Commentary Magazine


Our Country, by Michael Barone

Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan.
by Michael Barone.
Free Press. 805 pp. $29.95.

This book is mislabeled. The title promises that it will do for 1932-88 what Mark Sullivan’s Our Times did for 1900-25 and Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday did for 1920-30. Barone’s book is even longer than theirs, but his focus is much narrower: it is essentially an electoral history, an account of the presidential and congressional campaigns and elections from the launching of the New Deal to the end of Reagan’s second term.

Barone concentrates mainly on explaining why particular aspirants got their parties’ presidential nominations, what kind of campaigns they put on, why one candidate or another won the general elections, and why each party’s share of the seats in Congress increased or decreased. To buttress his explanation he often throws in brief between-elections descriptions of the state of the economy, longer descriptions of struggles over legislation, and even longer analyses of the state of public opinion. But his book will interest mainly psephology buffs (like me); there is little in it for people who might want to know about sports, music, sexual mores, the status of women and minorities, television programming, or any of the many other aspects of American life that have changed so radically since 1932.

Barone has been best known as the co-editor, with Grant Ujifusa, of The Almanac of American Politics, an invaluable series of biennial compilations of presidential and congressional election returns supplemented by short profiles of the winners. His experience explains many of this book’s virtues and failings. On the virtues side, its 670 pages of text and 93 pages of endnotes provide by far the most massive collection of electoral facts and “factlets” (the term is one of Nelson Polsby’s contributions to the vocabulary of political analysis) ever published in a single book. This yields, among other happy results, a number of nuggets for the psephologists’ version of Trivial Pursuit.

I learned from Barone, for example, that 1935 was the year in which public-opinion polling began to play a role in American political life: not only did George Gallup publish his first “public” survey that year but Jim Farley, worried about FDR’s prospects for 1936, asked Emil Hurja, a statistician employed by the Democratic National Committee, to take a poll measuring how FDR’s popularity compared with that of his most feared potential opponent, Huey Long. Another such nugget: Barone notes that 1954 was the first year in which a majority of American households had television sets (although he has little to say about what difference that made for subsequent campaigns and elections).

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Some of the facts unearthed by Barone puncture hardy myths about American electoral politics. Thus, a good many political scientists (including me) have deplored the way we now choose our presidential candidates by entrepreneurial contests among individual candidates scrambling for large campaign funds with which to build attractive images for otherwise ignorant voters who at the stage of primaries can know them only from what they present of themselves on television. In the good old days, we all imply and many of us declare, presidential candidates were nominated by “peer review.” National, state, and local party bosses and public officials, together with other insiders like union and business tycoons, would meet in smoke-filled rooms at quadrennial conventions, cut a few deals, and tell the delegates under their control how to vote. We got good candidates that way because the people who picked them knew each other and knew first hand the aspirants’ strengths and weaknesses.

Barone, however, reports that it really was not much like that. In discussing FDR’s nomination in 1932, he comments:

In the days when Americans had to travel four days and change trains to get from one coast to another, when the words “long-distance call” still turned heads even in the offices of successful businessmen—and when telephone connections were still prone to go dead or were plagued with static, as was the case with one important call from Roosevelt’s managers in Chicago to the governor in Albany—most American politicians did not know each other and did not meet except at those week-long gatherings held every four years.

Not all of Barone’s factlets are so suggestive; some are merely tantalizing. For example, in the course of describing how Eisenhower won the 1952 Republican nomination, he writes:

Playing key roles for Eisenhower at the convention were John Minor Wisdom of Louisiana and Elbert Parr Tuttle of Georgia, who as Eisenhower appointees to the Fifth Circuit federal appellate court would play a vital role in the civil-rights revolution through decisions to which Eisenhower himself was far from sympathetic.

But in the following 56-page account of the Eisenhower administration we learn very little about Eisenhower’s distaste for the civil-rights revolution, and Wisdom and Tuttle are never mentioned again.

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Barone says in his introduction that his book is “undergirded by three guiding theses”:

First, American politics more often divides along cultural and ethnic than along economic lines; as he puts it, “In America, with its racial diversity, geographic mobility, and immigrant heritage, politics has often been a struggle to define who is really an American” (emphasis in the original).

Second, in time of war, America, like other countries, tends to choose bigger government and cultural uniformity, while in time of peace we tend to want smaller government and cultural diversity.

Third, people—individual human beings-matter. Of course large demographic trends, economic developments, technological change, and so forth, matter too. But great men like Franklin Roosevelt can do great good even under adverse conditions, while flawed men like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter can do great harm even under favorable conditions.

Barone asks that his theses be taken seriously, and they should be. Perhaps the most appropriate way for a political scientist to evaluate them is to ask how well he supports them. If we accept the dictionary definition of a “thesis” as “a proposition to be discussed and proved or disproved by evidence and discussion,” I think we have to give his first thesis the old Scottish legal verdict of “not proved.” He supports it mainly by discussing the voting patterns in large regions (the South, the Rust Belt, the Sun Belt) and in large ethnic groups (blacks, women, Hispanics); to these he imputes, without really proving, uniform or at least central political-cultural characteristics that lead the majority to vote for one candidate rather than another.

