The entry of Patrick Buchanan and David Duke into the campaign for the Republican nomination for president suggests a degree of dissatisfaction on the political right far more significant than the usual discontent among conservative Republican voters. Duke and Buchanan have been expressing the anger and frustration of an important part of the electorate—an anger and frustration that were turned against Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis when they ran for president but that now threaten the establishment forces of the Republican Party.
The groups of voters to whom Buchanan and Duke are trying to appeal have been crucial to the outcome of presidential contests for more than two decades. They were to be found among the 9.9 million voters who cast ballots in 1968 for George C. Wallace, and those who were strongly tempted to do so. They were among the large numbers of voters who defected from the Democratic Party after it chose George C. McGovern as its nominee, and were attracted to Spiro Agnew’s rhetoric and identified with Richard M. Nixon’s concept of a silent majority. Many members of the same groups became Reagan Democrats in the 1980s. They were among those who were, according to the polls, at first inclined to vote for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 but then turned against him during a campaign that intensified middle-class anger toward criminals, redistributive equality programs, and lenient treatment of prisoners.
In five of the last six presidential elections, such voters have provided to Republican candidates the margins essential for victory. For nearly a generation these white voters, often from the working class or lower middle class, many of them Catholic, have had a pivotal role in shaping American politics. They gave the Republican Party the power to define which issues—particularly issues involving welfare, crime, and race relations—would be central in American politics. Republican campaign slogans about “welfare queens,” Willie Horton, busing, and quotas draw on latent and overt racism; but they also address such central and legitimate concerns as neighborhood security, fairness in the workplace, and what many see as the struggle to maintain the values of hard work, personal responsibility and initiative, and perseverance. Many of the previously Democratic voters who turned to the Republicans because they felt strongly about such questions now feel they have been repaid with little more than rhetoric.
Since the late 1960s conservative Republicans have been able to draw on the votes both of white members of the working class and of the well-to-do leaders of corporate America. But this alliance of former adversaries has not been mutually beneficial. The current recession only serves to emphasize that the past twenty years have been marked by alternating periods of recession and uneven growth, in which the only consistent beneficiaries of Republican dominance have been rich.
If the anger of the voters loosely described as Reagan Democrats was based solely on bitterness over the maldistribution of income, then liberalism and the Democratic Party would be heading into the 1992 election in good shape. The Democratic candidates could score heavily by showing that the real incomes of middle-class voters have stagnated since the late 1970s while only those of the richest 10 percent have grown. In fact, however, the discontent of the Republican voters who formerly voted Democrat and now are turning against the Bush administration derives not only from anxiety over the recession, but also in large part from the failure of the Republican Party to address and resolve the highly polarizing “social issues” that were used to piece together the conservative Republican majority in the first place.
These issues—including, crime, welfare, affirmative action, defendant’s rights, the erosion of the family—exploit the combination of racial tension and resentment toward special privileges for the poor, and toward tax dollars going to people who do not deserve them. That such feelings have become so visible and highly charged has put Democratic liberals at a disadvantage. It is hard for Democratic politicians to make political capital out of the sluggish economy and the divisions on the right because too many voters in presidential elections are hostile to their approach to social issues. The contemporary failure of liberalism lies not only in its dramatic loss of majority support but in the vehemence and seeming inexplicability of the sustained rejection by the voters of the Democratic Party and its nominees. The moderately egalitarian New Deal liberalism that produced majorities from the start of the Great Depression through the election of Lyndon Johnson has been undermined by the competition between constituencies and interests that now differ sharply about the meaning of equality. In Birmingham, Alabama, formerly Democratic white firemen angrily oppose still Democratic black firemen over the standards to be met for promotion to lieutenant and captain. In East Los Angeles Hispanic parents claim that whites who fled into the San Fernando Valley twenty years ago are trying to keep Hispanic students out of UCLA.
