The New Majority
To the Editor:
I found Norman Podhoretz’s article [“The New American Majority,” January] very convincing and very thorough. I just want to suggest that there is one element missing from the prognosis: the leadership element. I don’t think a political party can function on the basis of a choice between conflicting ideologies. The genius that the old political leaders had was a kind of antiseptic view of public policy in which their personal preferences were largely put aside. What has happened in the last fifteen years is that the leadership element has been eliminated, at least from the Democratic party, and may very well have been eliminated from the Republican party as well.
Many years ago I established a friendship with an Oxford don. In our discussions about the problems of political parties, he commented that the most startling aspect of the American political process was the absence of a “political class,” i.e., people whose function was the political process, not advancing a particular set of beliefs.
Like it or not, that is what the old-line political leaders did. Was Jim Farley a liberal? Who knows? He was a political leader who advanced liberal candidates, but I have always believed that he did so because politically that was the right thing to do. Was Carmine De Sapio a liberal? I doubt it. But he, too, advanced liberal candidates because it was the politically correct thing to do.
Nobody makes that judgment any more, and if the parties remain the battlegrounds for conflicting ideologies without a political class, I suspect that they will bounce back and forth from one side of the spectrum to the other and become increasingly inept in performing their basic function of amassing majority votes for positions which are palatable to a majority of the people.
Edward N. Costikyan
New York City
To the Editor:
In Norman Podhoretz’s article, “The New American Majority,” a statement is attributed to “the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.” I am quoted as having said that the political coalition which elected Ronald Reagan as President of the United States represented a “new fascism . . . in its incipient stage.” I never made such a statement. I did say the following, at a protest rally dealing with the bombing of the Rue Copernic synagogue, a Reform temple in Paris. I quote from a press report:
“A new fascism is arising that is utilizing the scapegoat of Jews and Judaism,” [Gottschalk] said. As a refugee from Nazi Germany, he added, he is well aware of how insidious the progress of this kind of evil can be. He warned of the beginning of “a difficult time for all of us. I am by nature not an alarmist, but I see this in its incipient stage,” Gottschalk said. “There is a warning in the world” [emphasis added].
I want to reiterate that my remarks had nothing to do with President Reagan’s campaign or the people supporting him.
President, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
To the Editor:
In his very interesting article, Norman Podhoretz implies that the liberal culture is deficient because it was unable, without violating its principles, to “object when the number of abortions began to exceed the number of live births.” I’m not sure.
Practically every sexually active adult in the U.S. practices family planning today. We recognize that we cannot support all the children we might otherwise have.
Most Americans, and certainly most mature, well-to-do, and well-educated Americans, use forms of contraception that make abortion unnecessary. There is a question in my mind, however, whether a difference in technique is a moral difference. The purpose and effect of all methods are to prevent the birth of unwanted children. Some methods (e.g., the IUD) also act to prevent the birth of particular babies; others destroy sperm or present barriers to conception. The main difference between these methods and abortion seems to be that we lack the technique to be sure when contraception avoids a pregnancy and to identify the particular fetus affected. But does this lack of knowledge make a moral difference? The anti-abortion movement is already mounting an attack on the IUD.
Abortion is no one’s preferred method of birth control, but there are often good reasons for it. It is instructive to look at the population which resorts to abortions. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a third are teenagers, and another third are in their early twenties. Seventy-seven percent are unmarried. Seventy-three percent are first-time aborters. Sixty-seven-and-a-half percent are white, and the rest are “black or other.” When Medicaid funds were available for abortion, one-third were Medicaid eligible. Despite these data, 90 percent of teenage births in Washington, D.C. last year were out-of-wedlock. Nationally, 90 percent of pregnant teenagers report their pregnancies were unintended.
These figures suggest that the abortion population is primarily made up of young and inexperienced women or those whose sex education has been inadequate. In this connection it is interesting to note that many of the same people who oppose abortions are also against sex education—which leads some observers to think their underlying motives may be a wish to make those who indulge pay a price. Unfortunately, the penalty is not uniformly distributed. Only women pay it, and only the unsophisticated and poorer among them.
