The question for the political analyst is no longer whether Ronald Reagan will succeed or fail. He is failing, and attention must now focus upon the ramifications and dimensions of that failure. What kind of response can we expect from Reaganites committed to preserving a center-right political coalition? And will the present conservatism of Middle America, a conservatism that in my view already possesses a strong radical component, metamorphose into a radicalism of an extreme sort?
It didn’t take a genius to predict on Inauguration Day that Reaganism would unravel. The omens were hardly bright for the nostalgic restoration of Reagan’s ideology, or for the associated vulnerability and volatility of the electoral coalition subscribing to that ideology, or for Reagan’s patently contradictory fusion of monetarism and supply-side economics, or for a presidential regime announcing that it would combat the global currents of inflation with maxims out of McGuffey’s Reader and Calvin Coolidge.
Any observer can see that both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher have been trying to re-create the halcyon days of American and British expansion. But the electoral indignation that helped to elect Reagan in the United States was something quite different from what the British voters felt when they plunked for Thatcher, a Tory politician. In short—and the full genealogical details are available in thousands of political parish registers—the Reagan Revolution, the rise of the Religious Right, and the various tax revolts of the late 1970s were evidence less of conservatism than of populism in the fiscal and cultural tradition of Shays’s Rebellion of 1786, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the great religious revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not to speak of the presidential campaigns of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan.
For the White House to assume that there exists a popular desire to embrace the conservative economics of Adam Smith, Andrew Mellon, Milton Friedman, Arthur Laffer, and the Business Roundtable says very little for the Reaganites understanding of American electoral politics and of its own mandate. The fact is that periods of economic turmoil in the United States have never thrown up a Tory or a conservative politics, but have produced instead politicians with nicknames like “Pitchfork Ben,” “Sockless Jerry,” and “The King Fish.” A similar populism and socio-economic yeast now bubbles just below the surface of what is called Reagan conservatism, and if the current regime miscarries—in the wake of the liberal failure that preceded it—American party politics and perhaps even the American system could undergo very great change.
Bear in mind that in 1979 and 1980, poll after poll turned up 70 to 80 percent of the public believing that the United States had gone off on the wrong track; 35 to 45 percent expressed major doubts about the effectiveness of the US political system; 50 percent favored a new party; 60 percent thought that we might need a leader who would bend the rules a bit; and 40 to 50 percent felt that it might be necessary to use force to restore the American way of life. Should a Reagan failure become apparent we may see a return to this disillusionment—economic, cultural, political, and institutional.
In my opinion, this renewed disillusionment will almost certainly produce, if it hasn’t already, an ideology and a set of policies that aim to reestablish, even enlarge, the role of government in the economy—some form of central planning that would encompass a partnership between business and government. Up to now, the Reaganites have attacked regulatory agencies and tried to do away with other forms of governmental restraint, as the marketplace has been exalted as the one and only judge of who gets how much of what. But if the economics of the “invisible hand” and “reprivatization” fails to deliver a buoyant economy, pressure will mount to create state economic mechanisms and political processes that will work, that can manage the task of allocating economic resources, sacrifices, and rewards. And unlike much of the economic policy making of the 1970s—welfarist or Naderite—the new government-business partnership will probably be more corporatist than liberal, and will put high emphasis on economic growth. Accordingly, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” will tend to become irrelevant.
Such a political economics may not even require the passing of the Reagan administration. Substantial parts of the present Republican coalition could favor moving in corporatist directions if the larger fate of center-right politics is at stake, as it now seems to be. A little political history needs to be recalled here. Prior to Reagan’s nomination, much of the corporate community favored John Connally’s politics calling for an alliance between government and business. Moreover, elements within the New Right, much more interested in economic growth and economic nationalism than in free-market ideology, were also sympathetic to Connally’s candidacy two years ago. We should not forget that in 1980 the New Right fundraiser Richard Viguerie ran direct-mail campaigns not only for the New Right and the Religious Right, but for John Connally as well.
