected in circumstances that were largely devoid of ideology. That is why analysts could find little evidence of a conservative swing in the electorate, either in 1980 or in 1984. People weren't really voting for conservatism. In 1980 they were voting for change. In 1984 they were voting for continuity.
THE TWO REAGANS
Reagan campaigned as a pragmatist and has governed as a pragmatist. In the long run, however, he set in motion a transformation of our values and priorities--the passions of politics. He did this by avoiding ideological confrontations. To carry out its long-range objectives, the Administration concentrated on short-run effectiveness. It was a brilliant strategy, and it worked.
It worked because Ronald Reagan has two different political personalities. His rhetoric is that of the hard-core conservative ideologue, a bold and uncompromising man of principle who portrays every issue as a confrontation between "us" and "them." But his actions are those of a shrewd, practical politician, maneuvering for political advantage and accepting the best deal he can get. When it is useful, Reagan abandons his harsh rhetoric and speaks soothingly in terms of unifying values and symbols. Sometimes he even seems to abandon his principles, as when he accepted a tax increase in 1982 or when he reversed himself in early 1986 and facilitated the departure of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, or, most troublesomely, when he violated his own Administration's anti-terrorist policy by secretly selling arms to Iran.
In balancing, for the most part, two often contradictory political personalities, Reagan resembles his acknowledged political hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in whom the historian James MacGregor Burns found a similar duality, in his *Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox.* When Reagan was elected President in 1980, many Americans were frightened by his rhetoric. His economic policies sounded harsh and threatening, his social policies divisive and his foreign policies reckless. It is a mark of how desperate the country felt that we elected Reagan President despite those reservations. We don't usually elect ideological candidates. We often admire figures like Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, George Wallace, and Jesse Jackson, because they are not typical politicians. They say what they believe. But we usually elect centrists and compromisers like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter.
As it turned out, Reagan was not a typical ideologue. Saying what he believed gave him the image of strength and conviction. That was important: it distinguished Reagan from his predecessor. But by seldom carrying through on his more controversial statements, he convinced the voters that he was not really dangerous. The public's response to Reagan from 1981 to 1986 was one of steadily increasing reassurance. Few voters feel threatened by him anymore. They no longer believe that he will start a war, or dismantle the Social Security system, or create mass unemployment. Many right-wingers say that Reagan has failed to implement a true conservative program. They are right. It would be bad politics.
Reagan was no different as governor of California. He raised taxes, liberalized the abortion law, and increased welfare payments. At the same time, he denounced the tax system, abortion, and welfare cheaters. Every year as President he attacks Congress for not keeping spending under control. Then he signs a budget compromise into law, with the result being ever higher federal deficits. He once called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" whose leaders are willing to lie and cheat to gain an advantage, but later described Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev as "just as sincere as we are" in his commitment to peace. Neo-conservatives become enraged when Reagan talks a tough line on foreign policy and then fails to act on it, as was the case after the Soviet destruction of the Korean Air Lines passenger jet in 1983 and after the Beirut hostage crisis in 1985. The Administration's covert policy of providing arms to Iran was another source of consternation to hard-liners, if not to the entire world. Here was the President saying one thing--don't negotiate with terrorists, boycott countries that support terrorism--while surreptitiously doing another.
Look at what happened in Lebanon. We paid a tragic price to learn that our peacekeeping mission was not working. Reagan then did exactly what Lyndon Johnson did not do in Vietnam. He withdrew American troops. He did so because it was good sense--and good politics. Reagan has avoided using American troops in Central America for the same reason. That, most Americans believe, would not be good sense. And it would be very bad politics.
There have been blunders. The Bitburg incident, in May of 1985, was one of them. By toughing out his decision to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at a German military cemetery, however, the President managed to appear steadfast in the face of a torrent of criticism from the press. South Africa was another miscalculation. In 1985, under pressure from Congress to abandon his policy of constructive engagement, the President reversed course and signed an executive order imposing limited sanctions against the South African government. Few people attacked him for inconsistency. Instead, his belated embrace of moderate sanctions was seen as a brilliant stroke that undercut his critics. In 1986, however, Reagan dug in his heels. He defied Congress and vetoed a tough sanctions bill, apparently hoping to mollify his critics by increasing the diplomatic pressure on South Africa and by appointing a black ambassador. It didn't work. The President suffered a costly embarrassment last fall when both houses of Congress voted to override his veto.
At the Reykjavik summit last fall Reagan again kept faith with his conservative base. In what the columnist George Will called "the President's finest hour," Reagan refused to compromise his Strategic Defense Initiative in return for a historic arms-control agreement. The public's immediate response was to support the President for standing up to the Russians. The long-term political costs may be substantial, however. There is a risk that Star Wars will come to be seen as an impediment to rather than an incentive for arms control.
The "two Reagans" always involved a risk. Reagan's strategy has worked for him in the past because there was always a legitimate public purpose behind the inconsistency. It may have caught up with Reagan in the controversy over U.S. arms sales to Iran, however. Talking a tough line on terrorism while condoning the sale of arms to a terrorist regime makes sense only if the policy has an obvious payoff. The payoff in Iran has not been clear, since the President claims we were not trading arms for hostages. Worse, the diversion of funds to the contras in Nicaragua makes it appear that the Administration was using illicit means to pursue its ideological agenda.
