Political Parties in the American Mold
The Paradox of Mass Politics: Knowledge and Opinion in the American Electorate
Two years ago, after President Reagan’s 1984 landslide, Republican strategists saw the 1988 presidential election as an opportunity to solidify the GOP’s substantial gains in their long campaign to make the country Republican. The 1986 election and the Iran–contra scandal have not only severely damaged those expectations; they have revealed weaknesses in both political parties and in their leadership, leaving a tangled prospect for the next few years.
The takeover of the Senate by the Democrats last November was less a mandate for the party—a shift of just 26,000 votes would have left the Senate in Republican hands—than the result of a string of lucky breaks. The Democratic party has only begun the painful process of accepting that it is no longer the permanent majority party in the country. For Democrats who still don’t understand this, the Iran–contra scandal may prove a dangerous diversion, just as Watergate in the 1970s allowed the Democrats to gloss over the deep divisions between the party’s centrists, who supported Hubert Humphrey for president over George McGovern and now look to such politicians as Sam Nunn or Gary Hart, and its leftists, who were drawn to McGovern, and then to Ted Kennedy, and are now left without a clear choice after the withdrawal of Mario Cuomo.
In recent elections many workingclass and lower-middle-class whites have chosen either not to vote or to vote for Republican presidential candidates. Cuomo’s decision not to seek the nomination means that there is likely to be no Democratic competitor whose basic strategy is to mobilize such people. Instead, with the exception of Jesse Jackson, who has no chance of being nominated, the Democratic field is made up of candidates whose chief political aim has been to strengthen the party’s appeal to the middle classes, although some of the candidates are now trying to appeal to Cuomo’s former supporters.
A prominent Democratic poll taker, Paul Maslin, recently said:
From 1976 through 1984, the biggest single decline in Democratic voting has been among the lower- and middle-class white voters below forty—the Springsteen vote. If 1988 becomes a battle of elites and neither party can generate enthusiasm from the majority of Americans, the Democrats may get lucky and win, but the party will not have done much to advance a real foundation of public support. If on the other hand the Democrats start to inspire these people, at least increase voting levels, bring some back into the system, it will provide a real chance to govern successfully and for a long time.
The Democratic party will have a hard time achieving the goals outlined by Maslin, no matter who is selected from a prospective field that now includes, in addition to Hart and Nunn, Senator Joseph Biden, Representative Richard Gephardt, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. The difficulty the Democratic nominee will have to overcome is reflected in Washington Post–ABC polls in 1981 and 1986 showing a sharp decline in support for the Democratic party on…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.