DESPITE the fact that the pollsters all said the election was too close to call, the Reagan landslide was predictable from the very beginning. I know that it was because I pre- dicted it from the very beginning-that is, from the moment the two candidates were nominated.
Thus I for one cannot accept the self-exculpatory theory now offered by the pollsters that there was a last-minute surge away from Carter and toward Reagan. But neither do I think that the polls were misrepresenting or misinterpreting the data they had collected. My guess is that they were the vic- tims of a highly unusual circumstance-lying on the part of respondents. Some respondents Iled- perhaps in some cases to themselves as well as the pollsters-in saying that they had not yet made up their minds when they were in fact intending to vote for Reagan; others who were intending to vote for Reagan lied by saying they were for Anderson.
This curious phenomenon first became apparent to me at a party last summer at which almost everyone present-they were mostly prosperous Jewish businessmen-declared for Anderson, even though many of them revealed, after a bit of pri- vate probing, that they would probably vote for Reagan. To say so openly, however, was almost certain to provoke angry challenges and unpleas- ant arguments; for such people Anderson pro- vided a way to get through the dinner parties from August to November without undue discomfort.
We also have several bits of harder evidence suggesting the existence of a “closet” Reagan vote.
Thus, whereas 14 percent of the black vote ac- tually went to Reagan, only 7 percent of black vot- ers leaving the polling booths admitted to having voted for him. Evidently the other half were as embarrassed as the Jewish businessmen by their support of Reagan. And finally one hears that Reagan often scored better in telephone polls than in polls taken face-to-face-which also suggests that shame may have played a part in what respondents were willing or unwilling to tell the pollsters.
But if the existence of a large number of closet Reagan supporters probably explains why the polls went wrong, it does not by itself explain why Reagan was bound to win, and to win by a very large margin. To understand why the result was, or should have been, so predictable, we have to go back beyond this election itself to the one it most closely resembled and with which it had a sublimi- nal link-the contest between McGovern and Nixon in 1972.
T IKE Reagan in 1980, Nixon defeated his Democratic opponent by a land- slide. Of course it was a more overwhelming vic- tory than Reagan’s. Whereas Nixon carried all but one of the fifty states, Reagan only took 44, and Nixon’s lead in the popular vote (20 points) was twice as large as Reagan’s. But what has to be bal- anced against these margins is the fact that Nixon enjoyed all the advantages of an incumbent Presi- dent. For a challenger, running moreover as the candidate of the minority party and with a well- financed independent also in the race, to carry such opposition strongholds as New York and Massa- chusetts (the only state Nixon did not carry) and to get 51 percent of the popular vote-ten points more than the sitting President-represents as im- pressive a landslide as the one scored by Nixon in 1972. And if we add to this consideration the fact that unlike Nixon’s immense personal triumph, which did not extend into the congressional races, Reagan’s was accompanied by the first Republican sweep of the Senate in twenty-five years, we can say that what the 1980 landslide lacked in numeri- cal spread as compared with 1972, it compensated for in depth.
These differences aside, the resemblance be- tween 1972 and 1980 is very striking. There has been much talk in the past few weeks about the collapse of the old Roosevelt coalition and a con- sequent realignment, as though this were the news of the 1980 election. Yet Nixon’s 1972 inroads into many of the major constituents of the old Roose- velt coalition were so dramatic that the “new Re- publican majority” whose emergence had been heralded by Kevin Phillips and others seemed in- deed to have emerged in that election. Nixon car- ried the Catholics, he managed to split the blue- collar vote with McGovern, and he did much bet- 19 NORMAN PODHORETZ is the editor of COMMENTARY. His most recent books are Breaking Ranks and The Present Danger.20/COMMENTARY JANUARY 1981 ter both with Jews and blacks then he had done against Humphrey in 1968. Most surprising of all to contemporary public opinion, the young (re- member the young?), who had been assumed on the basis of their media-appointed spokesmen to be all for McGovern, split almost evenly between him and Nixon.
The parallels with 1980 are obvious. Like Nixon, Reagan carried the Catholics, he carried half of the blue-collar vote, he did about as well as Nixon with blacks and much better (39 percent) than Nixon (34 percent) with Jews. (Carter, how- ever, did much less well with Jews than Mc- Govern. McGovern, like Carter himself in 1976, carried about 65 percent of the Jewish vote as against Carter’s 45 percent in 1980, with 14 per- cent going to Anderson. Carter in 1980 thus be- came the first Democratic candidate since John W.
Davis in 1924 to win less than a majority of Jewish voters.) As for the “young,” their failure in 1972 to dem- onstrate the same power at the polls as they had over the media, and the correlative realization that they did not constitute a voting bloc in their own right, destroyed them as a subject of political interest or influence. They were, however, re- placed in 1980 by another group, the “women,” who were expected to go as heavily for Carter as the “young” had been expected to go for Mc- Govern. Yet like actual young people in 1972, the real women of America in 1980 divided their votes almost evenly between the two major candidates, with a slight edge to Reagan (46 percent-45 per- cent, with Anderson getting 7 percent). This, de- spite Reagan’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, despite his support for a constitu- tional ban on abortion, and despite the evident apprehension among women over his strong posi- tions on national defense and foreign policy.
Whether the 1980 results will have the same effect on the political influence of the media-appointed spokeswomen for the generality of their sex as 1972 had on the “young” remains to be seen.