The political antecedents of the New Right are more populist and Jacksonian than conservative, and its fundamental political loyalties are to anti-establishment cultural and social values, not to the free market. This accounted for the New Right’s support of Reagan’s candidacy. And anyone who doubts my analysis here should read The New Right Papers, a volume recently published containing articles by Viguerie, William Rusher, Paul Weyrich, and others.1 Much is said in praise of the blue-collar worker and of populist protests against property taxes, while little reference is made to Adam Smith or the notion that supply creates its own demand. Indeed, Weyrich, the chief coordinator of the Washington New Right, has elsewhere specifically denied that his political values derive from a conception of free-market economics.
The current New Right includes many people whose families were associated with the old Southern populist groups, along with elements of the old Northern working class. It is therefore not surprising that those who have been mobilized by the New Right’s campaigns tend to favor government action to suppress forms of behavior considered immoral, from selling liquor in Baptist rural Oklahoma to distributing pornography in Catholic New England. But New Right voters also tend to favor government economic support for rural and blue-collar interests. These two tendencies, of course, are entirely compatible, as former Alabama Governor George Wallace demonstrated. Wallace railed at the high taxes and social engineering imposed by “big government”; but he strongly supported federal housing and farm, highway, and vocational programs important to the rural South. Reagan has failed to comprehend that a similar combination of sentiments against “government” and for certain federal programs characterizes the mind of the New Right electorate. To repeat, much of what has passed for conservatism in this country for the past fifteen years is in fact populism.
Arguably, then, the most effective alliance to be made between Big Business and the New Right would be based not on nostalgia for free-market economics, but on a corporatist approach—something that could be called an “Economic Security State.” This would require a greater degree of management of capital and resources by the federal government to promote economic growth, reindustrialization, and improving US trade balances. The politics of such a regime would simultaneously maintain and protect national heavy industries in the name of national defense, as well as vigilantly take care of the needs of farmers, wage-earners, pensioners, and the middle class alike.
If the New Deal of 1933 to 1936 could be accused of fascism—a corporate state dictatorship—by the Liberty League, the political economics I have sketched here would better merit the term. And ironically, if the issue is national industrial policy, the Democratic politicians and constituencies of the declining central cities and the “redundant industry belt” of the Midwest may find their paths converging with elements of the corporatist right. (But they will try to distinguish their views from the right by emphasizing the need both to help minorities through urban reconstruction and to gain the cooperation of the unions.)
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan’s present commitment to supply-side economics also could be described as more “radical” than “conservative.” In ordinary political discourse, a conservative means someone who wants to maintain existing institutional relationships that might be under threat. But in 1980 and 1981, such zealots of the supply-side cause as Jude Wanniski liked to call themselves “The Wild Men,” well aware that they were advocating something explosive. My guess is that the failure of the radical supply-side doctrine is clearing the way for a different sort of radicalism: a move toward a species of European corporate statism in the United States.
The prospects of the further radicalization of the Middle-American electorate are also considerable. In the spring of 1980, when the extent of the swing to the right was still only faintly discernible, three primary elections took place that hardly anyone bothered to consider together: Harold Covington, leader of the US Nazi Party, got over 40 percent of the vote in the North Carolina Republican primary for nomination for state attorney general. Thomas Metzger, head of the state Ku Klux Klan, won the Democratic nomination for Congress in the Forty-third Congressional District of California. Gerald Carlson, a former Nazi Party member who left to organize the National Christian Democratic Union, won the Republican congressional primary in the Fifteenth District of Michigan.
By calling attention to these men, I mean to be provocative. Well aware of the dangers of comparing American political developments to those in Europe, I would still suggest four rough parallels between the United States of the late 1970s and early 1980s and Weimar Germany in the late Twenties. The first is the impact of inflation and the resulting frustration of the middle classes; the second is the trauma of a nation’s first defeat in war—World War I for Germany, Vietnam for the United States; the third is the antipathy of the German Volk and much of Middle America to the ensuing postwar “liberation” of moral, cultural, and sexual standards; and fourth is the pervasive erosion of popular faith in the fairness, responsiveness, and effectiveness of government and other political institutions. Within a nation, such frustrations accumulate only slowly—and rarely. Obviously, the traditionally Germanic forms of reaction would have no place here; yet it seems quite reasonable to suggest that a kindred sense of debility could, and indeed already has, expressed itself in indigenous forms of radicalism.
