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.
Republicans and some Democrats accused Mondale of extremism and radicalism, of obeisance to special economic and ideological interests and of adherence to the unpopular principles of George McGovern. But Mondale was no baby of the left. A decent man, his most imaginative act was his selection of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. But he was adopted, with no kicking or screaming, by the centrist establishment of his party, and he expressed their neoliberal program, which was no program at all but a rhetoric of lowered expectations laced with limp protestations of patriotism and appeals to altruism and compassion. Whether he liked it or whether he acknowledged it, this was Ben Wattenberg’s dream campaign; the poly-scl pragmatists, A.F.L.-C.I.O. bureaucrats and party pros around the country wanted neoliberalism and they got it. It was faithful to the fiscal demands of the New York banks, the foreign policy of the national security community and the corporate policy developed in economic departments across the length and breadth of Eastern Massachusetts. When Mondale signed on to that package at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco (“I will raise taxes”), his electoral fate was sealed. The party’s right-wing constituencies correctly perceived that they could get more for their money from Reagan. The left, also correctly, felt cheated, excluded and demeaned. The powerful demands that had been expressed in the Jackson campaign and the Rainbow Coalition–on issues of class, race and international affairs–were by and large ignored in the Mondale campaign. Only an antipathy to Reagan and a fear of nuclear holocaust united Democratic voters; a button which appeared in late October expressed the bottom line of the Democratic appeal: “Vote Mondale/At Least You May Live To Regret It.”
A Politics of Opposition
There is bound to be a long contest for power and leadership in the Democratic Party, and its lines will be drawn in a very few weeks. The many contradictions of Reaganism and the several problems the Administration will soon face will engender a new politics of opposition, both within and without conventional political structures. If, as expected, the business cycle works its black magic in the marketplace and the first Reagan recovery gives way to the second Reagan recession, alternative economic programs will be formulated in Congress and at the grass-roots level. If Reagan makes good on his gleeful election night exclamation–“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”–and makes more military moves around the world, the inevitable protests that come in response will give energy and substance to the opposition. Tax reform, which is supposed to be high on the Administration’s legislative agenda this winter, will provide an opportunity for those who favor economic redistribution to struggle with others who will settle for bureaucratic simplification.
Another struggle is about to begin among the Republicans. The lure of an empty White House (in 1988) and the limitations of a lame-duck President, whatever his electoral mandate, will set politicians against each other and blocs to vying for power. If Jesse Helms makes a bid for the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (in the wake of Charles Percy’s defeat), not only Democrats will be moved to organize against him. Even before the final vote tallies were in, Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota and Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware went on television to denounce the Helms possibility. That fight, if it materializes, will by its nature be a struggle against Reaganism, for Helms is the most militant ideologue of the movement and its principal spokesman in the Senate.
Republican moderates have taken a drubbing in the last few years, but they have strong local constituencies–in the Northeast and the Pacific Coast states, for instance–and they have a perfect opportunity for picking up Reagan’s yuppie voters when any one of a number of possible axes falls on that ingenue constituency. If Reagan is forced to delete tax deductions for home and condominium mortgages and for interest payments on credit accounts, a major revolt will develop among those most affected: young families on the way up. It is easier to imagine a moderate Republican strategy for including such people in an electoral coalition than it is to think of a successful Democratic one.
The outcome of certain local and Congressional races this year and a preliminary analysis of the behavior of voters in various blocs indicate that the internal shifts within both parties will be more significant than the overall realignment. The defeat of Republican Raymond Shamie (a former John Bircher) in the Massachusetts senatorial contest confirms that the Republican right in that state (and in most of New England) is a permanent minority faction. Elliot Richardson, the essence of Republican moderation, lost to Shamie in the primary, but he would probably have beaten Democratic liberal John Kerry in November. On the other hand, Democratic Representative Paul Simon’s victory over Senator Percy in Illinois suggests that progressive Democrats can put together winning coalitions if they speak to the demands of their various constituent groups.
A New Coalition
Everyone can find a comforting or confirmatory lesson in local elections, for there are always special conditions and unique cases to take into account. But as T.S. Eliot wrote, “All cases are unique, and very similar to others.” The similarities are what ultimately matter. And what is similar about all the elections beneath the Presidential one is that coalitions do count.
It should be clear enough now that the Democratic coalition cannot be held together by appeals to past practices and traditional loyalties. Mondale lost most of his vaunted special interests because he was not able to offer them anything significantly more than, or sufficiently different from, what his opponent did. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition pointed to another way: the fusion of grass-roots demands into a political movement. It was the only real left alternative to the ideological drama of Reaganism, and as such it provided the most excitement in a lackluster Democratic campaign. It could not get further than it did because the essential hard work had barely begun within the coalition’s constituencies.
Because it happened at a particular time and place in history, the Jackson campaign faced insurmountable problems of leadership, image and organization. But the model it offered the Democrats should not be forgotten. The kind of coalition it envisioned depends on political organization and, for want of a better phrase, consciousness-raising inside its member groups. The burden falls on political progressives in unions, in the Jewish community, in ethnic organizations, in the women’s and gay movements, in rural areas and inner-city ghettos, among conservationists, nuclear protesters and Central America solidarity groups, to develop the bases for unity.
The 1984 election may well have finished off the old Democratic coalition, weak and feeble after years of neglect and disrespect. A new one is struggling to be born, and the time is ripe for delivery.