HOSE who had been responsible for the Democratic debacle in 1972 were quick to blame it on McGovern’s failings as a can- didate. But as usual, reality was more interesting than any tendentious or self-serving effort to evade or deny it. And the reality of 1972 was that the Democratic party had fallen into the hands of peo- ple whose ideas and attitudes were out of tune with a majority of the voters, including a very sub- stantial proportion of those who had always found a political home in the Democratic party. These new inheritors of the Democratic party came to be known as McGovernites, although McGovern him- self was as much their instrument as their leader; before McGovern ever arrived on the presidential scene, they had begun to be called the New Class, or liberals of the New Politics variety, to distin- guish them from “old” liberals of the Roosevelt- Truman-Kennedy-Johnson line. So bitter was the struggle between these two groups for control of the Democratic party that the AFL-CIO, in a highly unusual move, remained neutral, refusing to endorse McGovern even after he had won the nomination, and even though his opponent was the hated Richard Nixon. (In 1980, by contrast, the AFL-CIO did endorse and did work enthusias- tically for Jimmy Carter.) The political perspective of the new “Mc- Governite” liberals represented a bowdlerized ver- sion of the ideas and attitudes of the radical move- ment of the 1960’s. As such, it came into direct conflict with the traditional liberalism of the Democratic party. Indeed, it had been in opposi- tion not to conservatism or to the Republicans but to the liberalism of the Democrats that the radical movement of the 1960’s defined itself.
In foreign policy, liberal Democrats up until 1968 believed in the use of American power to contain the spread of Communism in general and Soviet expansionism in particular; in economic policy they believed in growth as the means to general prosperity; and in social policy they be- lieved in eradicating discrimination against indi- viduals as the best route to social justice.
In each of these areas, the radical movement re- pudiated the liberal position. In foreign policy, it attacked the use of American power to contain Communism as politically ill-advised and morally wrong; in economic policy, it attacked growth as destructive of the quality of life of working people and of the quality of the physical environment; and in social policy, it attacked equality of oppor- tunity as an instrument of “tokenism.” Thanks to Vietnam, the radical assault on lib- eral ideas about foreign policy increased its influ- ence among liberals themselves, including many who had led the nation into the war under Ken- nedy; thanks to continued prosperity, the radical assault on growth exerted more and more influ- ence over many liberals who had forgotten the connection between the two; and thanks to riots in the ghettos, the radical assault on the traditional liberal strategy for dealing with the problems of race and poverty undermined the faith of many liberals themselves in its viability.
The result was that by the end of the 1960’s, be- lievers in the old-time liberal religion within the Democratic party were badly demoralized. Their leader, Lyndon Johnson, had for all practical pur- poses been forced to resign from the Presidency, and though they had managed to win the nomina- tion for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, they had been unable to win the election. Four years later they were even unable to win the nomination. Their candidate, Edmund Muskie, was blown out of the race despite a huge lead, but not before delivering an extraordinary speech accepting the main point of the radical critique of the liberalism he wasTHE NEW AMERICAN MAJORITY/21 supposed to be representing (“We meet tonight in a time of failure of American liberalism. … The blunt truth is that liberals have achieved virtually no fundamental change in our society since the end of the New Deal”).
The leftist insurgents, who had been on the of- fensive since 1967 (when many radicals decided to “work within the system” and many liberals of the old school converted to a more softly expressed variant of the radical point of view), thus took over the Democratic party in 1972. They also took over the title of “liberal,” not so long before a term of derision on radical lips but indispensable to success in mainstream American politics. Those who remained liberals in the older sense protested against the theft of an honorific title by people whose beliefs-neoisolationism, Malthusianism, and redistributionist egalitarianism-were in fact the opposite of the values historically associated with liberalism. But to no avail. Liberals of the old school (old in this context meaning the days of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) were now called “neoconservatives,” and nothing they could say or do succeeded in shaking off the label.
Yet in 1972, at least, the victory of the leftist in- surgents was a pyrrhic one. Having humiliated their centrist rivals within the Democratic party, they were themselves humiliated in turn by Rich- ard Nixon. Only one state-Massachusetts-did they win; and running against a man who was not exactly popular, they only managed to get 40 per- cent of the vote.
HERE could be no doubt that this re- sult represented a repudiation of McGovernism or the new leftist liberalism by the vast majority of the American people. But did it signify a permanent realignment? Had Richard Nixon really succeeded in bringing together a new Republican majority that would, like the Roose- velt coalition which served as its obverse model, freeze the opposition out of power for the next generation or more? At the time a good many lib- erals, old and new, feared that this might be the case. And so indeed it might have been if not for the deliverance afforded by Watergate.
Seen in the context of the partisan political struggles of the period, Watergate was a coup d’&at, in the sense that it nullified the results of an election by extra-electoral means. The liberals, panicked by the Nixon landslide and facing a prospect of forty years in the political wilderness, went after him as soon as the results were in. Long before Watergate became an issue, talk of im- peachment was in the air: I remember Bella Abzug calling for it over the issue of impound- ment. This proved no more fruitful than the usual run of Mrs. Abzug’s political ideas, though it was somewhat more original; nor did the idea of trying to impeach Nixon over his conduct of the war in Vietnam get very far. But then, incredibly, the liberals struck pay dirt with Watergate, and they moved in for the kill. Thanks to the mount- ing evidence of presidential complicity in actual criminal acts, the Republicans were forced into an impossible position. If they tried to fight off the coup, they risked tarring the whole party with Watergate; if, on the other hand, they decided to limit the damage to the party by dissociating themselves from their own leader, they could only do so by cooperating in the coup. After a certain hesitancy, they chose the latter alternative, thereby saving the party from destruction but leaving it in a seriously weakened condition.
