America is back

Alan Brinkley

Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale have presented the American electorate with as clear an ideological choice as any set of Presidential candidates in the 20th century. The two men disagree fundamentally on their prescriptions for the economy, their approaches to national defence, their views of foreign policy, their stances on social issues. Above all, they differ in their philosophies of government. Reagan has built a career on denunciations of the state and celebrations of the possibilities of unfettered individualism. Mondale has wedded himself equally firmly to the belief that government can and must be a forceful instrument for social progress. For much of the past year, therefore, it seemed likely, even inevitable, that the 1984 Election would serve as a referendum on the divergent philosophies of the two major parties. Democratic candidates in the early going talked incessantly about their visions of the role of government. Both the Democratic and Republican platforms took pains to point out how starkly each differed from the other in its view of the state. The columnist Richard Reeves predicted in February that the contest for the Presidency would be decided by a single issue: what Americans think of the President’s statement that ‘government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.’ This would be, he claimed, an ‘ideological election’, in which voters would face the starkest choice they had confronted since 1936.

As the campaign moves into its final weeks, the one thing that seems clear is that Reeves’s prediction – a perfectly reasonable one when he made it – has turned out so far to be wrong: the contest has been devoid of both concrete issues and ideological tensions. Despite occasional sparring on such subjects as tax increases, religion in politics, and arms control, the campaign appears to have hinged largely on fuzzy perceptions of the ‘national mood’. Americans, we are told, are once again ‘feeling good about themselves’. There has been a revival of patriotism and pride. ‘The Zeitgeist,’ says Time, ‘has turned zesty.’

That there has indeed been a change in America’s mood over the last few years is hardly open to question. The jubilation over the invasion of Grenada in 1983, the exultation with which Americans celebrated the success of their undermatched athletes at the 1984 Olympics, the extraordinary patriotic demonstrations that accompanied the journey of the Olympic torch across the country, the revival of overt nationalism in popular films and television programmes, the opinion polls that report a striking rise in optimism about the future (when only five years ago most Americans claimed to expect both personal and national decline): all suggest that ‘America’s Upbeat Mood’ (again, Time’s phrase) is not, as some have charged, a media creation, but a significant change in public perception.

The new, unembarrassed nationalism of the Eighties is not simply a spontaneous burst of cheeriness. Nor is it, as the President would like the nation to believe, simply a response to the successes of the present Administration. It represents, rather, a collective judgment by the American people about the last twenty years of their history and about the lessons they believe they should draw from the recent past. And it is a judgment starkly at war with what only a decade ago seemed to have become a new conventional wisdom about the nation and its future. It is an attempt, in effect, to repeal the scepticism and self-doubt of the Sixties and Seventies and to return to an earlier, more innocent vision of America: a vision more characteristic of the imperial years of the immediate post-war era than of the more complicated era that followed.

‘We are the pioneers of the world,’ Herman Melville wrote of America in the 19th century. ‘The political messiah has come ... He has come in us.’ For most of American history this sense of American righteousness and American mission have stood at the centre of the nation’s consciousness. But at no time was this sense of power and destiny stronger than in the aftermath of World War Two. Not everyone shared Henry Luce’s view of the post-war era as the ‘American Century’, in which the United States would impose its values and institutions on all societies, confident that in doing so it would be ‘lifting the life of mankind’. But Luce expressed widely-shared assumptions when he proclaimed Americans the ‘inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilisation’, and when he insisted that the nation’s influence in the world derived from a universal ‘faith in the good intentions as well as in the ultimate intelligence and strength of the American people’.

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