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 is toward the integration of the various branches of government rather than toward their separation. It is, I would emphasize, these basic tendencies, not the perfect realization of them, that warrants the description “state system.”
If we bear these tendencies in mind, some of the questions raised by the election can be resolved. The apathetic electorate ceases to be an anomaly and appears, instead, as a necessary condition for the legitimation of the state whose effectiveness would be impaired if the electorate were to be seized by an extended fit of participatory zeal. The state needs taxpayers and soldiers, not active citizens. It requires occasional citizens in order to lend plausibility to the fiction that the state is based upon democratic consent and that its actions are therefore legitimate. But in a world of nuclear weapons, a rapidly changing international economy, and uncertain power relations throughout the world, the state must be free in order to act quickly and rationally. The unspoken assumption of its leaders is that it neither needs nor can it function with the uncertainties and divisions inherent in a democratic politics.
The presidency has been a powerful factor in perpetuating the illusion of democracy and thereby legitimating the exercise of state power. As the only official who can credibly claim to be both selected and elected by the society as a whole, the president has assumed the role of the people’s mediator, persuading a parochial Congress to rise to the level of the general good, energizing a stodgy bureaucracy, and defending the people from foreign powers and dominations. The Congress can only bring a limited legitimation to the state. It is unable to represent the democratic principle except in a fragmented and provincial form. In contrast, the president seems to embody the seamless authority of the sovereign people itself.
But in reality, the power of the twentieth-century president has been amassed at the expense both of the electorate—he is the sublimation and the manipulation of their political impulses—and of the Congress, whose legislative enactments invariably delegate large discretionary “law-making” powers to the president. If the president is the personification of the state, he is also the personification of its internal contradiction. The power of the state is legitimated by appealing to the principle of democracy and thereby implying that the state is a democratic state. But it is a commonplace that the modern state precludes continuous political participation by the citizens as well as genuine self-government. The modern state is operated by technicians according to the hierarchical model of administrative management, rather than by equal participants according to a model of deliberation and persuasion. During the past two decades a growing trend among politicians, administrators, influential private citizens, and academic political scientists has been to urge the liberation of the state from the few remaining democratic constraints. As we shall see, President Carter made a historic contribution toward ending the tension between democracy and the state, thereby helping to prepare the way for a new principle of legitimation.
The concept of the state does not, however, adequately describe the American system of power and hence the meaning of the election cannot be fully understood without first characterizing that system. The most appropriate phrase for it is “political economy.” The political element is represented by the state, especially the president and the giant military-administrative establishment of which he is the formal head. The “economy” is a system for the production, consumption, and use of goods and services. Within it, disproportionately large amounts of power, resources, and money are distributed among, or owned by, a relatively small number of giant corporations. The economy of a highly developed society, such as our own, is distinctive for its integration of science, technology, and production. This is the source of the dynamic, expansionist character of so-called “advanced societies.” For, in principle, there are no “natural” limits to the increase of scientific knowledge or to technological innovation. They represent the possibility of infinite power, subject only to the limitations of finite resources. Modernization is not synonymous with ordinary notions of “growth” which assume that living things have an “appointed end,” that they grow to a certain size or shape and then cease to grow. Modernization, in contrast, is “growth” without end.
A political economy is thus a state grounded in an economy of potentially infinite power. In the capitalist political economies of the twentieth century, a division of labor has developed in which the so-called “private sector” of the economy has provided much—but by no means all—of the stimulus for “modernization.” Although the state has had to take the initiative in many important areas—nuclear power and space exploration are only the most recent examples—and, since the beginning of the republic, has subsidized private enterprise with public money, the distinctive qualities of innovation, risk-taking, and experimentation (new processes, products, and markets) are, as Marx recognized long ago, characteristic of the competitive dynamic of capitalism.
But innovation is destructive: machines take the place of workers and their skills; factories deplete villages. Ideally innovation should be “creative destruction” (Schumpeter); the danger is that it will be self-destructive. So innovation needs to be encouraged yet restrained from excess. Although capitalism has experimented with a wide variety of self-restraints, from cartels to trade associations, from divisions of the market to price-fixing agreements, these have had only limited success. The reason is simple: a system which is built upon self-interest and relentlessly cultivates that motive cannot plausibly foster disinterestedness or civic virtue. Yet capitalism needs some power that can stabilize the conditions needed for innovation and competition. It needs regulation of money, credit, investment markets, tariffs, contracts, patents, and some types of fraud. It needs, too, an assured supply of educated (but not overly educated) workers, trained technicians, and a few scientific geniuses. It needs a system of social control, perhaps even pacification, to assure peace and order and to balance off resentment by motivation. Thus a modernizing economy needs rationalization of the conditions that make innovation possible.
Rationalization has been the primary responsibility of the federal bureaucracy: of the great departments (Defense, Treasury, Commerce, Agriculture, etc.); executive offices (Management and Budget, Council of Economic Advisers); regulatory commissions (FTC, SEC, ICC, etc.); and the Federal Reserve Board. Although currently there is considerable discussion of the merits of “deregulation” and even some progress toward it, the predominant view among corporate leaders and high administrators is that general deregulation would produce uncertainty, cutthroat competition, and instability throughout the market.
The legendary vices of bureaucracy—to be slow-moving, unimaginative, obsessed by routine and legal norms—are, in effect, the virtues needed if it is to perform the function of rationalizing and controlling economic life. To expect the opposite virtues is to confuse the public domain of rationalization with the private domain of innovation. In a political economy the state rationalizes, the economy modernizes.
During the last two decades the political economy has been subjected to increasing strains. At the risk of being too schematic, one can interpret the 1960s as the decade that saw the political side of the economy challenged, while the 1970s saw widespread doubts about the future of the economic side of the polity. The various protest movements of the 1960s and the search for participatory forms reflected a general awareness that the major institutions and processes of American politics were at odds with certain basic democratic ideas about self-government, freedom, equality, and shared power. Since the 1960s, however, the antidemocratic character of the political system has become, if anything, more pronounced. The enormous federal bureaucracy is reared on principles of hierarchy, authority, secrecy, lack of accountability, the use of technical knowledge to mystify the public, and the treatment of people as though they were categories rather than autonomous beings. The Congress, instead of being the instrument of popular control, has adapted itself to bureaucratic politics. Each senator and representative is surrounded (some would say imprisoned) by his staff; every committee has its staff to carry on negotiations with the bureaucracy.