By Yarema Kelebay and William Brooks
This article was written in the wake of the 1980 presidential election in the United States. It was published by the News and Chronicle, Montreal, Thursday, November 13, 1980.
Ronald Reagan’s victory represents nothing less than the emergence of a new political disposition in America. Dazed pundits have wasted no time in coming up with a variety of poor excuses for President Carter’s defeat.
Among these are inflation, the hostage crisis, taxation, government regulation, quotas and affirmative action, defense, education, the ERA, Salt II, the intrusion of the “moral majority,” brother Billy, the “Anderson difference” and so on. One journalist even suggested it was the charming way Reagan said to the President: “There you go again” during the televised debate. Montreal’s ever-incisive press explained that it was a result of a “strong streak of nostalgia” in America.
This frenzied search for a single cause or even a combination of causes to explain the election results generally leads nowhere. In most cases it reduces the analysis either to a form of political gossip or betrays a conscience intention to demean and reduce the stature of Reagan’s victory.
No single issue buried Carter. No single event gave Reagan victory. Reagan succeeded as a result of a new “climate of opinion” in the United States.
The former California Governor won an overwhelming victory at the polls. He took over 485 of the electoral votes where only 270 were needed for victory. He received a strong majority of the popular vote. The Republicans gained control of the Senate and defeated four princes of the Democratic Party in Birch Bayh, Frank Church, George McGovern and John Culver. They made significant gains in the House of Representatives and elected a number of state governors.
According to network polls, Reagan won majority of the blue-collar vote, the Catholic vote, the Northern vote, the Southern vote, the urban vote, the ethnic vote and more than one third of the Jewish vote. Only a disproportionate majority of African-Americans remained loyal to the Democratic Party.
What is the real reason for this electoral upset, which approached the level of a “revolt of the masses”?
For a generation or more the “standard liberal agenda” has been based on the assumption that American society was seriously flawed. Capitalism and democracy were seen to be in need of major repair. Liberals preached collective guilt, massive atonement and redistributive justice.
Under the guise of protecting civil liberties, they defended permissiveness and particularism. They attacked the peaceful pursuit of profit, supported formal egalitarianism (at the expense of equality of opportunity) and legislated limits to economic growth. The “standard liberal agenda” dictated throwing money or regulations at every conceivable problem.
By then mid-nineteen sixties, these “gliblibs,” as Maclean’s Barbara Ameil called them had become entrenched as the new establishment in government, education and the media. Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s the new-left, liberal agenda virtually captured the culture of American high society. While America faced challenges in dealing with lingering civil rights issues, the growth of a radical counterculture, campus revolts, drug abuse, opposition to the war in Vietnam and global communist expansion, the new establishment retreated from classical-liberal, American principles and created a kind of “upside down, inside out” set of values.
Seal hunting was abhorrent but abortion of demand was alright. Prayer was reactionary but profanity was fashionable. Saluting the Stars and Stripes was out. Burning your draft card was in. Football was violent and competitive. Biking and jogging were peaceful and non-competitive. The uniform of your country was out. The uniform of the counterculture was in. Jane Fonda’s support for communist North Vietnam was “liberal.” Goldwater’s support for America was “fascist.” South Africa’s denial of civil right was rightly viewed as reprehensible but the Soviet Union’s crimes went unmentioned. Socialism meant freedom. Free enterprise meant slavery.
But as the events of the sixties and seventies unfolded, the contradictions of the “standard liberal agenda” became increasingly apparent. Government regulation and red tape began to strangle commerce. Welfare legislation destroyed initiative and fostered resentment. The “new pedagogy” produced illiterate graduates. Popular Utopias like communist Vietnam began to turn unwanted minorities out to sea and American pacifism and weakness led to unbridled Soviet expansion and international humiliation for the United States.
Nevertheless, the liberal standard bearers of the nineteen sixties remained indisposed to change. Like other established classes before them they dug in their heels to support the existing order which they controlled through government agencies and the public media. In a word, while continuing to call their tired orthodoxies “liberalism” they clung to a kind of patrician conservatism. Some political theorists have called them “totalitarian liberals” and others have described their inversion of classical liberal ideals as the “theft of liberalism.”
In the meantime, under the radar of an over-confident American intellectual left, neo- conservative Republicans began to build a new coalition. The Republican Party became the party of change. They nominated a new spokesman for the conservative movement who raised issues and influenced public opinion. Even under the most intense pressure of media scrutiny, provocative questions, fear mongering, personal misrepresentation and name calling Ronald Reagan laid the foundation for a new political majority.
But the new coalition developed under the leadership of Governor Reagan did not represent a blind or outdated conservatism. In a recent Commentary article, James Q. Wilson argued that the old American right-wing politicians were primarily interested in economics and foreign affairs. The “New Right” within the Republican Party are social and moral conservatives but they are not racist, nativist or isolationist. They wish to preserve and conserve America’s domestic and institutional landscape; family, neighbourhood, church, school and workplace.
Neither are they the elitist environmentalists of the Sierra Club who, through government regulation and fierce environmental protection laws, preserve their country estates, their riding, hiking and paddling reserves often at the expense of development that would give less privileged Americans the opportunity to work and raise their standard of living.
Reagan’s victory is evidence that Americans have regained some of their foundational, eighteenth-century, liberal instincts. By not abandoning the old “American Dream” the “New Right” seeks to put the means of achieving it back into the hands of ordinary Americans. Once again, they want to try more rather than less freedom for individual citizens. They want the government and the liberal establishment off the backs of the people. They want a government that will govern; not manipulate and manage them.
The American left’s one-dimensional vision of history permits them to see the neo-conservative agenda solely as “reaction and nostalgia.” But creatively “turning back the clock” can also make room for meaningful change. Some of the most dynamic periods in history were the result of timely, cultural revivals. The European Renaissance is one example that comes to mind.
Governor Reagan’s victory was not an accident. Its landslide proportions represent the collapse of the “standard liberal agenda.” The Reagan Presidency represents a second return to “normalcy” for America. It is a move toward the “re-Americanization” of the United States.
Britain has gone the same route with the Thatcher government. For Canadians this should be portentous. After all, we are not all that different, just a little less audacious when it comes to changing course.
Yarema Kelebay teaches at McGill University. William Brooks teaches at Lower Canada College. Both are co-founders of the St. Lawrence Institute.