The Politics of Disillusionment
Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America (2014)
Big government or small government?
Or are you sick of having politics defined by that tired debate?
In “Landslide” Jonathan Darman argues that the U.S. public has grown increasingly disenchanted with our two dominant national “myths.” One is the liberal myth that government can solve our most serious social problems, the other is the conservative myth that government is the source of our problems.
If the people are losing faith in both of these myths, is there an alternative way to frame the story of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we should be heading as a nation?
The liberal myth
Darman paints an illuminating portrait of U.S. national politics over the course of about two years in the mid-1960s, a pivotal time framed by Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election as President in 1964 and Ronald Reagan’s landslide election as governor of California in 1966.
The story starts with Johnson’s succession to the Presidency after Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963. The growing myth of Kennedy ’s Camelot of wise and noble intentions cut tragically short was interfering with Johnson’s attempts to take leadership of the nation. Johnson cleverly appropriated the myth by taking on the role of the man who would fulfill and exceed Kennedy’s policy agenda as a tribute to the fallen leader.
Johnson announced that government would declare a “War on Poverty” and usher in “The Great Society,” and produced a down payment in the form of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Enthusiasm for an activist national government ran high and carried Johnson into his crushing defeat of Republican Barry Goldwater in the Presidential election of November 1964.
The conservative myth
Meanwhile Ronald Reagan, his Hollywood career fading, was becoming a popular speaker on behalf of the conservative cause. He shaped the standard conservative skepticism of government into an optimistic story of national salvation by freeing individual creativity from government shackles. After Goldwater’s defeat wealthy California Republicans turned to Reagan as a well-known and well-liked national figure to put a fresh and appealing face on their party.
Although the Johnson administration continued its streak of legislative landmarks—the Voting Rights Act, Social Security, Medicare, federal aid to education—social unrest in the form of inner city riots and campus anti-war protests was making the voters nervous. The promise of a Great Society seemed to be dissolving into a society breaking apart at the seams.
Reagan travelled California and the nation arguing that the source of the problems was the government itself, blinded by the misguided belief that we have the knowledge or ability to re-engineer society. His 1966 overwhelming victory over California governor Pat Brown, a politician closely associated with Johnson, took the wind out of the sails of the liberal myth.
The epilogue of Darman’s book is the most interesting chapter, tracing out the continued competition between the two myths over the next several decades and bringing us to our present political stalemate, in which fewer and fewer people believe in either myth.
I am old enough to have travelled this political journey as it played out. I came of age in the 1970s, aligned with the progressive wing of liberalism which assumed that casting out the militarism that got us into Vietnam would be sufficient to revitalize the liberal agenda. This hope was badly battered by Reagan’s election and re-election to the Presidency in the 1980s.
Then the voters had the chance to become disillusioned with the conservative myth as supply-side economics produced record budget deficits and de-regulation led to a savings-and-loan crisis. Democrat Bill Clinton capitalized on this disillusionment by promising a “third way,” but only succeeded in further disillusioning progressives and antagonizing die-hard conservatives with his attempts to straddle the middle.
Conservatives had a second chance with George W. Bush, but the disastrous invasion of Iraq and the 2008 collapse of the financial system helped further the exodus of voters away from the Democratic and Republican parties to “independent” or “third party” voter affiliation. (I have been among them.)
The result has been that the two parties are left to the shrinking groups still upholding the two myths, with political stalemate at the national level and much of the public losing interest in politics altogether.
A new national story?
Darman suggests that we need a new story that is actually an old one, one in which politicians have to be “deeply realistic and humble” about making promises for the future but are also obliged to tell the people that the government has a “sacred obligation to try” to address our current problems. I don’t know about you, but that sounds tepid and uninspiring to me.
What the 2015 Presidential election has produced instead is a revitalization of the liberal myth by Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, with Hillary Clinton trying to straddle the middle while leaning leftward in Bernie’s direction, and a pack of Republicans tied to the old myth of government as the problem. The only one with a new myth is Donald Trump, who is peddling the myth of his own heroic greatness.
It’s impossible to tell at this point where this will all take us, but the liberal myth and the heroic myth seem to be winning the most enthusiastic support. Personally, the former seems old hat to me and the latter downright scary. A new storyline would be very welcome.
My own view is that we need to break open the two-party system so that other voices and other stories might develop, with the hope that some such story will reframe things and win a wider following. The world economy has changed tremendously in the last 50 years or so, and if the only new political vision we can come up with is that of the Heroic Leader, we are in deep trouble.
–Alan F. Zundel