On social issues Reagan's ideology has been highly divisive--and his pragmatism highly effective. He gives fire-breathing speeches to the religious right and endorses their agenda, but then he does very little to implement it. The Administration lets Senator Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, lead the fight in the Senate on issues like abortion and school prayer. That strategy virtually ensures defeat, since every vote becomes a vote on Helms, one of the most disliked and distrusted members of Congress. Yet it serves the Administration's purpose. Reagan keeps the faith with the religious right, but he does not endanger his support among yuppies and suburbanites, who dislike the Moral Majority's social agenda. Had a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion passed Congress during his first term, Reagan would have had immense difficulty winning the majorities he eventually got among young voters and upper-middle-class voters in 1984. The Administration's social-issue strategy epitomizes its cautious approach: stay away from damaging legislative confrontations. Instead, work for change in the long run by gradually conservatizing the federal judiciary.
Reagan's success as President has accomplished what his ideas have not, however. It has made the case for conservative Republicanism. Americans are pragmatists. Pragmatists believe that whatever works must be right. If big government worked during the New Deal, then it must have been right, at least for that time. If Reagan's conservative policies are working--and most people still think they are--then they must be right for our time. By demonstrating that his ideas work, Reagan has won many people to his cause who do not agree with his ideas or values.
Ideologues believe that if something is wrong, it cannot work, even if it does work. That was a problem for old-guard Republicans during the 1930s and 1940s. They claimed that the New Deal could not work because it was wrong; it entailed an unprecedented growth of government and threatened tremendous inflation. Those warnings proved right--fifty years later. It took the hyperinflation of the 1970s to make the Republicans' case. Similarly, liberal Democratic ideologues believe that Reaganism cannot work because it is wrong. Eventually, they may prove to be right. But it could take fifty years. In the meantime pragmatism rules.
Is ideology, then, irrelevant? Obviously not. The passionate side of politics is also involved, although values and beliefs tend to change rather slowly. Consider, for instance, the long-term changes in values and party commitments that are reflected in the Democratic presidential vote. The Democrats have nominated basically the same presidential ticket three times, and they have gotten about the same vote each time. In 1968, 1972, and 1984 the Democratic Party nominated a northern liberal Protestant for President and a northern liberal Catholic for Vice President. Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie won 43 percent of the vote in 1968. George McGovern and Sargent Shriver carried 38 percent in 1972. And in 1984 Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro ended up with 41 percent. The Democrats, it appears, have mastered the art of getting about 40 percent of the presidential vote.
But it is a different 40 percent from the one the Democrats garnered with Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver in 1956. Mondale did significantly better than Stevenson among black voters, the college-educated, women, Jews, and professionals. Stevenson's support was stronger among whites, men, blue-collar workers, union households, and Catholics. Mondale ran ahead of Stevenson in the Northeast, whereas Stevenson ran a good deal ahead in the South and West. Between the Stevenson and Mondale races lay the 1960s, when the contours of both the Democratic and the Republican votes began to change. The conflicts of that era brought about lasting shifts in the electorate's values, loyalties, and commitments. These changes started long before the Reagan revolution. In fact, they caused the Reagan revolution.
THE NEW AMERICAN POLITICS
Two things happened. The first was the rise of the New Politics, which brought about the ideological realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties. In the 1960s the Republicans began to move to the right and to attract a new conservative coalition. At the same time, the Democrats started moving to the left, with the result that the party gained a new liberal constituency and alienated its old-line conservative wing. These changes occurred mostly at the elite level, among political activists coming out of the New Right and the New Politics left. These activists eventually gained influence over, if not total control of, the two major parties.
The second change, the rise of anti-establishment populism, occurred at the mass level and had little to do with ideology. It was stimulated by two decades of failure and frustration. Populism is neither liberal nor conservative but anti-elitist. The last two men elected President of the United States, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, were both anti-Washington candidates who appealed to this sentiment. As a result of the great inflation of the 1970s, anti-establishment populism turned into a revolt against government, the ultimate symbol of the establishment and the status quo. The first stirrings were visible in the tax revolt of 1978, two years before Ronald Reagan won the presidency. It was the anti-government revolt that brought the conservative coalition and Reagan to power.
The year 1964 was the dividing line between the old politics and the New American Politics. The Republican nomination of Barry Goldwater represented a sharp break with the past. The Democrats in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations also broke with their past, by making the courageous, and ultimately costly, decision to embrace the civil-rights movement. For the next two decades the parties continued to move apart ideologically. This transformation is symbolized by the two most important third-party movements of the past twenty-five years. Conservative Democrats, mostly southern whites, felt homeless in 1968 and rallied behind the independent candidacy of George Wallace. They could not stay in a party committed to civil rights. Liberal Republicans felt homeless in 1980 and rallied behind the independent candidacy of John Anderson. They could not stay in a party that had become completely Reaganized.
Nowhere did this realignment have a greater impact than in the South. What was once the most solidly Democratic region of the country is now predominantly Republican in presidential elections. Since 1964 the South has given majority support to the Democratic ticket only once, in 1976, and even then Jimmy Carter failed to carry white southerners. The South provides the base for what has become a normal Republican presidential majority.
In the 1950s it was possible to talk about a Democratic Party establishment and a Republican Party establishment that were more or less in control of their parties' policies and organizations. The parties differed mainly on economic issues--the Democrats were the big spenders, the Republicans the party of austerity--and neither foreign policy nor social issues entered into the partisan debate. Both sides endorsed the bipartisan Cold War consensus. The most pressing social issue, race, was confused. The Democrats still had a large contingent of southern white racists, while it was a Republican Chief Justice who wrote the 1954 Supreme Court decision mandating school integration and a Republican President who sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce it.
In the 1960s and 1970s both party establishments were targets of protest movements. The first challenge came from the right, in 1964, when the Goldwater movement mobilized conservative activists to wrest control of the Republican Parts from the eastern establishment. The liberal protest movement emerged with the anti-war candidacy of Eugene McCarthy in 1968. In 1972 liberal activists mobilized in the Democratic primaries and caucuses to nominate George McGovern and defeat the party establishment that had stolen the nomination from them four years earlier. The presidential nominations of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972 signaled the initial victories of these protest movements. Although both candidates were defeated in the ensuing general elections, their followers moved into positions of prominence in the two parties, either displacing the party regulars or forcing them to accommodate.
