The Reagan years can best be characterized as the age of evasion. At a time when the inescapable limits of American national power and economic growth have become increasingly difficult to ignore, Reagan has discredited talk about those limits. He has managed to equate acknowledgment of the country’s troubles with disloyalty to the American dream. His war against pessimism is the secret of his political success, at least in the short run. But it is also the key to his failure to bring about a political realignment or to set the country on a new course.

Based on false hopes, Reagan’s reputation is unlikely to survive the disappointments that are sure to follow. His political coalition, pieced together from constituencies with little in common except a dislike of contemporary liberalism, is already beginning to crumble. His programs, while they may have brought prosperity to some, have failed to arrest the nation’s long-term economic decline. His party has not been able to produce a congressional majority and now seems unlikely to win the presidency. Yet he himself continues, in spite of the Iran-contra scandal, the Noriega fiasco, and embarrassing revelations about life in the White House, to command widespread devotion, and it is important to understand the source of his appeal. It is also important to understand that the failure of Reaganism does not assure a revival of liberalism. On the contrary, it was the collapse of liberalism that opened the way for Reaganism in the first place.

John Kenneth White argues that Reagan’s popularity rests on his ability to exploit the familiar symbols of American national pride and to convince voters that he is “one of us.” White sees the common touch as a condition of success in American politics. Leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy, notwithstanding their wealth and exalted social position, managed to present themselves as ordinary Americans, and Reagan has done the same. “More than most presidents,” he understands that “voters respond to symbols and phrases that evoke commonly held values.” By identifying himself with the “traditional values” of family and neighborhood, Reagan has restored faith in the “American dream.”

White argues the familiar thesis that in the Sixties and Seventies, the values held by professional and political leaders diverged more and more widely from those held by ordinary Americans. People in control of the press, the universities, the large corporations became far more relaxed in their attitudes toward divorce, adultery, premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and drugs than the public. Reagan actually closed this “values gap,” according to White, by reassuring the common people that their ideals were shared by those in power. His reaffirmation of old-fashioned morality brought about an “upbeat mood,” a rejection of self-doubt and cynicism. The “new mood” is exemplified, in White’s view, not only by Reagan but by Lee Iacocca, with his Chrysler slogan, “The pride is back.” “Optimism is…regnant.” Marriage is back in style. Authority no longer serves mainly as the butt of jokes. Swinging sex gives way to safe sex. The Cosby Show is at the top of the ratings.

Like others who “monitor cultural trends,” in his revealing phrase, White relies heavily on public opinion polls, TV ratings, and market surveys, confusing cultural history with market research. His account of short-term changes in cultural fashions—the kind of account that often passes for deep social commentary among journalists and even among many students of politics—tells us almost nothing about our social priorities. At best it tells us something about what is selling in the “values” market. But if we really want to measure Americans’ devotion to “family values,” say, we should ask what Americans—those who are in charge of things—are doing to make their society a fit place in which to raise children. What kind of schools do they provide? What are they doing to protect their offspring from premature exposure to smut and violence? Are their neighborhoods stable and safe? Do they instill in the young an understanding of their country’s history, institutions, and ideals? Do they make children feel welcome in the world, or do they convey the impression that only those children are wanted who can be provided with the full range of advantages deemed essential to an exciting, productive, and “meaningful” life? Does their public life hold up to children exemplary heroes, models of integrity, wisdom, and devotion? Does their economy generate an abundance of jobs that young people can grow up into, good jobs in the sense that they tax a person’s capacities and also serve some useful social purpose?

It goes without saying that encouraging answers to these questions are hard to come by. American culture, ostensibly “child-centered,” is deeply indifferent to the needs of the young. A growing awareness of this indifference helps to account for the revulsion against liberalism in the Seventies. Liberal policy came to be seen, often with good reason, as one of the influences undermining middle-class family life. Legalized abortion favored women’s rights, it was felt, at the expense of the next generation as well as religious principles. Busing broke up neighborhood schools and sacrificed children’s interests to an ambitious experiment in social engineering. The demand for a comprehensive program of day care seemed to confirm the impression that liberals aimed to replace parental authority with supervision by experts.


As early as 1968, George Wallace gave voice to a mounting resentment of these self-appointed guardians of the young, with their smug self-assurance, their contempt for laymen, and their unjustified assumption that professional expertise gave them the authority to prescribe solutions for every social “problem.” Ordinary people, Wallace said, were “fed up with strutting pseudo-intellectuals lording over them, writing guidelines,…telling them they have not got sense enough to know what is best for their children or sense enough to run their own schools and hospitals and local domestic institutions.”

In order to understand why the “backlash against the theoreticians and bureaucrats in national government,” as Wallace called it, proved so damaging to the New Deal coalition, one must pay attention to the class dimensions of cultural issues—a subject ignored in White’s sketchy treatment of the “new politics.” The “values gap” is much more than a conflict over symbols, as White would have it. It is also a class conflict, which divides the new professionals and managers from the working-class and petit-bourgeois voters who formerly kept the Democratic party in power. As liberalism came to be more and more closely identified with the emancipated culture of the professional and managerial class, the ethnic, Catholic, working-class constituencies that had been recruited into the Democratic party in the Thirties and Forties found themselves politically homeless. McGovern’s 1972 campaign, a quintessential expression of the new type of liberalism, completed their alienation from the party, and Carter’s attempt to win them back did not succeed. In 1980 and 1984, these constituencies either stayed home or voted for Reagan.

