Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Ota

Reagan’s electoral landslide forces Democrats to regroup

Mondale fails to offer a coherent alternative

First Published: Unity, Vol. 7, No. 16, November 16-29, 1984.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the most lopsided election victory since 1936, Ronald Reagan was re-elected to the presidency with 59% of the popular vote and a whopping 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 13. Reagan carried every state except Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Mondale failed to carry a single Southern, Southwestern or Western state.

Although Republicans lost ground in the U.S. Senate and failed to win an outright or “working” majority in the House of Representatives, Reagan and the Republicans can look with satisfaction at Republican gains in party registration and the further erosion of longtime Democratic support among white voters in the South and white ethnics in the Northeast. Reagan won in almost all sectors of the population. Only Black, Latino and Jewish voters supported Mondale by large margins. Union members, those with annual incomes of less than $10,000 a year, and Asian Americans favored Mondale by smaller margins. Reagan received 67% of the white votes nationally and close to 80% of the white votes in the South. Reagan received a majority of the votes of women, the elderly and youth. This Reagan electoral base showed the dangerous dynamics of a successful emotional and demagogic appeal to white and national chauvinism.

Reasons for Reagan support

Reagan’s victory was achieved because he was able to convince a large majority of middle-class and upper stratum working class whites that he represented a better hope for a healthy economy and world peace. Interlaced with his appeal was a deep undercurrent of national chauvinism.

Although unemployment is at the same or a slightly higher level than four years ago when Reagan used the issue of the economy against Jimmy Carter, the public’s perception is that the economy is in better shape and the outlook not dim. Despite the increase in poverty and continuing high unemployment in some industries, many people feel they are better off due to lower inflation and interest rates.

Reagan tirelessly reminded the public of the economic “good news” and never failed to take full credit for it. At the same time, Reagan shamelessly presented a program of thinly veiled racism and social Darwinism, trying to paint those who do not become rich or successful in a capitalist society as inferior, lazy and leeching off hard-working taxpayers.

Amazingly enough, Reagan was able to drum in his Orwellian message of “peace is war,” appealing successfully to chauvinism by celebrating the Grenada invasion and promising that a massive military buildup is making the U.S. “respected” in the world again.

Reagan was actually able to convince the public that he was more likely than Mondale to keep the U.S. out of a world war. According to Gallup polls in January, more voters thought Mondale likely to keep the U.S. out of World War III by 44-35%. But by September-October, this had turned around, with more people favoring Reagan, 42-37%. Reagan’s line was that only the strength of a morally superior U.S. stands between a world at peace and the onslaught of war.

Reagan also had the backing of a formidable apparatus. The Republican Party and right-wing groups spent a gigantic amount, $350 million, to register conservatives and meticulously turn out the vote. The New Right and Christian fundamentalists alone claimed to have registered two to three million pro-Reagan voters and turned out many more on election day. Reagan also received the most active, though indirect, endorsements by conservative Catholic bishops since the Catholic Church all but endorsed Mussolini. The service New York Archbishop O’Connor rendered Reagan in his attacks on Geraldine Ferraro was priceless to the Republicans in blunting the excitement surrounding Ferraro’s nomination.

Mondale campaign

With a different strategy could Mondale have won? This question will be debated for years to come. Many people active in electoral politics throughout the country agree that, while difficult, a more successful campaign against Reagan could have been waged.

Mondale’s strategy from the beginning was to take the minority and hard-core anti-Reagan vote for granted. Mondale relied on the labor bureaucrats to deliver a large union vote for him, hoped that the Ferraro nomination would increase his support among women and Hart supporters and, especially in the first half of his campaign, banked everything on trying to win over Reagan supporters with a moderate version of Reaganism.

This strategy did not work. The AFL-CIO leadership could not deliver the minimum 65% of the union vote needed. Sixty-four percent of white women voted for Reagan (compared to 68% of white men). And only 34% of all whites voted for Mondale despite his obvious effort during the first weeks of his campaign not to appear with Afro-Americans or Latinos.

As Mondale attempted to move closer and closer to Reagan, he shaded over into a nondescript and boring gray. Mondale failed to articulate any kind of coherent and sharp alternative to Reagan.

Could another strategy have worked?

Although difficult and unlikely, a different strategy was possible for Mondale. A strategy of hitting harder at the issues of jobs, fairness and peace, without side diversions of promising higher taxes and quarantining Nicaragua, might have resulted in a higher Black and Latino turnout, kept more white working class voters and inspired greater white liberal support.

An earlier and more aggressive voter registration effort would also have helped; so would have a more vigorous response to the Catholic Church attacks. A stronger program for women’s rights, such as more government responsibility for day care, could have won more women to support the Democratic ticket.

But in the final analysis, the defeat of Reagan would not have been possible without a coherent alternative that could inspire and motivate Afro-Americans, Latinos and poor and working class whites. But such a program has been missing in the Democratic Party, the necessary vehicle for the fight against Reagan, given the weakness of the left and progressive movement. And it will be extremely difficult for the Democratic Party to develop one. Neither the neo-liberalism of Gary Hart nor the old-time liberalism of Walter Mondale offers much hope for the future.