During the late 1960s, one of the biggest mistakes made by most political scientists, journalists, and sociologists was to assume that the dominant alienation, radicalism, and populism in American politics were encompassed and defined by the left. So misled, these commentators dwelt on antiwar demonstrators, on the activists inspired by Ralph Nader, on marijuana lobbyists, and other predominantly middle-class left-liberal groups. Accordingly, they played down the much more important demographic implications of people who applauded Spiro Agnew, liked Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” or spent time listening to fundamentalist preachers, often on television. The fact that many of those who analyzed and helped to form opinion came from backgrounds similar to those of the left-wing elites probably helped to obscure statistical reality. But the numbers were always there—in the Wallace vote of 1968 and 1972, in the dramatic growth of fundamentalist church membership, in the proliferation of radio stations featuring country-and-western music. And the converging issues affected not so much the elite but the majority: middle-class fear of inflation, racial and ethnic hostility, frustrated nationalism, and religious fundamentalism all bespoke a radical potential tilted toward the right.
In 1972, analysts could deceive themselves into thinking that South Dakota’s George McGovern, a presumed “Prairie Populist,” came from the tradition of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan, even though 40 percent of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention that nominated him had at least a master’s degree. By 1976, though, any hopes for a left-leaning populism with radical goals collapsed with the failure of the voters to respond to the presidential campaign of former Oklahoma senator Fred Harris, who attracted no more than a few middle-class housewives and college students. The interest in Harris among blue-collar workers was negligible, largely because the historic constituencies of American populism were not looking left. As C. Vann Woodward admitted in 1981: “When the [liberal] neopopulists went to the people to offer leadership, they found the whites lined up behind George Wallace, and the blacks, in time, behind the hostile nationalists.”
The confusion of the liberals was understandable. All during this time, “Middle Americans,” from restive farmers to anxious insurance clerks, were unhappy about the shape and direction of our society and politics. Little in our past suggested that such frustration would find expression in traditional conservatism. Movements of alienated groups had usually been populist and radical, though sometimes the radicalism veered to the right (as with the nativism of the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan sentiment of the 1920s, or McCarthyism of the 1950s). The notion of popular frustration breeding conservatism seemed hardly credible. Only a small number of commentators saw that once again populism would turn to the right and this time might become the most important such wave in American history.
It now seems beyond dispute that inflation, cultural and moral revolution, the first American wartime defeat and consequent frustrated nationalism—later compounded by humiliation over the hostages in Iran—produced a reaction toward the right in the late 1970s. And as that happened, many old radical constituencies were swept up in the same reaction. Skeptics have only to look at old electoral statistics and to see how the Lower East Side and Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, where Reagan did so well in 1980, were Socialist and American Labor Party strongholds of the 1920s or 1940s. The rural Southern fundamentalist counties on which Reagan improved twenty and thirty points on the vote for Gerald Ford were strongholds of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and then of Huey Long, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, and George Wallace. The Wheat Belt, including many counties where Reagan scored thirty to forty points better than Ford, is the core of Farm Belt radical tradition. And who remembers that the rural Oklahoma counties that followed the Moral Majority in 1980 had the highest percentage of votes for Socialist presidential candidates just before World War II? The arch-Catholic counties of the northern Farm Belt, also strongly for Reagan in 1980, heavily supported Congressman William “Liberty Bell” Lemke, Father Coughlin’s splinter-party candidate for president in 1936.
Ronald Reagan may not have done well in the middle-class radical precincts of Manhattan, Cambridge, Aspen, and San Francisco, but he did extraordinarily well for a Republican in regions with genuinely radical populist traditions.
