What is the meaning of the election of Ronald Reagan? The initial reaction of most commentators was that Reagan’s victory was evidence of a “conservative tide,” a tide so strong and deep that some described it as “revolutionary,” others as a “turning point” to the “right.” The most telling evidence for this interpretation was the results of the congressional elections. For the first time in a quarter-century, the Republicans have gained control of the Senate while substantially reducing the Democratic majority in the House. Several prominent liberal senators and representatives were defeated, many of them after having been singled out by rabid conservative action groups. One major consequence is that conservatives will become chairmen of some key committees in the two houses.
There can be little doubt that the election of Reagan and the new composition of the Congress will make a genuine difference in some important matters of public policy and in future appointments, especially to the judiciary. Unemployment, environmental protection, nuclear energy, aid to the cities, SALT, and civil liberties will be approached differently, both in spirit and in substance. The ethos will probably be reminiscent of the first Nixon administration.
While “conservative” might fairly describe what is likely to be done by the Reagan team, it does not capture the significance of the election and may even be deeply misleading. Some important facts count against the thesis that we have just witnessed a conservative revolution. Only slightly more than 50 percent of those eligible voted and of these only about 10 percent described themselves as “true conservative.” In addition, we should remember that the campaign failed to dramatize the election as a stark contest between liberals and conservatives; that the president was the most conservative Democratic candidate since John W. Davis in 1924; that as the campaign wore on, Reagan gradually separated himself from the rhetoric and issues dear to the rabid right; and that the most frequent experience of the voters was uncertainty, even anguish at the alternatives. Apathy, uncertainty, and indistinct choices are not the stuff of Thermidor.
The meaning of the election has to do with other questions. What is portended by the deeply antipolitical quality of the election—the desultory, unfocused campaign, the apathetic turnout, the apolitical images cast by the protagonists? Did the election mark the demise of liberalism rather than the triumph of conservatism? Was Reagan less the symbol of conservatism than of traditionalism and, if so, what are the prospects of a revival of such traditional values as family, religion, and simple morality?
The proper setting for addressing these questions is the great changes that have taken place in the system of national political institutions during this century. Stated briefly, there has been an evolution from a loose structure of “government” to something like a state system. A state exists when power and authority are centralized; when their scope and application are, in principle and for the most part, unlimited except by procedural requirements; and when the basic tendency …