The protest movements introduced new ideological issues into party politics. The New Right conservatives attacked the Republican establishment for making too many compromises with big government--including acceptance of civil-rights legislation--and for being too willing to accept peaceful coexistence with communism. The Democratic establishment had already taken a giant step to the left on civil rights. The New Politics movement took the party one step further to the left by challenging the party leadership's commitment to the Truman Doctrine, the principle of anti-Communist intervention that got us into Vietnam. In the 1960s social issues and foreign policy began to be partisan issues, alongside enduring parts differences over taxes, spending, and regulation.
In the old days politicians liked to say that a political party was a big tent, with room inside for all kinds of people. The Democratic Party included southern white racists, blacks, urban bosses, and liberal reformers. The Republicans had a large and vibrant progressive wing as well as a solid base of conservatives, often in the same state (Robert La Follette and Joseph McCarthy in Wisconsin, for example). After 1964, however, the tents got smaller. Racists and right-wingers were driven out of the Democratic tent. And liberal Republicans faced a difficult choice. They could leave the party (as John Lindsay and John Anderson did). They could become real conservatives (like Spiro Agnew and George Bush). Or they could lose, often in primaries (as Thomas Ruchel, Clifford Case, and Jacob Javits did).
In every presidential election from 1961 through 1976 the polls showed that Nelson A. Rockefeller was one of the strongest candidates the Republican Party could nominate. Among Rockefeller's advantages was that he was good at getting Democratic votes. But Republican activists and primary voters would look at Rockefeller and ask, "Is he one of us?" The answer was not helpful to Rockefeller's cause. So what if he could get a lot of Democratic votes? He wasn't a real conservative, and that meant he didn't fit into the newly conservatized Republican Party. He was outside the tent.
In 1984 Senator John Glenn claimed to be the most "electable" Democrat running for President. He was probably right. The polls showed that had Republicans selected the Democratic Party's nominee, they would have nominated Glenn for President. But Republicans don't select the Democratic nominee. That is done by Democrats who participate in primaries and attend party caucuses. Those Democrats demanded to know of Glenn, "Is he one of us?" As it happens, John Glenn was the first candidate to attack Walter Mondale as the candidate of the past and the special interests. Later, Senator Gary Hart ran on those themes and nearly became the Democratic nominee. But they didn't work for Glenn. At debates before Iowa Democrats, Glenn's competitors would point to him and say, "This man voted for Reaganomics," and even worse, and more simplistic, "This man voted for poison nerve gas." That was too much for the liberal activists, union organizers, and radical nuns who populated such meetings. The judgment of Iowa was that Glenn was not a liberal and, therefore, not a real Democrat. It didn't matter how electable he was or how many Republican votes he might get. He was outside the tent.
As the party tents have gotten smaller the tests for getting in have gotten tougher. There are more and more things that "real Republicans" and "real Democrats" have to do or say, and more and more things they cannot do or say without casting suspicion upon themselves. Candidates in both parties have to pass litmus tests in order to be certified as of the true political faith. The tests are administered by issue activists who guard the party orthodoxy in their own special areas of interest. The activists have the power to declare candidates politically correct or politically incorrect.
A real Democrat, for instance, must talk about compassion and fairness. These days Democrats can get away with not calling for major new domestic-spending programs. But it is politically incorrect for a Democrat to talk about spending cuts in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. In 1985 no less than the chairman of the Democratic National Committee mentioned the idea of means-testing" Social Security payments. Within a few hours he was forced to retract this grievous breach of party orthodoxy. Means-testing is also a favorite theme of retiring Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt. As a result he has imperiled his national political career, if not his immortal Democratic soul. This particular litmus test is enforced by the party's traditional New Deal forces--the labor unions and the party leadership in Congress.
A real Republican doesn't talk about compassion and fairness. He talks about big government. As it happens, Republicans have been talking about cutting government spending since the days of Calvin Coolidge, and it has usually gotten them in trouble. That was before the revolution, when the Republicans were the austerity party. In the 1980s, however, the proper Republican approach to this issue is to focus on taxes. The way to eliminate big government is to starve it of funds. No austerity needed. Just cut people's taxes. No matter how concerned a candidate is about the deficit, a true Republican never, never advocates raising taxes. That is politically incorrect, and the supply-side faction of the party will see to it that this litmus test is enforced.
From the early twentieth century to the 1960s the Democrats maintained a historic compromise with racism. It was symbolized by the presence of a southern or border-state Democrat on almost every national party ticket. No more. The party establishment embraced the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s, banishing racism and a good many old-line southern Democrats. Nowadays civil rights is a key litmus test in the Democratic Party, enforced by the party's extensive network of minority-rights activists. In 1976 Jimmy Carter used civil rights to prove that despite the suspicion of many liberals, he was a real Democrat. No candidate who got all those black votes could be outside the Democratic tent. An authentic Democrat must be in favor of affirmative action, although he may have some wiggle room on the issue of busing. We will see exactly how much wiggle room there is if Senator Joseph Biden, Jr., of Delaware, a critic of busing but a strong supporter of civil rights, runs for President in 1988.
Women's rights is also a Democratic litmus test--not just the Equal Rights Amendment but also freedom of choice on abortion. Although a Democrat may personally disapprove of abortion, it is politically incorrect to support a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions, on the grounds that one shouldn't use the government to impose one's morality on others. Representative Richard Gephardt used to support a constitutional ban on abortions. Then he got interested in running for President in 1988 and changed his mind. Women's-rights groups see to it that Democrats toe the line on the ERA and abortion.
