Commentary Magazine


Do the Voters Want Moderation?
The Politics of Evasion

The approaching election is knotted in a bundle of striking paradoxes. The Democratic position as majority party has scarcely been shaken; yet President Eisenhower seems destined to be reelected. The campaign promises to be as acrimonious as any in the past twenty years; yet the administration depends for Congressional support upon its opponents. The domestic and foreign issues of the next four years are momentous; yet an overpowering sense of apathy benumbs those who will go to the polls in November. Finally, the rival candidates are moderate men closer to each other than to the extreme elements among their own followers; yet each has closed ranks with his party and reserves his fire not for the dissidents with whom he disagrees, but for the opposition with whom he agrees.

In the face of the cross-currents that evoke these apparent contradictions, it is not surprising that the American voter is hesitant and uncertain. As he nears the booth some weeks hence, his mind may not altogether be made up. And any venture at predictions must necessarily be foolhardy.

This situation is obviously discouraging to the scholar, who prefers the more orderly perspective of the 19th century, when men seemed to sort themselves out almost spontaneously into liberals and conservatives in accord with their social and economic interests. Then the positions of candidates and voters on the tariff and currency could be neatly pigeonholed together with the consequent party identification. We have, indeed, more trustworthy instruments for measuring the struggle for power. To the traditional accounts of reporters and political scientists, there have been added, in the last fifteen years, an abundance of new data drawn from sociological and psychological investigations. If they do not, in themselves, aid in the task of prediction, these materials nevertheless immensely enrich our capacity for comprehending the problems of politics. Three recent works are typical, in their variety, of the width of available approaches to these complexities.

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We may usefully begin with an examination of the record of the Eisenhower administration, which seems to have given quite a new twist to American politics. Such a record is presented to us by Robert J. Donovan’s The Inside Story.1 Despite the sensational notices that accompanied its publication, the book is a straightforward account of the four years of the Republicans in office. Donovan is a competent reporter, and he has assembled his material with care. Although he has had access to minutes of the Cabinet meetings and to other documents not hitherto available, there are no surprises in his account, which grows tactfully vague at critical points. He is sympathetic to the Eisenhower wing of the party, and that naturally influences his interpretation at times. Yet the narrative seems thoroughly honest.

A review of Eisenhower’s tenure of power raises an immediate question. What in his achievements justifies the confidence that he will be re-elected? His reputation as a military leader was certainly a consequential factor in 1952. But the glory has worn off somewhat; and yet the succession of two shattering illnesses has not, thus far, shaken the faith of the electorate in his capacity to give them the leadership they desire. Furthermore, three and a half years of experience have given them ample opportunity for testing his promises against his performance. If they still look to him for guidance, it is not because of the magic of his name alone, but because of the conviction that he has actually given them what they want.

The domestic record is not impressive. The administration will, no doubt, claim credit for advances in civil rights and for the continued prosperity. But in these areas it has largely allowed trends already in process to go on. On the other hand, every effort to implement the campaign promises of 1952 has led to fiasco. The brief experiment with Republican fiscal policy led to an economic decline in the winter of 1953-54. The Benson farm program had to be abandoned in favor of agricultural subsidies thinly disguised under the Democratic device of a soil bank. And the Republican “new look” has in practice been too often involved with Dixon-Yates and Talbott affairs to give the orators much at which to point with pride.

Nor can the President claim to have reformed and modernized the Republican party, as many hoped he would. He has certainly strengthened and consolidated his own position; and changes in leadership have brought his supporters into power in some states. The reactionary wing of the party has not, however, been dislodged and is only biding its time. Moreover, there is no indication that the Republicans have won over substantial elements of the old New Deal coalition which they need to become more than a minority. There have been relatively few accessions of strength from the ranks of organized labor, from among Negroes and other minority groups, or within the South. Even suburbia feels but a wavering loyalty, as the elections of 1954 demonstrated. Finally, the President has not been able to divorce his administration from partisanship. Already in 1953 he took a narrow view of his position, and in the election of 1954 he campaigned more openly and more committedly than any President in the past.

