“I don’t know where democracy will end,
but it can’t end in a quiet old age.”

—Klemens von Metternich

Rowland Evans and Robert Novak were among the first political commentators to designate the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan a watershed date in American political history. From their perspective in 1981, “What was so quickly started then in regulatory relaxation, spending cuts and tax cut proposals was just the beginning. . . . Even the Moral Majority’s social issues would be pursued in time.” John Chubb and Paul Peterson agreed, and in 1985 in The New Direction in American Politics argued, “The American political system, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, has been transformed to an extent unknown since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. . . . Only rarely in American history has the political system broken as sharply with governing customs to address festering national problems or to confront social and economic issues head-on.” Even as late as 1988, it was possible to find someone like Martin Anderson to suggest that “what Reagan and his comrades have done is to shape America’s policy agenda well into the twenty-first century.”

What all these writers have in common is their adherence to the Reagan revolution thesis, which goes something like this. The nearly fifty years of liberal policies that the United States had experienced since 1932 came to an abrupt end in 1980, when a massive conservative shift in public opinion occurred and produced Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory and the first Republican Senate majority in over twenty-five years. Reagan became one of the most popular Presidents in modern times and used the new conservative mood of the country to institute dramatic and lasting changes in public policies and party politics.

With the Reagan era over and accurate statistical data on the decade now available, enter Larry Schwab to chastise all such prognosticators of political change and to unveil the Reagan legacy in all its contradictory splendor. Schwab is a professor of political science at John Carroll University, and his book is a dry but often convincing demolition of the Reagan revolution thesis. He argues that Reagan was neither one of the most popular Presidents nor a great legislative leader; there was no conservative shift in the 1980 election and no party realignment over the decade; and although reform was attempted in the first eighteen months of Reagan’s presidency, there remained no lasting change in the federal system.

According to Schwab, Reagan’s election and reelection were not mandates for conservatism. Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 was not so much the result of a fundamental shift in public opinion or political ideology as the fervent expression of the country’s frustration with Jimmy Carter’s handling of foreign and economic affairs. Regarding the 1984 election, Schwab cites the Survey Research Center’s conclusion that the average voter “was about halfway between the two candidates on government services, aid to women, relations with Russia, jobs, and standard of living guarantee.” In 1984, as in the 1980 election, the economy was the factor determining Reagan’s victory. The recession hit early in Reagan’s first term, dropping his popularity dramatically. But economic recovery was well underway in the year before the 1984 election, and it is always the year directly before the election, not the economic developments early in a President’s term, that plays the critical role in any national election.

Schwab never tires of pointing out that, contrary to national memory, Ronald Reagan was not one of the country’s most popular Presidents. He had only a 60 percent approval rating after seven months in office, compared to President Bush’s 70 percent. By the end of his first year, Reagan’s popularity had dropped to 49 percent. Although his ratings improved in late 1983 and 1984 with the economic recovery well under way and with his victory over Walter Mondale, his ratings again ebbed in 1986 and 1987 with revelations of the Iran-Contra scandal. His overall approval rating, in comparison with the ratings of all other Presidents since 1932, places him well behind Kennedy, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and even Johnson, with Nixon, Carter, Truman, and Ford slightly trailing Reagan’s average rating of 52 percent.

Schwab adds that, since Reagan was not conspicuously popular, it is hardly surprising that his eight years in office failed to produce a party realignment or make the Republicans the dominant party. On the contrary, the Democrats’ sway had never been more complete. By the end of the decade the majority of senators, representatives, governors, state legislators, and big city mayors were Democrats; the Republicans, for instance, controlled only eight state legislatures in 1989. Even the Republican Senate victories in the 1980’s were based on special circumstances and not on a shift in national voting patterns. The Democrats won well over a majority of the combined national vote in the elections of 1980, 1982, and 1984, in which the Republicans won a majority of the seats; the Republicans, however, managed to win 15 of the 20 seats in the ten states smallest in population.

