This editorial originally appeared in the November 17, 1984, issue.
A few weeks ago, pollsters with nothing much better to do asked a sampling of citizens in select European countries about their preference in the American election. The majority in England (which had recently returned the conservative Margaret Thatcher to power) voted for Walter Mondale. The French (who have a Socialist President and parliament) chose Ronald Reagan. Of course there are any number of possible analyses of those results. One is that fickle electorates are likely to choose what they do not have over what they’ve got. But since the French results have coincided with the American, it seems more instructive to focus on that set. From Paris, Reagan looks a lot like Charles de Gaulle: the personification of national ego, the symbol of authority, the Christian with his cross and–to reach back a bit further into French history–the man on a horse. And from Washington, too, Reaganism bears an uncanny resemblance to Gaullism: a personal mission that has become a political movement, a bit fascistic perhaps, but a comfortable crusade which protects the powerful and precludes the poor.
Those without a sense of irony about American politics may find it hard to believe that a man of such limited vision, mediocre intellect and narrow comprehension can cut a figure of world-historical importance. But the election of 1984 was not about the best and the brightest. It was about national morale, and as General Eisenhower used to say, Morale is what wins battles. Mondale may have been right about the economic hard times ahead, about the dangers of war and intervention, about social inequity and the growing frustrations of the disempowered. But he gave the majority of voters no cause for optimism. He held out the dubious promise of taxes instead of profits, continued cold war rather than global triumph, scarcity against aggrandizement. Reagan sent spirits soaring with his wild predictions of an inflation-free, fully employed, high-growth and high-tech society where rich white old men–people much like himself–would be in command and control. And once again, voters chose the doctor who promised a cure over the one who said they must live for another term with their malaise. If it is assumed that all American politicians lie, at least Reagan’s lies were uplifting.
In the last hours of the campaign, Reagan harped on the notion that a grand realignment was under way, which would radically alter the relationship that had held since 1932 between the two major parties. What he meant, with characteristic simplicity, was that the Republicans would become a permanent majority. But the continued strength of the Congressional and local sectors of the Democratic Party suggests that changes of a different order must be identified. They involve the composition and the direction of both parties and, beyond that, the conduct of Presidential campaigns.