By contrast, it is an interesting fact that the ranks of those favoring free choice include many persons in intact marriages who are parents of dearly loved children. An example is Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, on whose Board of Directors I serve. It is my impression that practically all the members would be exemplars for the Moral Majority. Why is this group pro-choice? Perhaps because through experience we have learned that it takes a great deal of effort and love to raise a child successfully, and we want to help everyone have the best possible opportunity to do so.
Like many of the educated and well-to-do, we are disturbed by the low birth rate among our own kind. Those who are Jewish are particularly worried that we are not reproducing ourselves. It is my opinion, however, that the availability of abortion has next to nothing to do with delayed or limited parenthood among these groups of today’s young. Rather, the causes seem to be what I regard as an unbalanced commitment to career among young, educated women, and a lack of appreciation of the deep fulfillment to be found in parenthood.
It is not because I am unable to draw the line, therefore, that I do not object when the number of abortions exceeds the number of live births (which incidentally is the case only in a few big cities). Rather, it is because I am worried about those teenagers and lonely unmarried young women whose lives would be ruined by an out-of-wedlock child, about those who are potential victims of botched illegal abortions, and about the unwanted children whose lives would be blighted at the start.
Obviously contraception is more pleasant than abortion, but since there isn’t room in the world for everyone who might be born, why not encourage the birth of healthy children into stable families where they are wanted?
Edith U. Fierst
To the Editor:
In general, Norman Podhoretz’s analysis of the 1980 election struck me as lucid and insightful. Some observations, such as the extent of covert support for Reagan and the secret relief of many liberals at having at last an administration prepared to do the necessary dirty work of imposing limits, were especially astute.
One sentence brought me up short, however. Mr. Podhoretz writes: “No doubt there is a great deal of anxiety in this country over inflation, but the truth is that it has not yet begun to hurt enough people badly enough to fuel serious political passions.” Maybe this is true on the East Side of Manhattan or Shaker Heights or Beverly Hills, but where I live and work people this year have talked of little else.
The inflation of the past two years in this country has been unprecedented, and tragically it seems to have affected the basics most. Every visit to the supermarket is an occasion to be startled by the jumps in prices. From one fuel-oil delivery to the next it’s anybody’s guess what the rate will be. At the gas pumps prices have tripled in less than two years. The price of even the cheapest automobile has become exorbitant. Meanwhile, spiraling housing prices and mortgage-interest rates (the latter now almost double what they were two years ago) have conspired to place a home of one’s own beyond the reach of the sons and daughters of the middle class.
It is not inflation itself that has been so disturbing: we’ve always had a steady upward creep in prices. It is runaway inflation where from one week to the next you don’t know what your paycheck is worth that has proved so unsettling. It has been the impression of economic instability and chaos, it has been the prospect of helplessly watching its aspirations eroded by an inflation run amok that has so panicked and infuriated the middle class in 1980.
I have to disagree, therefore, with Mr. Podhoretz’s conclusion that the “economic issue” was not the decisive factor in the election. Ronald Reagan realized that it would be, which is why he made it his chief campaign issue. The most, indeed the only, impressive thing he said in his debate with Carter was: “If you believe you’re better off now than you were four years ago, vote for the President. If not. . . .” Reagan won it right there. To be sure, the hostages, the Afghanistan situation, the decline of American clout did not help Carter, but ultimately it was his poor performance on the economy, ironically the very issue that propelled him to power, that undid him.
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz claims that Jimmy Carter is a “McGovernite.” This is not true: in 1972 Governor Carter was part of the “Stop McGovern” drive, speaking on behalf of Senator Henry Jackson at the 1972 party convention. . . . Carter’s defense policies were denounced by Senator McGovern (and by Senator Kennedy, who accurately compared Carter to Reagan), so why claim that Carter is a “McGovernite”? . . .
The McGovernites were written out of the Democratic party shortly after the 1972 election, when Jean Westwood was deposed as party chairman. George McGovern has absolutely no influence in the Democratic party, but conservatives such as Robert Byrd have a great deal of influence. Since 1963, we have had nothing but conservative Presidents, yet liberals keep getting blamed for the mistakes of the conservatives. . . .