But Schwab hits his stride in showing how the role of the federal government expanded rather than contracted in the 1980’s. It is an old story, but one that still rankles conservatives. Reagan not only failed to dismantle the departments of energy and education but even added a new department of veterans affairs. Price support systems—in the sugar, tobacco, peanut, honey, cotton, dairy, and rice industries—expanded and flourished. What significant deregulation did occur in the 1980’s had been initiated under Jimmy Carter. The United States became, for the first time, a debtor nation under Reagan. He opposed the right of states to control their own National Guard troops, failed to transfer federal lands to the states, and failed to block passage of the important Grove City College civil rights bill. The New Right agenda of banning abortion and legalizing prayer in public schools never came close to enactment. Taxes rose substantially in the 1980’s, and he approved two of the largest tax increases, the 1982 tax law and the 1983 Social Security reform bill, in American history.

The chief irony of the era is that the one area in which Reagan did reduce the role of the federal government (and set a precedent for future administrations) was defense: Reagan will go down in history as the President who initiated in the mid-1980’s the greatest military cutback since 1945, and one which continues apace today. As Schwab writes, “The defense budget would have been larger at the end of the 1980’s than it actually was if the budget had increased at the rate proposed by Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.”

Schwab concludes that, rhetoric notwithstanding, Reaganism in practice had nothing whatsoever to do with federalist principle or with a return to the traditional bourgeois values of the Old Right. Reaganism meant merely the legitimization “in the federal budget and American society” of the New Deal-Great Society state.

There are flaws and omissions in Schwab’s study. First, although taxes may have risen in the aggregate over the course-of the decade, Reagan drastically reduced the tax rates for corporations and the affluent and paved the way for the new plutocracy, the second Gilded Age. Kevin Phillips, in The Politics of Rich and Poor, may have misrepresented the extent to which Middle Americans actually suffered under Reaganomics, but the first half of his thesis—that the ranks of the rich swelled under Reagan—is beyond dispute. Yuppies, Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the stock market crash, the junk bond boom, the skyrocketing luxury sales, the emergence into common usage of the word “billionaire”—none of these phenomena of the decade occurred in a vacuum, and yet no account of them is anywhere to be found in Schwab’s book.

Secondly, Schwab’s social-scientific approach’ to the topic limits his ability to notice elements in Reagan’s electoral appeal that are not easily distinguishable by quantitative means. In his analysis of the 1984 election, he cites the Survey Research Center’s conclusion that there was little difference between the candidates on many issues. From this he argues, “If the recession had occurred in 1984 rather than in 1982, Reagan probably would have lost the 1984 election.” That voters could have chosen Reagan over Mondale for reasons unrelated to the recession is a possibility that Schwab never entertains. However, the same study includes a key sentence that he quotes but without comment: “Only on aid to minorities was the average response significantly closer to Reagan’s position.”

What Schwab fails to understand is what Peter Brown sees so clearly: that the Republicans have long known how to appeal to Middle Americans who feel squeezed between an irresponsible political elite and an avaricious lower class that the elite caters to at their expense. Donald Warren termed these citizens “Middle American Radicals,” and it was they who filled the ranks of Nixon’s “New Majority,” who backed George Wallace, and who comprised the New Right that so enthusiastically supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s.

Peter Brown has written a shockingly honest book “about the forgotten middle class,” about how winning the White House requires understanding Middle Americans and, “for the Democrats, regaining their allegiance.” Brown is a seasoned political commentator for Scripps Howard News Service, and he makes it clear from the start that he is no apostate from the Democratic faith. He has written a book about Democrats for Democrats in the hope of helping them regain the presidency, but he expects harsh reaction from the party faithfuls. “For those Democrats who will find the book infuriating, I can only say that I write what I perceive as reality. Think of me as a physician examining a patient and giving his professional opinion. I am offering a tough diagnosis and recommending tough medicine as the only road to recovery. That is how the book is intended—not to harm the party, but to help it.” Brown also realizes that, because of his frankness about the politics of race, some critics will undoubtedly brand his book “racist.” “I hope not,” he says, “for those who do will be failing to hear the voices of the American middle class.”

Brown argues that middle-class white voters—once the bedrock of the Democratic Party—have grown to resent the way the party now runs roughshod over their needs and desires, anxieties and aspirations in an attempt to court blacks, gays, greens, and feminists. What the party has entirely missed is that Middle Americans have grown frustrated with a culture that no longer honors individual responsibility and moral accountability. They have lost patience with the way criminals can blame their crimes on a bad childhood, employees can demand jobs on the basis of race rather than skills, and with the way, in Brown’s words, the “Democrats view their constituents as victims: blacks, feminists, gays, and workers are always the victims of discrimination by the white-male-heterosexual-business-dominated-culture.” Brown’s argument gives credence to Kevin Phillips’ 1982 thesis in Post-Conservative America that the middle class is undergoing a kind of radicalization.