If one wants to understand the radical nature of the Reagan coalition and the “conservative” politics of the early 1980s, several theories and analogies strike me as useful. The first is Seymour Martin Lipset’s notion of “center extremism”: the idea that under certain circumstances, when traditional politics breaks down, voters from the center move toward radical beliefs that do not fit conventional ideas of “right” or “left.” Lipset argues that in practice, “center extremism”—the radicalization of the electoral middle—has been closely linked to various degrees of fascism, Caesarism, or authoritarianism.
A second theory, closely related, is Donald Warren’s notion of “Middle American Radicals,” who make up, in Warren’s view, 25 to 30 percent of the American electorate—men and women whose anger is directed at rich and poor alike. Also worth mentioning is the European view that “revolutionary conservatism” is reappearing in the late twentieth century, a phenomenon akin to the emergence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, Germany, and Italy of activists and intellectuals who attacked the institutions of secular liberalism and called for the reassertion of religion, ethnicity, and nationalism.
Of course, European precedents will not apply neatly to Wichita, Levittown, or South Boston. The essential point made by Lipset and Warren is that a powerful movement can flow from a radicalized “middle” of the body politic. And as that kind of movement gathers force in an atmosphere of economic and cultural frustration, it usually rallies around programs and policies bearing little resemblance to those of either traditional elite conservatism or proletarian leftism. The politics of the radicalized “middle” tends to respond to cultural and moral traditionalism, nationalist pride and grandeur, and a promise of national and personal economic security. Its slogans tend to be along the lines of “Work, Family, Neighborhood,” and the like. Middle-class voters also like the trains to run on time and the streets to be safe.
During the past fifteen years, the political revolt of the lower-middle and middle classes was paramount in two elections, 1972 and 1980, and confused in two others, 1968 and 1976. But if one looks at all four elections together, several patterns emerge rather clearly. Democratic Party loyalties held up relatively well among the left-wing quarter of the electorate: the intelligentsia, the minorities, and the working-class electorates of stagnating industrial areas. Generally speaking, Republican strength maintained itself in well-to-do suburbia, old conservative Northern rural areas, and among business executives.
By contrast, lower-middle- and middle-class voters—small businessmen, rural Southerners, artisans and prosperous workers, farmers, service workers, retirees, white-collar employees—showed great volatility. It is hard to be precise about each category, but in general these voters moved heavily toward the two GOP presidential nominees—Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1980—who very successfully enunciated populist, anti-establishment themes, made overt appeals to “Middle,” “Silent,” or “Forgotten” Americans, and used slogans about family, work, and neighborhood. Cumulatively, the presidential elections held between 1968 and 1980 severely eroded the one-third or two-fifths of the New Deal coalition composed of the rural and small-town white South, the rural and small-town Catholic Farm Belt regions, and, notably, lower-middle-class suburbia, especially in the new Sun Belt metropolitan areas, which have had a high rate of immigration. Thus a huge slice of “Middle America” has come loose from its traditional political moorings.
But few politicians have displayed so little understanding of who and what elected them as Ronald Reagan. Like the great California Proposition 13 tax revolt of 1978, Reagan’s surprise ten-point landslide of 1980 was quickly read as something it was not: a mandate for experimental conservative, pro-business, pro-upper-bracket economics. In consequence, the vicissitudes of Reaganomics in 1981 and 1982 have played havoc with the 1980 Reagan coalition. Its blue-collar and Dixie populist supporters have become disaffected, along with many other voters. Donald Warren’s “Middle-American Radical” thesis contains a simple explanation: Middle-American Radicals (and to a greater or lesser extent the George Wallace supporters and New Right voters) are hostile to the rich and to big business at the same time as they dislike minorities and the liberal politicians who seem to favor minority interests over those of the white working class. By hitching his political future to the fiscal theories of Calvin Coolidge’s and Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary Andrew Mellon and by making the White House notable for its West Coast millionaires, mink coats, and Cadillac Fleetwoods, Reagan, too, has offended these frustrated Middle Americans.