The leading activists within the Democratic Party, who largely control the selection of nominees, are far more willing than the public generally to allocate resources favoring relative newcomers, whether for education or welfare or public jobs, along racial, ideological, and ethnic lines. The bitterness of the disputes over such matters as municipal contract “set-asides” for minorities and over admission to the advanced “magnet schools” in some cities has made heterogeneity, once the strength of the Democratic Party, a source of destructive political infighting. The demands of Democratic politicians for fairer taxes and new public investment might seem to have obvious political appeal in 1992; but those demands are regarded skeptically by voters who ask: fairness for whom? investment for the benefit of which racial or ethnic groups? or which gender?
Democrats and liberals take encouragement from the election of Harris Wofford to the Senate from Pennsylvania after he campaigned on the liberal issue of national health insurance. But they should look more closely at Wofford’s rhetoric. Wofford did not offer a populist challenge to the policies of corporate America or the privileged treatment of the rich. Instead, he took a page out of the Republican book and put rhetorical emphasis on two polarizing social conflicts, each of which could prove embarrassing for liberal Democrats. The first seemed to pit working Americans in need of reasonably priced health care against criminals whose rights had been protected by the Warren Court: “The Constitution says those accused of a crime have a right to a lawyer, yet millions of Americans aren’t able to see a doctor,” Wofford declared in his opening commercial. “If criminals have a right to a lawyer, I think working Americans have a right to a doctor.” The second polarizing slogan opposed American workers to those in the poorer countries: “American plants and jobs that go with them could be lost to Mexico where workers are paid $5 a day….I say, it’s time to take care of our own.” A Wofford campaign advertisement making a similar point could have come from a speech by Pat Buchanan:
At a time when our government seems to take care of almost everyone in the world but us, Harris Wofford says it’s time for America to take care of Americans again, it’s time to take care of our own.
The fraying of liberalism began in the second half of the 1960s, but, until the start of the 1980s, Democratic liberals remained powerful enough to define the main issues facing the country. Even when Democrats were defeated for the presidency in the Eisenhower and Nixon-Ford years, Congress and the liberal organizations in Washington—dominated at first by organized labor, which was later joined by the civil rights movement—set clear limits on conservative administrations, and forced them to pursue liberal goals. Some of the broadest regulatory measures in the nation’s history were all enacted under Nixon, including establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission. During the Ford years a Democratic Congress repeatedly demonstrated the strength of liberalism by keeping the Democratic majority intact and picking up enough Republican votes to override presidential vetoes of legislation creating federal job programs and raising the minimum wage.
The vitality of the liberalism that made such victories possible has largely vanished. George Bush has taken on Congress in twenty-four veto fights, many involving such once-sacrosanct liberal goals as a higher minimum wage, family leave for pregnant women, and extended unemployment benefits for those forced out of work during recessions. Bush has won every time. Defections among Democratic congressmen on such votes have become commonplace, and the pressure from constituents on moderate Northeast and Midwest Republicans to vote for wage and job legislation is far from strong. Contemporary Democratic hopes of regaining the White House are based more on the fraying of the Republican coalition, and the possible disruptive effects of Buchanan and Duke, than upon the ability of their own party to sustain a majority.
Democratic House and Senate members have come in growing numbers to believe that they do not reflect the national temper, that the Democratic Party no longer has broad national support in setting national policies even on those issues on which the party’s own members can agree. “Contrary to popular opinion, we are not the majority party. We are out of power,” US Representative Sander Levin (Democrat of Michigan) told me, reflecting a view shared by many of his Democratic colleagues. Another House Democrat said in an interview, “I watch focus group tapes and I listen to my voters at town meetings, and it’s the same thing over and over.”
They think blacks have an unfair advantage in the job market. They think politicians are all crooks, trying to steal everything they can get their hands on. They think teachers should stop asking for money and do a better job. The only issue we have any edge on is health care. But overall, the people are just not there. They’ve had ten years of Reagan and Bush, and it’s begun to sink in….I came here [more than a decade ago] to change the world, and now it just ain’t there.