But the moral reformation promised by Reagan has failed to materialize. Notwithstanding his lip service to “traditional values,” his policies have continued to undermine them. To be sure, social experimentation along liberal lines has for the most part been discontinued; but the moral climate of American life has not improved. There is a fundamental contradiction between Reagan’s rhetorical defense of “family and neighborhood” and his championship of the unregulated business enterprise that replaced neighborhoods with shopping malls and superhighways. A society dominated by the free market, in which the “American dream” means making a bundle, has small place for “family values.”

The ties of kinship and marriage create obligations that override considerations of personal advantage and cannot be discharged simply by a prearranged schedule of payments. By contrast, the market—no respecter of persons—reduces individuals to abstractions, anonymous buyers and sellers whose claims on each other are determined only by their capacity to pay. The family depends on an active community life, whereas the market disrupts communities by draining off their best talent. Under Reagan, the inner logic of the market became fully explicit, and openly promoted: idealization of the man on the make; a pursuit of quick profits; feverish competition leading (as a means of stabilizing it) to the creation of far-flung economic empires impervious to local, state, and finally even national control; a widening chasm between rich and poor; hostility to labor unions; urban redevelopment designed to raise real-estate values and to force lower- and middle-income families out of the city; impoverishment of public facilities, public transportation in particular—all in the name of “family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.”

The family-raising middle class, allegedly the salt of the earth, is in fact the principal victim of Reagan’s free-market economics. The erosion of middle-class living standards is well documented, and Reagan’s tax reform, which brings relief to the very rich, will make it harder than ever for working-class and lower-middle-class taxpayers to make ends meet. Reaganism, in short, not only promotes the relentless expansion of the market into every sphere of life but hastens the coming of a two-tiered work force, foreseen by so many analysts, in which the old middle and working classes are displaced by an army of menial workers who lack any protection against the ups and downs of the market.

Reagan capitalized on the defection of formerly Democratic constituencies from a party dominated by organized interest groups and by a liberal policy-making establishment created in part from the Johnson and Carter administrations and based in universities, foundations, and law firms. White is correct in his assertion that Reagan became a “regent entrusted by the voters” with the mission to make old-time ethics a “greater reality in their lives.” But this is a pallid formulation. Reagan made himself the spokesman for a gathering revolt of the middle class, loosely understood to include elements of the working class as well. In the time-honored tradition of the American presidency, however, he proceeded to deflect popular discontent from its underlying sources to purely symbolic targets. Specifically, he deflected it into a crusade against pessimism. He managed to make it appear that the chief threat to “traditional values” comes from those who sell America short—the “nay-sayers” and “prophets of doom” who deplore the national “malaise.”


As governor of California, Reagan himself deplored the “wave of hedonism” that had rolled over America and pleaded for a “spiritual rebirth, a rededication to the moral precepts which guided us for so much of our past.” In the campaign of 1980, however, he ridiculed President Carter for saying very much the same thing. The theme of “spiritual rebirth” gave way to Reagan’s characteristic strategy of evasion and denial. There was nothing wrong with America after all—nothing that could not be cured by silencing those who claimed to find something wrong. “Don’t let anyone tell you that America’s best days are behind her, that the American spirit has been vanquished. We’ve seen it triumph too often in our own lives to stop believing in it now.” Moral regeneration, it appeared, could be achieved painlessly through the power of positive thinking. What Americans really wanted—such was the position Reagan took in opposition to Carter—was to feel good about themselves.

Accordingly, Reagan abandoned his potentially explosive critique of hedonism and concentrated on upbeat evocations of the American spirit, accompanied by actions designed to restore national pride. The invasion of Grenada—almost painless, inconsequential, but popular—was perhaps the most successful application of this strategy, which also required talking back to the Soviet Union—the “evil empire”—in order to show that Uncle Sam could no longer be pushed around. Reagan’s most glaring failure, the Iran-contra debacle, can be seen as a product of the same strategy. Since Carter’s inability to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran, even more than his notorious speech against hedonism, had come to symbolize the collapse of American pride, Reagan found himself, when confronted with a similar situation in Lebanon, in a position that seemed to require bold and dramatic action—a coup that would decisively distinguish his own vindication of the American spirit from his predecessor’s craven submission, as he himself had so often described it. The administration’s obsession with communism in Central America also shaped its Iran-contra policy, of course; but the initial impulse behind the sale of arms to Iran, it seems clear, was to free the hostages at any price and thus to give Americans something to take pride in, to restore their faltering confidence in themselves, and to refute those who took the position that political wisdom now had to begin with an appreciation of the limits of American power.

