Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign
The election of 1980 and the first year of the Reagan administration have filled liberal reformers (among others) with gloom and foreboding. Dennis Wrong, a politically moderate sociologist, captured the prevailing mood when he wrote recently in Dissent:1 “I do not recall a time when the prospects for the left in America have looked quite so dim”—or, he later hints, the prospect for a native fascism so real, albeit still distant and faint. The concluding lines of Walter Dean Burnham’s essay in The Hidden Election imply a similar anxiety about the future not simply of reform but of the values and institutions which have made reform possible.
There are grounds for viewing the election from a rather less apocalyptic perspective. Start with an incumbent with the charisma of a prune, who had scraped into office on a paper-thin majority. Add, in the final two years of his term, a frightening rate of inflation, levels of unemployment rivaling or exceeding the worst postwar years, and something approaching a 5 percent decline in the real income of the blue-collar class, the class on which his party depends. Compound this with the hostage negotiations, a drama of national impotence and humiliation conducted against a background of shrill comment on the decline of America’s power and the rise of the Soviet Union’s. Take all that and you have a sure-fire recipe for defeat, almost without reference to the opposition candidate. For whatever his limitations, as long as he avoids making a really grotesque spectacle of himself, he will have the overwhelming advantage of being someone other than Jimmy Carter.
Liberals might also ease the gloom by considering the election within the cyclical theory of American history advocated by the Schlesingers, father and son, the theory of an inevitable oscillation between liberal and conservative moods. Oscillation does not halt the lurching progress of reform. Liberals push it forward. Then, their means and energy exhausted by conservative resistance, they temporarily yield to the opposition who succeed only in consolidating a new status quo before liberals regroup and jerk the polity forward once again. Under the Schlesingers’ hypothesis, a sustained period of conservative rule was long overdue. It had been heralded by Nixon’s election and anomalously interrupted by Watergate.
The Hidden Election, a collection of essays by left-of-center scholars determined to expose the deeper political forces that swept Carter from office, ravaged the Senate’s liberal wing, and brought to power and popularity a figure long abandoned on the fringe of political respectability, carries a less buoyant message.
The shape of American politics emerging from this book, supplemented with one or two bits of my own, looks roughly as follows. We begin with a country unique among Western democracies in being the only one where the ideology of individualistic capitalism2 has established an unchallenged dominance. European-style social democracy with its frank recognition of class relations, its labor or socialist parties mobilizing most of the working class, and its appeal to communitarian interests has failed to…
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