The mood of the network of liberal interest groups that once were powerful in Washington, organizations including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Common Cause, and the AFL-CIO, shifted from stunned disbelief following Reagan’s election in 1980 to anger over the apparent cowardice of Democratic leaders in the House and Senate throughout much of the rest of the 1980s. The same organizations now appear to be deeply troubled. None of them has retained the broad influence they once had in Congress, and they no longer get the sympathetic attention they once had from the national press and television.
In various ways, the four books under review explore the dilemmas of liberalism and the Democratic Party I have mentioned. Once these are better understood, the current difficulties of the Bush administration and the establishment wing of the Republican Party become more comprehensible. The fundamental question is posed implicitly in James Stimson’s Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles, and Swings, a careful analysis of poll data gathered over the past three and a half decades. Stimson’s central finding is that public opinion since 1980 has moved in a decisively “leftward” direction, with leftward defined as increased opposition to defense and growing support for spending on education, environmental regulation, and for improved health care. If this is so—and Stimson’s case is a persuasive one—then two questions arise, neither of which Stimson adequately addresses. First, if the electorate has become more liberal, why did the Republican presidential candidates win all three elections of the 1980s? Stimson’s poll data seem to defy the persistence throughout the 1980s of presidential conservatism—defined roughly as opposition to increased government social spending and to social and economic regulation, and support of economic policies benefiting mainly those with incomes in the top 10 percent of the population. How has conservative Republican dominance of the White House continued in the face not only of liberal trends in public opinion, but rising income inequality, sustained decline in the manufacturing sector, continued deterioration of the nation’s older cities, and worsening prospects for millions of Americans who had expected a life of steadily improving middle-class security?
A second question follows from the first: If liberalism is once again ascendant, why is one of the strongest forces in American politics at the start of 1992 the discontent of conservative whites?
In considering these issues, a fundamental question is whether voters are rational when they go to the polls or when they answer opinion surveys such as those relied on by Stimson. Liberals in recent years have taken some comfort in the argument that the repeated defeat of their candidates is not as significant as it appears. They claim that Republican strategists who are expert in the high-tech methods of manipulating the electorate with emotional symbols have only temporarily gained control over presidential elections.
Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and a private pollster, has produced a fresh and subtle analysis of voter behavior, The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. He argues that voters are in the main rational, that they attempt to select candidates who apparently reflect their own interests, and that decisions on how to vote are based on relatively effective use of available information. Popkin uses data from primary elections—in which both the time for campaigning and information are scarce—to show that voters pick candidates closely reflecting their own positions on a variety of issues. During the 1984 primaries, voters favorable to unions quite appropriately gave strong support to Walter F. Mondale, while those critical of unions tended to support Gary Hart. Similarly, those who believed government should adopt “new ways” of dealing with domestic and foreign policy issues were far more favorable to Hart than those voters who preferred government to maintain “familiar” approaches to solving problems. Similarly, Republican primary voters choosing between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford in 1976 split along lines reflecting the ideology of the two candidates. Reagan did far better among those calling for the elimination of welfare and for reduced government help for blacks and minorities. The voters accurately understood Reagan’s view on these matters, as opposed to those of the more moderate Ford.
“Democrats do not lose the presidency because Republicans have better ad men. They lose because they have less popular policies on the issues that voters connect to the presidency,” Popkin concludes. “In the mixture of trivial and profound issues that will always be found in campaigns, there is more meaning to voting, and less manipulation of voters, than either media-center analyses or the traditional civic-information focus [those who believe voters lack fundamental understanding of the workings of government and politics] would have us believe.”
