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Ronald Reagan's sweeping victory in the presidential election on November 4, 1980, came as a surprise to many observers. Liberalism had dominated American politics for decades and shaped its institutions and assumptions, especially the belief that no politician who advocated reducing the size and role of the federal government could be elected president. Jimmy Carter, moreover, for all his economic and political troubles, had been running a close race. Through the fall of 1980, voters remained uncertain about Reagan's conservatism and lack of experience at the national level; as late as October 28, just a week before the election, a quarter of the electorate still had not made up their minds. On election day, however, Reagan buried Carter. The Republican took 43.9 million votes, or 51 percent of the total, and won forty-four states with 489 electoral votes, to Carter's 35.5 million, or 41 percent (independent John Anderson took 5.7 million votes). Reagan's strength carried over to the congressional races, where the Republicans gained thirteen Senate seats and took control of the chamber for the first time since 1954. The Democrats kept control of the House butsuffered a net loss of thirty-three seats. Delighted conservatives and worried liberals alike described the results in terms generally reserved for upheavals abroad. To the editors of National Review, conservatism's leading intellectual and media platform, Reagan's election had been an "anti-liberal revolution," while in more understated terms the Washington Post described a "major shift of power to the GOP."
As surprising as it may have seemed at the time, however, Reagan's election was not a bolt from the blue. For all its achievements, by 1980 liberalism had been in decline for almost fifteen years. Part of the reason for liberalism's fall was its internal decay, but it was hurt as well by demographic and economic forces that had been at work since 1945. Simultaneously, new conservative ideas had appeared and gained strength, gradually becoming credible political alternatives to liberal orthodoxies. This process unfolded slowly, and at times its implications were barely noticed. But in 1980 it led to the election of the most conservative president of the modern era.
Modern liberalism emerged in the late 1940s shaped by hard experiences. Liberals had had high hopes during World War II-they expected the suffering of war to be redeemed afterward by a resumption of the reform efforts of the New Deal, and eagerly awaited the chance to expand the government's economic role, achieve full employment, institute a range of social and civil rights reforms, and work with the Soviet Union to maintain international stability. None of these hopes were realized; at home, after almost two decades of upheaval and war, the American people proved uninterested in more large-scale change, while abroad relations with Moscow quickly turned hostile. In the roughly three years between the end of the war and President Harry Truman's victory in the 1948 election, liberals went through a bitter struggle as they decided how to respond to these realities. When it was over, Truman's moderate liberal supporters triumphed over the left-wing liberals-known as the Progressives-to establish the liberal mainstream as a cautiously reformist, strongly anti-Communist movement. Liberals still held to their ideals of achieving social and economic justice, but they understood that progress had to be gradual and made through compromises.
In spite of these setbacks, postwar liberalism was marked by self-confidence and a belief in its own strength. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., defined and named this style of liberalism in his book The Vital Center (1949), describing it as a "fighting faith" that understood the realities of the world, was strengthened by struggle, rejected impractical idealism and dramatic posturing, and was unafraid to face and attack large problems. Schlesinger's view reflected those of his colleagues. Many liberal intellectuals of this generation-the writers and academics who generated and debated the ideas that informed political debates-had grown up poor, been involved with radical politics as young adults during the prewar years, and had served in the military or government during the war before fighting against the Progressives and Communists in the late 1940s. Like Schlesinger, they viewed themselves as toughened and stripped of illusions by their experiences. Their political battles against the totalitarianisms of both left and right, moreover, now led them to reject any politics based on a rigid ideology; instead, they viewed flexible democratic institutions as the key to a successful political order.
