The Great Game of Politics: Why We Elect Whom We Electby Dick Stoken
From our nation's inception there has been a constant dynamic of tension between those political philosophies that we have labeled the left and the right, despite the fact that the vast majority of American voters really fall into the category of moderates. During the early years, the shifts between the two were dramatic and frequent: the Federalists on one… See more details below
From our nation's inception there has been a constant dynamic of tension between those political philosophies that we have labeled the left and the right, despite the fact that the vast majority of American voters really fall into the category of moderates. During the early years, the shifts between the two were dramatic and frequent: the Federalists on one side, the Jeffersonians on the other, as the young democracy came to grips with the two opposing political forces that were to mold the new nation. On one hand we have the concerned with business, conservatism, and the development of capital and wealth. They want the government to provide security that will protect the nation's interest while allowing free-market forces to increase prosperity. On the other hand we have the left, concerned with personal rights, equality, and the fostering of prosperity for all citizens through an active and involved federal government.
By explicating the Presidency from George Washington to George W. Bush,
The Great Game of Politics examines the American Presidency as a cyclic reflection of the concerns of the electorate vis à vis the excitation of the ideologies of our two major parties in a constant left-right swing where the will of the people sets the pendulum in motion and determines the direction the country will take for another four years. From the early years, where the dynamic tension that forged the nation initially required numerous shifts to establish an acceptable political equilibrium, to the revered legacies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, whose presidencies not only initiated major political shifts but also instituted fundamental changes in the apparatus of government that would prove to be integral to the administrations that followed them, both Democratic and Republican.
They seized the reins of government and made a lasting mark. Indeed the truly great presidentsWashington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Reaganshaped the course of history for our nation and in doing so proved themselves to be masters of The Great Game of Politics.
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During the 1980s something new and unusual was afoot in America's political culture. Prior to that time society had built its political-economic foundation upon "big" and intrusive government, around legislation to regulate business, around policies to provide security and protect people from danger. But with a suddenness unseen in half a century that foundation was toppled and a new one erected based on business deregulation, on creating avenues of opportunity, and on encouraging competition. This shift from seeking security to taking risks was part of a mini-revolution in the social and intellectual climate that altered views on nearly everything from business to family life, from work to religion.
Moreover, a new entrepreneurial spirit was visible throughout the land. During the placid 1950s, David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, reported, college students considered business "dull and disagreeable as well as morally suspect." Businesspeople back then were generally considered vulgar and greedy, besides being wicked oppressors of the working class. But by the turn of the century college students obsessed over internships, the proletariat had taken up day-trading, and governments everywhere had put business at the top of their agendas. The business culture was triumphant.
What happened? Why such a profound shift?
A new political "PARADIGM" was born. It was a fresh American era.
What Is a Political Paradigm?
A paradigm is a set of compatible political, economic, and social beliefs related to a central theme and accepted by most members of society. Underlying this theme is the way people view risk. When the majority of men and women see their world as fraught with risk they will endorse ways of thinking that promise to avoid danger. They are likely to approve of government attempts to intervene in the economy, to provide security, a safety net to protect the weak and elderly. Reducing risk becomes the frame of reference by which other things, such as the role of government and individual careers, are tacitly interpreted, evaluated, and judged. Ideas or proposals that fly in the face of this underlying assumption are not likely to receive much of a following.
On the other hand, let a people witness a long run of peaceful prosperity and they are likely to adopt a view that sees their world as relatively risk-free. When this underlying assumption is in place, men and women will be amenable to placing more trust in markets, to accepting a greater degree of competition, and to assuming more risk in their individual life. In this atmosphere, ideas to privatize a portion of Social Security, to institute school vouchers, and to cut back on welfare will reach a more receptive audience.
These underlying perceptions of risk implant filters in the mind-which we are not totally aware of-that act as an inner beacon to guide us in making choices. They provide the cement that binds a nation's political, economic, and social thinking into a unified whole so that it forms a paradigm, that is, a political model, which develops its own set of unstated rules, its own culture, its own expectations for the American people, and its own vision of where the nation is headed. The paradigm becomes the lens through which most people view their world, and it affects the way they think and act.
