The New Politics of Old Values
The Reagan years can best be characterized as the age of evasion. At a time when the inescapable limits of American national power and economic growth have become increasingly difficult to ignore, Reagan has discredited talk about those limits. He has managed to equate acknowledgment of the country’s troubles with disloyalty to the American dream. His war against pessimism is the secret of his political success, at least in the short run. But it is also the key to his failure to bring about a political realignment or to set the country on a new course.
Based on false hopes, Reagan’s reputation is unlikely to survive the disappointments that are sure to follow. His political coalition, pieced together from constituencies with little in common except a dislike of contemporary liberalism, is already beginning to crumble. His programs, while they may have brought prosperity to some, have failed to arrest the nation’s long-term economic decline. His party has not been able to produce a congressional majority and now seems unlikely to win the presidency. Yet he himself continues, in spite of the Iran-contra scandal, the Noriega fiasco, and embarrassing revelations about life in the White House, to command widespread devotion, and it is important to understand the source of his appeal. It is also important to understand that the failure of Reaganism does not assure a revival of liberalism. On the contrary, it was the collapse of liberalism that opened the way for Reaganism in the first place.
John Kenneth White argues that Reagan’s popularity rests on his ability to exploit the familiar symbols of American national pride and to convince voters that he is “one of us.” White sees the common touch as a condition of success in American politics. Leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy, notwithstanding their wealth and exalted social position, managed to present themselves as ordinary Americans, and Reagan has done the same. “More than most presidents,” he understands that “voters respond to symbols and phrases that evoke commonly held values.” By identifying himself with the “traditional values” of family and neighborhood, Reagan has restored faith in the “American dream.”
White argues the familiar thesis that in the Sixties and Seventies, the values held by professional and political leaders diverged more and more widely from those held by ordinary Americans. People in control of the press, the universities, the large corporations became far more relaxed in their attitudes toward divorce, adultery, premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and drugs than the public. Reagan actually closed this “values gap,” according to White, by reassuring the common people that their ideals were shared by those in power. His reaffirmation of old-fashioned morality brought about an “upbeat mood,” a rejection of self-doubt and cynicism. The “new mood” is exemplified, in White’s view, not only by Reagan but by Lee Iacocca, with his Chrysler slogan, “The pride is back.” “Optimism is…regnant.” Marriage is back in style. Authority no longer serves mainly as the butt of jokes. Swinging sex gives way…
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