The 1980 election was a contest among three Republicans, with John Anderson taking at least 141 electoral votes away from Carter. Jews and liberals had no one to vote for, what with Carter’s UN fiasco, Reagan’s ties to Moral Majority bigots, and Anderson’s allegiance to George Ball. Many Jews voted for Anderson out of disgust for Carter-Reagan; Reagan won only 51 percent of the vote in a small turnout (roughly 26 percent of registered voters voted for Reagan), despite having Carter hand him the election.
Generally, I agree that Senator Moynihan would be an ideal candidate in 1984. . . . But I don’t think only a Moynihan-type Democrat can win; liberals can win—as long as they’re given half a chance. . . .
To the Editor:
The “new American majority” may be larger than Norman Podhoretz imagines. The “52 percent of the eligible electorate” who turned out to vote November 4 is a very “soft” statistic. Dr. Ronald C. Moe, political analyst for the Library of Congress Research Service, has found, after exhaustive research on the 1976 election, that the criteria customarily used to “prove” American voter apathy are misleading. As Moe has written (in Common Sense, the Wilson Quarterly, and the Wall Street Journal), real voter turnout is close to 88 percent—nationwide—for both the 1976 and 1980 elections.
Moe reaches this conclusion from the fact that the voter lists compiled by the individual states are “unpurged” and include, in most cases unwarrantedly: (1) members of the potential electorate who have died or moved to a different state; (2) non-registrants who do not or cannot register for a variety of reasons: they are aliens, in transit, incarcerated, in the military, or infirm because of age; added to these are people who have just turned eighteen. The result is that the overall figure for the “potential electorate,” from which the gloomy percentages for non-voting are obtained, includes a sizable group who do not actually register or who are not even eligible to register in the first place. Even among those who actually do register and vote, there are problems in determining the total vote for President: a significant number of persons come to the polls and sign the register but either do not vote for one of the presidential candidates or have their ballots invalidated for some reason, “Yet,” Moe observes, “they are classified as apathetic ‘non-voters.’”
In personal correspondence with me, Dr. Moe goes further. “It is difficult,” he observes, “to find any field in which more mischief is visited upon the intellect than voter participation.” A veritable “myth” of voter apathy, he complains, has been constructed by “many people who simply don’t know how to read or interpret statistics,” and by others who “gain politically from the notion that apathy prevails.” The argument of the latter group, he continues, is based on the ideological bias that claims that “people are alienated from the [capitalist] system. . . . The apathy argument fits the Marxian, or determinist, view of history.”
As it turns out, American voters go to the polls in more impressive numbers—as a percentage of the adjusted eligible voters based on the mortality/mobility factor and other “statistically-hardening factors”—than do the members of the electorates in many European democracies. In England, for example, voter turnout in parliamentary elections is about 75 percent.
Albert L. Weeks
New York University
New York City
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s excellent analysis of the Reagan electoral victory makes two isolated, incidental observations which can be profitably considered together. Mr. Podhoretz notes first that the extent of Jewish support for the Reagan candidacy was generally underestimated due, in significant part, to a reluctance by Jewish voters to reveal to either pollsters or friends their true preferences. As one who broke with friends, family, colleagues, and spouse to vote for Reagan, I can well appreciate the temptation to fib and declare oneself for John Anderson as “a way to get through dinner parties . . . without undue discomfort.” I find that this reluctance is part of a general disinclination of many American Jews, for social and cultural reasons, even to identify themselves with the “new American majority” much less to participate in it as they did in the old American majority, the so-called Roosevelt coalition of the Democratic party.
Second, Mr. Podhoretz observes, again correctly, that although Reagan’s election was largely a favorable development, there are disturbing elements in the Reagan electoral coalition, particularly the Moral Majority forces. Many American Jews are legitimately concerned about a possible wave of intolerance and bigotry as electoral gains are consolidated.
Obviously, if large numbers of otherwise sympathetic American Jews find even identification with the new American majority impossible because of non-political considerations, there will be little opportunity for Jews to impress the importance of our traditional political concern for tolerance, group pluralism, and related values on that majority. This would be an exceedingly high price to pay merely to avoid undue discomfiture at dinner parties.