When perceptions of risk shift, a mini-revolution in a nation's social, economic, and political views ensues. A new mind-set forms, and with it comes a different way of behaving, from risk avoidance to risk taking or from chance taking to caution. A people who had viewed political and economic occurrences through a lens that favored big government action to solve societal problems might put on a different pair of glasses and begin to appreciate the market as the best way to tackle the nation's headaches. Those same people who formerly had been suspicious of business and its merchant class, might begin to adopt an entrepreneurial spirit and worship at the altar of money.
A new political paradigm does not mean that the basic nature of the American political ethic is changing. Rather, it is a smaller change within a much grander tradition. Take two different business organizations, both of which operate in America's capitalistic economy and share the same basic business profit objectives. Scratch beneath the surface and you might notice different cultures, different rules, and different worker expectations. One company might have a "laid-back" business structure and look to the outside world as a source of opportunity, while the other may view the outside world as threatening and maintain a formal organization. Both are practicing different variations of the same general American business culture. In much the same way, America's political models are variations around a more general American ethic. If you don't like the one you are in, wait a generation or so and another more to your liking may come along.
As in the culture of a business, where the direction is set by the owner, the CEO, or perhaps a previous owner of the company, the president of the nation sets the course, which turns a new mass-risk perception into a political paradigm.
Before modern times, kings set the tone of a nation or society. In those premodern eras, the very important events were the coronation of a new king. The nobility, who usually resided at the royal court for part of the year, would listen very carefully to what the new king was saying, trying to draw a bead on whether vast and far reaching changes were in the wind. They would observe how strong a leader he was likely to be, what his agenda was, and which groups he was going to favor. And when they returned to their castles in the heartland, they were likely to emulate the king's behavior, his manner and direction of governing, in their own dealings with the common folk; thus a style and course to the country's political, economic, and social affairs set by the ruler .owed throughout the nation and set the mood of everyday society.
However, not all kings set a tone of governing much different from their forebears. In fact, most followed along the same pathways as the prior king; so too with America's presidents. Most follow along the course launched by some predecessor, perhaps two or three removed. Only a few have torn up the existing way of doing things and implemented vast new political changes, a mini-revolution, that reverberated throughout the nation for years to come. Those few who broke the mold became paradigm-setting presidents. They planted the roots, which defined their parties and the nation's political culture for years to come. They had the biggest impact on American society and politics.
The important paradigm shift prior to the one in the 1980s began in 1933. During the most chilling depression in our nation's history dispirited voters marched off to the polls to cast their ballot for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, giving him one of the largest landslides in American history. Roosevelt stirred up a mini-revolution that was to lead to a new political model, wherein government became responsible for its citizens’ well-being. To understand the FDR paradigm think: BIG GOVERNMENT, SOCIAL JUSTICE, and RISK AVOIDANCE.
The citizens of America struck a bargain with the federal government. The state got an immense amount of power, and in return the public received protection; "big" government would provide a safety net and bring about a fairer and more just society. This idea of government intervention in the economy was able to .y because it was related to the underlying assumption that favored risk avoidance.
Presidents who followed in FDR's wake governed with this paradigm leader's shadow looming over their shoulder. They compared themselves with Roosevelt and believed in the things FDR believed in. Their agendas did not deviate too far from the course he had set. They continued down his path of greater government involvement in the economy, introducing more and more regulations and controls and additional programs to help the poor and the elderly. Big government came to be viewed as the answer to the nation's problems. It had, under Roosevelt's guidance, cured the depression, won a war, and produced economic stability. No doubt it could also tackle other big societal shortcomings, like poverty, racism, and crime. Any problems, no sweat; the government with its vast resources would handle them. Just pass another bill and spend more money from the public purse.
A "New Deal" was followed by a "Great Society." Under the government's prodding, social innovation followed social innovation, pressuring society to open up its doors to make room for more and more diverse groups of people. Laborers burst through first, but women and "blacks" soon followed.