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Foreign policy has been a succession of retreats. The brave talk of the opening months, when Chiang Kaishek was to be unleashed for an attack on the mainland, quickly subsided. There followed instead the withdrawal from the Tachen Islands, the loss of Indo-China, which opened the way for Communist penetration of Southeast Asia, and, most disastrous of all, the penetration of the Middle East by Soviet influence. For all the bluster of his Secretary of State, the President has consistently followed the line his predecessor marked out. He has concentrated upon the defense of Western Europe through NATO and the rearmament of Germany, upon mutual defense agreements wherever possible, and upon economic stimulus through aid and trade agreements. There is little here that can evoke enthusiasm.

On one point only has the President fulfilled the promises of his first electoral campaign. He resolved the stalemate in Korea, and he has acted to preserve peace. The dramatic moments of his administration were the visit to the Korean battlefront, the conclusion of the armistice with the Chinese Communists, and the summit conference at Geneva, which momentarily kindled the hope that an end to the cold war might be in sight. Whatever future judgments may be rendered on the long-term consequences of these measures, their immediate popularity was beyond question.

Why should the longing for peace and security have predominant weight for the voters? Why should this factor loom as the decisive, one in the coming election? To answer that question, one must re-examine the forces involved in the election of 1952.

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In doing so, we are fortunate to have at hand Samuel Lubell’s Revolt of the Moderates.2 Like his earlier work, this volume is rich in unique insights derived from his own methods of political analysis, Lubell is a reporter, but one who is far more than a careful observer and recorder of events. He lacks the formal, systematic approach of the social scientists, though he is aware of what they are up to; but he more than compensates for this by the skillful and perceptive nature of his approach. Talking to people as he moves about the country, he soaks up impressions which are illuminating because he knows what questions to ask, and because he is capable of going back into history far enough to find the roots of the answers.

There are numerous valuable features in the book—shrewd delineations of Eisenhower, McCarthy, Nixon, and Humphrey; perceptive analyses of contemporary Southern politics and of the farm problem; and a good study of the development of isolationism. But the most valuable contribution is the conception of American politics as a functioning system. Lubell understands the complexity of political motivation. The forces operating upon the electorate are like a wide stream in which a variety of currents are mingled. At any given moment, several different currents sweep the voter along. What determines his final ballot is the total configuration within which one element rather than another acquires decisive force.

Party affiliations today are influenced by both ethnic and economic issues. Cultural and social heritage makes men Republicans or Democrats, and sets limits to the degree to which they shift from one party to another. A comparison of the vote in New York City, for instance, reveals the importance of divisions between Catholics and Jews. In the same manner, Lubell demonstrates that German Americans of even the third generation retain loyalties that significantly influence their political behavior. Since such ethnic loyalties are normally binding, a majority of the nation is probably Democratic, attached to the party of F.D.R. by the New Deal coalition of minorities. Republican strength, by contrast, has been drawn largely from rural and old-stock Yankee sources, elements of diminishing importance.

The situation is complicated by the factor of economic interest. Careful studies of a number of cities show a high degree of stratification in voting, with the Democrats more powerful among the lower social and economic groups and the Republicans more powerful among the upper. In the nature of the case, therefore, economic issues, too, normally favor the Democrats, as the election of 1948 proved.

In neither respect was 1952 normal, however. Booming prosperity reduced the importance of traditional economic issues; and resentment at the results of World War II shook the allegiance to the Democratic party of some disillusioned ethnic groups, particularly that of the Germans and Irish who still nursed grievances that dated back to 1917. Under these circumstances, Lubell shows, all other questions were subsumed under that of peace. The inflationary high cost of living and discontent with the dragging cold war were alike attributed to the unsatisfactory stalemate in Korea. The pervasive desire for a change reflected an intense wish for some resolution of that stalemate. By the time the Korean armistice was achieved in 1953, all other issues had dwindled in importance; the conclusion of the Korean war left Americans eager above all for stability.

Moderation therefore has become the predominant mood of the nation. The great popular objectives are the preservation of peace, maintenance of the balance among the country’s diverse ethnic elements, and the prevention of “excesses” either in the direction of free enterprise or of government control. Politicians and voters alike seek a kind of equilibrium within which no trend will acquire too much force in the government. The inclination to vote against whoever is in power; the willingness to leave Congress in the hands of one party and the Presidency in the hands of the other; and the attractiveness of moderate candidates like Stevenson and Eisenhower, alike express that mood. So runs Lubell’s argument.

