Following are excerpts from a discussion on the future of American politics held in New York in June between Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Walter Dean Burnham, Kevin Phillips, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The discussion was sponsored by the Institute for National Strategy, of which Governor Brown and Walter Dean Burnham are members of the board of advisers:
WALTER DEAN BURNHAM: We can start by saying that Reagan will probably defeat Mondale by a decisive margin of the popular vote, at least as great as, or possibly greater than, the 10 percent margin he achieved over Jimmy Carter. I see two basic reasons for this. First, at least as far as we can now determine, the economic situation in 1984 is tailor-made for reelecting an incumbent president. Secondly, Carter was rejected mainly because he was hopelessly inadequate in presenting himself as a leader and because he never was able to figure out, as many presidents have not, how to exercise the shamanistic functions of the presidency—what I once described as the president’s position as pontifex maximus of the American civil religion; there are only a handful of presidents who have done well at that, and Mr. Reagan is a master at it.
I would go further to say that quite apart from those considerations, there are longer-term changes in society and in politics that seem to point in the direction of a Reagan victory as well. Some have argued the race will be closer in the fall, but if we take a look at long-term party realignments that have occurred regionally over the past thirty years, several things make this doubtful.
First of all, the so-called majority party, the Democrats, has really not been a majority party in presidential elections since 1952, so far as I can determine. If we measure the proportionate Democratic vote from 1952 to 1980, during a generation of presidential elections, we find that the party has not grown nationally at all and that the mean percentage of the two-party vote received by the Democrats in those years was 47.6. Hardly the status of a majority party.
Secondly, if we look at the internal shifts that are taking place within the United States over this period, we come very close to what Kevin Phillips has written about extensively in the past. That is to say, we see something that looks like the system of 1896—when McKinley’s northern Republicans defeated Bryan’s southern and western Democrats—turned inside out with a few odd exceptions, perhaps Democratic Arkansas on one side of the line and Republican New Hampshire on the other. The old metropolis of the northeastern quarter of the country is now becoming more Democratic than the country as a whole. The increasingly populated Sunbelt has become more Republican than the country as a whole, in some cases by colossal margins. It is instructive to examine…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.