The abortion issue is also a problem for Republicans. As it happens. most Republicans do not support a constitutional ban on abortions; a Los Angeles Times poll showed that a majority of delegates to the party's 1984 national contention opposed such a ban. Nevertheless, the politically correct position for a Republican is to be pro-life--that is, anti-abortion. Republicans who favor freedom of choice get into a lot of trouble with the religious right whose job it is to guard the party against backsliding on this issue.
On foreign policy the Democrats used to support Cold War interventionism. In fact, they invented it, in the form of the Truman Doctrine. That ended in 1972, when the Democrats learned what they call the lesson of Vietnam. Candidates ignore that lesson at their peril. The peace movement may be dead, but the large and powerful New Politics constituency cut its teeth on the Vietnam issue. They have declared it politically incorrect for a Democrat to support military aid to the contras in Nicaragua. Representative Les Aspin, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, voted for contra aid last year, and ever since then his party colleagues have been trying to take away his committee chairmanship. Senator Bill Bradley also voted for contra aid and thereby put at risk his prospects of running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Nicaragua to Democrats is "another Vietnam."
To Republicans, Nicaragua is another Cuba." Republicans must support aid to the Contras in order to prove their commitment to the Reagan Doctrine, which requires active resistance to Third World communism. The Republicans' foreign-policy litmus rest is administered by the neo-conservative wing of the party, which consists mostly of former Democrats who, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, switched parties because the Democrats gave up the Harry Truman-Hubert Humphrey-Henry Jackson tradition of Cold War interventionism. Neo-conservatives are not about to let the same thing happen to their newly adopted party.
Where do the litmus-testers get their power? Not from numbers but from the fact that they are organized and can mobilize their supporters to participate in low-turnout party primaries and caucuses. They can be beaten, of course, if rank-and-file partisans get angry and decide to come out against them. Many traditional Republicans resent the influence of the religious right in their party, for example, and may be moved to participate in primaries and caucuses in order to save the party from what they see as an alien invasion. The 1988 southern regional primary has been organized by Democrats for the same reason--that is, to save the party from litmus-testers by overwhelming them with moderate southern primary voters. In both parties the critical question is whether moderates really care enough about "saving the party" to show up at the polls and out-vote the litmus-testers.
THE POLITICS OF AFFLUENCE
Walter Dean Burham, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has described a "new politics of affluence," in which he observes an upper-middle-class bias. Our major parties, he says, have narrowed their bases by ignoring the lower strata and aiming to appeal to ideological activists. Both the New Right and the New Politics left have roots in America's upper-middle-class suburbs. That is one reason why, as the parties have become more ideological since 1964, voter turnout has declined. The drop-off has been especially marked among the poor and the less well educated, who do not respond to the suburban style of politics.
What is distinctive about the upper middle class is its sense of security and self-satisfaction, of having achieved the good life. California, an overwhelmingly suburban state, is the heartland of upper-middle-class politics. Californians are not usually depicted as secure and self-satisfied. The conventional view is that they are rootless and frustrated. That is supposed to be the key to the state's unconventional politics. But look at what two close observers of the Golden State have had to say about its culture and politics.
The political scientist James Q. Wilson grew up in what he calls "Reagan country." In a 1967 *Commentary* article Wilson tried to explain "Southern California's political culture" to puzzled eastern intellectuals. Where did the Goldwater and Reagan movements come from? They did not come from people who were frustrated, alienated, or unhappy, Wilson argued. Yet they were protest movements just the same. "It is not with their lot that they are discontent," Wilson wrote. "It is with the lot of the nation. *The very virtues they have and practice are, in their eyes, conspicuously absent from society as a whole. *"
In another article published in 1967 Richard Todd used the same idea to explain, among other things, a very different side of California culture--the Berkeley phenomenon. That campus had erupted, many commentators suggested, because the students were alienated and dehumanized. Feeling like faceless numbers in a vast mega-university, they channeled their misery and discontent into political protest. Todd spent some time at Berkeley. He found "turmoil" there, yes, but not much evidence of personal frustration or despair. He found instead "the peculiar kind of joy that is a result of self-absorption. . . . [a] sense of rightness." The Berkeley life-style was tolerant, expressive, open, nonviolent, permissive, and, above all, contented. No one wanted to leave. Then why were the students angry? Because the outside world was racist, uptight, elitist, violent, and repressive. The very virtues that Berkeley students had and practiced were, in their eyes, conspicuously absent from society as a whole.
This is the germ of the New American Politics, left and right: it is a politics of values rather than interests. It thrives on a sense of resentment, but of a very special kind. The New Right resents the fact that the country is being run by relativists and subversives, not by moral and patriotic people "like us." The New Politics left resents the fact that the country is being run by bigots and warmongers, not by tolerant and non-aggressive people "like us."
Some years ago, in an analysis of California voting behavior for *Politics Today* magazine, I noted that two of the wealthiest counties in the state exemplified the divergent cultures of the upper middle class. Orange County, a vast suburb of Los Angeles, first captured the nation's fancy in the 1960s. From its nouveau-riche culture emerged the candidacies of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1966. Marin County, above San Francisco, is the homeland of the laid-back and fashionably liberal upper middle class. Both are suburban counties, prosperous and overwhelmingly white. But Marin County regularly voted about 20 percentage points more Democratic than Orange County. In party primaries the two constituencies were sharply polarized. In the 1964 Republican primary, between Barry Goldwater and Nelson A. Rockefeller, Goldwater carried 66 percent of the vote in Orange and 33 percent in Marin. In the 1972 Democratic presidential primary, between George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey, McGovern won Marin with 63 percent and lost Orange with 40 percent.