During the almost two decades that it dominated American political life, vital center liberalism produced a rich intellectual legacy. The liberal intellectuals of this generation were among the most talented and perceptive historians, political scientists, and sociologists of the twentieth century. Although university based, they were not cloistered-many continued the activism of their youths, now working in liberal organizations and the Democratic Party and administrations. They also wrote for a general audience, publishing much of their best work in popular magazines and easily accessible books. In doing this, the vital center intellectuals drew on their experiences, as well as their research, to supply an explanation of how American politics and society work. The basic point of their interpretation was that from the beginning of the Republic, Americans had rejected ideological dispute in favor of broad agreement about major political questions. Richard Hofstadter, one of the most insightful and influential of the postwar historians, provided an early statement of this idea in his introduction to The American Political Tradition (1948). "However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property ... economic individualism ... competition ... [and] capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man," he wrote. Most recently, they concluded, the consensus had evolved to support liberal views, creating broad national support for the modern welfare state and other changes that had grown out of the New Deal. Indeed, vital center liberals viewed this consensus as so broad that it left little room for dissenting views; they portrayed conservative and progressive critics alike as suffering from psychological disorders. Although their attacks on dissidents showed that they sometimes overstated the case, the vital center intellectuals' basic point was correct-American politics is governed by a centrist consensus that operates by compromise and evolves slowly to accommodate change-and their works still are valuable reading for understanding politics in the United States.
Vital center liberalism unraveled with surprising speed after the mid-1960s, however. Signs of trouble first appeared in the late 1950s, as some liberal intellectuals began to complain of the boredom of their moderate role. The emergence of the civil rights movement, with its strong moral claims, excited them but also undermined support for political gradualism and compromise. This manifested itself during the early 1960s with liberals' frequent impatience with President Kennedy's cautious civil rights policies. Once Lyndon Johnson became president, however, liberal hopes for rapid social and economic progress soared-he secured passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, started the War on Poverty, crushed his conservative Republican challenger, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, in 1964, and then secured passage of the Great Society legislation in 1965.
Disillusion came swiftly. Johnson's programs had been enacted and implemented in haste and soon faced serious problems of cost and administration. Poor management led to large wastes of money, and liberals soon found that social problems proved to be more complicated and harder to solve than they had expected. At the same time, rising racial troubles, urban rioting, campus disorders, the growth of the anti-liberal New Left, and the war in Vietnam reduced popular support for liberal political proposals, leaving many vital center intellectuals feeling disoriented. Observing a conference of prominent liberals, including Schlesinger, in late 1968, one journalist noted that liberals "seemed at loose ends" and were more comfortable reviewing their past achievements than they were contemplating an uncertain future.
Liberal intellectuals were unable to pick up the pieces of their movement. The intellectual community had expanded greatly since 1945-a consequence of the growth of colleges and universities-which meant that debates no longer could be shaped by a few dominant figures like Schlesinger or Hofstadter. Scores of writers, few of whom had the experience or analytical talents of their predecessors, vied for attention on every issue. Simultaneously, the civil rights movement and growing self-consciousness among minorities led the rising generation of historians, political scientists, and sociologists to shift the focus of their fields to examinations of small groups. The works of the 1950s that sought to provide a broad analytical framework for interpreting the past and present were replaced by narrowly focused studies that made increasing use of specialized quantitative methodologies and emphasized differences among groups rather than their similarities. Many leading intellectuals ceased writing for popular audiences and began to confine themselves to specialized academic journals, and the work of younger intellectuals, especially those on the left or following radical trends, often lacked rigor or offered glib conclusions that did not stand up to later critical scrutiny. Consequently, a vacuum began to develop at the center of liberal thought, and with neither a dominant analytical framework nor a desire to present readers with understandable conclusions that could be connected to current events, intellectuals gradually withdrew from their role of providing useful ideas to inform politics.
The decades of the vital center's ascendancy and decline coincided with the suburbanization of American life. This was a set of great demographic, geographical, and economic shifts that, taken together, did much to pave the way for Reagan's election. In 1940, only 15 percent of Americans lived in suburbs, but the prosperity that followed World War II made it possible for masses of urban Americans to leave the cities. By 1950, 23 percent of the population lived in suburbs, and in 1970, 37 percent of Americans were suburbanites. In absolute numbers, this meant that the population of the suburbs had grown from 20 million people in 1940 to more than 75 million thirty years later, and that more people lived in suburbia than in either the cities or rural areas. Suburbanites had gone from being the smallest category of residential population to the largest, and were well on the way to becoming a majority of the population (see Table 1).
