Posted: August 21, 2006
merican liberalism died in 1980. Of course, no one knew it at the time, and if the journalistic coverage of that year's presidential campaign was any indication, you might have thought liberalism was still a vital force in American life and conservatism a credo of cranks. That was, after all, the conventional wisdom from the 1930s clear up to the end of the 1970s. The liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society, of Keynesian economics and Phillips Curve manipulation, was, we were told, the only rational way of governing a large industrial society. And after the apparent failure of the American effort in Vietnam, we were lectured that conciliation and negotiation were the only rational means of managing foreign policy in a world heading toward convergence of our system and that of our adversaries.
But 1980 changed all that, as Andrew Busch ably demonstrates in his incisive Reagan's Victory: The Presidential Election of 1980 and the Rise of the Right. As Busch makes clear, Ronald Reagan's smashing defeat of Jimmy Carter was the result not just of a political failure by the Democratic party or a particular president, but of the policy failure of American liberalism itself. Those of us who remember the 1980 campaign sometimes forget how dire things seemed as we entered that election year. Busch begins his narrative with an account of Jimmy Carter's July 15, 1979 "malaise" speech (which, as he notes, never included that infamous word), and quickly sketches how we'd come to that point. He reminds us that in the 1970s, Time magazine featured cover stories like "Can Capitalism Survive?" Keynesian economics, which had promised us endless low-inflation economic growth, had in fact produced high-inflation economic stagnation—"stagflation," as it came to be called.
Abroad, the United States was under attack and seemed to be in retreat. Communists were advancing in the Third World from Angola to Grenada to Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was rapidly expanding its vast arsenal, while American leaders were fixated on ratifying "arms control" agreements that limited the U.S., but not the USSR. Iranian Islamist radicals seized American diplomats—an act of war, as Busch points out, but which few journalists or politicians noted at the time—and the U.S. government begged to allow us to send them Christmas presents, while ordinary Americans tied yellow ribbons around trees. Elite opinion-makers told us America's best days were over, and that we should act like adults and accept a world where there were limits on economic growth and where American power must inevitably be eclipsed.
Busch's chronological narrative of the 1980 presidential campaign, together with his trenchant analysis, shows how the American people rejected these notions. Their rejection meant that the old rules about American politics, laid down mostly by political scientists who studied the 1930s and 1940s, no longer applied. Jimmy Carter was challenged on the left in the Democratic primaries by Edward Kennedy, and the old political rules said that Democrats would tend to prefer the bigger-government candidate. But Kennedy's candidacy was rejected; outside his home state of Massachusetts, Busch shows, he won primaries only when it seemed clear that he had no chance of winning the nomination. That showed in turn that many registered Democrats—when Democrats had a huge party-registration advantage in most states—were no longer reliable supporters of the Democratic president.
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As for the Republicans, the old rules counseled nominating a moderate to win over centrist voters. This is what the Republican Party had done in every election year from 1940 to 1976, with the single exception of 1964 when Barry Goldwater was drubbed—apparently confirming the old wisdom. But in 1980 these old rules no longer applied. The putatively moderate candidates—George H.W. Bush, Howard Baker, John Anderson, John Connally—did not win the nomination. Ronald Reagan did. Here was a proud conservative who, according to the old rules, should have been a sure loser in November. Indeed, his conservatism was so pronounced that one of his primary competitors, John Anderson, set out to run as an Independent.
Jimmy Carter's campaign was unified and its top strategists were highly talented people. Their strategy was twofold: reassemble the old New Deal coalition, with specific appeals to specific interest groups, and attack Reagan as a dangerous extremist. Both failed. Busch shows that significant percentages of the building blocks of the New Deal coalition shifted to Reagan: blue-collar workers, white ethnics, Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Jews, even blacks and Hispanics. Men, previously more Democratic than women, became more Republican than women, as they have been ever since. These voters were less concerned about getting more from government than in getting a government that worked.
As for Reagan's extremism, well, it didn't seem very extreme when the world produced by liberal policies seemed in such bad shape. American liberalism was reduced to arguing for itself faute de mieux. Reagan, with an ebullience and optimism that evoked his onetime political hero Franklin Roosevelt, begged to differ:
They tell us they've done the most that humanly could be done. They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities. My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.
If liberalism had proven itself incapable of fulfilling the American dream, Reagan proclaimed that conservatism could—and would.
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The 25 years following Reagan's inauguration have justified that proclamation. In his concluding chapters, Busch looks at the results of the congressional elections of 1980 and notes the major Republican victories; he also offers a quick survey of our politics in the '80s, '90s and the current, hard-to-name decade. Since Carter's defeat in 1980, no national Democratic candidate who positioned himself as far to the left as he did (much less Edward Kennedy) has succeeded. Bill Clinton won by campaigning and, after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, governing as a very moderate Democrat, respectful of market economics and calling for America to take a leading role in world affairs. He increased the Democrats' share of the presidential vote (while lowering the Democrats' share of the popular vote for the House) not by reassembling the old New Deal coalition, but by attracting affluent voters of a secular cast or who were otherwise turned off by the Republicans' cultural conservatism.
Even so, neither Clinton nor the two successive Democratic nominees have been able to win more than 49% of the popular vote, much less the 59% that Reagan achieved when he sought reelection in 1984. As for the Democratic party, it gained back 26 House seats in the recession year of 1982, but since then hasn't made a net gain of more than 10 seats in House elections—and suffered a net loss of 52 in 1994. It regained a majority in the Senate by winning most close elections in 1986, but lost the majority again in 1994 and has hovered between 45 and (for 18 brief months) 51 Senate seats ever since.
In other words, Americans haven't regretted their rejection of liberal governance in 1980. They have reaffirmed it time and time again. The old rules that seemed to govern politics up through the 1980 election are now nothing more than, well, old rules, of historical interest but no practical importance. For that election remade not only American politics and American government, but America itself. That is Andrew Busch's striking argument. And his graceful narrative does a fine job of telling us just how it happened.