Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Why the Reagan “Victory”?

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 21, November 7-21, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Ronald Reagan’s landslide election as President and the Republican Party’s takeover of the Senate gives a substantial push to the rightward trend which already characterizes U.S. politics and Washington policy-making.

Reagan won an overwhelming 469 electoral votes and 51% of the popular vote. Carter lost all but seven states with 50 votes and lost even in his native South. No incumbent President has been so badly beaten since Herbert Hoover in 1932.

In the Senate the Republicans picked up a net of ten seats, giving them a total of 52 the first GOP majority since 1954. The Democrats maintained their edge in the House, but the Republicans gained at least 31 seats there.

Prominent Democratic liberals in Congress were decisively defeated, including Senators George McGovern, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, John Culver and Warren Magnuson; House Democratic leaders John Brademas, the majority whip, and Al Ullman, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, were also ousted.

Why did Reagan win?

Above all, Reagan’s election reflects the vast dissatisfaction with Carter’s record in office. Over the past four years the economy worsened considerably, energy problems grew more critical, social contradictions intensified, and international tensions increased. These problems all indicated the continuation of U.S. monopoly capitalism’s crisis of decline. The magnitude of Carter’s defeat is one measure of how serious this crisis has become.

Significantly, voter dissatisfaction this year went beyond Carter to the Democrats generally. Traditional Democratic economic policy which has guided the country since the 1930’s and 1940’s has failed to provide economic stability or meet the needs of the people. Detente, which characterized U.S. foreign policy during the 1970’s, was an obvious failure in restraining Soviet aggression.

While the masses of people are searching for some alternatives, the ruling class has responded to the crisis by shifting towards a more conservative approach which aims to tighten the screws on working people and more vigorously defend U.S. corporate interests abroad. Both Carter and Reagan advocated more conservative policies this year, calling for cuts in government spending, more concessions to business and increased military spending.

Despite their similar policies however, Carter still had to stand on his record. The Democrats were in a state of disarray and unable to present a clear enough overall approach to the issues. While Carter definitely represented a conservative shift within the Democrats, he was still fettered by the Democrats’ liberal traditions. Carter too invoked the mantle of Democratic Party liberalism in the last weeks of the campaign in order to get out the vote from the traditional Democratic coalition of workers, minorities and urban intellectuals.

But this resulted in a confused approach, and the liberal appeals were wasted given the collapse of the Democratic coalition.

Carter also was not able to overcome his image as dull and vacillating. And his last minute attempt to use the hostage issue backfired, when hopes that the hostages would be returned before Election Day quickly came and went. This actually brought out in even sharper relief how ineffectual U.S. foreign policy had become.

New era of Republicanism

Reagan, on the other hand, was not only able to capitalize on the dissatisfaction with the status quo, he was able to articulate a consistent and clear general approach to the country’s problems. He appealed to pervasive sentiments against high inflation, high taxes, government bureaucracy and the threat of Soviet expansionism. He promoted clear if simplistic themes about “less government” and a “strong U.S.” and projected an image of decisiveness which Carter lacked.

For the first time in 50 years, the Republican Party was able to establish a broad base. Reagan tapped the popular sentiments of the ordinary people who feel bullied by big government and pessimistic about their future, sentiments for decency, independence and economic security. The new Republican constituency emerging on the ruins of the Democratic coalition crosses broad sectors of the population. It includes not only the traditionally Republican conservatives and white suburban middle class, but also teachers, farmers, intellectuals and some workers.

Not a mandate either

The Republicans are claiming they have received a clear mandate from the American people, but in truth, barely half the electorate even voted. This is perhaps an even more significant indication of the national mood and political realignment taking place.

Only 52% of the eligible voting population went to the polls, down from the 54% which voted in 1976, and continuing the steady downward trend of the past 20 years. Reagan was thus elected by a mere quarter of the voting population.

The turnout was disproportionately low among workers and minorities, whose conditions of life have declined the most and who are most alienated from bourgeois politics. Only one out of four eligible Chicano voters in California cast ballots, for example. Significantly, the Republicans were unable to pick up votes from the traditionally Democratic workers and minorities, especially in the urban areas. Millions of poor and oppressed people did not vote at all.

The record low turnout at the polls this year reflects the widespread and growing rejection of both the Democrats and the Republicans and the belief that neither party truly addresses the needs of the masses.

Even among those who voted, there was little enthusiasm. The 1980 campaign was one of the most dismal and uninspiring in history as none of the candidates were able to really rally the people. Polls taken in the last week before the election indicated the 45% of the voters planned to vote for what they perceived to be the “lesser evil.”

More attacks on working people

Reagan is certain to continue along the same rightward path which Carter commenced while in office.

The new administration will likely be filled with those top Reagan advisers who served in the Nixon and Ford cabinets – men like George Shultz, William Simon, Alan Greenspan and Casper Weinberger. They can be counted on to pursue policies which will step up assaults on the living standards of the people, give bigger tax breaks to business and the rich, further attack the rights of labor, minorities and women, and fuel the growth of racism and repression.

Candidates for foreign policy posts in Reagan’s cabinet include his top adviser, Richard Allen; former NATO chief, General Alexander Haig; and two Democratic Senators, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Sam Nunn. These men all opposed SALT II and reflect the growing desire in U.S. ruling circles to adopt a more confrontational approach towards the Soviets.

Reagan’s election will also give the New Right more credibility and hasten a more conservative ideological atmosphere throughout the country. This will make it easier for the government to attack the masses. A climate of heightened national chauvinism, too, will help justify U.S. war preparations and foreign intervention.

The hardships that these policies will impose on the masses of the American people will be reflected in a greater social and economic polarization of American society. They require a response based on a clear understanding that American “democracy” is fundamentally hypocritical and real change for working people cannot be found within the system of bourgeois politics.