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’.

The successes of the Democratic Party, and of American liberals, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, were a direct result of their ability to fuse calls for governmental activism and reform with this larger sense of American righteousness and mission. No candidate in modern times has presented so aggressive and confident a vision of America’s role in the world or its responsibilities at home as John Kennedy. The liberal confidence he and, for a time, Lyndon Johnson came to represent produced, in the early Sixties, an impressive array of domestic and foreign initiatives. The liberal agenda was an ambitious one, but at the time few doubted the nation’s willingness and ability to fulfil it. In America, the liberals of the Sixties insisted – in the land of perpetual economic growth, boundless resources, infinite power – that all was possible. In the early Sixties, it was conservatives who appeared to embody uncertainty and fear, who spoke gloomily about the future and warned darkly of the limits of the nation’s capacities. And it was conservatives, in 1964, who pitted their doubts against the sunny optimism of the Democrats and who suffered one of the most decisive electoral defeats in American history.

The two decades following Lyndon Johnson’s landslide brought with them a seemingly unending series of frustrations and failures. The international activism to which the nation committed itself so confidently in the early Sixties culminated in the fiasco of Vietnam. The crusade for racial equality, so optimistically embraced, proved to be a far more difficult endeavour than most of its original supporters had imagined: wrenching, costly, at times violent, and ultimately threatening to many of the basic meritocratic assumptions which had fuelled the liberal commitment to the Civil Rights movement in the first place. The expansive programme to eliminate poverty and save the cities floundered in bureaucratic and philosophical confusion. The Government in general, and the Presidency in particular, fell into increasing disrepute, and a process of disillusionment was already far advanced when the Watergate scandals emerged to confirm it. Above all, perhaps, the foundation of liberal hopes, indeed the basis of virtually all national aspirations – the strength of the American economy – began to erode: by the mid-Seventies, the economy was, by the standards of the previous decades, in a shambles.

Out of the disorientating experiences of the Sixties and Seventies were born the assumptions against which the American people seem now to be rebelling, the assumptions that have shaped the 1984 campaign. To many liberals, and for a time, it seemed, to the Democratic Party as a whole, the lesson of the ‘time of troubles’ was a sobering one: America had been wrong to believe that its own values and institutions should serve as models for the world; it had been wrong to expect limitless and permanent economic growth; it had been wrong to assume that all was possible. The American Century, in the view of many liberals, became the Age of Limits. To some, indeed, the Sixties seemed to be an augury of national doom. ‘America’s history as a nation has reached its end,’ the historian Andrew Hacker wrote in the early Seventies. ‘The American people will of course survive ... But the ties that make them a society will grow more tenuous with each passing year.’ The more common response, however, was to draw comfort, however cold, from the increased maturity and wisdom with which Americans would now presumably approach the future. Once smug and confident, the nation would now become sceptical and doubting. It would be a stronger, healthier society as a result.

Godfrey Hodgson, the British journalist who has become one of the most astute contemporary critics of American culture, published in 1976 a brilliant study, America in our Time, and he articulated what was fast becoming the new ‘conventional wisdom’. The crises of the Sixties, he argued, had been caused by powerful illusions: the illusion of American invulnerability in the world, the illusion of the tractability of all problems at home. ‘The cost was high,’ Hodgson claimed. ‘But the lesson has been learned. The illusion of omnipotence has been destroyed.’ The result had been a ‘permanent change in the way Americans see the future of their society’. Hodgson’s words seemed to capture the new national outlook perfectly. They coincided with some of the most painful events of the decade – the final collapse of South Vietnam, the energy crisis, the rampant inflation that accompanied it – and with the rise of the ‘limits’ issues of the Seventies: energy conservation, zero population growth, environmentalism, opposition to nuclear power. They reflected the growing interest in a new economics in which growth was no longer the principal goal. These assumptions, so widely shared less than five years ago, today have a dated, vaguely wistful quality. It now seems clear there has not been ‘a permanent change in the way Americans see the future of their society’. The ‘lesson’ of the Sixties has not ‘been learned’. Instead, the majority of Americans appear to have embarked on a crusade, at present led by Ronald Reagan, to dispel the self-doubt that liberals so recently considered a healthy legacy of the nation’s crises.