In serving out Nixon’s term, Gerald Ford did his best to repair the damage to the Republican party, but he had neither time enough nor talent enough to succeed. For better or worse, politically speaking, he was not Richard Nixon: better in that he carried no Watergate stigma; worse in that he lacked the capacity to hold the emerging new majority together. Whether Reagan would have done better had he won the nomination in 1976 is an intriguing question. Yet the very fact that he failed to win it suggests that the Republican party did not yet see in him what it would see four years later-the legitimate political successor to Nixon as the leader of the new Republican majority.
Meanwhile, the civil war within the Democratic party was raging on. In the 1976 primaries, Sena- tor Henry M. Jackson set out to recapture the party for the centrists and failed, but so did the candidate of the leftists, Morris Udall. Instead the nomination was captured by a previously un- known minor politician, Jimmy Carter. This ex- traordinary development could be explained by a variety of accidents, but there was also a meaning in it. For in nominating Carter, the Democratic party was choosing a candidate whose virtues were mainly negative: he belonged neither to the cen- trists nor to the leftists. He was like William of Orange, he came from somewhere else, and the very fact that he had no known position worked to his advantage.
This same advantage carried over into the gen- eral election. Carter ran not so much against Ger- ald Ford or even the Republican party as against “Washington.” By this he meant, and was under- stood to mean, that he no more belonged to the Democrats with their taint of McGovernism than to the Republicans with their taint of Watergate.
And so he was elected.
S IT turned out, however, he did be- long to (or perhaps was captured by) the Democrats, and specifically to the Mc- Governite or leftist wing of the party. In office Carter’s inconsistencies and vacillations confused a great many people, especially in other countries, but to those with ears to hear, the fundamental themes of his Presidency were always audible below the surface cacophonies of cowardice or op-22/COMMENTARY JANUARY 1981 portunism and they were always in harmony with the music of the new leftist liberalism. Thus in congratulating the nation on having overcome its “inordinate fear of Communism,” in exercising unilateral “restraint” in both the maintenance and the deployment of American power, in declar- ing that the North-South conflict had replaced the East-West conflict as the most important problem confronting the United States, in orienting Ameri- can policy toward the “forces of change” in the Third World, Carter was hewing with scarcely a single deviation to the McGovernite line in inter- national affairs. In the area of domestic policy, the McGovernism was less visible, but it was there in the continued resort to quotas with their built-in hostility to individual merit and initiative and their redistributionist despair of economic growth.
But even more saliently, the McGovernism was there in the general tone of Carter’s administra- tion.
Carter often spoke of how good and deserving the American people were, but the message he conveyed was itself a bowdlerized version of the New Politics belief that the country must learn to accept reduced circumstances and a diminished sense of possibility. In 1972 this message was of- fered by the McGovernites in a vindictive spirit: it was a punishment the country deserved for its crimes in Vietnam and the racism and materialism of its way of life. Carter’s tone was more soothing but the idea was the same. Mostly it was expressed by implication and innuendo, except on that as- tonishing occasion after his retreat at Camp David when it burst out into the open in a speech blam- ing the American people for the “malaise” into which their wicked ways had sunk them.
But in general, instead of placing blame, what Carter and his people and his apologists told us was that we could do nothing about the decline of the country: the decline of its military power in relation to the Soviet Union, the decline of its eco- nomic power in relation to the Japanese, the de- cline of its will in relation to OPEC. The Carterites did not usually say or even imply, as McGovern had, that we had brought all this down upon our- selves by the terrible sins we had committed. They did say, however, that it was all inevitable, the re- sult of vast historical forces, that we had no choice but to make peace with it, and that when we fin- ally did we would wind up in a better and more secure position in the world. To resist, to attempt anything else, was immature and-a word that will always be resonant of the Carter years, so compulsively did it trip from the tongues of Cart- er’s apologists-“simplistic.” Then came Iran. At first Carter benefited politi- cally from the seizure of the hostages. But surely it is clear in retrospect that this was only because it was Edward Kennedy against whom he was run- ning in the primaries-that is a candidate who, in suggesting that we were to blame for the seizure of the hostages (had we not supported the Shah?), revealed himself as even more McGovernite than Carter. Yet while Carter may have looked good by comparison with Kennedy, his own response to an insult of incredible dimension to the nation of which he was President looked-and was-weak enough in its own right to establish the continuity of his administration with the McGovernite ethos.
In a single stroke the seizure of the hostages ex- posed the hollowness of the idea that we would be better off for the decline of American power; and it confronted the nation with an image of its own impotence so concrete and so vivid that denial or euphemism or obfuscation became impossible.