If the two-party system were vital and resilient, it would be tempting to ask where else the Middle-American Radical can go. But the present two-party system is coming to resemble a sinking ship, battered and increasingly weakened in each presidential election by angry constituencies and interest groups that seem like loose cannons on a deck. My own view is that the two-party system was gravely weakened in the first half of the 1970s. In 1972 the Republicans seemed capable of solidifying their gains in the South and of bringing about a party realignment; but this prospect crumbled after Watergate and with it the possibility of a relatively restrained New Majority coalition. Diverted from realignment by Watergate, both the Republicans and the Democrats lost their coherence and creative direction. And in the meantime, economic and political disillusionment, fragmentation, and Balkanization of the parties took on dimensions that grew by 1980 to a level unmatched since the days before the Civil War.
At the moment, I would say that there is a 20 to 30 percent chance that either the radicalized New Right conservatives will take over the Republican Party by 1984, driving out many others, or the New Right will be looking for a new party vehicle of its own because of antipathy toward the GOP’s heir apparent, Vice-President George Bush, who is seen as tied to the “establishment.” Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a leading spokesman for fundamentalist morality and anti-Wall Street economics, is probably the most plausible New Right splinter candidate; if circumstances were favorable Helms could probably draw 10 to 15 percent of the total vote, with substantial strength across much of the Bible Belt. Or it may happen that the Middle-American right could once again be part of a broader, conservative coalition under a resurgent Reagan or another charismatic figure.
Those who find a Helms candidacy implausible, in view of the pressures of the two-party system in a presidential election, have yet another factor—or rather three factors—to consider: the small but potentially significant strength of the Citizens Party (under whose banner Barry Commoner ran for president in 1980), the continuing nationwide organization of the Libertarian Party, and the near certainty that 1980 Independent candidate John Anderson will run for president again in 1984. If three splinter parties, why not four, or even more?
The larger trend of politics in the Western democracies is compatible with such a splintering process. From Canada and Britain to Belgium and Germany, fragmentation is taking place. In a post-industrial time minor parties are feeding on the breakdown and increasing irrelevance of old party loyalties fashioned during the era of industrialization. And the process seems to be gathering force as the ideologies of the left and right prove unable to solve contemporary economic difficulties.
The trend in postindustrial areas of our country—university towns, high-tech developments, “gentrified” urban brownstone neighborhoods, environmentalist centers, prosperous resort areas, and so forth—provides a fascinating “progressive” counterpoint to the populist “conservative” trend in so many Southern fundamentalist counties and Northern blue-collar neighborhoods. If the relevance of the existing party system is being relentlessly undercut on the one hand by the populist-conservative volatility of “Middle-American Radicals,” it is being simultaneously undercut on the other hand by the opposite cultural tendency. One can almost see the basis of a major new antagonism that could help to disrupt the current party system: “double-knit” populist conservative fundamentalists versus what some politicians refer to as “wine-and-cheese” neoliberals. The Republican-Democrat system, with its roots in the social and economic patterns of the Civil War period, may be unable to encompass these new alignments.
So if the populist “conservatives” represent, as I think they do, a 20 to 25 percent slice of the electorate, with a heavy geographic bias to the Sun Belt, the Farm Belt, and the Rocky Mountains (not all that different, by the way, from the earlier populist geography of William Jennings Bryan), the distribution of the splinter vote for the new liberal parties and candidacies of 1980 is also fascinating. Taken together, John Anderson and the Libertarian and Citizens Party nominees drew roughly 8 percent of the national vote two years ago, but that number spans a broad regional disparity. Across the heart of Dixie, from the Carolina lowlands to the West Texas Bible Belt, these three candidacies had very little support—no more than 1 to 2 percent. But from Down East Maine and Cape Cod to the Pacific Northwest, with major intermediate concentrations in Midwest university towns and the new high-tech industrial suburbs of Minneapolis, Denver, Tucson, and Albuquerque, the three campaigns drew a respectable 10 to 20 percent of the presidential vote.
Even more significant, there was a strong correlation between splinter-party voting in postindustrial areas and concentration of high incomes and advanced education (to say nothing of the trite but very real correlation with passive solar houses, ski resorts, Volvos, and graduate students). In 1984, the three dissenting elements together—assuming Anderson runs—could attract 10 to 15 percent of the total US presidential vote.