The Election of 1980 was the first clear indication of how far the sceptical liberalism of the Seventies was even then out of step with the public at large. But the fury with which the electorate would ultimately react to the idea of ‘limits’ was suggested much earlier by the defection from the liberal ranks, beginning in the late Sixties, of the intellectuals who eventually became known as neo-conservatives. Their movement away from the new liberal ‘conventional wisdom’ (and ultimately, in many cases, away from the Democratic Party) was a result above all of the horror with which they viewed the radical Left of the Sixties and the contempt with which they watched liberals try to reason with it, learn from it, forge alliances with it. The proper response to radicalism, they claimed, was not self-doubt, pandering, and craven capitulation. It was a strong reaffirmation of the essential values of capitalism and democracy. Irving Kristol suggested this urgent sense of misplaced liberal priorities more clearly than most. ‘I for one,’ he wrote in the late Sixties, ‘have by now come to believe that this radicalism is so beset with error and confusion that our main task, if we are ever to mount a successful assault on our problems, must be to argue with it and to strip it ultimately of the pretension that it understands the causes of our ills and how to see them right.’ The principal mission, the ‘main task’, was not to question American values and institutions, not to find the flaws that had created such turbulence and dissent: it was to delegitimise the opposition, to confirm the essential righteousness of America, to rid the nation of the crippling effects of self-criticism.

The most important result of the changing character of American liberalism, however, was not the defection of intellectuals, but the creation of an opportunity for conservatives to seize the ground that liberals had now vacated. By the late Seventies, conservative Republicans were managing to identify their issues and their goals with patriotism and self-confidence and were portraying their opponents as they had themselves once been portrayed: as the victims of fear and national self-loathing. The Sixties and Seventies, as conservatives described them, were not years of healthy introspection, but a time in which ‘we were told to hate America.’ Liberals who preached a new politics of limits were, they argued, prophets of doom. The unfortunate Presidency of Jimmy Carter, and above all his celebrated 1979 ‘malaise speech’, in which he discussed what he called the nation’s ‘crisis of confidence’, provided an irresistible target. Jimmy Carter’s political errors were legion: but his greatest sin, in the eyes of the American Right, may have been his recognition that the problems of the modern world are complex and that solutions are not simple.

The dramatic role reversal of the two major parties – the Republicans now presenting themselves as the party of hope and the Democrats as the party of fear – has allowed American conservatives to obscure much of their substantive agenda, with which many in the electorate remain uncomfortable, beneath a gloss of patriotism and good feeling which few Americans are disposed to challenge. The fruits of that accomplishment can be seen in Reagan’s present campaign. The President’s conservative agenda has consistently taken second place to his open war on the ‘defeatism’ and ‘decline’ he claims the Democrats have come to embody. In contrast to the miseries of the Seventies, the President insists, stands the miracle of America’s return to greatness. ‘America is back,’ he told Congress in his 1984 State of the Union Address, and the phrase has become the unofficial slogan of his campaign. The nation, he claims, is ‘once again alive with hope and opportunity’, ‘a soaring eagle, proud and free’, ‘a rocket of hope shooting to the stars’. In moments of rapture, he echoes the post-war rhetoric of Henry Luce and William Langer with his paeans to American righteousness and mission. The United States, he says, is a ‘chosen place’, ‘a city on a hill’, ‘the last best hope of man on earth’. The shocks and disillusionments of the last twenty years, his message suggests, were a great aberration.

The climax of this effort to seize the high ground of confidence and optimism was the Republican Convention in Dallas, as dull a political gathering as Americans have witnessed in modern times, but one with an important and revealing message. Speaker after speaker lambasted the previous month’s Democratic Convention, in reality a tame and generally upbeat gathering, as a sorry spectacle of pessimism and fear. Vice-President Bush, arriving in Dallas, referred to the site of the Democratic meeting as ‘that Temple of Doom’, a phrase which so pleased him that he used it repeatedly over the next few days. Other Republicans thanked the President for helping Americans ‘believe in ourselves again’, creating a sense of Reagan as a vaguely religious figure.