The difference is one of culture, not class. The prevailing culture of Orange County is that of business, religion, and patriotism. Within its borders are Disneyland, the Crystal Cathedral, and the John Wayne Airport. Orange County has tended to attract Protestants from the more fundamentalist denominations, usually with family backgrounds in the South and Middle West. The prevailing culture of Marin County--expressive, self-absorbed, and consumerist--has been the subject of devastating satire: Cyra McFadden's book *The Serial* and an NBC Reports documentary titled *I Want It All Now*. Marin attracts high-income professionals, often educated at elite universities. Their religious background is typically high-status Protestant, Jewish, or Catholic, and their family origins tend to be in the Northeast. Orange and Marin counties illustrate a pattern that can be found all over the country: the two distinct political subcultures of the American upper middle class.
Just as middle-class voters split along conservative-liberal lines, so too did white working-class voters, especially after the wave of racial violence that hit Americas cities in the late 1960s. In 1968, for example, Humphrey and Wallace competed for white working-class votes. As civil rights turned into black power, and integration gave way to busing and quotas, the civil-rights movement met with anger and resistance from the white working class. Racial fear and "law and order" sentiment provided the New Right with fertile ground from which to reap a populist base. It was the law-and-order backlash in California--public anger over the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and anxiety over the Watts riots in Los Angeles--that first brought Ronald Reagan to prominence, in 1966.
As Burnham suggests, the new ideological politics crosses class lines. "Limousine liberalism" is often characterized as a top-bottom coalition of the guilt-ridden rich and the dependent poor. The new conservative coalition is also a top-bottom one, allying "country club" businessmen with rednecks" and fundamentalists. Lower-status people are not so much left out of the New American Politics as divided by it. Liberals appeal to their economic populism, conservatives to their social populism.
The parties have been trading supporters as a result of the New American Politics. While the suburban vote in the South has become solidly Republican, Democrats have made substantial inroads among affluent upper-middle-class voters outside the South. These New Politics voters, many of whom, like John Anderson, were traditionally Republican, cannot abide the reactionary social agenda of the new Republican Party. They are attracted to New Politics liberals like George McGovern, Morris Udall, and Gary Hart, not to old-fashioned Democrats like Walter Mondale or moderates like Jimmy Carter.
But the Democratic Party has been losing much of its traditional support among white southerners, conservative Catholics, and blue-collar voters who feel threatened by social and cultural change. Conservative Democrats are attracted not to moderate Republicans like Gerald Ford but to right-wing Republicans like Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, John Connally, and Phil Gramm--all of whom used to be Democrats. As conservatives, all of them found themselves out of place in their party. They "realigned" and took many of their supporters with them.
This realignment occurred in two stages. First, in 1968 and 1972 the Democrats lost the support of social and foreign-policy conservatives (southern whites in 1968 and neo-conservatives in 1977). But the party was still competitive, as demonstrated by its comeback in 1976. The 1980 and 1984 elections were more damaging, because the Democrats were in danger of losing their economic-issue base. What held the Democratic Party together for fifty years was economic populism--the belief that the party would protect people against economic adversity. That belief kept the party going during the years when it was tearing itself apart over civil rights and Vietnam. Under Jimmy Carter, however, the Democrats failed to offer economic protection. The Reagan recovery allowed the Republicans to compete with the Democrats on the economic issue for the first time in fifty years, without the economic issue the Democrats risk becoming a liberal party instead of a populist party. The Democrats are beginning to look like a party of upper-middle-class liberals and minority groups who have the same social philosophy.
The realignment has been in the direction of ideological consistency, while the typical voter remains ideologically inconsistent. Many working-class voters seek economic protection from the Democratic Party but do not trust its social liberalism. Middle-class suburbanites favor Reagan's low-tax policies but are disturbed by the messages of religious fundamentalism, anti-environmentalism, and foreign interventionism that sometimes emanate from the White House. In many ways the New Deal party system with its ideologically inconsistent parties fit the electorate better. As Burnham argues, realignment has narrowed the parties' bases and left many voters with no comfortable home.
THE ISSUE OF GOVERNMENT
The role of government is the eternal issue in American politics. An economically activist federal government is one that manages, guides, and regulates the economy. Is that liberal or conservative? In the nineteenth century, when government was regarded as a bastion of privilege, the out-groups of society favored a laissez-faire state. Jacksonian Democrats, as the party of the "left," opposed many forms of government economic intervention, such as a national bank, incorporation through legislative charter, and even government-sponsored internal improvements. The Federalists, the Whigs, and later the Radical Republicans were more comfortable with statism and government intervention (for instance, Henry Clay's "American System"), which they defended in the name of nationalism.
Even more divisive was the view that the federal government should endorse or mandate certain social values, such as abolitionism, temperance, racial equality, sexual freedom, and religious rights. Those who favor a socially activist federal government usually do so in the name of universal moral values or human rights. Those who resist say that they are defending pluralism: we are a country with no official religion, ideology, or culture, and so the state must be scrupulously neutral in such matters. In the nineteenth century the conservative parties were the parties of the cultural establishment, usually the Protestant elite, which wanted to use government to reform and control society. The Jeffersonian Democrats were supported by out-groups and the disestablished. Consequently, it was the Democrats who supported religious freedom, states rights, and cultural laissez-faire.
These historical party positions were reversed in the twentieth century for a simple reason: the role of government changed. Capitalism is revolutionary. It creates rapid and large-scale social change through what Joseph Schumpeter called the process of "creative destruction." Those who are threatened by change, the losers in the process, gravitate toward government for protection--not just impoverished farmers and workers but also victims of discrimination and those whose values are endangered by cultural change.