Marvin L. Szymkowicz
To the Editor:
. . . Norman Podhoretz rightly points to the Republican party’s takeover of ideas only recently associated with the Democratic party as a phenomenon of considerable importance. He seems unaware, however, that this kind of turnabout is not without precedent in American politics. During other periods of national turmoil, similar processes have often been at work. A particularly noteworthy instance occurred as a result of the rise of the original Republican party during the 1850′s. Not only did the Republicans adopt the second half of the original Jeffersonian party name (Democratic-Republican), they also contended that they and not the Democrats were the true heirs of the Jeffersonian spirit. Abraham Lincoln, in a letter declining an invitation to lecture on Jefferson’s birthday, made exactly this point. Lincoln went on to note—in an observation not without relevance for today—that the Democrats, in abandoning the principles of a free society, were in effect working to restore those of “classification, caste, and legitimacy” which were “the vanguard . . . of returning despotism.” . . .
The moral of this story is that no particular person or group of persons can be regarded as permanently immune from the corruptions of power. This lesson, which Lincoln and his generation understood, is the logical and just conclusion of Mr. Podhoretz’s fine article.
To the Editor:
. . . Norman Podhoretz refrains from discussing an interesting implication of his analysis: that Reagan’s age—that is, the probability that his will be a one-term Presidency—may be his Watergate factor, the event that prevents the coalescing of a Republican majority because the capable uniter will not be in office long enough to accomplish that goal.
At the risk of asserting the obvious, Mr. Podhoretz might also have stressed the place of Israel in the Jewish voters’ embrace of Reagan. . . . Jews voted for Reagan not necessarily to join the new American majority, but because of Jimmy Carter’s seemingly willful disregard of Israel’s strategic importance for the United States, his personal uncertainty about the nature and aims of Palestinian leaders, his choice of spokesmen at the United Nations, and several other related reasons.
Having attracted these Jews, it is now up to President Reagan to determine if they are to remain within the coalition he is in the act of forging.
Lawrence J. Epstein
Suffolk County Community College
Selden, New York
To the Editor:
In my opinion, “The New American Majority” is a brilliant article that refutes in clear, no-nonsense form the prevailing liberal philosophy of the past fifteen years. Norman Podhoretz’s conception of Reagan as the new Nixon rather than the new Goldwater is extremely insightful—had Democratic liberals recognized this, they might have shaped a more successful strategy in the presidential campaign. . . .
John A. McMullen
To the Editor:
While “The New American Majority” is further proof that Norman Podhoretz is a first-rate thinker and analyst, it does not do justice to his powers of prophecy.
Throughout 1980, when most political pundits were saying that the presidential race was too close to call, Mr. Podhoretz assured me whenever our paths happened to cross that Reagan would win in a landslide.
Given the accuracy of this prophecy, I hope Mr. Podhoretz will regularly share his views of the future with the readers of COMMENTARY.
J. Daniel Mahoney
Chairman, Conservative Party of New York State
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . I live and vote in the District of Columbia. Since its ratification in 1961, the Twenty-third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has made the District of Columbia part of the process of electing the President of the United States. Thus in 1972, out of 51 jurisdictions voting for President, 2 voted for McGovern—Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. In 1980, not 6 but 7 jurisdictions voted for President Carter’s reelection. That is, the District of Columbia plus 6 states chose Mr. Carter.
I know that it is easier to speak of “the 50 states” than recognize that for the purpose of electing our President there are 51 jurisdictions eligible to vote.
Fred R. Brown
Norman Podhoretz writes:
I agree with Edward N. Costikyan about the old political leaders—he himself of course once served as the leader of Tammany Halibut I wonder whether the system in which they operated so successfully can ever be reconstructed. In the meantime, ideology will for better or for worse remain important. (Incidentally, to the question of what Carmine De Sapjo’s political views were, Daniel P. Moynihan, in an article published twenty years ago in COMMENTARY, gave the definitive answer: “The extent of his ideological commitment may be measured by his pronouncement to the Holy Name Society Communion Breakfast of the Sanitation Department that ‘there is no Mother’s Day behind the Iron Curtain.‘”)
My reference to Alfred Gottschalk came from a report in the JTA Daily News Bulletin (November 7, 1980, p. 2). I am glad to learn that the report was inaccurate and that his remarks about the dangers of a “new fascism” were not aimed at Reagan and his supporters.