It was a time when the "devotion to the public good" spirit ruled. People were encouraged to serve others, to commit to causes greater than their own self-interest. Societies' helpers, doctors, educators, members of the Peace Corps, and public servants, garnered respect and status. These dogooders became the country’s popular idols. And by God, if you were Mother Teresa or a Nobel Prize laureate you were guaranteed to ride at the head of the parade.
Meanwhile, the entrepreneurial spirit was at a low ebb. To be sure, there were people who were able to find a special niche in the economy and carve out a small piece of the American business pie. But for the most part, big corporations held sway over the American economy, and for those who chose business for their livelihoods, jobs with the big companies were worth dreaming about. They offered security, comfortable working conditions, and a wide range of financial benefits, all without unduly encroaching on the employee's home life.
Throughout this era the "liberal" outlook reigned supreme. The people of America believed well-meaning and well-educated men and women could engineer the nation's social problems from Washington. But beginning in the late 1960s it was becoming glaringly evident that the well-meaning policies were creating an inflationary bias in our economy and spawning a "let the government take care of you" dependency. Throughout the 1970s the economy was in a rut, vacillating between deep recession and galloping inflation, social breakdown became increasingly visible as the incidence of crime, illegitimacy, and drug usage exploded through the roof, and traditional American values were melting away, while new ones that glorified narcissism, hedonism, and an "anything goes" culture were becoming embedded.
By 1980 popular discontent had reached very high levels. Yet Democrats, including members of President Jimmy Carter's inner circle, were confident that the country would never buy the policies of Ronald Reagan, who, four years earlier, was seen as a "right-wing" ideologue, sadly out of step with the central direction of our society. But in November of that year this ex-movie actor, espousing ultraconservative policies, swamped Carter.
The " New Economy" Paradigm
When Ronald Reagan took his position as head of state in January of 1981 he set in motion new policies and a style of governing that was to shake the foundations of the existing order. It was to be another bloodless mini-revolution, which would continue to alter the landscape of the country until a fresh political paradigm was firmly in place. Reagan's revolution was based on a new way of perceiving risk. Depression and full-scale war were far removed from the experience of the Yuppies and generation X'ers who came of age during the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Their world appeared a lot less risky than that of the men and women who reached maturity around mid-century. Under Reagan's guidance this new perception of risk bred a fresh appreciation for the workings of the marketplace and undermined the devotion a former generation held for big and intrusive government. The Reagan political model is based on a different mind-set from the one in the prior model and to make sense of it think: FREE MARKETS, INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY, and RISK TAKING.
According to Reagan, the government was taking away too much decision-making power from its citizens. The Reaganites deliberately set out to give people more control over and responsibility for their own lives and initiated policies to remove the constraining forces of market regulation and unleash the power of competition so as to lift the nation's economy out of its stagflation rut of the 1970s.
And it worked!
A sleeping economy was awakened and ignited the greatest business boom in American history, which, with but one tiny bump in 1990, continued on till century's end and reestablished the nation as the world's preeminent economic power. And better yet, inflation receded. The way people looked at government programs changed; instead of viewing Social Security as protecting people, many men and women now see it as interfering with their ability to build a bigger nest egg for retirement. Instead of regulations being seen as a necessary adjunct to a modern economy, people now view them as binding the economy in a straitjacket. The phones? Deregulate and let the people choose their own desired combination of services. A problem with the airlines? Open them up to competition.
America became a land of entrepreneurs. Anyone with an idea and the willingness to put in long hours had a chance for the brass ring. The prestige of business reached heights never seen in the past century, not even during the 1920s. The stock market replaced baseball as our national pastime. It was OK-no, make that "glamorous"-to be a businessman. Public servants fled government jobs in droves to seek their fortune in the new economy. Chance-taking businesspeople became society's new celebrities, while the high status public service people of the former paradigm were now seen as a bunch of wimpy, misguided do-gooders. Those professions had lost their cachet and were on the decline income- and status-wise. "The Donald" (Trump) replaced Mother Teresa as society's top role model.
