The Politics of Disillusionment
Commentary on Jonathan Darman’s
“Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America”
(Random House, 2014)
by Alan F. Zundel
Big government or small government?
In his recent and very engaging book, 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 aided Johnson in 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 traveled California and the nation arguing that the source of the problems was the government itself, our political leaders blinded by the misguided belief that we have the knowledge and 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 traveled 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 voters had the chance to become disillusioned with the conservative myth as Reagan’s tax cut produced record budget deficits and deregulation led to a savings-and-loan crisis. Democrat Bill Clinton capitalized on this disenchantment by promising a “third way,” but only succeeded in further discouraging progressives and antagonizing die-hard conservatives with his attempts to straddle the middle.
Conservatives had a second chance with President George W. Bush, but the disastrous invasion of Iraq and the 2008 collapse of the financial system helped further the exodus of voters (including me) away from the Democratic and Republican parties to “independent” or “third party” voter affiliation.
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 perhaps what we need now is 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.
In my opinion, that’s a contradictory and uninspiring message which is unlikely to re-engage voters’ attention. What we need is a new story of what the government’s role in society should be, one that engages our collective imagination and gathers political will to guide government decisions. I doubt if either the Democratic or Republican party is capable of producing such a new story, tied as they each are to the fading myths that continue to define them.
Instead we need a way to break open the two-party system so that other voices and other stories might develop from the “third” parties or new parties, with the hope that one such story will win a wider following. What that story might be is impossible to tell until there is a realistic opening for a hearing.
I fear that continued disillusionment and stalemate can only lead to disaster. As the Bible said long ago:
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs, 29:18)