This explanation is sound insofar as it applies to events down through the election of 1952. It is not, however, altogether convincing as an elucidation of the sentiments of the American electorate of today. If we turn our attention away from the elections and direct it toward the actual course and conduct of government, we find few signs of a “revolt of the moderates.” For almost twenty years, essentially the same groups have controlled the national government with only slight interference from electoral changes. A coalition of Southern and Midwestern Senators, Democrats and Republicans, has maintained a firm grip on the operations of the legislature despite the shifts of party majorities in 1946, 1948, 1952, and 1954. Their influence has also carried extraordinary weight in the executive, since the failure of F.D.R.’s purge. Moderation is only the current term for the conservative, rural philosophy of this coalition.

The tendency on the part of American voters today to support the opposition, to vote against whoever is in, may therefore have a significance different from that which Lubell ascribes to it. It may express the frustrations of an electorate which has frequently, under both parties, seen its wishes set aside by unrepresentative legislators who hold power through undemocratic districting and the seniority system. Such frustrations, repeated over a long period, have generated a negative, almost skeptical mood concealed in the acquiescence in moderation. Those frustrations may also have been involved in the interlude of demagogy through which the country passed between 1950 and 1954.

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The swift obscurity to which Senator Joseph McCarthy has recently descended follows a period in which he occupied the very center of the American political stage. The fears of those who formerly considered him a serious threat to democracy were probably never justified. But his rise in power coincided with the spread of the “moderate” mood—although he was himself by no means a moderate—and the relation between the man and the mood deserves examination.

In that task, we have the assistance of The New American Right, a stimulating collection of essays edited by Daniel Bell.3 Although the individual contributions are extremely uneven, and some of them drift away in loose generalization and inaccuracy, the volume brings together a useful body of information that illuminates the central problem.

The unifying hypothesis of the work is the development in the last half-century or so of a radical right composed of groups in revolt against the respectable possessing classes of American society. This trend is the product of the rootlessness and the heterogeneity of American life, which evokes in some personalities a demand for conformity that is almost authoritarian in character. In periods of depression that demand is channeled along class lines, but in periods of prosperity and inflation it takes form in the struggle for status.

In the past, the struggle for status was expressed politically in movements directed against immigrants, as were the Know-Nothings, the American Protective Association, and the Ku Klux Klan. But now, the children of the immigrants have themselves become involved in the quest for status; and given their origins, they can find no release in xenophobia. Instead, their “dynamic dissent” takes the form of emphasis upon their own Americanism and “ideological intolerance” of the elite of intellectuals and business leaders identified with the East and its cosmopolitan connections. That reversal is particularly significant among German Americans and Irish Catholics, who were themselves only recently among the victims of intolerance. The “exhaustion of liberal and left-wing political ideology” creates “vulnerable targets for their hatred” and allows “enthusiasm without intelligence” to reign. McCarthyism, “this outburst of direct democracy,” thus “comes straight from the leftist rhetoric of the old Populists and Progressives.”

Not all the authors who contribute essays to this volume would agree with every detail of this generalized thesis. But it supplies a valid basis for discussion.

Analysis of these ideas may usefully begin with an examination of the connection established between McCarthyism and its presumed Populist or Progressive antecedents. I was, I think, the first to point to the strains of hostility against Jews and immigrants in Populist thought (Commentary, May 1951). But I considered it important then, and still do, to emphasize that the use of negative stereotypes did not make the movement itself anti-Semitic or xenophobic. Faith in well-defined goals of social justice and equality was the positive element in this dissent, and that faith exerted a decisive restraint upon those who enlisted under the varied banners of reform.

McCarthyism was distinctive in its lack of a positive ideology. The empty negative quality of McCarthy’s position was decisively revealed during the army hearings of May 1954, when he attempted to explain the nature of Americanism and of the Communist threat to it; and that, more than any other single incident, marked the turn in popular sentiment against him.