Edith U. Fierst evidently agrees with me that the liberal culture had no ground of principle on which to stand in objecting “when the number of abortions began to exceed the number of live births.” What she seems to disagree with is my suspicion that many liberals did and do object in the secret recesses of their hearts. Such a suspicion is by its very nature speculative, and for all I know Mrs. Fierst is right about the condition of liberal sentiment.
Still, I find it hard to believe that most Americans, let alone most women, share her view that abortion is a mere “technique” and that there is no moral difference between abortion and contraception. I also find it hard to believe that so many young women become pregnant out of ignorance or because contraception is unavailable to them. It would take a truly staggering effort nowadays for anyone over the age of ten to remain ignorant about sex and reproduction; and it would almost take a more strenuous effort to avoid than to acquire contraceptives.
Given the easy availability both of information and of contraceptive devices, unwanted pregnancies should have declined very steeply in recent years. The fact that this has evidently not happened needs to be pondered and studied. Are these young women—to resurrect yet another cliché of the 60′s to go along with those already littering this discussion among liberals—trying to tell us something (about the effects of a liberalized policy)? And are we, as a culture, trying to tell ourselves something (about our collective will to survive) when we tolerate or even applaud a situation in which more babies are aborted than born?
Jake Sherman is right in saying that people talk and think constantly about inflation. I believe, however, that so far this reflects a greater anxiety over the future than serious economic pain in the present. Certainly the economy was one of the crucial issues in the 1980 election, but I still think it represented another aspect of the general decline of the country to which the voters were mainly responding. Indeed, at the beginning of 1980, according to the pollsters Daniel Yankelovich and Larry Kaagan, foreign policy ranked “ahead of the economy” as “the most important problem facing the country today” in the minds of the American people.
David Miller is being too literal in his use of the term “McGovernite.” Though McGovern himself played no special role in the Carter administration, many of his former enthusiasts did. But what is more to the point, many ideas and attitudes associated with the 1972 campaign (especially in foreign policy) became the guiding themes of the first three years of Carter’s Presidency. Having spelled those out in my article (pp. 22-24), I see no reason to repeat them here.
Like Albert L. Weeks, I was intrigued by Ronald C. Moe’s article arguing that the real voter turnout in 1980 may have been closer to 88 percent than to the 52 percent figure accepted by all other analysts. Yet even if the turnout was only 52 percent, Reagan’s victory would still look almost as impressive as Roosevelt’s in 1932, when the turnout was exactly the same; and in any case, we know from many studies that the non-voters (however many there really were) would have divided in almost the same wav the voters did in 1980.
I sympathize with most of what Marvin L. Szymkowicz says. I have my doubts, however, as to whether the anxieties of many American Jews over the Moral Majority are so self-evidently legitimate. It is, indeed, a paradox that Jews should be so much more exercised about the religious Right, which includes some of the most devoted supporters of Israel in this country, than they are about “mainstream” or liberal Christian organizations like the National Council of Churches whose sympathy for the PLO becomes more blatant with every passing conference. A similar point could be made about an issue like quotas.
Obviously, as Robert Lerner and Lawrence J. Epstein both suggest, the same reversal of Jewish alliances called for by the respective positions of the religious Right and the liberal churches on the Middle East may extend to the Democratic and Republican parties in general. If the Reagan administration remains true to the ideas about Israel and about quotas that attracted nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980, the chances are that increasing numbers of Jews will leave the Democrats and move into the Republican party. (I think the same reasoning applies to other ethnic groups traditionally loyal to the Democratic party like the Irish and Italians.) If Reagan fails, the new American majority will once again be lost to the Republicans.
Finally, I want to thank John A. McMullen for his kind words, and J. Daniel Mahoney for coming forward to testify that I predicted the Reagan landslide. If I had known Mr. Mahoney was going to do this, I might have resisted the temptation to mention it myself!