Historically, in Europe as well as the United States, government power had been allied with economic power and social privilege. Out-groups distrusted and opposed the state. The progressives were the first to use the power of the state to attack private concentrations of power. Eventually the New Dealers discovered a fundamentally new role for government--protecting people against economic adversity. Government became the enemy of economic privilege, or what Franklin O. Roosevelt called "the economic royalists." Economic out-groups began to look to the federal government for protection--for jobs, relief, unemployment compensation, old-age pensions, and the safeguarding of labor rights. Government power became associated with the economic left.
A further change occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. The civil-rights movement redefined the role of the federal government in social relations. Government was used to reform society, but this time it was to benefit the victims of social discrimination. The Democrats discovered in the 1930s that the power of the federal government could be used to promote economic justice. They discovered in the 1960s that it could be used to promote social justice.
Government, which had once been seen as a bastion of social and economic privilege, came to be viewed as a force for social and economic egalitarianism. That would seem to give the Democrats a populist appeal. It did, for about fifty years. But then, in the 1960s and 1970s, something happened to undermine that appeal. What happened was the rise of anti-establishment populism, which quickly turned into a revolt against government--and against the party of big government.
Anti-establishment populism is the great engine of political innovation in this country. Americans are deeply conservative about their system and their institutions. But they are deeply radical in their attitudes toward the rich and powerful: suspicious of how they got that way, resentful that they think they are better than everyone else. The American public instinctively distrusts concentrations of power, whether in government, business, labor, the press, or anywhere else. Watch television, a highly populist medium with a mass audience, sometime and see how little sympathy is expended on big shots, whether they are businessmen, politicians, or hospital administrators. Viewers, like voters--in fact, they are voters--enjoy seeing powerful people get what's coming to them.
Anti-establishment populism was the key to the success of both the New Right in the Republican Party and the New Politics left on the Democratic side. Kevin Phillips saw it in 1969, when he published the *The Emerging Republican Majority.* To Phillips, the energy behind the Goldwater and Reagan movements came more from anti-establishment resentment than from conservative ideology. The New Right was out to overthrow the Republican Party's liberal eastern establishment, which, they said, had made an immoral accommodation with communism abroad and with the New Deal at home. But the right had a larger target as well: the establishment that had been running the federal government for thirty years.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party establishment was under attack from both sides. First George Wallace ran against Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Democratic presidential primaries and effectively carried the politics of racial backlash from South to North. The second front was opened up in 1968, when the party establishment was challenged from the left by the antiwar movement. During this tumultuous period in the Democratic Party's recent history, the battle was not between the party's left and right; it was the left and the right against the center. What made Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Daley, and the labor unions such inviting targets was that they epitomized the entrenched power of an establishment that thrived on bosses and deals and froze "the people" out of the 1968 convention.
The same forces mobilized in 1972, with Wallace again on the right and George McGovern leading the anti-war left. McGovern's pollster, Patrick Caddell, came up with an interesting idea. If a suitable populist theme could be found--possibly tax reform, he thought--then maybe the right and the left could join forces and defeat the party establishment. That turned out to be impossible in 1972, because the issues on which the Wallace and the McGovern voters disagreed--civil rights, Vietnam--were far more salient than the views they shared. But to his credit, Caddell stuck with his "alienated voter" theory and made it work for Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Carter was the perfect anti-establishment candidate--an outsider and a populist with no clear ideological identification. He defeated the party's ideological factions one at a time, each on its own turf: the right (Wallace) in Florida, the left (Morris Udall) in Wisconsin, and the center (Henry Jackson) in Pennsylvania. In the general election Carter was able to pull together enough regular Democrats, Wallace voters, and McGovernites to win the election. Of course it helped that his opponent, Gerald Ford, had already been softened up by an anti-establishment challenge from Ronald Reagan.
Anti-establishment populism is still a potent force, as Walter Mondale discovered in 1984. Mondale made the mistake of running as an insider, someone who knew his way around Washington, in order to distance himself from Jimmy Carter's failed presidency. That made him vulnerable, like his mentor Hubert Humphrey before him, to a New Politics challenge from someone outside the party establishment. The challenge came from Gary Hart, George McGovern's 1972 campaign manager. And Hart's strategist was, once again, Patrick Caddell. George Bush seems determined to imitate Mondale's campaign of inevitability in 1988. He may end up learning the same lesson--that you make yourself a target by identifying with the party establishment.
In 1988 Representative Jack Kemp, a self-styled populist and outsider, aspires to play the role of Gary Hart to Bush's Mondale. He is critical of the orthodox Republican position on deficits and spending, portraying it as a vestige of the party's historical economic elitism. "In the past the left had a thesis: spending, redistribution of wealth, and deficits," Kemp says. "We were the antithesis--spending is bad. What Reagan represented was a breakthrough for our party. We could talk about lower taxes and more growth. We didn't have to spend all our time preaching austerity and spending cuts. The real question now is, do we take our thesis and move it further or do we revert to an anti-spending party?"
For a Republican, that is anti-establishment thinking. Kemp's objective is to dissociate the party from its own "special interest" problem--namely, the party's ties to big business and country-club wealth. "How do we make a majority party out of a party that heretofore has been associated with a narrow base?" he asks. "How do we broaden it to include blacks, Hispanics, young people, and blue-collar working folks?"
Republicans and Democrats hit upon the same answer last year. It was precisely the issue that Caddell had talked about as the key to "the alienated voter" in 1972--tax reform. After all, nothing symbolized the power of the lobbyists and the special interests better than the exemption-ridden, loophole-laden tax code. Actually. many Republicans had serious reservations about tax reform, particularly because the final bill shifted much of the tax burden onto business. House Republicans nearly killed tax reform in December of 1985, and it was only a last-minute rally led by Republican Bob Packwood, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, that saved the bill in the Senate. Tax reform was an irresistible symbol of anti-establishment populism--one that was not easy for Congress to pass, since establishment interests are well represented in that assembly.