The splinter-party tendencies of US presidential politics are always worth taking seriously. They have often served to predict the change that takes place when at least one of the major parties shifts ground to embrace a new pivotal theme or constituency. An important exception to this pattern occurred in the years before the Civil War, when the abolitionist movement and the Free-Soil splinter party foreshadowed a new, dominant party based on shared ideas and regional interests—the Republican Party. Intriguingly, the 1980 Anderson campaign was the first since that upheaval in which a splinter party made an impressive showing in the most affluent, best-educated, and most technologically advanced sections of the country. Something important is taking shape, and Reaganism may fuel its emergence by spurring further moderate GOP breakaways.
Though positions on economic policy are still evolving on both sides, the Dixie and New Right fundamentalists and the postindustrial neoliberal vote are polar opposites on most issues—certainly on religious, environmental, civil libertarian, and military and foreign policy matters. To underscore the larger significance of postindustrialism, we are seeing the emergence or growth of splinter parties in other countries: the Social Democratic/Liberal alliance in Britain, the Free Democrats in West Germany, the Greens in Germany and Belgium, and the New Democratic Party in Canada. All draw heavily on university communities, environmentalists, and middle-class professionals, people whose cultural and economic attitudes are often at odds with those of blue-collar workers, union leaders, or old-style politicians like US House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill (whom one politician has called a “paleo-liberal”).
The trend to a populist lower-middle-class conservatism—a conservatism that may not be conservative at all—is also increasingly apparent elsewhere in the West—in the British conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, the French Gaullism of Jacques Chirac, the German Christian Democratic Party wing run by Franz-Josef Struass, and the militant populist-religious nationalism of Israel’s Menachem Begin. In sum, the influence of both “Old Right” establishmentarian conservatism and paleo-liberalism has been on the wane.
Despite the weakness of Reaganomics and the instability of the Reagan coalition, the basic geopolitical tilt of the United States—toward the ever-expanding Sun Belt—still favors the right. Hitherto, the populist movements of the South and the West have generally been a force for innovation, progress, and reform, however much their manners and methods might have elicited sneers in New York and Boston drawing rooms. There are some who claim we are witnessing a re-enactment of the same historical pattern today. Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s polling expert, has described the Sun Belt as the seat of national optimism, and assumes there is a strong correlation between optimism and support of Reagan’s programs. The San Diego Union has published editorials about a Sun Belt-centered “America II emerging from the diminished promise of America I.” In the eyes of such enthusiasts, this “America II” is a frontier of national renewal—of innovation and restored entrepreneurialism and self-help. Such a new frontier could make populism work again as an innovative and progressive force, or so the argument goes.
Perhaps. But the Sun Belt is no longer an insurgent, even reformist, national periphery. The region is now the major axis of national power in an age in which high technology has long since replaced mining camps, cattle ranches, and cotton fields. The implications are less Jacksonian than they are Orwellian. Back in 1968, when I coined the term “Sun Belt,” my assessment of the region also took note of a new culture:
The persons most drawn to the new sun culture are the pleasure-seekers, the bored, the ambitious, the space-age technicians and the reitred—a super-slice of the rootless, socially mobile group known as the American middle class. Most of them have risen to such status only in the last generation, and their elected officials predictably embody a popular political impulse which deplores further social (minority group) upheaval and favors a consolidation of the last thirty years’ gains. Increasingly important throughout the nation, this new middle-class group is most powerful in the Sun Belt. Its politics are bound to cast a lengthening national shadow.2
This paragraph has stood the test of time. During the intervening years, however, the Sun Belt has gone from an idea and a developing trend to become perhaps the most powerful force in American politics. If the region is to dominate the nation, and that seems likely, we must think about it as a frontier of frustration as well as one of opportunity. Early American frontiers were not settled by technocrats, by middle-class refugees from the cities, or by retired people. The distinction is important. Today’s Sun Belt represents a confluence of Social Darwinism, entrepreneurialism, high technology, nationalism, nostalgia, and fundamentalist religion, and any Sun Belt hegemony over our politics has a unique potential—not present in the Jackson-to-Bryan frontier or the Adams-to-Taft Eastern establishment—to accommodate a drift toward a peculiarly American authoritarianism—apple-pie authoritarianism, one might say.