Attitudes about wealth clearly changed as people either experienced more of it or hoped to do so in the future. Americans had a sense that income and wealth distribution was fairer than it had been, even though in actuality the gap between rich and poor was becoming wider than it had been in decades. According to New York University economist Edward Wolff, the wealthiest 1 percent of American families held 21.8 percent of the nation's net worth in 1976. But 22 years later that same category had amassed 38.1 percent of the nation's wealth. Yet, according to the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, fewer people in 1998 thought "the government should try to reduce income differences between rich and poor" than thought so in 1978.
When the Democrat Clinton became president, he did not challenge the primacy of the marketplace in American life. Instead he satisfied his constituency by making spending cuts a bit more humane. His lone effort to establish an old style "big government" policy, a national health program, smacked of another government scheme to remove control and responsibility from people's lives. Within this political model built around risk acceptance this program was predictably unable to attract public support. In fact, it provoked a big public backlash. In the following mid-term elections the Democrats lost both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
During this paradigm the word "liberal" has become a nasty label. Contemporary Americans are more conservative; the young-especially the young-are a lot more conservative politically. In the Era of Reagan the Berlin Wall came down, the incidence of crime fell, and even the Chinese Communist Party came to put its trust in the marketplace, rather than Chairman Mao. In the words of the late Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping, "To get rich is glorious." Naturally, Reagan was not responsible for all of those vast changes. Many shifts were already afoot before he set foot in the White House. However, as other pattern-setting presidents had before him, he set a tone that validated those already emerging and that led to still others. In so doing, he set a direction for our nation that would long outlive his time in office.
Shifts in the American landscape of this magnitude come about at intervals ranging from 12 to 48 years. Each has its own central political and cultural theme, which is quite different from the one that preceded it.
How Do We Recognize a New Paradigm?
Who were the important paradigm-setting presidents? Most historians and political pundits have a ready list of presidents whom they deem important or great. Yet those lists are usually quite subjective, reflecting the political bias of the observer. Instead, why not pay attention to the people who lived during the time? Remember, one of the principal assumptions of a democracy is that the people as a whole, the body politic, is wiser than any individual, no matter the education, intellectual credentials, or social position.
To begin with, it is necessary to recognize that American elections are mainly a referendum on what has gone on during an administration's prior four years. If the voters are pleased with the "state of the Union," they will return the leader or a stand-in from the same party to office. Of course, this does not mean that all voters take that approach. Obviously some are issue-oriented and look at the contenders' views on matters they deem important. However, there are issue people on both the left and the right and to a large extent they cancel each other out, so there is only a small difference between those who view one of the candidates as the best choice and those who favor the other.
A much larger group is the "go with what is working" crowd, and because their voting is usually more uniform they overwhelm the issue people. When the country appears to be in good shape and peace and prosperity reign, current policies seem to be working and this group will not see a need for change. On the other hand, should things go wrong, large numbers of this group will be unhappy with the direction in which the country is traveling and willing to bet on a new set of policies.
When a new president arrives on the scene and puts forward a bold and far-reaching program that challenges the prevailing political orthodoxy it may be the beginning of a new mini-revolution. The test of whether this president will become a pattern-setter is his ability to attract followers on the new path he has charted. Can he lead his party into becoming the majority party, attracting new groups of voters, and changing voting patterns for years to come? Will succeeding presidents remain true to his basic philosophy and political agenda? Fortunately, there is a way to see if this is occurring. There are two requirements and both are measurable.
First, and most important, a paradigm-setting president must easily win reelection, capturing an absolute majority (more than 50 percent) of all votes cast. Fifty percent indicates an unarguable general agreement among the nation's citizens. Their preference is clear. Before popular voting began in 1824, a majority of the Electoral College sufficed. A majority endorsement, after a new set of policies has been put in place, is the preliminary sign that the minirevolution is well on its way to becoming a new paradigm. Example: Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and immediately changed the direction of government. In 1984 he went before the voters as a sitting president, to ask approval for this new course he set. Over 58 percent endorsed it, suggesting a new paradigm had begun. Usually this is all the evidence required.
Since the beginning of the republic 28 sitting presidents have gone before the voters seeking ratification of their policies. FDR, who broke tradition and ran for two additional terms, is counted only once. In each case the public had a chance to evaluate the president and his after they had been put into practice. Voters knew what they were getting before they marched off to the polls to affirm or reject. Fifteen sitting presidents were reelected with a majority of all votes cast.