Popkin’s argument suggests that the use of such campaign issues as Willie Horton’s furlough should not be dismissed as purely emotional manipulation. Popkin’s account of voters who are trying with some success to make judgments reflecting their own interests or prejudices is a direct challenge to one of the current explanations for the continuing beleaguered status of the Democratic Party. This argument generally runs as follows: conservatism has profited from the emergence of a politics of symbols in which thirty-second television commercials are the principal means of communication with the voters. Such television politics permits candidates to evade serious discussion by using vacuous themes such as “It’s Morning Again in America” (1984), or through such calculatedly polarizing topics as Willie Horton, the ACLU, the death penalty (1988), and, more recently (1990–1992), quotas. This argument has been made, in varying ways, by Senator Bill Bradley, Democrat of New Jersey, by Ronald H. Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and by such Democratic presidential candidates as Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
No doubt symbolic arguments have sometimes been central to American politics, as when images of black domination and miscegenation were used during the century after Reconstruction in the one-party politics of the South to prevent the emergence of populist movements. Backed by the leading bankers, the planter elite, and public utilities such as railroads, southern politicians repeatedly played on the deeply racist views of poor white southerners to discourage populist uprisings against the Bourbon aristocracy. Symbolic manipulation, however, can no longer adequately account for the politics of the South, where official racial segregation once made the region the backward exception to national patterns. In the troubled aftermath of a national civil rights revolution, the heavily racial politics of the South help to set national trends. It is in the South that a realignment of presidential politics brought about by Richard Nixon was made possible by the wholesale conversion of once Democratic whites to the GOP.
More important, raising issues involving race can no longer be described simply as an attempt to appeal to racism. Issues of crime, illegitimacy, quotas, and the urban underclass are seen by voters, black and white, as affecting their security, their values, their rights, and their livelihoods and the competitive prospects of their children. In the national politics of the 1990s, the same themes that are used in highly charged advertisements that appeal to racism can also be said to reflect the deep worries that are on the minds of many citizens when they vote. The central political error of the Bush administration may well turn out to be that it used the 1988 campaign to manipulate voters on a variety of emotional issues and then failed to do anything concrete about those issues once it took over the White House.
Of the various writers under review, Byron E. Shafer in his essay “The Notion of an Electoral Order,” included in The End of Realignment?, comes closest to providing an explanation of the liberal dilemma: the failure of liberal Democrats to regain the presidency despite the liberal polling trends that Stimson and other writers have noted. Shafer argues that the period from the 1968 election to the present can be best characterized not as a realignment but as a new “electoral order” in which the general public is
liberal on economic welfare (in favor of student loans, Social Security, workplace safety regulations, etc.), nationalist (supportive of aggressive, including military, assertion of American interests abroad) on foreign policy, and traditionalist on cultural values (in favor of the church-going, two-parent families in which children are taught patriotism and respect of authority, community and country).
In keeping with this tripartite ideological division, the voters have, quite rationally in Shafer’s view, turned over the presidency, which has been traditionally responsible for foreign affairs and for defining cultural values, to the Republican Party, which is perceived as both nationalist and traditionalist. It has turned over the House of Representatives, which is primarily responsible for providing welfare services and looking after the interests of constituents, to the Democrats. And it has left the Senate, whose jurisdiction covers all three matters, as a place in which parties contend with each other for dominance. Seen from this point of view, according to Shafer, the 1988 election in which Democrats won the Congress and the Republicans the White House “is effectively standard, almost stereotypical….”
The election of 1988, then, attests principally to the continuity of an established electoral order, with its diagnostic details as little more than concrete embodiments—at best further refinements—of the contours of that order.
While Shafer’s argument is partly true, he does not take into account a critical development that occurred during the years between 1968 and 1991. While the House remained securely Democratic, congressional Democrats could no longer win battles on domestic economic policy, which, in Shafer’s view, ought to be their most favorable ground. The seemingly stationary electoral order described by Shafer has been marked by a steady erosion of Democratic power. Bush has repeatedly thumbed his nose at Democratic domestic proposals, including a host of job and wage bills that under Nixon or Ford would have been routinely enacted into law even over a presidential veto.
