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The Wind that Blew in Reagan

Thomas B. Edsall’s craft is the Old Mole’s, which is one of the several useful vocations that fell out of style long ago. The New Politics of Inequality has the effect of the patient laying of a mine and its bold detonation of the ground where most of us franchised to assess American politics have until now set our assumptions.

The force of the explosion may be most accurately, if discomfitingly, gauged by listing the axioms substantially taken for granted whose pretensions to substance Edsall has all but blown away.

Axiom 1: Ronald Reagan has created a revolution.

Instead, Edsall argues, he only rode a wind already raised to bear him forward. The breezes blew friendliest for social liberalism under Richard Nixon, but had already begun to wither under Jimmy Carter. Nixon’s first four years were defined by the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and steady, even heady, increases in Social Security and food stamp allotments. Carter’s only term was exemplified in Congress’s enactment of the 1978 Internal Revenue Act, “the first major tax bill since the 1930s that did not skew benefits toward those at the bottom and middle of the income spectrum.” In the last year the Democrats controlled all three branches of government, they had exercised their authority to abandon the root principle of the New Deal before Reagan had his chance to fall upon it.

Axiom 2: The politics most serviceable to the general welfare is the kind most infused with the abstract spirit of moral uplift.

Instead, the procedural reforms inspired by Watergate appear to have piled their plates highest for the engorgement of the greedy. At least to my own knowledge, Edsall is the first observer to chronicle the triumph of this paradox, and we may credit his insight as much to a minor weakness as to his several major strengths. There are in his prose intimations of certain deficiencies in the area of the winsome. He seems somehow to fall short of those genialities of manner that are often worth more than mere enterprise for commending the journalist to his superiors as candidate for assignment to major politicians—assignments that are at least as ambassadorial as inspectional.

Edsall has progressed from the Providence Journal, the Baltimore Sun, and at last to The Washington Post. We can be sure that he was valued everywhere and still hear the affectionate but not untrusting general verdict of his editors: “Edsall…a dour fellow. Give him the budget hearings; he can take it.” If he was judged a trifle prickly as companion for those who sell the sausage, he was condemned, we may surmise, to the factory floor with the sausage makers, a humble precinct but unbeatable as a point of vantage. “The genesis of this book,” he tells us, “lies, in part, in the experience of spending four long days and much of each of those nights covering the proceedings of the Senate Budget Committee in March 1981.”

The budget process turned out to be the resource for Edsall that the parliamentary blue books were for Karl Marx. The most inspiring places can often be those that offer the smallest expectations. Once deprived of the expansive fraternity and pinched enlightenment of campaign excursions, Edsall had opportunities for revelation denied the rest of us.

He could, for example, recognize the working out of those 1975 reforms that had been aimed to open government up, especially with their guarantees of public access to official proceedings. He found himself watching results that were the direct opposite of the original intention:

There are still no representatives of the general-interest press and television at the overwhelming majority of congressional committee sessions. Instead, public access to these meetings is used primarily by lobbyists and publications catering to special-interest groups. Similarly, the Freedom of Information Act is used far more by corporations seeking to gain an advantage over, and information about, competitors than for the disclosure of governmental activity to the general public.

Government had invited the lowliest of its citizens to cast upon its workings as cold an eye as he chose; and almost nobody came to look except the lobbyists; and it took only six years for them to reach their apogee as welcome familiars.

In an extraordinary delegation of power, Congress, with the full support of the Reagan administration, permitted key representatives of the business lobbying community to write the key provisions of the 1981 tax cut as they affected the corporate income tax. As part of his tax bill, President Reagan accepted what was known as 10-5-3 legislation, written by a small group of business lobbyists, generally tax specialists representing the most influential of American corporations, increasing the value of the investment tax credit and sharply accelerating the depreciation schedule on new investments.

Axiom 3: An increase in the public’s trust of corporate management since its Watergate nadir explains why business is now sovereign in the political marketplace.

Instead, “after falling to 22 percent in the mid-1970s, the percentage of the public saying that it ‘has a great deal of confidence’ in the leaders of major corporations has remained at an historic low, fluctuating between 16 and 27 percentage points, despite the steady erosion of the memory of Watergate and associated scandals…. The success of corporate advocacy advertising has probably been to cast public doubt on the solutions offered by adversaries of business. The most consistent theme of corporate advocacy and public-interest advertising has been a sustained attack on the use of government money and regulation to solve social problems.”

