Commentary Magazine


Changing of the Guard, by David Broder

Rear Guard?

Changing of the Guard.
by David Broder.
Simon & Schuster. 512 pp. $14.95.

There is an unintended irony in the title of David Broder’s new book, since it is his thesis that political leadership in the coming decade will be inherited by the veterans of the various liberal and leftist movements of the 1960′s. For Broder, the changing of the guard signifies the transfer of power from the generations of liberals whose attitudes were formed by the Depression and World War II to the generation for whom the decisive experiences were the civil-rights and anti-war struggles. Not that Broder ignores or is in any way hostile to the new generation of conservatives. He is, in fact, struck by the “intellectual self-confidence of young conservatives, not only in contrast with their predecessors of the past but, dramatically, in contrast to the floundering on what was the Left of the political spectrum.”

However much Broder is impressed by conservatism’s intellectual vigor, he nonetheless believes that the power of ideas is not enough to assure electoral success. More important, in his view, is the fact of a generation’s being “connected to its time” by having participated in the “shaping experiences” of the era. Here the young liberals who are emerging as a dominant force in the Democratic party have a distinct and, Broder feels, crucial advantage, since the causes to which they gave their abilities and emotions—principally the movement to desegregate the South and the struggle to end the Vietnam war—exerted a powerful influence on the consciousness of an entire generation, and not just on the activists themselves. By contrast, in Broder’s view the struggles which engaged the energies of youthful conservatives—the Gold-water and the first two Reagan campaigns, the anti-abortion movement—have had a much more peripheral impact on this key generation, even though they evoked great enthusiasm in their partisans.

Broder acknowledges that the new generation of liberals spent much of its early energies “bulldozing and battering the institutions of our politics and government” through acts of civil disobedience and protest and, later, by pushing through a variety of party and congressional “reforms.” Broder is dubious about some of the reforms, but is nonetheless optimistic about the new generation’s future capacity to govern. The objective of its members, he contends, was “not to destroy, but to change” American government and society. Finally, Broder believes that the “movement” nature of their early political involvement will prove an important asset insofar as it has led to the creation of a loose network, an unofficial shadow administration, of political activists sharing common experiences, values, goals, and ambitions.

The irony, of course, is that a major changing of the guard has taken place, but not along the lines anticipated by Broder. Although the Reagan landslide does not represent the assumption of power by a new political generation, it most surely does reflect a repudiation of the policies and attitudes which define today’s liberalism. And as we have often been reminded in the weeks since November 4, the election exposed the Democrats as a party bereft of serious ideas about the country’s economic and foreign-policy problems. Since the younger generation of Democrats would be expected to play a major role in the party’s ideological revitalization, Changing of the Guard performs a valuable service by presenting a broad and objective examination of its most talented and successful members.

The author interviewed scores of young men and women engaged in political life. Many are directly involved in government as elected officials, congressional aides, or jobholders in the Carter administration. Others are active in politics through labor unions, corporations, “public-interest” organizations, or because of special feminist or minority concerns. There are also community organizers, spokesmen for the New Right, and a handful of Marxists who have reached public office. Those interviewed are pretty much allowed to speak for themselves, and the emphasis is on the forces and experiences which shaped their political convictions, their personal accomplishments, and their views on the most important problems facing America.

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For anyone still perplexed by the Democratic party’s recent misfortunes, a careful look at these interviews can be quite revealing. For one thing, it suggests that the much-heralded collapse of liberal ideology is a more serious problem than even the election debacle would indicate. The conventional analysis is that liberalism’s dilemma stems from a failure to advance beyond the policies and attitudes embodied in the career of Hubert Humphrey: a reliance on economic growth as the principal means of curbing poverty, a generous and ever-expanding system of social-welfare benefits, and a foreign policy stressing containment of the Soviet Union and aid to the developing world. But it is important to keep in mind that many new-generation liberals have consciously rejected the Humphrey tradition. “We are not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” Gary Hart declared upon winning election to the Senate in 1974 following a campaign in which the slogan “They’ve had their turn; it’s our turn now” was calculated to differentiate him as much from his Democratic elders as from his Republican opponent.