Nor was Carter’s administration entirely free of the sleaze and the crassness that seemed as much a part of Watergate as the criminality. From Bert Lance to Billy Carter, there was an air of cheap cunning and acquisitiveness in and around the White House that no amount of unctuous presi- dential sanctimony could conceal. It was as though the Snopeses, led by Flem Snopes himself, had stepped out of the pages of William Faulk- ner’s prophetic novels and into the White House: the Snopeses who in the historical legend running through Faulkner’s work represent the class of poor whites ruthlessly using their talent for mak- ing money to take over social and economic power in the South and characterized by their “natural heritage of cold rapacity as instinctive as brea- thing,” their blindness to the concepts of honor and pride, nobility and heroism.
Carter’s claim, then, to the negative virtues that swept him into the Presidency turned out to be fraudulent. To see him as free of McGovernism in matters of policy, and of Watergate in point of rectitude and dignity, was a case of mistaken identity. How clearly did the American people come to recognize this? It would be hard to say.
But what can be said with complete assurance is that they were deeply disappointed by his per- formance in office. Before the seizure of the hos- tages, his approval ratings had sunk to a record low among voters in general, and he had fallen more than thirty points behind Kennedy among Democratic voters expressing a preference for the nominee of the party in 1980.
Which brings us to the second great case of mis- taken identity in the story of the 1980 campaign.
IN MY opinion, because of Chappaquid- dick alone, Edward Kennedy could not have become President of the United States in 1980. Yet even if Chappaquiddick had not been a factor, Edward Kennedy would still not have been a viable candidate-not for the Democratic nomi- nation and certainly not for the Presidency in the general election. But if this is so, why did so many Democrats (over 50 percent in some of the early polls taken before he announced) declare their support for him?THE NEW AMERICAN MAJORITY/23 Here again it is impossible to say with complete assurance. But given the way the votes were subse- quently cast in 1980, I think it is a reasonable guess that in those early days many people who had never paid close attention to him took Ken- nedy for the same kind of political figure his brother John had been. We know from all the sur- vey data that the political mood had been shifting for some years in a consistent direction-away from the self-doubts and self-hatreds and the neo- isolationism of the immediate post-Vietnam pe- riod and toward what some of us have called a new nationalism. In the minds of many people caught up in the new nationalist spirit, John F.
Kennedy stood for a powerful America, and in ex- pressing enthusiasm for Edward Kennedy, they were in all probability identifying him with his older brother.
The minute he actually became a candidate, however, they began taking a closer look at him, and no sooner did they do so than they realized that he had nothing in common with John except the surname. In fact, so far as the issue of Ameri- can power was concerned, his ideas were almost the opposite of John’s. It was as though Bonnie Prince Charlie, returned from exile to rally the people yearning for a Jacobite restoration, were discovered upon investigation to have become a Protestant. Thus, having led the President by 30 points in the polls, Kennedy now trailed him by the same margin, and he proceeded to do very badly even against so weak an opponent as Carter in the primary campaigns.* Faced only with a challenge from his Left, Carter easily won the Democratic nomination.
Whether he would have done as well against a challenge from the Center-from Senator Henry M. Jackson or Senator Daniel P. Moynihan-is an- other intriguing question. But no such challenge was mounted, suggesting perhaps that the centrists despaired of recapturing control of the party. In any case, they let the nomination go by default to the lesser of two McGovernite evils. To be sure, by the time Carter was ready to face Ronald Reagan, he had once again disguised himself as something other than a McGovernite. In the wake of the So- viet invasion of Afghanistan, he had begun acting, or at least talking, like Harry Truman. But his “born-again” hawkishness was so inconsistent with his earlier policies and so hesitant in implementa- tion that hardly anyone was convinced of its seri- ousness.
IF CARTER 1980 was an updated version of McGovern 1972, who was Ronald Reagan? In the third great case of mistaken ident- ity of this campaign, Carter thought that Reagan was another Goldwater and therefore easy to beat.
But what Reagan actually represented politically was an updated version of the Richard Nixon of 1972.
Of course as personalities Reagan and Nixon could not be farther apart. Where the one is quick, tight, bitter, the other is slow, easy, amia- ble; where the one provokes hostility without even trying, the other seems to fend it off just as effort- lessly. As a political figure, however, Reagan was unmistakably offering himself as the legitimate heir to Nixon’s usurped throne. And in winning the Republican nomination, Reagan demonstrated that there was indeed a demand in the party to reconstitute the new majority that Nixon had coaxed into emerging but that he had never had a chance to consolidate.
Involving as it did something deeper and broader than politics in the usual sense, that de- mand could not be satisfied by doctrinal kinship, alone. The true heir would have to demonstrate his legitimacy through the kind of person he was.
Bush was too much of the Eastern establishment; Baker was too redolent of the Washington estab- lishment; Connally still had too strong a whiff of the wheeler-dealer Democrat about him. But Reagan was pefect-the very incarnation of the movement, born with Goldwater and come to ma- ture fruition through Nixon, to displace the older establishment and to bring a new cultural force into power.