The strength of Brown’s book lies in his scores of interviews with frustrated Middle Americans. The reader meets Louise Renaud, whose experiences as a teacher at Detroit’s Kettering High School in the 1970’s led to her break with the Democratic Party. With a salary under ten thousand dollars at the time, “I would see the kids, whose families were on AFDC, walking around in designer jeans, silk shirts, alligator shoes. And I’m breaking my buns. What the hell is going on?” And there is Geri Suma of suburban Detroit, who upon learning that the Democrats’ forced busing plan meant that her child would not be allowed to attend the elementary school down the block but instead was going to be bused to an inner-city school miles away, said “At that point I could see the way things were changing. . . . Busing made me begin to think the Democratic party wasn’t for us.” “For two decades,” writes Brown, Democratic leaders have tried to pretend that the feelings of the Geri Sumas and Louise Renauds “don’t exist, or that if they do, they belong to bigoted people who don’t deserve to have their views aired.”

Brown points out that not all Democrats have been blind to this exodus of Middle Americans. Many members of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council have recognized this problem for years, but like Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg—whom the party hired to study its poor showing in Michigan in 1984—they have had little influence on the direction of the national party. In the course of his study Greenberg brought together some three dozen Democrats of Macomb County, Michigan, who had voted for Reagan. As Brown describes the scene, Greenberg set the tone of the meeting by reading a quotation from Robert Kennedy, whom Greenberg and fellow Democrats assumed these Roman Catholic voters would hold in high esteem. The quoted passage was RFK’s call for Americans to honor their special obligation to blacks whose forefathers had experienced slavery. As Brown notes, Greenberg’s opening went over like a lead balloon.

“That’s bulls–t,” shouted one participant. “No wonder they killed him,” said another. “I’m fed up with it,” chimed in a third. Greenberg was astonished at their vehemence. . . . The votes for Reagan among these traditional Democrats, Greenberg reported, stemmed from a “profound disillusionment, a loss of faith in the Democratic party,” a sense that “the Democratic party no longer responded with genuine feeling to the vulnerabilities and burdens of the average middle-class person. Instead the party and government were preoccupied with the needs of minorities. . . . They advanced spending programs that offered no appreciable or visible benefit” for middle-class people.

But the party’s national leaders refused to take Greenberg’s findings to heart, treating the study “like a mistress at a family funeral.” Some of them “rationalized that the school busing furor in Macomb had made it atypically racist. Others hoped it would pass, laying it to the phenomenon of Reagan’s personal popularity.”

Brown concludes that, in order to regain the White House, the Democratic Party must not only adopt a platform more conducive to the white majority and to middle-class needs and values—not just shake free of Jesse Jackson’s delusion that the party’s future lies with the registration and courtship of more minorities and poor blacks—it must rid itself of the perception that it is the party of the Northeast. Brown reminds Democrats that most Middle Americans see the Northeast as symbolic of the nation’s past and its problems and not its future and potential. “This combination—the party’s Northeastern orientation and its refusal to change its outmoded message—has kept [Democratic] presidential candidates from being able to communicate with middle-class voters.”

The prospects, however, both for the Democratic Party and the voting public, are bleak. Despite Brown’s sage analysis and advice, the Democrats have chosen New York City—the cultural bane of Middle America—as the site for its 1992 national convention. Nor have the Democratic candidates thus far announced shown much willingness to adopt the fundamental changes that Brown suggests are needed for capturing the White House. Only one national figure has shown serious interest in an agenda similar to that outlined by Brown, and it comes not from a Democrat but from a Republican standing on an America First platform: Patrick Buchanan. 


[The Illusion of a Conservative Reagan Revolution, by Larry M. Schwab (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers) 243 pp., $29.95]

[Minority Party: Why Democrats Face Defeat in 1992 and Beyond, by Peter Brown (Washington: Regnery Gateway) 350 pp., $21.95]