This difficulty is rooted in the diminishing alternatives for U.S. imperialism. The U.S. economy has been permanently toppled from its post-World War II global pre-eminence due to the resistance of the third world and the increasing competition from the second world. The U.S. simply can no longer maintain high profits for its capitalists and still afford costly social programs as well as a massive military budget.

Beginning with Nixon, derailed somewhat by the U.S. Viet Nam debacle and Watergate, and culminating in Reagan’s re-election last week, a resurgent right in the United States has fashioned a clear economic, political and social agenda for the U.S. This agenda calls for reasserting U.S. military dominance abroad through a rapid military buildup, support for local and regional dictators, and a strong U.S. troop and naval presence in all corners of the world simultaneously.

Domestically this agenda seeks to forge an electoral majority of whites based upon a program of union-busting, dismantling of social programs in order to “discipline the labor force” and to force it to accept lower wages, less spending for medical care, housing, education and job training. This social program has been made acceptable to a majority of whites by wrapping it in the flag and covering it with code words that convey its intention to solely attack Black people.

The liberals have not been able to come up with an alternative program that could successfully compete with the New Right in presidential elections. And now since many of the Democrats actually share the assumptions of the right, the Democratic Party will have great difficulty developing a new identity to restore its former national dominance.

Debates on Democratic Party future

The state chairs of the Democratic Party will be meeting this month in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, to sum up the elections and plan strategy for 1986 and 1988. Differences among divergent sectors of the Democratic Party will not be resolved for some time to come. A coherent, unified Democratic Party on a national level is not likely in the near future.

Whatever ways different sectors of the Democratic Party may choose to sum up the year, it would be disastrous for them to advocate a further distancing of the Democratic Party from “special interest groups” (translation: Black people, labor, etc.) and chase after Reagan to the right. That would make meaningless any opposition to the right and would doom the Democratic Party to further shrinkage, especially on the local and state levels, where the Democratic Party still maintains a majority.

Over 90% of the Black vote went to Mondale, showing again that, as Jesse Jackson said, Black voters are the “backbone of the Democratic Party.” Black voters were in many cases responsible for preventing a Republican sweep of the congressional elections. To those who would blame Mondale’s loss on Jesse Jackson or other Black leaders, Jackson pointed out, “It would be the height of cynicism to see the movement that saved the whole team from humiliation on Tuesday viewed as the problem.”

Any attempt to blame the selection of Geraldine Ferraro for the defeat of the Democratic ticket and to retreat from a commitment to equal rights for women would likewise be foolish. While Ferraro’s presence on the ticket did not secure a large percentage of white women voters, her absence on the ticket would probably have meant an even poorer showing. However much the New Right, through the attacks on her family’s finances, and the Catholic Church, in attacks on her position on abortion, blunted the momentum around her selection for the vice presidency, Ferraro did give the race some luster and excitement.

That her candidacy failed to galvanize more women is attributed by many observers to the decision by the Mondale campaign to downplay women’s issues and to rely solely on her presence to gain support from women. There was pride in Ferraro’s achievement among many professional women, but for most working class and oppressed nationality women, her mere presence was not sufficient. These women looked for substance in policy areas like day care.

Redefining the Democratic Party

The Democrats now have to face the fact that their old winning coalition, forged by Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression, is over. This does not mean in any way that the Party is dead, but only that it most likely is entering a period of crisis to redefine its new identity and constituency. In this unsettled atmosphere, it may be possible for new strategies to come forward, such as Jesse Jackson’s call to win back the South with an economic platform around which Black people and poor whites can unite.

In the present volatile international and domestic climate, sudden developments could also produce dramatic shifts in the public’s mood. A Reagan plunge into a bloody war in Central America could dramatically alter the political climate of the country. The economy, too, is far from stable – even many business economists are predicting major problems in the next couple of years. The gargantuan budget deficit, continuing high interest and unemployment rates, trade imbalance and capital out-flow will prevent the prolonged economic stability so many hope for.

Therefore, it is possible that a progressive agenda can be supported by even broader numbers of people. Millions of people voted against Reagan, and millions more did not vote because they believed the outcome would not help their circumstances. Millions of others must be won away from the right’s program of militarism and chauvinism, as these policies plunge the country into crisis. Progressive and left forces can work now with the anti-Reagan majorities that exist on the state and local levels to get them to take up issues of peace and justice.

The local level, where progressive forces are relatively stronger, can be the focus of the efforts to forge a popular alternative program and vision for the future – a program for peace, jobs and justice, which eventually can constitute a national electoral majority. With the traditional liberals in disarray, the left and progressive forces can and must form the backbone of the anti-right united front.

This movement should be built independently. While it can work both inside and outside of the Democratic Party, its strength will come from mass support and not from the inner chambers of the Democratic Party. This movement must fight around issues and develop a new generation of mass leaders. In addition this movement must seek to change some of the rules in favor of an extension of democracy. It must fight for universal voter registration to increase the electorate, and end gerrymandering, the electoral college, dual primaries and other restrictions.

This movement will have to be build with no illusions about the dangerous undercurrents of national chauvinism and possible war. The divisions between the nationalities and the chauvinism of white workers will have to be confronted and fought. As UNITY demonstrated in a previous article (“Registration of new voters continues down to the wire,” in the October 12, 1984, issue), there is an electoral majority for progressive causes. Bu it will take the right program, strategy and movement to motivate and build it.