Writing in support of McGovern shortly before the 1972 election, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., with an amazingly distorted view of the American public temper, attributed “the disquietudes of the nation” to a widespread “disgust with the way things have recently been managed in this coun- try.” The truth, however, was that the disgust most Americans were indeed feeling in 1972 had nothing whatever to do with the way the Nixon administration had been managing things. It was almost entirely a disgust, as Elizabeth Hardwick (a supporter of McGovern but unlike Schlesinger capable of disinterested observation) described it at the time, “for show-off students, for runaways, for attacks on the family and the system, for ob- scenity, for pot, for prisoner-pity, for dropping out, for tuning in, for radical chic, for storefront lawyers, for folk singers, for muggings, for ad- dicts, for well-to-do Wasps grogged on charity binges.” Matching this wave of cultural disgust, as I myself added in a post-election analysis, “was a wave of political disgust directed against the bu- reaucrats, the lawyers, and the judges who in the name of what they considered racial justice were taking it upon themselves to order the busing of children from one school to another, the building * He did even worse than the figures suggest. In New York and Pennsylvania, for example, he only won because many voters, especially Jews, were registering a safe protest against Carter by voting for Kennedy-safe in the sense that Carter already had the nomination locked up. Far from being Ken- nedy supporters, many of these voters were already intending to vote for Reagan in the general election, which in the event they did.24/COMMENTARY JANUARY 1981 of public-housing projects in middle-class neigh- borhoods, and the institution of job quotas for ac- credited ‘minorities.’” The new majority was made up of people, among them large numbers of Democrats, who shared in these sentiments of dis- gust and who felt that the Republican party agreed with them and the Democratic party did not.
Eight years later-sic transit gloria-some of the items on these lists were period pieces, evoking nostalgia rather than passion. But the general pic- ture, reinforced by the addition of several new ele- ments like Gay Lib and abortion, remained the same. And so did the disgust, which had if any- thing grown in proportion to the spread of the new culture to larger and larger areas of American society. As Nixon had before him, Ronald Reagan spoke for those disgusted. “Reaganism,” wrote James Q. Wilson in these pages a few months ago, “stands in opposition to those who believe in the unrestrained right of personal self-expression and the need for government to rationalize all other aspects of human affairs by rule and procedure.
Reaganism opposes those who would legalize mari- juana, abortions, and pornography and tolerate or encourage draft resistance, all in the name of per- sonal freedom, and who would support court- ordered school busing, bans on gun ownership, af- firmative action, and racial quotas, all in the name of rationalizing and perfecting society.” With the nomination of Reagan, the stage was thus so clearly set for a resumption of the trends interrupted by Watergate that the landslide which followed would have been absolutely predictable if not for one question: whether because of his age, or because of his reputation as a simple- minded actor, Reagan himself-Reagan the individ- ual-might be rejected even by an electorate clam- oring for “Reaganism.” But the age factor was dis- posed of with amazing dispatch during the prima- ries and was scarcely ever mentioned during the general election itself. The issue of simple-minded- ness enjoyed a somewhat longer life-span. During the first two weeks or so of the campaign, the en- tire journalistic fraternity of the United States seemed to be engaged in a frantic hunt for “gaffes” in Reagan’s speeches and statements.
Then suddenly, and quite mysteriously, the “gaffe” story died, and just as suddenly and myste- riously the journalistic fraternity turned on Carter and began attacking him for the “meanness” and dirtiness of his campaign against Reagan.
In an effort to make Reagan the issue once again, Carter apologized and returned to his origi- nal strategy of running aganst Goldwater. In this, the final, phase of the campaign, the question was whether Carter would succeed in conjuring up the ghost of Goldwater and branding Reagan as an “extremist” and a warmonger; and in dealing with that theme, the journalistic fraternity, which might once have been on Carter’s side, remained for the most part a neutral observer, with perhaps a shade of sympathy for Reagan.
SOMETHING extraordinary was going on S here: Ronald Reagan, the conserva- tive, was getting a better press than the great lib- eral hero Teddy Kennedy or the putative centrist Jimmy Carter. Were the media-including liberal newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which editorially went for Carter, and magazines like Time and Newsweek -reconciling themselves after a decent interval of skepticism to the prospect of a Reagan Presidency? Perhaps. Certainly in treating their former darling Teddy Kennedy as savagely as they did-from the Roger Mudd interview to the relentless daily ex- posure of his embarrassing ineptitude-they seemed to be saying that they no longer wanted what he stood for (the idea that “government should be powerful and America should be weak,” in Senator Moynihan’s succinct formulation) any more than the American people did.
Then came Carter’s turn. He was not treated to the merciless exposure that destroyed Kennedy, but he was prevented from conducting the only campaign that could possibly have saved him from Reagan. For Carter, as the incumbent President of a country in deep trouble-a country whose mili- tary power was declining in relation to the Soviet Union, whose economic power was declining in relation to the Japanese, whose moral standards were declining in relation to its own past, a country tired of being “kicked around” and abused by the likes of Iran-had only two choices in trying to win reelection. Either he could say that things were not so bad as they seemed or he could say that they were beyond anyone’s control. If he took the first course he would be laughed out of the race; but since his opponent was promising to do something about the decline of the country, the second course would only work if he could persuade the voters that the effort to change things was so dangerous that no responsible person would ever think of making it.
In other words, Carter’s only hope was to focus on Reagan’s character, to expose him as a reckless extremist who would provoke riots in our streets and then lead us into a nuclear war. Unable to run on his own record-no one, not his supporters and not even the President himself, could defend it-and unable to discredit Reaganism, he had no alternative but to discredit Reagan. In making it so hard for Carter to do this, the media helped de- feat him as surely as the media had helped him de- feat Teddy Kennedy.