Bush’s strength, I would argue, does not depend on the arithmetic of Democratic and Republican votes in Congress. Instead, Bush’s success in sustaining his vetoes reflects the intensified distrust of the Democratic Party by the voters. On critical issues the congressional wing of the Democratic Party has lost the ability to legislate effectively, and the credibility of the Democratic Congress has fallen to such a low point that Bush has, at least until recently, been able to veto with political impunity legislation that, according to polls, has wide popular support.
One reason for the decline has been that the vulnerability of presidential candidates, from McGovern to Dukakis, to being portrayed as hopelessly outside the national consensus on central social issues is spreading and is becoming a liability to the congressional wing of the Democratic Party as well. This has not yet resulted in congressional Democratic defeat in the polls, but it has severely constricted the ability of congressional Democrats to build the kind of popular support that would enable them to override vetoes. In 1988, Republican campaign strategists were able to discredit Dukakis and the Democratic Party through the use of closely related issues and themes, including the “no new taxes” pledge, Willie Horton, the flag, the death penalty, and Dukakis’s membership in the ACLU.
That Willie Horton, a convicted first-degree murderer ineligible for parole in Massachussetts, was given a weekend furlough, during which he tortured a man and raped his fiancée, raised for many voters the question whether Democrats support policies that could endanger law-abiding citizens. Dukakis’s membership in the ACLU, an organization in the forefront of a broad-scale rights revolution (including support for welfare and prisoner and criminal rights) was used to call into question the kinds of values—work versus dependence, prisoner comfort versus tough sanctions—that would be endorsed under a Democratic administration. On a broader plane, the Bush campaign in 1988 was designed to show that claims for individual rights were endangering the safety and the stability of the larger community. Bush made much of the possible social and financial consequences of the movements on behalf of the rights of previously marginal groups—not only blacks and women, but also the handicapped, homosexuals, the mentally ill, those on the public dole, and criminals.
The issue of quotas, raised by Republicans as early as 1972 and reaching a crescendo over the past decade, works in two ways, with strong effect. First, quotas directly provoke the anxiety of voters whether they will be put at a disadvantage with respect to new competitors for jobs and promotions, and whether college entrance will be based on familiar criteria of merit, and not on new forms of special preference. At the same time, affirmative action programs and the inequities inherent in any form of preferential treatment provide a formally legitimate, if heavily coded, issue for those whose views are rooted in traditional and publicly indefensible racism.
At another, more subtle, level, liberalism, with its emphasis on the rights of minorities and the oppressed, calls for members of the majority to make sacrifices in order to help minorities make gains—on the theory that in the long run all of society will benefit by an enlarged black middle class, by the entry of more minorities into the workforce, and by narrowing the disparities in income and education suffered by blacks and other minorities. The success of this approach to governance demands evidence that such sacrifices are having an effect. A case can be made in this respect that black entry into the middle class between 1950 and 1990 has accelerated at a rate nine times as fast as the growth of the overall black population. At the same time, however, far more potent political messages are being sent by the visible decay of cities with large minority populations, by the worsening of conditions in the black underclass, and by the tripling of the black illegitimacy rate over the past two generations—to the point where that rate now exceeds 60 percent. All these negative developments work to undermine support of the liberal ethic of majority sacrifice.
The same ethic also fails to recognize a new “right” of growing importance to the majority: the right to consume. For much of America, particularly suburban America, the old union halls, precinct clubs, neighborhood organizations, and, to a degree, even churches, have been replaced by shopping malls. Even during the current recession, many voters now spend much of their leisure time wandering through the aisles at Walmart, Sears, and Macy’s. The expansion of the consumer society has in many ways contributed to democratizing America. Class distinctions once based on clothing styles have to some degree been diminished by the availability of Ralph Lauren, Laura Ashley, and the Gap, from Manchester, New Hampshire, to San Jose, California.