What then is being offered by the new generation to replace the doctrines of traditional liberalism? Very little, it would appear, at least based on the interviews conducted by Broder. As students, these men and women were the leaders of a generation routinely described as idealistic, creative, and above all else, issue-oriented. Yet today the last thing they want is to confront the social, economic, and foreign-policy issues over which the last election was fought and on which the future of America depends.

For many, the world-shaking changes sought in their youth have been replaced by far more humble goals. They speak with pride of having promoted more open and efficient government, of being more accessible to the public, of maintaining their “independence” from the established party organizations, and of their opposition to the spoils system. They also demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the most effective campaign techniques. As Carl Wagner, an aide to Senator Edward Kennedy, notes, the “best candidates in the history of American politics have come from our generation” when measured by their “understanding of media, campaigns, elections . . . the process of public communications.”

Yet however well this generation of Democrats may have mastered the techniques of electioneering, they have notably failed to meet the more imposing challenges of developing broad political strategies. In Changing of the Guard, it is only the Republicans who give evidence of having devoted serious thought to the questions which ultimately determine the fate of parties or movements. In contrast to the procedural and good-government concerns on which the Democrats focus, Republicans like Jack Kemp emphasize their commitment to expanding the base of GOP support and the develoment of ideas which will contribute to the success of a political strategy.

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As members of the minority party, the Republicans have greater incentive to theorize about the creation of new majority coalitions and so their assertiveness here is not necessarily surprising. More illuminating is the inability of the Democratic liberals to offer anything that resembles a serious contribution to the debates over racial inequality and America’s world role, the two issues which presumably inspired them to embark on political struggle in the first place. Concerning racial policy, hardly anything at all is said, except by blacks themselves, who come across as refreshingly optimistic, pragmatic, and candid about the shortcomings of past experiments like school decentralization and the antipoverty program. On foreign affairs, the liberals are even further adrift. Those few who do venture a thought about America’s position in world affairs seem to believe that the main adversary facing the United States is not the Soviet Union, but the American people’s illusions about their own country’s power. Thus Matthew Nimetz, at forty-one a high-level official in the Carter State Department, draws the conclusion that “in order to reach accommodation around the world, there will have to be a gradual giving up of what we used to call sovereignty.” A related theme is struck by Peter C. Goldmark, Jr., the forty-year-old director of the Port Authority of New York: “The world not only can’t afford to have other people like us . . . it may not be able to afford us being like us.”

One suspects that tattered clichés like these are simply a way of evading what for this generation must be an ominous question: is a weakened America good for the world? A few years ago, many no doubt believed that the effects of an America in retreat would be relatively benign. But the time when people could throw bricks at the United States without having to worry about the repercussions drew to a close with the fall of Saigon. America is no longer the supreme power it once was, and its critics no longer have the security of knowing that whatever they say or do, America will forever remain preeminent.

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The liberals who appear in this book seem dimly aware of these sobering realities, but at the same time are decidedly uncomfortable with them. The tipoff is the frequency with which yearnings are expressed for conviction, certitude, and strong leadership. Carol Bellamy, New York City Council President and a civil-rights and anti-war activist before entering electoral politics, speaks longingly of the “special kind of certainty” expressed during her days in the movement. “We knew our goals, we knew our friends, and we knew our enemies. I wonder if we will ever be as certain again.”

Where once all issues were perceived in black-and-white terms, now everything appears as a gray haze. Political life, we are repeatedly informed, is full of “ambiguities” and “complexities.” Repeated often enough, however, these themes impress one as a camouflage concealing confusion and ambivalence. And no wonder. Those who in the past gave their allegiance to causes which sought the weakening of American power—both domestically and in its global relations—now face the inescapable challenge of rebuilding that strength. Thus far they have not only failed to meet this challenge, they really haven’t even taken it up. This fact goes a long way toward explaining why the voters rejected liberalism in 1980. Moreover, it suggests that as the Democrats proceed to set their house in order, they may learn that many of the values and assumptions of the antiwar era pose a substantial obstacle which, unless thoroughly cast aside, could doom the party to the status of an enfeebled minority.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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