Swept into office by the accumulated anger and resentment of the “forgotten middle class,” Reagan interpreted his election as a demand for reassurance. “One of my dreams,” he said, “is to help Americans rise above pessimism by renewing their belief in themselves.” John Kenneth White agrees that this is what the voters wanted to hear. “In 1980 voters wanted their ideals reaffirmed.” The sentiment behind Reagan’s election, White thinks, revealed itself in the later remark of a Des Moines businessman: “The reason this country is getting better is because we’ve been led to believe it’s getting better…. I believe Reagan projects that.”

It might be conjectured, however, that the feelings and perceptions that helped to bring about the misnamed Reagan “revolution” are more complicated than that and that they find a more sensitive interpreter in someone like Bruce Springsteen, whom the Reagan people at first mistook for one of their own. With some amusement, White describes their unsuccessful attempt to secure Springsteen’s endorsement in 1984. Prompted by George Will, Reagan professed to find a “message of hope” in Springsteen’s ballads. According to Will, Springsteen’s work “always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the USA.’ ” Closer attention, White insists, reveals that Springsteen’s “characters are not wrapped in the flag but in a magnificent desolation.” The attempt to read patriotism and pride into his albums is “mistaken.” Springsteen is really a liberal, closer in his outlook to Mario Cuomo than to Ronald Reagan. At a performance in Pittsburgh, he “spoke in Cuomo-like terms,” according to White, about the widening divisions in American society:

We’re slowly getting split up into two different Americas…. There’s a promise getting broken…. I don’t think the American dream was that everybody was going to make it or that everybody was going to make a million dollars, but it was that everybody was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect.

According to White, the patriotic misreading of Springsteen’s message is an instance of “cultural confusion.”

His own reading does not entirely dispel the confusion, however. Surely the point is that Springsteen’s awareness of a “promise getting broken” itself originates in intensely patriotic feeling. White assumes that patriotism and social criticism are somehow incompatible. In this he follows Reagan, who equates criticism of American life with alienation, cynicism, and despair. In 1976, Reagan congratulated the American people for resisting the “line of a few fashionable intellectuals and academics who in recent years would have us believe ours is a sick society.” But a fear that America has lost its way—that the country is, if not sick, morally and spiritually adrift—is by no means confined to intellectuals and academics. Nor does it arise from disloyalty to the “American dream.” On the contrary, only those who believe in the original promise of American life can take the full measure of the country’s moral and political decline.

That decline cannot be reversed by an aggressive foreign policy or a rhetoric of official optimism. But neither can it be reversed by the characteristic liberal combination of “compassion” and social engineering. Our troubles defy conventional solutions, whether of the right or of the left. The new politics we need—dimly foreshadowed in George Wallace, in the late career of Robert Kennedy, and in Reagan himself—will owe more to the populist tradition than to either liberalism or conservatism. It will combine an attack on wealth and privilege with a defense of “traditional values” far more thoroughgoing and consistent than Reagan’s. Reaganism is just the beginning—a sugar-coated foretaste of a “new politics of old values,” not the thing itself.

In the early Seventies, Mario Cuomo, at that time a political unknown, found himself in the middle of a dispute that dramatized the collapse of the old liberal coalition. Jewish residents of Forest Hills, ardent supporters of civil rights at one time, opposed a low-income housing project for blacks on the grounds that it would bring crime into the neighborhood and destroy the middle class. Serving as Mayor Lindsay’s special investigator, Cuomo had little patience with idealists “sufficiently remote from the problem so that they are not really challenged by it.” With the “crusader’s intolerance,” suburban liberals accused the project’s opponents of racial bigotry. But Cuomo took the residents of Forest Hills at their word when they insisted that crime and not color was the issue. “Perhaps the real bigotry,” he noted in his diary, “is with the so-called liberal who demonstrates a remarkable inability to appreciate any part of the arguments made by the ‘middle class.’ “

Sympathetic with the residents’ concerns, Cuomo nevertheless rejected their arguments for “absolute community control.” Such a solution, “while superficially appealing,” was “neither wise nor practicable.” In the end, Cuomo persuaded the opposing parties to accept a compromise that reduced the buildings to half their projected size. He knew that a long-term solution, however, would depend on the willingness of blacks and liberals to join with the middle class in a “real war on crime” and all the other ills that afflicted large cities. “The problem is so pervasive and many-sided—drugs, the need for police, the failure of the courts and prosecution, poverty—it’s hard to know even where to start.” At the very least, Cuomo thought, the public might be persuaded to abandon the “symbolistic treatment which made proponents [of a sweeping attack on crime] ‘law and order bigots’ and the others ‘wide-eyed pseudo-liberals.’ ”

These reflections on the plight of cities provide a test of political leadership that most of our leaders have failed. Instead of seeking support for a common attack on crime and other matters of common concern, they have either appealed to obsolescent slogans and symbols or adopted a technocratic style that is intended to cool overheated emotions but merely encourages apathy. No one has hit on an issue or a new set of symbols that might give people the will and enthusiasm necessary to face the staggering difficulties at hand. Whether Cuomo’s attempt to portray Americans as a family would have that effect, if it were supported by the power and prestige that come with the presidency, we will probably never know. One thing seems certain: the “forgotten middle class,” hitherto ill-served by politicians who exploit its discontent for purposes having little in common with its own, has yet to be heard from.

This Issue

July 21, 1988