The desire for consumption and for accumulation remains misunderstood—and often openly disdained—by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, while the Republican Party of both Ronald Reagan and George Bush explicitly celebrates acquisition. The apparently mindless series of 1984 Reagan commercials cleverly emphasized images of families buying and furnishing their own homes, and taking satisfaction in ownership and possession.
Stimson, whose book raised the central question of why the liberal opinions expressed in polls have not yet been translated into presidential election results, provides an inadequate answer to that question. He argues that the restrictive power of the “Reagan fiscal collar”—$200 billion to $350 billion annual deficits—barred a revival of liberalism that would meet growing demands for improved public services. No doubt the Reagan 1981 tax cut and the sharp increase in defense spending throughout the 1980s strangled the ability of congressional Democrats to meet public demand for better health care, cheaper housing, and reduced college costs, to name only three. But in reaching this conclusion, Stimson fails to recognize more significant clues from his own poll results. Buried within Stimson’s examination of trends is the striking finding that responses to three specific questions contradict his overall findings showing a generally liberal trend in public opinion. People were asked (1) whether they were willing to help blacks; (2) whether they were willing to help the poor; and (3) whether they favored harsh or lenient criminal justice policies. In all three cases, most voters had not become more liberal; in fact, they had become more conservative.
Stimson dismisses these exceptions: “There is,” he writes, “no violation of the pattern of greater relative liberalism at the end [of the 1980s].” Stimson’s dismissal of the current poll findings on blacks, the poor, and on crime policy neglects information that can explain a great deal about contemporary politics. Ironically, in their 1989 book Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics, Stimson himself and Edward G. Carmines (of the University of Indiana) studied in detail the relationship between racial issues and other political factors such as party identification and the voters’ perceptions of how the two major political parties stand on racial issues. Stimson and Carmines found that racial issues are “at the core of…the meaning of liberal/conservative political beliefs”—that racial liberalism had become central to perceptions of the Democratic Party and racial conservatism had become central to perceptions of the Republican Party.” This work analyzing poll data showed “the centrality of racial issues in mass belief systems.”
But Stimson now fails to link his earlier work demonstrating the centrality of race to American politics with the poll data in his current book showing conservative resistance to helping blacks and the poor, and conservative attitudes toward criminal justice. Race affects not only the choice of party and the ideology of many voters, but a host of other matters as well. These include quotas and affirmative action, welfare, the underclass, crime, and the distribution of both tax burdens and government spending, since for many people spending on the poor is seen as spending on blacks and Hispanics.
The Democrats have long relied on the willingness of their main constituencies to take part in a biracial and multi-ethnic alliance dominated by the interests of voters in the bottom half of the income distribution. But among members of this alliance, there is no longer a basic, underlying agreement on such central matters as the meaning of equality. Most blacks, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, believe that the government must sponsor preferential hiring and promotion and college acceptance to make up for the wounding effects of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. In contrast, most whites, including such faithful Democratic voters as union members and Jews, adamantly oppose such policies as undemocratic violations of meritocratic principle. For them, equality lies in the American tradition of equality of opportunity—the belief that competition will be fairer if no one is officially given an advantage because of his or her origins.
Polarizing conflicts are emerging across the political spectrum. In cities from Philadelphia to Birmingham to Chicago, welfare spending, and with it illegitimacy, unemployment, and fatherless homes, have become fierce political issues. In many working-class and lower-middle-class suburbs near such cities as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, white majorities see support for welfare simply as showing the Democratic Party’s tendency to back programs that transfer income from working taxpayers to people who do not work, who live on other people’s taxes, and who are disproportionately members of minorities. Crime, for many of these voters, is seen in part as the breakdown of moral authority and moral responsibility among entire classes of people, particularly in minority communities. By contrast, large numbers of blacks along with many white Democratic liberal activists, see the same problems—illegitimacy, crime, and welfare dependency, for example—as the product of a society built on racism. They argue that racism, with its history of slavery and legal segregation, requires remedial action sponsored by government and financed by taxpayers.