The highlight of the final night of the Convention was not, to my mind, Reagan’s speech accepting his party’s nomination, eloquent and rousing though it was. It was the 18-minute film that preceded it, produced for the Reagan campaign by advertising men who work on the Pepsi-Cola account and intended as the basis of many of the President’s television commercials in the months to come. A more intellectually vacuous production would be hard to imagine. A viewer with no prior knowledge of the candidate would be hard pressed at the end to identify a single substantive issue or idea with which the President had identified. It could as easily have been a film about Walter Mondale, or George McGovern, or any political candidate who claimed (as all candidates do) to love his country. And yet despite, or perhaps because of its utter lack of substance, it may be the most effective campaign film in recent American history. Its message is clear, direct and simple: American is once again strong, proud and free; the doubts and confusions of the past are gone; and Ronald Reagan somehow has something to do with it. Interspersed among stock shots of farmers harvesting wheat, families moving into new homes, children smiling and flags waving, are scenes of the President basking in the glow of the ‘new spirit’: riding his horse, embracing Olympic heroes, mingling with the people. George Bush visits the Oval Office, presumably to report on a ‘fact-finding’ mission around the country, and tells the President earnestly that ‘there’s a new mood out there. People are feeling good about themselves again.’ Reagan himself talks reflectively about inspirational moments in his life and his Presidency and about his faith in the future.

In the early going, at least, the Reagan strategy created enormous difficulties for Walter Mondale and the Democrats. Running against Ronald Reagan began to seem like running against America, and the flailing, ineffectual Mondale campaign of August and September appeared to reflect the Democrats’ befuddlement. The Party’s Convention in San Francisco had included its own tributes to the ‘new spirit’: patriotic homilies from virtually every speaker, a demonstration on the final night that transformed the convention floor into a sea of American flags. San Francisco was, as Democratic Conventions go, a relatively tranquil affair: but as a meeting of Democrats, it necessarily included speeches by disgruntled blacks and Hispanics, militant feminists, and other ghosts at the feast. These undercurrents of tension and discontent found no counterpart in Dallas, where some observers were reminded of Nancy Reagan’s description of the Republican delegates in 1980 as ‘all these beautiful white people’. The Democrats could have little hope in 1984 of getting the better of (or even matching) the President in appeals to the ‘new spirit’. Their hope lay in getting the better of him on the issues, and it was precisely Mondale’s inability to force the campaign to focus on the issues that accounted for his dismal showing throughout September.

The first televised debate between the two candidates may have been a turning-point – even if it is likely to have come too late to change the final result. For the first time, the two candidates were forced to confront each other on matters of substance; and the necessity of doing so seemed to make the President distinctly uncomfortable. At times during his halting, befuddled performance, he reached out, like a drowning man grasping at a life raft, for the ‘mood-lifting’ homilies on which he had relied so effectively throughout the previous months. But in the context of the debate, such phrases as ‘I think we’ve given the American people back their spirit’ sounded even weaker and more vacuous than usual. In the sour aftermath, Reagan campaign officials worked quickly to shift the dialogue away from issues and back to mood, calling Mondale a ‘doom and gloomer’ and trotting out several of Reagan’s stock speeches about love of country. But the Democratic campaign, for the first time, seemed to have found an effective response. Tentatively in the debate, and more decisively in the 24 hours that followed, Mondale moved to link the liberal measures he favours to the sense of national pride that Democrats of the early Sixties so effectively represented. He quoted John Kennedy: ‘America is a great country, but it could be greater.’

Whatever the outcome of the election however, the spirit of self-congratulation which has permeated the campaign, and the assault on introspection and self-doubt which has accompanied it, mark an important development in American politics and American life. It may be true, as many claim, that the self-criticism and disillusionment of the recent past reached dimensions out of all proportion to the reality of the nation’s problems and failures. It may be true as well that it is a healthy thing for a people to look at themselves and their world with confidence and optimism. Even a dissenter like Tom Hayden, co-founder in the Sixties of Students for a Democratic Society and now a California Assemblyman, admits that ‘there is still a natural, cultural need to feel good about one’s country.’ The question, however, is whether that cultural need is unnaturally strong in the United States, whether the American people are so wedded to a sense of their own righteousness and omnipotence that objective realities cannot penetrate it. Most of the problems that perplexed and confused Americans four years ago are with them still, even if, for the moment, in a somewhat muted form. The nation’s economy continues to suffer from serious structual problems despite its present vigour. America’s position in the world is, if anything, less certain and more perilous than it was four years ago; and events in Lebanon and Central America have confirmed how little power the United States retains to shape foreign events to its liking. Domestic problems – poverty, crime, drug addiction, racial tension, educational decline – have not vanished or abated: many of them have grown significantly more serious. No one can feel entirely dismayed by a wave of national good feeling. But in rejecting the invitations of the Sixties and Seventies to recognise the complexities of the modern world and accept their own inevitable limitations, American politicians and the American people may be rejecting more than a legacy of self-doubt: they may also be rejecting the ability to confront the very real problems of a troubled world.