Ike’s win in 1952 can be attributed to a case of national insecurity.
Readers in search of the meaning of the election—as who is not?— may make a selection from the variety of explanations offered by the distinguished contributors to the symposium published in this issue. But one meaning we reject: that the election can be regarded solely as a personal triumph for General Eisenhower. That it was a personal triumph goes without saying. But not to realize that it was a great deal more is to underestimate the emotions of the impressive majority whose votes swept the General into power. It is also to misread past events and likely future developments.
For us the outstanding fact which emerged from the Eisenhower victory is the feeling of insecurity that pervades the American electorate. Obviously Eisenhower had no program that could provide security. Obviously Stevenson was talking sense, and the record of the Democratic Party in historical perspective offered a firmer basis of security than did the Republican Party, its leadership, or Eisenhower’s “team.” But sense was rolled under by a wave of anxiety such as the American people had seldom experienced, and it was on this wave that Eisenhower rode to victory.
The components of the voters’ mood were fear of the extension of the Korean war and desperation over the long stalemate, fear of communism stimulated by the unbridled campaign joined in by Democrats and Republicans alike, fear of economic collapse produced by inflation, high taxes, and doubt about America’s ability to remain prosperous without war or war preparations. The Democrats showed little creative initiative in the campaign. It was Eisenhower who broke the ice in which the key issue of Korea had been encased, more by accident than by design, and once the issue was in the open, public feeling found expression. It did not matter that the General had nothing specific to propose, or that what he did say was empty and demagogic. He relieved anxiety by seeming to make the issue paramount, by insisting that he would do something about it. The Democrats, on the other hand, failed to recognize the intensity of the feeling; their negative attitude was taken as indifference by those whose indignation had been aroused by the stalemate and continued losses in Korea.
On the issue of inflation the Democrats angered millions of voters by overdoing their claim that Americans “never had it so good.” Squeezed by mounting taxes and high prices, many voters were under an enormous strain; if you are broke, there is nothing much to worry about, but inflation creates special neuroses. Again, it mattered little that the Republicans had a much worse record in Congress on all measures relating to inflation; at least they did not outrage the feelings of the man in the street, or more particularly the woman in the home, by a cynical slogan and the assumption that everybody was rich and comfortable.
A corollary factor was the issue of corruption. Americans particularly resent corruption and favoritism in the collection of taxes. The Nixon affair indicates that integrity is not a partisan virtue, but what aroused millions of voters was the complacent attitude of the President and some of his closest advisers toward revelations of widespread if rather petty venality in the Administration. To point back to the grand-scale corruption of the last Republican regime was of no avail in offsetting recent scandals.
In different circumstances the issue of communism—as a domestic menace—would not have been of major importance. But the strain of the last few years created a mood of fear in which the poison of anti-Communist demagoguery spread far and wide. The disposition to seek a scapegoat is always present, but it assumes the proportions of a mass movement only when people feel a real need for one—that is, in a time of trouble. Furthermore, the incontestable fact that we are fighting Communists in Korea and are engaged in a cold war with Communist Russia invested the wildest of McCarthy’s charges with a bogus reality. Democratic denunciations of McCarthyism were robbed of much of their effect by the serious inroads made on civil liberties in the past four years either by the Administration or with its approval. This was the moment for a vigorous attack on the myth that communism represents a real threat to the American way of life. Instead, some Democrats even made the tactical blunder of catering to the hysteria which McCarthy was exploiting. For example, the supporters of Senator Benton, in reply to red-baiting opposition ads, ran full-page ads assuring Connecticut voters that Senator Benton was more “anti-Communist” than McCarthy and that he, not Joe, was the man Stalin really fears.
Another important factor in Eisenhower’s victory was the machinery and technique of his campaign. No one will ever know how many millions were spent to establish the General’s monopoly of television and radio, day and night, and to hammer away at the sales resistance of voters. In addition, a tightly knit organization worked steadily—from the precinct level up—to bring out the vote for Ike.
Contrast this with the Democratic apparatus. Governor Stevenson developed great appeal as a candidate, but the campaign in his behalf was inefficient and even, on the part of some city machines, half-hearted. The Democrats were badly handicapped by lack of funds, but elbow grease was lacking too. There was inadequate liaison between the party and the Volunteers for Stevenson. The latter did a creditable job in some areas but operated in others as if the Governor’s chief problem was to carry the fashionable suburbs. Even labor, which had a very large stake in electing Stevenson, made a late start. In key states like California and New York the Democratic Party was seriously divided. The defeat of Representative Richard B. Vail in the Second Illinois Congressional District indicates what good political organization—in this instance by the Independent Voters of Illinois—might have accomplished elsewhere.
But whatever the reasons for Eisenhower’s victory, to deny that it was a party as well as a personal triumph is to minimize the extent of reaction’s victory. The Republican-Dixiecrat coalition and its allies in the China lobby scored heavily in the election. The close division in Congress conceals the fact that on domestic social issues and many foreign issues Eisenhower can count on a big majority in both houses. Certainly he will have less trouble with Democratic Senators Byrd, George, Eastland, Hoey, Holland, and McClelland than with some Republicans. The defeat of Republicans Cain, Kem, and Ecton is more than offset by other gains scored by the coalition. A glance at the new chairmen of key Senate committees will indicate the extent of the coalition’s success: Jenner—Rules; Capehart—Banking and Currency; McCarthy—Expenditures in the Executive Department, the chief investigative committee; Millikin—Finance; Butler (replacing Senator O’Mahoney)—Interior and Insular Affairs; Taft—Labor; Martin— Public Works. Only the possible substitution of Langer for McCarran as chairman of the Judiciary Committee could possibly be scored as a setback for the coalition.
That Eisenhower paced the other Republican nominees in Wisconsin does not mean that he can now be relied upon to keep McCarthy in his place. The General may call for unity, but the right-wing “radicals” are already demanding more purges and inquisitions. The returns were hardly in before David Lawrence, in his column in the New York Herald Tribune, scornfully rejected the notion of a political amnesty: the fight must go on, “the guilty must be punished.” In these times his insistence that the new majority would not forget the “men of education, men of learning, men who teach in our colleges” who had made charges against McCarthy in supporting Stevenson carries sinister implications.
Liberal Democrats and independents should acknowledge the “why” of Eisenhower’s victory, recognize the mistakes made in the campaign and prior to it, and then take heart from the size of the popular vote for Governor Stevenson and the extent to which the election fight set the stage for a basic realignment of the two major parties. The solid South is disintegrating. The coalition is openly in power, not conspiring behind a bipartisan mask. The Dixiecrats, McCarrans, McCarthys, and Tafts now frankly acknowledge the identity of their interests. Given the situation which has emerged, it is much better in the long run for liberals to be in honest opposition than to maintain a precarious hold on political power by opportunistic tactics and discreditable alliances. But the beginning of wisdom, on the morning after reaction’s stunning victory, is to face the facts and not to join in magnifying America’s new “leader.”