The earlier movements were also different to the extent that they were movements, organized in societies with recognized modes of expression. One cannot identify the Know-Nothings, the A.P.A., or the Klan with a single individual; their mass following was what was significant. McCarthy had allies and supporters, but in retrospect it is startling to recall how little success he had in transmuting that support into a functioning organization. Throughout he operated as the free-wheeling individual, and his power disappeared without a trace in the face of the first determined opposition.

That raises a disturbing question. What do we know about McCarthy’s following? Its political significance, after all, was never tested. McCarthyism was not an issue in the election of 1946; in 1952 he ran behind the rest of the Republican ticket; and in 1954 his support was nowhere effective. It is at least a possibility that his power was needlessly inflated by the fears and lack of confidence of those he attacked.

McCarthy did express a mood prevalent in American society, though it was not the mood of moderation described by Lubell. More certainly McCarthy reflected the widespread intellectual confusion of the first four years of this decade. Whether large numbers of Americans would have supported him in any practical test or not, many of them, including the moderates, agreed that he was asking appropriate questions that no one else ventured to raise. What were those questions?

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All three volumes before us insist upon the extent of popular responsibility for present-day political trends. “Congress is what it is,” Lubell writes, “primarily because that is what the American people are like.” The authors of The New American Right stress the significance of McCarthy’s following, and Donovan frequently emphasizes the President’s responsiveness to the popular will.

Yet American political leadership shared that responsibility. McCarthyism thrived in soil prepared by a decade’s failure to define a meaningful position toward the challenge of Communism. On what basis could the South Boston Irishman or Wisconsin fanner judge McCarthy when Eisenhower himself embraced the Senator in the campaign of 1952, and for two years thereafter responded to every attack by turning his subordinates’ other cheek?

President Truman had been hardly any less ambiguous. On the one hand, he had appeared to dismiss the whole issue as a red herring; yet on the other, he had initiated the security procedures that were eliminating the disloyal from office. And earlier still had been Roosevelt’s failure. As Earl Browder moved in and out of jail in response to shifts of the party line, and as policy alternated between disapproval of the Soviet Union in 1939 and approval of it in 1941, all standards of judgment were necessarily confused. Hence the eagerness for questions that would at last bring the issue into the open.

This long-term uneasiness was heightened by the general ambiguity of foreign policy. Lubell treats, as others have, the vote on the draft law extension in 1941 as a test of isolationism. With war so close upon the horizon, it was foolhardy to cut back American military strength. But the confusion of the opposition Congressmen becomes more comprehensible when one discovers that President Roosevelt was then publicly insisting that war was not imminent and that the extension was needed for flimsy technical reasons.

The incident was symptomatic. From the outbreak of the Spanish civil war onward there was a transparent lack of candor in what the people were told. For whatever reason, on the questions of the arms embargo, of aid to the Allies, of relations with Russia and China, the statesmen charged with the responsibility for formulating policy did not take the voters of the nation into their full confidence. That may have been an error; or that may have been the less damaging horn of an unavoidable dilemma. In any case, it was tragic. For in pursuing the course they did, the leadership of the democracy shrank from the obligation of defining these issues for the electorate in such a manner that its choices at the polling places would be meaningful. That disastrous failure was as much the fault of conservatives as of liberals, of Republicans as of Democrats.

The paradoxes of today’s political situation are part of the reckoning. The radical right profited briefly from the opportunity to ask embarrassing questions. Once its charlatanry was exposed, it lost the confidence of the electorate. But the issues have not yet been clearly defined. In the cheerfully vague oratory of the times, peace is a way to liberate the satellites, strategic retreats in every part of the globe strengthen a military position, and small, cheap armies, under God, are more powerful than large expensive ones—and better for the budget. Moderation is thus good, and good for you.

In the context of this past, moderation means evading the necessity of choice, the suspense of inaction between undesirable alternatives. After twenty years of confused striving, the voters value above all else the appearance of peace and stability that the Eisenhower administration has given them. Whether they can long afford to hold the pose of indecision in the face of the changing world about them, is another question, and one about which few can afford to be complacent.

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Footnotes

1 Harper, 423 pp., $4.95.

2 Harper, 308 pp., $3.75. [Parts of this book were published in COMMENTARY for March and April of this year.—ED.]

3 Criterion, 239 pp., $4.00.

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