But, of course, as in the case of Kennedy, the media only helped: it was the American people who made the decision. Carter and his supporters -in their constant harping on the complexity and intractability of our problems; in their constant sneering at any suggestion that a resurgence ofTHE NEW AMERICAN MAJORITY/25 American power is either necessary or desirable or possible; in their constant lecturing of the Ameri- can people on the need for reconciling themselves to a lowered standard of living and a diminished sense of future possibility-were asking the Ameri- can people to acquiesce in the impotence of the United States and to accept the inevitability of its continued decline. As anyone with a sense of what has been going on in this country during the past few years should have known, the American peo- ple were in no mood to respond to such an appeal.
And they did not.
Yet the Reagan victory cannot be understood in negative terms alone. Of course Carter was being rejected, but if the American people had only been saying that they no longer wanted Carter, Reagan would not have won by so large a margin in the popular vote.
Was the landslide negative, then, in the wider sense of representing a rejection of leftist liber- alism? Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., again demonstrat- ing the same inability to understand the public temper that he displayed in 1972, tells us: “What the voters repudiated in 1980 was not liberalism but the miserable result of the conservative econo- mic policies of the last half-dozen years.” Jack Newfield of the Village Voice agrees: “We must understand that the main reason Carter was de- feated was because he was an incompetent con- servative President.” But if it was conservatism the voters were repudiating, why were so many liberal Senators (among them such household names as McGovern, Bayh, Church, and Culver) defeated along with Carter? Obviously the rejec- tion of leftist liberalism was an element in the situation, as was the backlash against the new cultural values that also played a part in the Democratic debacle.
But there was a powerful positive message in the Reagan campaign to which, as everyone should also have known, the American people were very decidedly in a mood to respond. It was this: the decline of America, far from being inevi- table or the fault of the people themselves, is a consequence of bad policies pursued by the gov- ernment and can therefore be reversed by shifting to other policies. What we need is an economic policy that will unleash the productive energies of an artificially hampered people and thereby foster growth; a program of rearmament that will make our defenses invulnerable and provide us with the power both to contain Soviet expansionism and to protect our vital interests in the Persian Gulf; and a legal structure that will encourage the revitaliza- tion of the values of “family, work, and neighbor- hood.” Editorialists and columnists might insist testily that these were incoherent or “simplistic” goals. In electing Ronald Reagan, however, the American people announced that they were will- ing-nay, eager-to begin moving in this direc- tion.
Still, can one really speak of “the American peo- ple” when the turnout (52 percent) was so low? Given that Reagan’s vote amounted to only 26.7 percent of the eligible electorate, how can it be taken as a mandate from the American people, let alone a landslide? Well, applying the same arith- metic to the 1932 election, when the turnout was exactly as high as it was in 1980, Franklin Delano Roosevelt got 30.1 percent (only 3.4 points more than Reagan) of the eligible electorate: did Roo- sevelt have a mandate? Moreover, studies of the last few elections have shown that, as Edward Cos- tikyan sums up the evidence, “There is no wide gulf between voters and non-voters. There are no deep-seated ideological schisms.” In the case of the 1980 election, a New York Times/CBS post-elec- tion poll, agreeing in general with the findings summarized by Costikyan, estimates that a 100-per- cent voter turnout would have resulted in a still decisive 5-point spread for Reagan (45 percent to 40 percent for Carter)-and the Times itself be- lieves that the old reluctance to admit support for Reagan may still understate the extent of his lead.
What this means is that if Roosevelt had a man- date in 1932, so does Reagan today. On the other hand, those who caution against interpreting it as a mandate to press for every constitutional amend- ment proposed by the Moral Majority, or as a mandate to enact a particular schedule of tax cuts, or as a mandate to raise the defense,budget by a certain figure, are probably right. The groups who voted for Reagan are diverse rather than mono- lithic, and they are by no means unified in their support for particular programs. What they are unified in is a yearning to make the country pro- ductive and powerful once more-to make it great again.
HIs is why many Democrats believe, or are trying to persuade themselves, that 1980 will not in the end mark a historic re- alignment. Within a year or two, they say, the vot- ers will discover that Reagan can do nothing about inflation or unemployment or American vulnerabilities abroad, and they will then turn on him as they turned on Carter before. Thus Sena- tor Gary Hart of Colorado, one of the few liberal Democrats to survive in 1980: “I give the Reagan administration about 18 to 24 months to prove it doesn’t have any answers either.” Even some of Reagan’s own supporters take this view. “We’ll be a majority party,” said Congress- man Jack Kemp of New York, “when we imple- ment the policies that will bring about the pros- perity and the full employment without inflation we have promised. If we fail, this will not turn out to be a significant election.” So too Bill Brock, the Republican National Chairman: “The cementing of that coalition depends on our performance in office. We’ve got to act with some urgency to deal26/COMMENTARY JANUARY 1981 with the problems on which people voted-unem- ployment and inflation.” With all due respect to this bipartisan consen- sus, I would say that it misreads the election. In the first place, the notion that the economic issue -inflation and unemployment-was the decisive factor seems to me mistaken. 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 politi- cal passions. Unemployment is also a great anxi- ety, but it concerns many fewer people than infla- tion does, and because of the safety net of social insurance, it no longer has as much political sig- nificance as it did, say, in the 1930’s.