Despite the claims made for the "populist" appeal of tax reform, the evidence suggests that the public didn't care all that much about the issue. In a poll taken just before the final bill passed Congress last year, a five-to-four majority said that they would just as soon see Congress leave the tax code alone. The absence of popular fervor for tax reform suggests how much the anti-government movement has changed. It began in 1978 with the tax revolt, a grass-roots popular protest, but ended up eight years later as an organized reform plan supported by the President and the congressional leadership and promulgated upon a largely indifferent but wary public.
In the late 1970s anti-establishment populism changed from a mood to a movement--it became a revolt against government. The anti-government revolt was the culmination of twenty years of crisis and decline. First came "the sixties" (1964- 1974), a sequence of events that seemed to expose the underlying corruption of American institutions: the Vietnam War, racial violence, campus protest, feminism, environmentalism, consumerism, and the final paroxysm, Watergate. In "the seventies" (1974-1984) the news was just as bad, but now most of it concerned the economy: the energy crisis, surging interest rates, and a great inflation sandwiched between two major recessions.
The failures of the sixties and seventies were failures of government. Not only was the federal government unable to manage problems like Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, and the energy crisis but it had created those problems in the first place. To the Depression generation, government meant the New Deal, the Second World War, and the prosperity of the fifties: government was the solution. To the generation that came of age in the sixties and seventies, government was the problem.
The single most prominent characteristic of public opinion during the seventies was wide-spread disillusionment with government. The public did not reverse its position on the legitimacy of most government functions, such as helping the poor and regulating business. But the feeling grew that the federal government had become excessively wasteful and ineffective in carrying out those functions. Something had to be done. This sentiment led to the tax revolt of 1978 and, two years later, to the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency and the Republican takeover of the Senate.
The anti-government revolt had been brewing for many years. Polls taken by the University of Michigan showed steadily rising anti-government feeling beginning in 1964. The percentage of Americans who believed that they could trust the government in Washington "to do what is right" most or all of the time went from 76 percent in 1964 to 54 percent in 1970, to 33 percent in 1976, and to 25 percent in 1980. The proportion who felt that the government was run "by a few big interests looking out for themselves" was 29 percent in 1964, 50 percent in 1970, and 69 percent in 1980. Less than half of the public in 1964 thought that the government wasted a lot of tax money; the figure was two thirds in 1970 and more than three quarters by 1980. Reagan's conservative regime is a natural consequence of this trend.
The anti-government revolt is now over, the polls say. Every one of the trends monitored by the Michigan political-trust questions has ceased or reversed direction. Tax resentment has declined measurably, not just over federal income taxes (which have, after all, been reduced) but also over Social Security taxes (which have gone up) and state and local taxes. The public now favors higher spending on domestic social programs and no further increases in the military budget. The revolt against government lost its edge as Reaganomics took shape and inflation subsided.
The politicians, however, don't seem to have noticed that the anti-government revolt is over. Republicans talk about preserving and extending the Reagan revolution against government, not modifying it. A *New York Times* survey prior to the 1986 congressional races found that "as Republican congressional candidates around the country...attack their opponents as free-spending 'Tip O'Neill liberals,' Democrats are resorting to a variety of tactics to shed that label....Democrats are going to great lengths...to demonstrate their tight-fisted patriotism." In September the Democratic Policy Commission, which was mandated to define a new image for the party, came up with a centrist document that tried to cut the party's link to big government. Instead of a ringing affirmation of traditional Democratic goals--fairness, equity, jobs, and new government programs to improve the quality of life--the statement offers a commitment to "choices and opportunities," "achievement and progress," and "a growing economy." It tactfully omits any mention of divisive social issues such as abortion, affirmative action, and homosexual rights. But it includes tough criticism of the Soviet Union ("Democrats harbor no illusions about arms control") and a strong commitment to protecting the family.
Are the politicians slow to pick up on what's happening in the country? Has Reagan cowed the Democratic Party into submission? Actually politicians are good at reading the public mood. They have a strong interest in getting it right. They know that if the anti-government revolt is over, that's because it has been judged a success by most voters. There is little public support for undoing what Reagan has done and going back to the bad old days of high inflation and low military security. Like most successful revolutions, the Reagan revolution has become a national consensus.
Both parties have to adjust to this fact. It is not particularly easy on the Republicans, who have to figure out just what is next on their agenda. Senator Paul Laxalt says, "Those who are philosophically like-minded with the President still constitute a very small minority of this government....The President is going to have to continue putting key people in policy positions. And whoever follows must do the same thing for several years." Without a Republican majority in the Senate, Senator Baker says, "the Democrats will crucify [Reagan] in the remaining two years of his term. I don't think the public wants that to happen." The message is, protect the revolution.
Jack Kemp, however, is fairly bursting with ideas, plans, schemes, and enthusiasms. "What are going to be the issues and policy reforms necessary to take a new beginning into a renaissance, if not a completion, then an expansion, of what has been done? We have to find some way to bring the minority communities and the inner cities into the economic expansion. And, very frankly, the Third World and the rest of the world too." Kemps ambitions--"Tomorrow the world!"--have so far met with a noticeable absence of enthusiasm from the party faithful. "What's he getting so excited about?" asked a puzzled Republican state legislator listening to Kemp speak at a conference of state legislators in New Orleans. "I think things are going pretty good."
The Democrats, for their part, fall into several traps. One is to take consolation from polls indicating that Reagan's appeal is wholly personal, that people feel better about government, or that the welfare state is alive and well. The message seems to be, none of this is really happening, and if we just wait a couple of years, it will all blow over. The problem with this approach is that there are equally valid polls indicating that people are pretty much satisfied with the way things are going in the country, that Republican partisanship is substantially higher than it used to be, that voters trust the Republicans more than they do the Democrats at managing the economy and foreign policy, and that there is not much sentiment for a fundamental change of direction in the country. Those kinds of attitudes matter a good deal more than ideology when it comes time to vote.
