Programmed to Fail

Edward Luttwak on the American Presidency

What happened in the 1994 Congressional elections was much more than the defeat of President Clinton and his post-leftist policies, though that it certainly was. And the election was much more than the defeat of the Democrats as the party of all Americans (with the exception of heterosexual white males and non-feminist white females), though that too it certainly was. At a slightly deeper level the election results reflect the breakdown of the Cold War structure of US domestic politics – exactly the same kind of breakdown that has been manifest in a far more obvious form in both Europe and Japan.

In theory, this should not be happening. After all, in the United States there was no significant Communist or neutralist party, and therefore no equivalent to the alliance/anti-alliance party alignments of Europe and Japan. Instead there was a ‘bipartisan’ consensus on the need to oppose the Soviet Union. That still left much room for controversy over the best way of waging the Cold War, with hawks stressing military power and doves stressing diplomacy. But hawks and doves were found in both parties, and in fact Southern Democrats were routinely more hawkish than Northern Republicans.

And yet it is no mere coincidence that the passing of the Cold War has been followed by basic changes in US party politics. In place after place, the traditional, affluent, socially tolerant country-club Republican leaders and their kind of candidates, have been challenged, and are increasingly being replaced, by religiously-motivated activists as interested in outlawing abortion as in reducing taxes. Sometimes those activists promote candidates just like themselves, too extreme to have much electoral appeal: hence the fact that Oliver North failed, despite all his money and the weakness of the two opponents who divided the anti-North vote. More often, however, the new Republican activists are fielding non-fanatical ‘culturally conservative’ (and very white) candidates who appeal to semi-affluent and non-affluent white male and white female voters, including those who are not especially interested in abortion, but who are strongly opposed to the excesses of feminism, affirmative action for blacks, and O.J. Simpson-type legalism in dealing with crime. Because these less affluent ‘new Republicans’ come straight from the traditional base of the Democratic Party, what is happening among the Republicans is also destabilising the Democratic Party.

The connection with the passing of the Cold War is very direct. For the chain of events that has brought about the present situation started with the carefully calculated attempt by leading Republican politicians to find what is virtually a one-for-one substitute for a hawkish Cold War stance in the promotion of Family Values. In that complex of socially conservative attitudes, the common denominator is opposition to legal abortion: a theological imperative for some, but mostly a way of attacking sexual permissiveness, and of attacking all expressions of personal and social liberalism, which are seen as the cause of the disorder of everyday life in present-day America. The Family Values theme translates into a variety of specific political issues, but two of them are definitely salient. These are, at the Federal and State levels, opposition to legal abortion; and at the local (i.e. school board) level, opposition to sex education in schools.

A hawkish Cold War stance and the advocacy of Family Values both have authoritarian undertones. But that is all they have in common: they attract quite different segments of American society. The traditional Republican élite, affluent, only casually church-going, and inclined to be socially tolerant, has little interest in Family Values. That much was already obvious in the 1992 Presidential election. In fact George Bush was himself a perfect representative of the socially secure, socially tolerant, country-club Republicans who were most uncomfortable with the anti-abortion position imposed on candidate Bush.

Those to whom the advocacy of Family Values appeals most strongly are Catholics, who are traditionally Democrats (with the exception of Italo-Americans); Southerners, although the South was traditionally Democratic; and the less educated, who are less affluent, hence traditionally less Republican. It very effectively attracts the growing number of newly suburban, newly middle-class, and newly but only moderately affluent voters in higher-growth parts of the country, especially the South, South-West and the mountain states. Socially insecure by definition, and economically insecure in a globalising economy undergoing structural change, this often fervently church-going new middle class is now voting Republican: in the past the same people would have voted for the Democrats.

The new Republicans are exemplified by the supporters of Newt Gingrich in his suburban, semi-affluent constituency near Atlanta, Georgia – a state once 100 per cent Democratic. They have little in common with traditional Republicans, who are defined precisely by their sense of economic and social security – which inclines them to oppose government activism as unnecessary for themselves and disproportionately costly to more affluent taxpayers (such as themselves). The new Republicans, by contrast, are not opposed to government activism – many work for Federal, State or local government – but their multiple insecurities are vented in authoritarian attitudes. Not coincidentally, the privately free-thinking Newt Gingrich was himself the chief inventor of the Family Values theme.

The final step in the chain of events that brought about the transformation of the Republican Party was the successful enlistment of the evangelical fundamentalists. Fundamentalist preachers with political ambitions did not originally fit comfortably into either party. On the one hand, the preachers were antagonised by the social liberalism that the Democrats’ big-city voting base imposed on them at the national level. On the other, fundamentalists as a group are less educated, less affluent and therefore less (traditionally) Republican. In 1980, the Moral Majority preacher Jerry Falwell tried to deliver his supporters to the Reagan campaign, but the results were unsatisfactory: the fundamentalist vote disappeared into the Republican victory without having any real impact on subsequent policies. It was at this point that fundamentalist preachers with political ambitions decided that it was not enough to vote for a party: it was necessary to take one over. In practice, the target could only be the Republican Party. Pat Robertson’s Presidential attempt having failed, the effort shifted to the conquest of the base of the Republican Party.

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