Setting aside the question of why sizable minorities of those regions and groups have often voted for losers, some of Barone’s explanations are dashed off without much reflection or credibility. For example, in explaining why Kennedy carried the black vote in 1960, he retells a story first told by Theodore White:

At the same time, Nixon’s unwillingness to lend support to Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was jailed on a trumped-up traffic charge in rural Georgia in October, combined with Robert Kennedy’s reflex decision to phone Mrs. King, meant that Republicans lost the bulk of the black vote in the North. . . . [Emphasis added]

Political science has been described by some as “slow journalism,” but this passage might well be called “hasty political science.” What proportion of black voters even knew about Robert Kennedy’s call? Of those who did, what proportion switched from Nixon to John Kennedy because of his brother’s call? After all, as Barone has previously shown, blacks have voted massively for Democratic candidates ever since the mid-1930’s.

This minor lapse is an illustration of a much larger fault in Barone’s analysis. He makes extensive use of public-opinion polls, especially Gallup’s reports of popular approval or disapproval of how Presidents do their jobs. But that is about all. He gives us only what the people in the polling business call “marginals”—that is, the percent approving and the percent disapproving. He rarely uses any kind of “multivariate analysis” to break down the Gallup reports so as to show the differences among regional, ethnic, sexual, and other groups in their rates of approval or disapproval—a form of analysis sorely needed to evaluate the thesis that Americans divide more along cultural than economic lines.

Moreover, Barone makes no reference to, let alone use of, the great body of work by political scientists and social psychologists over the past thirty years on why people vote as they do. One of the most egregious of many such omissions comes in his discussion of the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections. The attitudes and behavior of voters in those elections were studied in great depth by a distinguished group of political scientists at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan. Barone does not even cite, let alone use, the 1960 book, The American Voter, reporting their findings.

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To take Barone’s theses out of order, his third—that the quality of individual leadership matters politically, and that election outcomes like other political phenomena are not the inevitable results of massive impersonal economic and social developments—has been worked over by a long succession of writers from Carlyle and Hegel through Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Spengler, to Churchill and Paul Kennedy. All have written brilliant and stimulating books, and none has settled the question once and for all. Neither does Barone—not because he handles it badly, but because such a many-faceted proposition is probably too large to be called a “thesis,” in the sense that it can be proved or disproved by established methods whose results will be generally accepted.

For me the most illuminating part of Barone’s book comes in his consideration at various points of his second thesis—that in wartime, Americans tend to prefer bigger government and cultural uniformity, while in peacetime they tend to prefer smaller government and cultural diversity. This thesis wins a few and loses a few. It certainly is not supported by the New Deal era, in which, by his and everyone else’s account, Americans wanted bigger government to end the Depression and ensure that nothing like it would happen again, and when there was little demand for cultural diversity. It is, however, strongly supported by his account of the domestic political side of World War II, and by the dominant moods of the Reagan era. It is supported a bit less well by election outcomes during the Korean war, and sharply contradicted by what happened in those elections (1966-74) dominated by how people felt about the war in Vietnam.

Barone’s discussion of Vietnam, one of the highlights of the book, leads him to an important generalization to which he returns several times without elevating it to the same status as his three “undergirding theses.” He begins by citing a series of 1965 Gallup polls in which respondents were asked to choose among not two but five alternatives for American policy in Southeast Asia: withdraw unconditionally; stop fighting and start negotiating; continue the present policy; step up our military activity; go all out to win. Not one of those alternatives was ever supported by more than 20 percent. Barone’s comment is right on target:

. . . there was . . . wisdom in the voters’ untutored, instinctive responses. They were less interested in endorsing methods than they were in obtaining results. Victory was an acceptable response, and so was withdrawal. What wasn’t acceptable, it turned out, was the bloody stalemate produced by the Johnson decisions, each one of which the voters endorsed at the moment it was announced.

He offers the same kind of explanation for a number of other major political developments. In discussing the historic landslide reelection of his hero, FDR, in the 1936 election, Barone writes:

Americans were not voting that year a once-and-for-all endorsement of the politics of economic redistribution Roosevelt was championing, much less of liberal schemes some of Roosevelt’s advisers believed he would adopt if he felt politically able to do so. They were voting for a President and his party for a limited time in a particular set of circumstances, at a time when their policies seemed to be working and their opponents presented no serious alternative. . . .

And in the same vein Barone writes that Carter lost to Reagan in 1980 because a majority of the voters felt that things were not going very well, while Mondale lost to Reagan in 1984 and Dukakis lost to Bush in 1988 not because the voters had become convinced conservatives but because they thought things were going very well at home and we were at peace abroad.

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In short, although Barone apparently is not aware of it or does not think it important enough, his book makes a very convincing case, heavily supported by massive data and the author’s characteristic explanations of election outcomes, that most Americans, most of the time, vote pragmatically. Like their most recent presidential choice, they are not much on “the vision thing,” and they do not ask which candidate or party has the better master plan for the kind of America we should strive for fifty or a hundred years down the road. They ask, rather, whether things are on the whole going well or badly; if, broadly speaking, they like what they see, they vote to reelect incumbents, and if they do not like what they see they vote for change.

Another well-known taker of the public pulse, Richard Scammon, has put the point succinctly in his standard reply to the question, will the Democrats ever elect a President again? Some psephologists have come to call his reply Scammon’s Law, and it goes like this: “There is nothing wrong with the Democrats that 12-percent unemployment won’t cure; and there is nothing wrong with the Republicans that 12-percent inflation won’t cure.”

Since Barone takes essentially the same view, in future editions of his book he might well drop one of his three “undergirding theses” (I would suggest number three) and replace it with his own well-argued and well-supported version of Scammon’s Law. Some such change might make even better a book which is a highly readable collection and arrangement of facts and factlets about who has been who and what has been what in American politics since 1930—but it is not, I think, an analysis that forces us to change significantly many generally accepted views of why American presidential and congressional elections from Roosevelt to Bush came out the way they did.

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