But what about the 1986 midterm, when the Democrats regained control of the Senate "If there was a Reagan revolution, it's over," said the retiring House speaker, Tip O'Neill. That interpretation assumes that the 1986 midterm was a national referendum. The Administration tried to make it just that. President Reagan barnstormed nineteen states in an effort to create excitement, drive up turnout, and recast 1986 as a replay of 1980. It didn't work. The Democrats succeeded in focusing the campaign on local candidates and issues, even canceling their customary midterm conference in order to keep the national party invisible. Democrats cannot have it both ways: after avoiding national themes in the campaign. they can hardly claim that the election was a repudiation of the Reagan revolution.
Jeremiads are also quite popular in Democratic circles these days. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., one of the foremost prophets of doom, writes, "When the economic bubble bursts, and burst it will, the public will turn to F.D.R.'s affirmative Government not to Ronald Reagan's free market, for salvation." The Democratic Policy Commission calls attention to the "shrinking middle class" and to the "Swiss cheese economy' (that is, uneven prosperity). The deficit, the soothsayers say, is the handwriting on the wall: *Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.* Fair enough. If there is a major recession, the Democrats will undoubtedly prosper. The problem is that by incessantly warning of an impending catastrophe, Democrats sound as if they are rooting for it to happen. They just can't wait to say "I told you so."
When Democratic state chairmen met in Orlando in 1985, they were advised not to make the 1986 midterm a referendum on President Reagan or his policies. Participants were presented with the results of a research project showing that voters were no longer interested in the "fairness" issue. It just wasn't selling very well in 1985. It had been a big seller in 1982, a deep recession year when the Democrats called for "fairness" and made big gains. The explanation for the about-face is simple. When the economy is bad, everyone feels threatened; fairness comes to mean "us." When the economy is good, "we" can make it and if other people can't, it must be their own fault; fairness then comes to mean "them." "Middle-class voters all over the country read 'fairness' as 'not me but some other guy,'" a party official reported. "When party leaders talk about 'fairness,' middle-class voters see it as a code word for 'giveaway. '"
That, too, is a trap. Fairness--the party's commitment to working people and to the economically disadvantaged--is what voters like best about the Democratic Party. To his credit, Paul G. Kirk. Jr., the party leader, responded to the issue this way: "I don't want to be chairman of a party that would leave these people behind." Having stood on those principles for 150 years, the Democratic Party, the oldest continuing political party in the world, has acquired a certain brand-name loyalty.
When voters are asked what they like about the Democratic Party, they say, "It is more for the average person, the worker, the ordinary man, and less for the rich and the powerful." What do they dislike about the Democratic Party? "Too much government spending." The party's bulkiest problem, essentially, is how to maintain its decade-long commitment to fairness and equity without always talking about big government. "Of course it's a dilemma," Governor Mario Cuomo, of New York, said. "It's a very serious dilemma. One gets out of it only by communication, not by shifting positions. The Democratic governors, for instance, are all progressive pragmatists. That's the label I give myself. I love it. As people become familiar with it, it becomes the abnegation of everything they think about conservative and liberal, which is why we invented it."
What Cuomo seems to be suggesting is that the Democrats preserve their commitment to the party's goals (no "shifting positions") but show more flexibility on the means (be "pragmatists"). Pragmatics is precisely the Democrats' problem right now. The voters need reassurance about Democratic competence, not Democratic values. That is why so much attention is being focused on Democratic governors like Cuomo, Babbitt, Michael Dukakis, of Massachusetts, and James Blanchard, of Michigan, all of whom have acquired a can-do image, which is rare in the national party. When the passions of the moment are not in your favor, as they have not been for Democrats for the past six years, the best strategy is to offer a pragmatic alternative. The worst strategy is to frighten the voters with fantasies of retribution.
But in the end, the New American Politics presents as many problems for the Republicans as for the Democrats. Both parties are under the sway of activists who put values above interests and whose demand for ideological consistency makes little sense to ordinary voters. Parties controlled by issue activists are just as closed and just as elitist as parties controlled by bosses. In the larger electorate the only litmus test that matters is, will it work? Just as the Democrats' problems are driving their party toward pragmatism, the Republicans' success may drive their party toward a high-church mentality: the elected become the elect. Already the stories of Washington influence-peddling, disinformation campaigns, and covert activities are giving conservatives the image they hoped desperately to avoid--that of a new establishment. The covert policy of providing arms to Iran, in contradiction to stated U.S. principles and in violation of U.S law, is redolent of Richard Nixon's imperial presidency.
The 1960 election may offer the best example of what to expect in 1988. After eight years in office the Republicans in 1960 retired a popular and charismatic national hero and nominated his much less appealing Vice President. The Democrats took a chance on a young, largely unknown candidate who claimed to speak for a new generation. The Democrats promised to "get the country moving again." In 1988 the Democrats will probably say, "We can do better," meaning that they will retain what is good about the Reagan revolution and won't go back to the bad old days of Johnson and Carter, but that they will pay more attention to social and economic justice. The electorate will be torn between sticking with the tried-and-true and taking a chance on something new and different--but not too different. The election will be very close. In the past, in elections with no incumbent running, the party out of power has usually won. That's the good news for the Democrats. The bad news, as Senator Biden ruefully puts it, is, "This time we won't have Mayor Daley around to help count the ballots."
Copyright © 1987 by William Schneider. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January, 1987; The New Shape of American Politics; Volume 259, No. 1; pages 39-54.