Axiom 4: Degrees of social and moral conscience will be restored to our politics as the power of its traditional brokers is weakened, the authority of party organizations erodes, voters and their representatives cast off inhibitions by the parochial and the partisan, and the old, who are by definition corrupt, at last make way for the young, who are equally by definition virtuous.

Instead, Edsall shows that the last decade began a fervid pursuit of these ideals and arrived at consequences that, under Edsall’s scrutiny, turn out to be the reverse of those anticipated.

That contradiction ought not to be a surprise; there is a full synopsis of relevant political wisdom in Melbourne’s comment after he had sought to soothe Irish discontents with Catholic emancipation and found them more pestilent than ever. “What all the wise men promised has not happened,” Melbourne said afterward, “and what all the damned fools said has come to pass.”

The Democratic party has, to take a case, swallowed most of the doses served up by its reformers and is, if anything, sicker with the remedy than it was with the disease. The compounding of the open presidential primaries that was designed to broaden participation in the party’s control turns out in fact to have narrowed it.

In general elections, as Edsall points out, the Republicans tend to draw their greatest strength more from the top third, and the Democrats from the bottom third, of the income scale. The exchange leaves the Democrats markedly disadvantaged: in 1980, the 40 percent of American families with annual incomes below $15,000 cast 32.9 percent of the presidential vote, while the 44.7 percent with incomes above $20,000 accounted for 52.7 percent. This class disparity in turnout can explain both the Democratic party’s decline as a national force and the increasing incoherence of its policies.

Every presidential campaign is an uneven struggle for the Democrats, because upper-middle-class Republicans exercise the franchise so much more assiduously than lower-middle-class Democrats. And the apathy of the Democrats’ largest constituency toward the ballot, being even more pronounced in primary than in general elections, stifles most concerns the party may still have about reflecting the sentiments and serving the desires of the majority of its rank and file.

For, as Edsall notes, the Democratic party’s procedural reforms have “promoted a system for the selection of delegates to the presidential convention that undercut in varying degrees the party’s most loyal voting blocks. In primaries, compared to general elections, the affluent are overrepresented by a margin of 41.8 percent, the better educated by a margin of 94 percent, and blacks [except, we may presume, for occasional infusions of encouragement like those let loose by Jesse Jackson] are underrepresented by 35.6 percent.”

The accompanying ironies began to display themselves almost at once when the McGovern Commission’s plan for shifting party control to the broad mass of its supporters produced a 1972 Democratic convention in which close to a third of the delegates were drawn from the top-most 5 percent of the income bracket.

The delegate selection process had, Edsall observes, “shifted from the party structure and leadership in all the states to an elite group of voters who turn out in disproportionately large numbers and who have no direct interest in seeking representation for political and economic goals that diverge from their own. In terms of income and status, there may be only slight differences between these two elites, but the political survival of party and elected officials depended at least in part on their ability to represent a broad cross-section of the Democratic party.”

But then rather more often than not revolutions act themselves out with the overthrow of one set of the well-to-do and its replacement by another. The vanguard of this particular revolution was drawn from the fortunate class, whose majority is sufficiently inclined to vote Republican for reasons of self-interest to suggest that such members as apostatize are most easily recognizable for an outsized assurance of their own idealism.

It is, however, not often an idealism repelled by the advantages inherent in its own class; and its tests for political virtue infrequently extend to the one that Edsall insists is primary: “The distribution of income and wealth in a democratic country goes to the heart of its political ethic, defining the basic contours of a nation’s sense of justice and equity.”

This old-fashioned distrust of morality in the abstract illuminates his judgment of the transient, if not illusory, renaissance of the Democrats after Watergate. The party’s more than two-to-one majority in the 1975 House of Representatives was established mainly by collecting twenty-six new seats in suburban districts unsettled from their normal bearings by Republican scandals. These fresh congressmen arrived acutely aware that only the most intense solicitude for the feelings of their constituents could maintain this sudden and tenuous hold on their support.

They had been sent to Washington as reformers. Edsall limits the reformer to two choices. He can address himself to procedure (“the making of changes in the legislative or political process, usually with the intent of achieving some kind of ethical, moral, or at least behavioral improvement in the conduct of politicians”). Or he can essay substantive reform (“an attempt to use government to correct a compelling social or economic problem [which] often involves the alteration of the relationship between government and citizen”).

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