The suburbanization of American life was part of a transformation and expansion of the middle class. The huge increase in college enrollments after World War II-one of liberalism's greatest achievements-meant that the people moving to the suburbs were better educated than any previous generation of Americans. Only 10 percent of adult Americans had been to college in 1940, and fewer than half of those actually had graduated, but the proportion of the adult population with one or more years of college reached 16 percent by 1960, and 21 percent a decade after that. This led to a steady expansion of the number of people whose education enabled them to hold well-paying jobs-executives, managers, professionals, academics and teachers, engineers, administrators and government employees, technicians and, later, computer programmers and operators, to name some. By the mid-1970s, people in these and similar occupational categories outnumbered union members in the labor force and, by 1980, formed the largest segment of the workforce. They were smart, sophisticated, comfortable with complexity and new ideas-these were the people who formed the audience for the major intellectuals of the postwar era-and they flocked to the suburbs. "When the doors were thrown open in 1948," wrote Fortune's William Whyte of the new Chicago suburb of Park Forest, the "first wave of colonists was heavy with academic and professional people." Urban-based critics soon began to attack the suburbs as sterile, discriminatory, conformist places that revolved around a culture of shopping and consumption, but they missed the point. The millions of Americans who left the cities in the years after World War II made the suburbs into vibrant communities where, in most cases, they happily raised families in comfortable surroundings.
Suburbanization made middle-class politics increasingly complicated. Many political scientists at first expected the new suburbanites, who had grown up as Democrats in the cities, to vote Republican when they relocated, reflecting their new affluence and property interests. This appeared to be borne out by the suburban majorities for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. On closer examination, however, these votes appeared to be driven more by Ike's personal popularity than by changing party identifications. As political scientists gathered more data, they saw that voting patterns varied greatly from one suburb to another, and in many cases voters had retained their urban Democratic preferences. By the 1960s, it was becoming evident that no blanket statement could be made about suburban political preferences.
The confusion about suburban politics gradually was resolved as it became evident that suburbanites had few fixed political loyalties. It was true, for example, that many of their characteristics pointed toward liberalism and continuing to vote Democratic. The Democrats were the traditional party of white ethnics-especially Jews-who were leaving the cities. They had warm memories of the New Deal, union struggles, and the benefits bestowed by urban machines. New suburbanites furthermore understood that it was Democratic programs that had made home mortgages easily available to the masses, and many of those with college degrees had been educated in the ideas of the vital center while the GI Bill paid their tuition. Their liberalism persisted long after they arrived in suburbia-Levittown, New Jersey, became desegregated in the early 1960s without trouble, for example-and public opinion research found that sub-urbanites supported liberalism well into the 1970s, backing the civil rights movement, the Great Society, and expansions of individual rights.
These liberal tendencies coexisted with newly developed conservative traits, however. The educated middle class and professionals of the suburbs had said their farewells to the cities, and they soon lost interest in urban problems and, just as important, the plight of those who were unable to leave. Once in suburbia, their expectations for government competence rose, and their demand to receive good value for their tax dollars made them impatient with public programs that did not deliver promised results. The suburban landscape made a contribution of its own to the growth of conservative attitudes. The detached homes, large yards, and dependence on cars to get around increased privacy but also reduced contacts among people and the sense of a shared space. Paradoxically, then, suburbanites had grown comfortable with the wider world while at the same time becoming more inward-looking at home.
The full effects of these contradictory tendencies were not felt until much later, but political scientists first glimpsed some of their implications as early as the mid-1950s. Simply put, educated people living in low-density suburbs became more independent in their voting than urban voters who still responded to the directions of political machines. One researcher in Philadelphia, who doubled as a Democratic ward leader, wrote in 1955 that suburbanites were independent thinkers who rejected any sort of political control. Indeed, the growing suburban population felt far more free than their parents to pick and choose among candidates and parties rather than vote a straight ticket. In practical terms, this meant that by the early 1970s the votes of educated suburbanites were up for grabs, as they continued to hold liberal views on social and personal issues while becoming ever more skeptical of ambitious programs like the Great Society or proposed government solutions to economic problems.
Excerpted from THE EIGHTIES by John Ehrman Copyright © 2005 by John Ehrman . Excerpted by permission.
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|Prologue : the American||9|
|1||Paving the way, 1945-1980||23|
|2||First term : taxes, deficits, and politics, 1981-1984||49|
|3||Work and life, 1981-1989||90|
|4||Second term : triumph, disaster, and recovery, 1985-1989||128|
|5||If things are so good, why do I feel so bad? : 1981-1989||171|
|6||Conclusion : change and continuity||205|