However, only eight had stirred up a mini-political revolution before seeking a second term. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan each initiated a bold new program that was to change the face of American political life. They were pattern-setters.
Yet sometimes a president dies in office or begins a minirevolution late in his reign, and that complicates matters, but just a bit. Warren Harding took the helm of government in 1921 and immediately began to change the political landscape but died in 1923, before receiving voter approval for his new agenda. Not to worry, Vice-president Calvin Coolidge stepped into Harding's shoes, adopted his program, making it his own, and took it before the voters. Coolidge gets the nod as pattern-setter because he, not Harding, owned the program at the time the voters first gave endorsement.
All eight presidents set government on a new course shortly after taking office and in the following election received voter permission to keep proceeding in that direction. This procedure was reversed just once. James Madison won reelection as a sitting president in 1812 before initiating a major change in the direction of government. But then during his second term he challenged the political creed of his day and launched a new mini-revolution. However, Madison, like most presidents, adhered to a two-term limit and was unable to get the electorate's green light for his new agenda. In this case, James Monroe, Madison's political ally, picked up his predecessor's baton and espousing his policies ran as his heir. Monroe's landslide victory indicated preliminary approval for the new set of policies. So who gets the nod as paradigm-setter: Madison or Monroe?
Monroe, unlike Coolidge, was not a sitting president and therefore did not own the record when he asked for voter approval. Madison's responsibility for the new policies was much clearer to the electorate in 1816 than Harding's role in agenda setting was to those who went to the polls in 1924. Ownership is important. Also, Madison had already been reelected as a sitting president. Although voters had not been aware of the fact that he would adopt a new program, the win did give him a certain legitimacy to put forward a new agenda. Add Madison to the eight previous pattern-setters and we end up with nine.
The second requirement is repeating the majority win four years later. If there is any doubt about whether a paradigm has begun, this second back-to-back majority win should settle the matter. It means that after having witnessed a president and his new policies-appraising how well they have worked-through two presidential terms, American voters have given another thumbs-up, confirming the mini-revolution has become a new political model. Furthermore, by that time the president's party will have become firmly entrenched as the new majority party. Usually a political legacy is also created at the same time the second requirement is fulfilled. That is, someone from the model builder's own party, a successor, embraces his agenda and wins the paradigm endorsement with a majority of the votes cast. Example: After two Reagan terms George H. Bush took the paradigm mantle and went before the voters for their blessing. Over 53 percent gave it, indicating their belief that the course Reagan had set was the true and correct direction of government. On the other hand, FDR, while still occupying the White House, went before the electorate three times, achieving majority wins each time. This second requirement was met, and then some, before an heir was anointed.
All nine pattern-setting presidents met the second requirement also; a successor (or FDR himself) ran on the pattern-setter's program four years after preliminary
approval and won another election with a majority of all votes cast. Monroe’s second win fulfilled the back-to-back electoral victory requirement for the Madison paradigm. Also, even FDR finally got his heir, albeit when the paradigm was growing weary. Harry Truman was elected in 1948, though without a majority of all ballots cast.
Lincoln's assassination shortly after he was reelected also muddies the waters, but not much. This was because Vice-president Andrew Johnson did not follow the Lincoln agenda. Johnson had been a Democrat when chosen for the second spot and tilted back in that direction after attaining high office. A Republican Congress blocked him and ultimately impeached him, failing to convict by one vote but making sure he could not claim Lincoln's mantle. In the following election the Republicans nominated Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln's favorite Civil War general, who returned the nation to Lincoln's model-building policies. Grant became "Honest Abe's" true heir, and his big 1868 win for the Republicans can be considered the second back-to-back victory, erasing any doubt about Lincoln being a pattern setting president. Or, if one prefers to make allowance for the Johnson interruption, Grant's huge 1872 win may be regarded as fulfillment of the second requirement (two terms of mini-revolution, interrupted by one Johnson term). Either way, Lincoln gets a paradigm-setting role.
