Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

What Reagan’s victory means

First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 36, December 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Ronald Reagan’s decisive electoral victory clearly represents a major lurch to the right on the part of the powers that rule America. But does it also represent a shift to the right on the part of the American people?

The question is bound to be debated over the next four years. The final answers, moreover, remain to be seen in the impact of Reagan’s policies and the response of the people, especially the working class and minority nationalities. In the immediate sense, however, the answer is “no.” Many of the American voters who crossed traditional party lines to give Reagan his majority were responding to the key question posed by Reagan himself at the close of his TV debate with Carter:

“Ask yourself whether you can honestly say that you’re better off or worse off today than you were when Jimmy Carter came into office four years ago.”

The conclusion was inescapable. Average real income had fallen by 7.5%. Inflation and unemployment remain high and seemed incurable. The general standard of living had been shoved back two decades to the level of 1960 – but with one difference. Now, for millions of Americans, that standard rested on two paychecks per family.

Speaking to these concerns was Reagan’s strong point. He made all the promises of traditional liberalism – jobs, prosperity, peace. He combined this with a growing fear of Soviet expansionism, but offered new conservative means to deal with it all.

But dissatisfaction with Carter hardly adds up to a mandate for Reagan. The vote returns tell the story. First, it was the lowest turnout since 1948. Only 52.9% voted, down from 54% in 1976. Only 27% of the electorate actually cast ballots for Reagan.

Unionized workers who voted were split, with the larger group going to Carter – 47% to 41%. Black voters went overwhelmingly for Carter, by an 84% margin. But again, both the overall turnout and the percentages even among these sectors were way down from what received in his 1976 victory over Ford.

While these figures can be used to show that a majority of the working class and minority nationalities did not go for Reagan, it would be a mistake to leave it at that. An important factor is the trend of development. And this highlights what is perhaps the most significant feature of the election – the collapse of liberalism, especially of the corporate variety, which, through its various coalitions has mainly ruled America ever since the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt.

With Reagan’s victory, a new ruling coalition is taking shape and the centers of power are shifting. It is not, however, simply an electoral coup by the new right. Like any coalition, Reagan’s rests on compromise, with various contending forces pulling in different directions.

This tension was evident immediately after election day. Headstrong from a number of Senate victories, Paul Weyrich, a leading new rightist and head of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, called a press conference and warned Reagan against bringing “Nixon-Ford administration retreats” into his administration. He also warned against Vice-President-elect George Bush who, due to his connections with Rockefeller’s Trilateral Commission, has never set well with the new right.

“Hell with them,” declared Bush while speaking in Houston. “Reagan is not an extremist.”

For his part, Reagan bobbed and weaved. In his first press conference, he refused to put any distance between himself and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. But soon after, top Reagan staffers sent a message of warning to the new right religious front: “It isn’t your administration.”

Reagan’s problem is threefold. First, to rule with any kind of stability, he must effect a compromise with the Rockefeller financial group and other traditional centers of the power of monopoly capital in the East. This can be seen in all the maneuvers to “find a role” in his administration for the likes of Henry Kissinger, Scoop Jackson, Alexander Haig and others.

Second, Reagan must bring in a new team reflecting his own power base in the West: Western Bancorporation, the assorted high-technology industries related to aerospace and oil, and agribusiness. It is no accident that stocks from these industries jumped higher than others in the market as Reagan’s votes poured in.

Third, Reagan must come to terms with the new right. One reason is that they have doubled their power in the Senate, bringing eight new seats into the bloc headed by Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Jake Garn. If the GOP control of the Senate is to be a working majority, it must accommodate these reactionaries.

Another reason is that the new right’s interlocking web of mass organizations and single-issue fronts provides Reagan with a means to mobilize an active, conservative trend among the people to head off, split or neutralize counter-efforts initiated by left and progressive forces.

Getting this new coalition stabilized and in place is only Reagan’s first hurdle. A bigger problem will be delivering the goods in his package of campaign promises. This, means finding a way to launch an arms race, drastically cut taxes and reduce deficit spending – a contradictory triangle termed “voodoo economics” by George Bush when he fought Reagan in the primaries.

And when this begins to fail in “Getting America Back to Work Again” – Reagan’s central slogan – then Reagan is bound to find himself face to face with the same discontent that destroyed Jimmy Carter.

The next four years, then, presents the revolutionary left with a period of both danger and opportunity.

The danger is clear enough. It resides in the growing possibility of world war and superpower confrontation, as well as in austerity and fascistic repression domestically. One sign of things to come was Strom Thurmond’s call to repeal the 1965 Civil Rights Act on the same day that an all-white jury in Greensboro acquitted the Klan, essentially sending a message declaring open season on communists and Blacks.

But there is also the opportunity for left and progressive forces to take part in and lead a broad-based defense of the people’s livelihood and, liberties, which are already under attack. In addition, there is the possibility of a new upsurge on several fronts in the struggle.

One sign of things to come, for instance, was the more than 3,000 students and young people pouring through the streets of Berkeley on election night, chanting, “Down with Reagan!” and “Get Bonzo Off the Button!”

[text missing here – EROL] all those to the left of Reagan who are at all active students and women, minority organizations and the reform movement in labor, and anti- nuke and environmental activists.

What the present collapse of liberalism has done is to spotlight a sharp polarization in political life: Reagan and his new right allies stand on one side, and. have the upper hand. The left and a growing network of progressive groups are on the other side. But where the reign of liberalism has often spread cynicism [text missing here – EROL]

Already, plans are afoot to welcome Reagan to the White House Jan. 20 with demonstrations in Washington and across the country. The hope is to form a broad front of among their ranks, that cynicism is now evaporating and has the prospect of being replaced with an increasing determination to struggle.

What role the liberal leaders of the trade unions and other reform organizations will play on this battlefield remains as a central problem for the left. Already a number of them are vacillating toward the right.

“We congratulate Gov. Reagan on his election as president,” said UAW President Doug Fraser. “As President, Mr. Reagan deserves our support when we believe he is right. When we disagree, we will criticize his actions in a positive and constructive manner.”

That’s hardly what could be called a fighting, progressive stand toward the new wave of austerity and reaction that awaits the American people. The problem for Fraser and others like him is that he sees salvation in the Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party.

“What we need to do now,” said another top UAW official, “is exactly what we’ve always been doing, only more and better.” But that outlook is precisely what has gotten progressive Americans into their present bind. It points the way backward, not forward.

The beginning of political wisdom resides in seeing the necessity to break with the Democratic Party and to develop the necessary forms for the independent political action that can organize on the fighting strength of the people. Otherwise, we’re in for a dismal decade.