I would not deny that Carter was damaged and Reagan helped by the soaring “misery index.” But I would question the proposition that these eco- nomic conditions were the main cause of the Rea- gan landslide. It was, in my judgment, as another symptom of national decline and not in them- selves alone that they played a major role in the outcome. In any case, in this election-thanks to OPEC, the fall of the Shah, and the Soviet move. to gain control of the oil of the Middle East-“the economic issue” was impossible to distinguish from the international position of the United States. To an extent unprecedented in American electoral experience, economics and foreign policy were tied together-a fact reflected in the equally unprecedented levels of concern with foreign and defense policy that showed up in the survey data. My second objection to the Hart-Kemp-Brock analysis follows from this view of how the eco- nomic issue was perceived by the American peo- ple. Obviously the Reagan administration will have to show that its approach to inflation and unemployment is viable. But I would guess that so long as an impression of movement is created to. ward a resurgence of American power in the most general sense, the new majority will remain in place even if Reagan’s economic policies are less than fully successful in the next two or three years.
The main reason I believe this to be the case is that the atmosphere surrounding the Reagan vic- tory has been amazingly benign. To be sure, there has been talk (in the words of the President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Relig- ion) of “a new fascism . . .in its incipient stage,” but my impression is that the word fascism was used more often of Goldwater than it has been of Reagan. There has also been a certain amount of abusive language about the American people, as for example in this choice morsel from a member of the editorial board of the Nation: “Determined to punish themselves for their sins, the Americans, a sanctimonious tribe, elected a bunch of thugs to plunder both the public purse and the nation’s image. Yet, as practical as they are sinful, middle- class Americans will also insure that the punish- ment does not affect them directly. Women, the poor, and the minorities will be asked to pay for the sins of the people.” But even the author of these words went on to “offer readers of the Na- tion the thought that Reagan will not be as bad as they think.” A similar assurance has been offered by Car- terites to one another that “reality” as they inter- pret it will prevail over ideology and that in the end the Reagan administration will turn out, especially in foreign policy, to be not very differ- ent from the Carter administration. In this read- ing Reagan is not Goldwater but Eisenhower.
THE really telling contrast, however, is with 1972. The Nixon landslide brought a palpable ugliness into the air. On the winning side, where magnanimity and high spirits might have been expected, there was vindictive spite directed not only against Nixon’s famous list of “enemies” but even against his own top associ- ates, as illustrated by his bizarre demand only hours after his great triumph that they all submit letters of resignation. On the losing side, where de- pression, recrimination, and self-doubt might have been anticipated, there was instead a surge of malignant exhilaration, almost as though the Mc- Governites could foresee the revenge they would soon-though not too soon for them-enjoy.
This time it has been strikingly different. If many people were too embarrassed or ashamed up until the last minute to admit that they were in- tending to vote for Reagan, or if still others, by voting for Anderson (who in being seen as a rein- carnation of Adlai Stevenson was the fourth great case of mistaken identity in the story of 1980) re- fused to choose between the actual alternatives be- fore them, the atmosphere began to change almost as soon as the results were in. Indeed, the rela- tively kind treatment Reagan began to receive in the media during the later stages of the campaign spilled over and swelled into a mood of titillated expectancy such as has not been felt after a presi- dential campaign since the election of John F.
For example, Tom Wicker of the New York Times, whom no one would have looked to for ad- miring words about Ronald Reagan, responded to the results of the election by predicting that Reagan, “underrated for the last time as a mere actor,” might turn in a performance in office that would be “as surprising as his election.” A week later, Wicker was even more optimistic: “If Mr. Reagan can demonstrate … that he’s in control, knows where he wants to go, and has a reasonable sense of how to get there, that assurance alone will cause Americans to sustain him in many a disap- pointment along the way.” More astonishing still, Wicker’s characteristically strident colleague Anthony Lewis, warning his fellow Americans that Reagan would soon makeTHE NEW AMERICAN MAJORITY/27 changes they would deplore, advised them to aban- don their euphoria in favor of-not wariness or determined opposition, but “modified rapture.” As with the New York Times, so with the Wash- ington Post: . . .Americans who voted for Jimmy Carter have something to think over. It is different now that Ronald Reagan is about to be President.
His image as a tough anti-Soviet politician could turn out to have positive value if it helps give the Soviet juggernaut pause…. Ronald Reagan has a strong mandate to counter and check the widely perceived flow of the Soviet military tide. You don’t have to have voted for Ronald Reagan to hope that he succeeds.