Those nine were America's important paradigm-setting presidents. All stirred up a mini-revolution, which was followed by back-to-back majority wins. All left a political legacy. To paraphrase the great English playwright William Shakespeare, all the world is a stage, and we are the actors. If that be so, it has been these model-building presidents who wrote the scripts.
The remaining six reelected sitting presidents-Monroe, Grant, McKinley, Eisenhower, L. Johnson, and Nixon-did not attempt to take the nation down a new path either before or after reelection. Nor were they able to create a legacy. After two terms of living with those presidents, there was insufficient voter enthusiasm to elect a successor with more than half of all votes cast. All failed the second test. (By the way, so too did the three sitting presidents who were reelected without a majority of all votes cast).
However, Hayes, who might have been a Grant successor, did make it to the White House, but he collected fewer votes than his opponent. Teddy Roosevelt could not be considered McKinley's heir, as he scuttled his predecessor's program and began his own model-busting mini-revolution. When the public went to the polls in 1904 they were rendering judgment on Roosevelt's agenda; McKinley's had long been left in the dust. Dwight Eisenhower came closest to meeting this second test. He won reelection with a landslide 57.4 percent of the popular vote. But in 1960 Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's heir apparent, received only 49.5 percent of the popular vote, losing the election by a measly 120,000 votes amidst claims of widespread voter fraud. Interestingly, this is another example of how a paradigm builds in its own immune system, which helps protect it and perpetuate its longevity. Normally, the majority paradigm party is able to get hold of the election machinery, the boards and commissions, in a majority of the states, and as a result fraud usually favors the majority party. In 1960 the Democrats and John Kennedy bene.ted; in 1876 the Republicans with Rutherford Hayes were able to overrule the will of the majority. A candidate of the minority party oftentimes has to overcome voter fraud, and this provides a further hurdle against change that is built into the system.
After a pattern-setting president's program is endorsed by the electorate, his policies become the political glue that will perpetuate the political model. Think "tax and spend" and government reform during the FDR paradigm. Focus on "tax cuts" and deregulation during the Regan era. The initial success of the pattern-setter in solving the nation's main problems leads others to adopt his approach. It becomes the model of how to face up to new problems. A set of chief executives steeped in mainstream paradigm thinking follow and practice common policies until a fresh political mini-revolution begins.
The followers are tweakers, who reinforce and refresh the essential agenda or try to manage it better, but essentially they stay within the limits of the political model. They will not try to, nor are they likely to be able to, change the existing paradigm. Even presidents from the opposing party fall into line. They are not able to set bold new courses of action. Eisenhower and Nixon, Republicans during the FDR political culture, accepted the welfare state, trying to make it a bit more responsive to market signals, and sought to differentiate themselves mostly on foreign policy. And the Democrat Bill Clinton, operating within the "New Economy" paradigm, moved toward the center and adopted important parts of Reagan's program.
A paradigm, once set in motion, tends to persist. Consensus is reached that these policies and ways of thinking are the orthodox way to deal with the world; they become the political creed of that era. The party of the model-building president dares not challenge those beliefs. They become embedded as institutions in society. After a while, even the press, or much of it, comes under the spell of the new outlook. They view the political landscape through the same lens as the rest of the people do and adopt the paradigm mind-set. If they don't, they are likely to lose their following and be replaced or supplemented by others more in tune with mainstream model thinking (e.g., Rush Limbaugh and other commentators with a rightest slant gained larger and larger audiences during the conservative 1980s). Either way, the media's coverage unintentionally slants to favor those more in tune with the paradigm, and the stars of TV, radio, and the press act as attack dogs against those who stray too far out of the mainstream. This, of course, further constrains politicians who follow on the heels of the legendary leader from wandering off course.
If we examine this nation's past through the prism of its nine mini-revolutions, rather than by scrutinizing each and every little four-year piece, we get an entirely different picture of our country's political culture. Let us return to 1789, when the nation's first president was inaugurated, and uncover the grand pattern in the American story.
Excerpted from The Great Game of Politics: Why We Elect Whom We Elect by Dick Stoken.
Copyright © 2004,2005 by Dick Stoken.
Published in January 2004 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher
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