These conflicts, often pitting Democrat against Democrat, are made more acute by the current recession and could prevent the party from getting majority support in the coming presidential elections. If Democrats are seen as tilting government expenditure and regulatory power in favor of minorities, voters who were once loyal Democrats will adamantly oppose any new tax increase and will continue to bitterly resent the burdens they now carry. This outlook, in turn, allows the elitist Republican Party to portray itself as populist. As the power of government is used to enforce tough affirmative action programs, resentful whites who also favor government regulation of the workplace and the environment become allies of corporate America in opposing the programs of the federal government.
Insofar as liberal programs create real or perceived conflicts between essential Democratic constituencies—pitting against each other black and white civil service workers seeking promotion, for example, or black parents against Hispanic parents—the losers in each conflict may be recruited by the opposition party. Insofar as liberal programs involve affirmative action or programs to support the nonworking parents of illegitimate children, the conflicts they arouse become all the more intense.
During the 1960s liberalism and the Democratic Party assumed responsibility for including blacks and other minorities in the mainstream of American life—a responsibility long evaded, but charged with political risk once it was accepted. Liberalism and the Democratic Party still have not shown whether it is possible to devise ways to maintain their commitments to minorities while retaining the support among white voters that would allow them once again to gain political power. One Democratic candidate, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, is tentatively experimenting with messages designed to speak to both constituencies. He has, for example, called for a “new covenant” in welfare policy, by which people receiving welfare would be told, “We are going to provide the training and education and health care you need, but if you can work, you’ve got to go to work, because you can no longer stay on welfare forever.”*
One potentially healthy development is that liberal interest groups can no longer depend on the Supreme Court to support controversial policies. Under the precedents set by the Warren and Burger courts, liberalism became dependent on the courts, relying on the federal judiciary, and not the political process, to sustain the rights revolution. At the same time, however, the conservative and religious groups that felt the loss of essential rights as the result of Supreme Court rulings—pro-lifers, antibusing groups, advocates of school prayer, etc.—contributed significantly to the rise of a conservative presidential majority. Under the current Court, conservative interest groups are more likely to seek victory in the courtroom in order to contain political organization by liberals; and the liberal groups that used to depend on the Court are returning, however clumsily, to political organization as a way of protecting rights.
The 1991 Civil Rights Act drafted by Democrats was intended to overturn or modify six conservative Supreme Court decisions of the late 1980s. But neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party was prepared to engage in a full-scale, open debate over the responsibility of employers to hire and promote minorities and women. Instead, the Bush administration and Democratic congressional leaders agreed to Senator John Danforth’s compromise bill that pointedly leaves vague and unresolved the toughest issues of affirmative action and quotas. The evasion of troublesome issues—for twenty years a characteristic of the Democratic Party and liberalism—has now infected the establishment wing of the Republican Party. Aside from the merits of the dispute over quotas and affirmative action, Bush’s acceptance of a compromise amounted to a failure to honor the central concerns of some of his principal conservative constituents. A similar failure to confront issues such as the resistance to affirmative action in large part accounts for the difficulties of the Democrats in recent presidential elections.
What may now emerge, as the deteriorating economy and the failure of the Bush administration to seriously address “social issues” divides the conservative coalition, is the end of Republican domination of presidential elections. There is no evidence of a return to Democratic majority rule, and two-party political competition will likely become competition between two minority alliances, one Democratic, one Republican, with neither one able to command a majority. The outcome of elections may well continue to depend on the white working-class and lower-middle-class voters who had such a critical part in the emergence of a Republican presidential majority; but these voters have become increasingly disaffected from both parties. If highly volatile and angry voters who are discontented with both parties can determine the outcome of elections, this will sharply increase the incentives for negative, polarizing campaigns designed to mobilize resentment and indignation, not consensus.
February 13, 1992