In the same paper, Henry Fairlie, who had written a piece about the Republican convention last sum- mer comparing Reagan’s supporters to the Ger- mans who brought Hitler to power, now pub- lished one prophesying nothing less than “a new American revival.” By 1984, he said, “America will be surging with a new life. It will have recovered its confidence and creativity, economically and po- litically and culturally.’” Such sentiments issuing from such quarters are not to be taken lightly. They reflect something deeper and more embracing than a transient polit- ical mood-something for which the word Zeitgeist does not seem too portentous. There is a new spirit now marking this age. How can it be doubted when John Lennon, the very embodiment of the 60’s counterculture, could say (shortly before his death) that he now wanted “the family [to be] the inspiration for art, instead of drinking or drugs or whatever”; or when in another part of the old radical forest, Susan Sontag now speaks of the “illusions and misconceptions” she formerly enter- tained about Cuba and North Vietnam as well as about “Soviet imperialism”; or when Tom Hay- den, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, the flagship organization of the New Left, and husband of Jane Fonda, writes in explanation of the defeat of his fellow “liberals”: “Having …
lost God, the flag, national defense, tax relief, per- sonal safety, and traditional family values to the conservatives, it became more than a little difficult for these liberals to explain why they should be entrusted with the authority to govern.” The one truly dark cloud in the otherwise sunny sky smiling over Ronald Reagan’s election concerns the Moral Majority. On issues like abor- tion and homosexuality, even many people who voted for Reagan, let alone those who did not, are genuinely worried about a wave of bigotry and re- pression; it is, indeed, in discussion of these mat- ters that the word fascism has mainly come up. On these issues, moreover, many liberals seem to have been energized rather than demoralized, as witness the rash of post-election public statements by such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union who see in the Moral Majority a threat “to every prin- ciple of liberty that underlies the American system of government.” Nevertheless, even here, and often among the very same people, one senses the presence of an opposing current-a feeling, almost, of relief at the thought that now at least a line will be drawn to keep things from going even further than they al- ready have gone. The liberal culture of recent yeas has been unable to draw any such line, even when in its heart of hearts it may have wanted to o so.
Committed indiscriminately to free spe h, on what ground of principle could it stand against the tidal wave of hard-core pornography (now even seeping into television via the public-access channels)? Absolutist only in its moral relativism, how could it stand against the encouragement (as opposed to the toleration) of homosexuality, or object when the number of abortions began to ex- ceed the number of live births? Unable to do these things for itself, the liberal culture may not be al- together averse to having the dirty work done by others, while of course deploring and disclaiming any responsibility.
IF, THEN, 1980 was, as the Economist nicely put it, “the election that Wat- ergate postponed,” and if it really did signify the artificially delayed emergence of a new Republican majority, what will become of the Democrats? One possibility is that they will follow the example of the British Labor party, which has responded to the triumph and popularity of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher by moving further to the Left.
If they do, they are likely to remain in opposition for a very long time.
The other possibility is that the Democrats will try to move back to the Center. In advocating this strategy shortly after the election, Senator Moyni- han, as reported by the New York Times, “said the Democrats had lost so badly because the party had run out of ideas and was capable only of re- peating worn-out doctrines.” Some months earlier, Senator Moynihan had sounded the same theme in a piece pointing out that the Republicans, who for so long were what John Stuart Mill once called the stupid party, had suddenly replaced the Demo- crats as the intelligent party, the party of ideas.
Among the Republicans there was intellectual fer- ment and lively debate over the most serious is- sues; among the Democrats there was orthodoxy and a competition for doctrinal purity.
All this is true, but as Senator Moynihan is in the best possible position to know, if not in the best possible position to say, the real problem with the Democrats has not been their lack of ideas; the problem has been their possession of the wrong ideas, not their insistence on doctrinal pu- rity but their insistence on the wrong doctrines- wrong on the merits and wrong in the sense of be- ing politically unpopular.28/COMMENTARY JANUARY 1981 Senator Moynihan, after all, is himself the co- chairman, along with Senator Jackson, of the Co- alition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), which was founded immediately after the 1972 election by anti-McGovern Democrats (myself included) who believed that their party had been punished by the voters for having “come to be unduly in- fluenced by forces and ideas both unrepresentative of and hostile to traditional Democratic princi- ples.” CDM called-in vain, as it would develop- for a return to “that very Democratic tradition which, abandoned by the forces temporarily in control of the national Democratic party in 1972, was usurped in some measure by the Republicans.” In 1980, while the Democrats remained under the influence of those same unrepresentative forces and ideas, the Republicans completed their usur- pation of the abandoned Democratic tradition. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention last summer, Reagan made this all but explicit when he not only quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt but offered a program that echoed in almost every detail the campaign on which John F. Kennedy rode to the Presidency in 1960. He did not use Kennedy’s slogan, “Let’s get the country moving again,” but he promised to do just that and in al- most exactly the same way: economic growth to be achieved through a tax cut and a resurgent Amer- ica dedicated (in Kennedy’s words) to “the sur- vival and the success of liberty.” Even Reagan’s first great “gaffe,” the reference to Vietnam as a noble effort, linked his campaign to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (whereas Carter had early in his administration described Vietnam as a product of the “”moral and intellectual poverty” of American foreign policy); and in subsequent weeks, Reagan went into traditionally Democratic strongholds and told them that he represented the values of growth and strength which the Demo- cratic party had once believed in but had now abandoned in favor of their opposites.
Therefore if the Democrats decide to follow Senator Moynihan’s lead-and it is their only hope of ever regaining majority status-they will be in the comical position of having to say “me- too” to ideas that once belonged to them by right of lineal descent. Meanwhile the Republicans, with a charge of high intellectual and political en- ergy stolen to some extent from the Democrats (but stolen, as Senator Hayakawa once said of the Panama Canal, “fair and square”), will be work- ing “to get the country moving again.” The Republicans may or may not succeed: it is much easier to call an election than to predict what any new administration will actually do once it gets into power. But the deepest meaning of the landslide of 1980 is that the Republicans have a new majority to build on in trying to reverse the decline of American power. They have, that is to say, a truly historic opportunity. And so do we all.