Indeed, one can easily enough imagine the Sun Belt as the launching pad of a powerful conservatism—based on communications and on high corporate technology, frequently plebiscitary and intermittently populist. At the same time, Sun Belt corporatist policies would demand that the government manage the economy more closely than is done today, mobilizing a USA, Inc. to cope with competition from France, Inc. or Japan, Inc. Meanwhile, the morality of the majority would be upheld and enforced, though with politically convenient lapses; the star-spangled banner would wave with greater frequency and over more parades; increased surveillance would crack down on urban outbreaks and political dissidents perceived as extremists.
Such a combination would have a considerable popular appeal, not only in the Sun Belt but throughout the country. Walter Laqueur, the distinguished historian, has already projected some-what the same development for Western Europe. In A Continent Astray: Europe 1970-1978, he anticipated a swing toward regimes of strong leaders and policies bordering on authoritarianism. “The reassertion of authority may be brutal, far-reaching, and costly, but it is equally possible that societies facing a crisis of survival will voluntarily surrender some of the freedom to which they have become accustomed and that gradually a new equilibrium will emerge between the rights of the individual and the interests of society.”
Instead of being a reformist force in the mold of the old frontier, then, the rise of the Sun Belt may intensify and further a quest for order in the United States. Moreover, that trend appears to be national and supra-ideological. So progressives who associate a reassertion of civil and police authority with the mood of Miami, Dallas, or Orange County must account for a parallel sentiment in the old Northern central cities as well. The most popular politician in the “liberal” state of New York is the Democratic mayor of New York City, Edward Koch, who supports the death penalty, uses antiminority imagery, and has deployed police dogs to guard subway cars.
Populism as a contemporary ideology may turn out to be inherently unstable and inadequate. Eighty-five years ago, the agrarian presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan pursued relatively limited and specific economic goals. But today’s middle-class populism is more exercised by free-floating cultural and moral issues and by end-of-empire resentments. It also can make use of an elaborate communications technology. The devices of the referendum and the initiative are far more powerful tools in the 1980s—with a “wired electorate” near at hand—than when they were introduced by populists and progressives at the turn of the century. Postindustrial or communications-age “populism” could support American authoritarianism, antigovernment rhetoric notwithstanding.
To be fair to what might emerge from the Sun Belt: the future always presents unforeseen risks and rewards. And in the United States, the future has usually belonged to optimists, while predictions of disaster become forgotten. The great watershed periods of our history, like the one we are living through today, have rung with many an unjustified charge of dictatorship or fascism—directed toward Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt alike. Turbulent times have generated the boldest presidencies and the most notable and controversial changes of direction, as well as the loudest rhetoric.
Such may be the case again. Yet during the 1980s, the risk seems to have doubled. Conventional hopes rest, first, on Reagan’s already unraveling radical economics, and second, on the prospect that the United States can maintain its long tradition of rebuilding a workable and democratic politics through upheavals generated by shifting frontiers, populisms, movements against elites, and religious revivals. To deny the vitality of these roiling forces in the past is to deny the reality of American history. To what degree can they be trusted now?
Two decades of political and economic trauma have brought this country to a point of considerable risk. Unrepentant liberalism having apparently exhausted its credibility by the 1980s, the United States turned to a transformed, radicalized conservatism—as many voters crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. The precarious nature of the present conservative experiment cannot be overstated. In an era of upheaval like our own, there is no going back, no real way to recapture the past. Radical conservatism may succeed for a while, or it may be transformed, or it may break down completely. But to future historians, the early 1980s are almost certain to mark a transition to a new politics, a new economics, and a new philosophy of governance. It seems fair to say that a decisive part of the American electorate has already become postconservative as well as postliberal.
May 13, 1982