Taking Sides.
by Richard J. Whalen.
Houghton-Mifflin. 320 pp. $8.95.

That American political parties are pragmatic rather than ideological is not only a truism, it is also the premise of most standard interpretations of American politics. Because the parties are pragmatic—familiar theory asserts—they value victory, adopt or abandon policies in accordance with the wishes of the electorate, and choose candidates on the basis of voter appeal rather than adherence to a body of doctrine. Because they lack firm doctrinal commitments—the theory continues—American political parties can easily accommodate diverse interests, compromise various points of view, and orient campaigns toward that happy hunting ground of pragmatic vote-seekers—the moving center.

This theory was, no doubt, fairly accurate as a description of American parties for much of this century, but theories—especially good theories—tend to acquire lives of their own and to persist long after the reality they explain has ceased to exist. Thus, the conviction that American politics is dominated by two pragmatic parties has hardly been affected by the growing accumulation of evidence to the contrary, including the Presidential nominations of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. Yet the behavior of both parties during the last decade demonstrates that these were not isolated aberrations from the norm but part of the continuing, perhaps growing, vulnerability of Republicans and Democrats alike to unpopular policies which, though repugnant to majorities, satisfy the ideological needs of militant minorities who happen to have operative control of the parties. The attachment of Republicans to tight money and balanced budgets, and of Democrats to busing and quotas, are but a few among many examples of the non-pragmatic tendencies of both parties. Perhaps the clearest such example is the steadfast refusal of both Republicans and Democrats to give the voters what the voters so clearly desire: both “liberal” economic policies and “conservative” social policies.

At least since 1967, public-opinion polls have documented the emergence of cultural and social issues which cut across traditional party lines based on economic cleavages. Growing numbers of ticket-splitters, abstainers, and persons who identify with neither party have dramatized voter dissatisfaction with available alternatives; for those who missed the point, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg spelled it out in The Real Majority: a majority of Americans support welfare-state policies to ensure minimum levels of security, comfort, and well-being for all, and an even larger majority support traditional cultural values and the practices related to them.

Nevertheless, though the combination of welfare-state economics and cultural conservatism is common enough in the world today—purveyed, for example, by every major French party including the Communists. and by every important British and German party—and though it was the foundation of New Deal policies and the majorities that supported them, American parties of late have been curiously unresponsive to voter demands. Republicans have continued to offer tree-market economics (grudgingly and haphazardly modified by crisis) along with a defense of traditional values; and Democrats have proffered welfare-state economics along with broadly unacceptable social-cultural policies. Democrats responded to the lessons of 1968 with reproaches, reforms, and George McGovern. Richard Nixon seemed, during the 1972 campaign, to be offering an alternative—social security and neighborhood schools—and reaped a landslide for his flexibility; yet his promises proved as chimerical as his apparent moderation. The fading of the New Majority did not await the revelations of Watergate; Republican economics took its toll before the tapes took theirs.

Now, two years later, Richard Whalen tells us in his new collection of essays that what the people want, and will want in 1976, is “an economic liberal and a socio-cultural moderate/conservative who incidentally enjoys a reputation for clean living.” An acute observer of the contemporary scene, Whalen is uncertain (as I am uncertain) that either party will respond to the voters’ desires. Among Democrats, he believes, the strain of “moralist liberalism” which gave us George McGovern has been growing since the late 50’s and “has become, in effect, the operative tradition.” McGovern’s landslide defeat will not deliver that party from its McGovernite wing because “experience teaches that when a party transforms itself into an ideological vehicle, and true believers take the wheel, even an election crash produces only a limited corrective reaction.” Watergate and the collapse of the Nixon Presidency will make McGovernites “more self-righteous and intransigent than ever.” Nor is there any assurance that a Democratic party delivered from McGovernite control would prove any more responsive to the voters, since the trend to “moralistic liberalism” in fact antedates Lyndon Johnson, and by 1968 had created problems within the then-dominant Humphrey forces.

The Democratic mini-convention held last December in Kansas City did nothing to cast doubt on Whalen’s prognosis. Although “main-stream” Democratic forces had presumably elected a majority of delegates, although public-opinion polls published on the eve of the mini-convention identified George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry Jackson (in that order) as the favorites of Democratic voters, the conference achieved “unity” by way of compromises that once again sacrificed pragmatic politics and majoritarian preferences to the ideological claims of a minority. The capitulation of Democratic governors to the demands of certain blacks and women may have been “symbolic” rather than “substantive,” as was later claimed; but “symbols” are a major part of the substance of politics, and the “symbols” involved in the last-minute “compromise” in Kansas City clearly expressed the moral and political priorities of the Democratic leadership.

And the Republicans? Curiously enough, here Whalen sees hope. Relieved by Watergate of their recent past, they just might, he thinks, prove able to claim the “Kennedy legacy” of pragmatic idealism, patriotism, individual excellence, and social activism.

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John Kennedy as inspiration for a reborn Republican party—this, to say the least, is a peculiar vision. But then Richard Whalen represents a rare political species: he is a Republican intellectual who has worked for three of his party’s principal leaders—Barry Goldwater, John Lindsay, and Richard Nixon—and been disappointed by all three. Whalen’s fascination with John Kennedy has proved less disappointing and more enduring, and has already been responsible for one major study of the Kennedy family—The Founding Father, a biography of Joseph Kennedy which, though widely regarded as “critical,” always seemed to me more admiring than otherwise. The jacket of Taking Sides informs us that Whalen is now at work on a history of the Kennedy family since the death of John F. Kennedy.

Whalen is not only a special kind of Republican, he is also a special kind of conservative, one more interested in community than in free enterprise, more interested in the revival of a “just pride in what we have attempted and accomplished” than in a restoration of the market mechanisms. Whalen, in short, is a Tory. He mourns the nation’s loss of confidence and consensus. He worries that nothing less than our civilization is in jeopardy. He regrets the rise of cultural politics which pits “a privileged minority” in search of power against a “less privileged majority” with an appetite for equality. This conflict has if anything grown bitter and more familiar since Whalen described it in a 1969 speech before the National Women’s Democratic Club, included in this book:

The family and the churches and every other non-governmental institution have been steadily drained of cultural legitimacy and moral authority. . . . To a greater or a lesser degree they have defaulted on their crucial responsibilities. This cumulative default of responsibility—like a line of dominos—has fallen with literally crushing impact on our nation’s schools and colleges, which are unable—even if they were willing—to discharge it.

Or perhaps unwilling even if able. One of the most striking and little-discussed phenomena of the recent past has been the disappearance of once generally accepted character ideals. Half a century has passed since e.e. cummings parodied, for the amusement of the few, the bright-eyed youths who went to war “for God for country and for Yale.” The erosion of consensus on the desirability of producing such young people proceeded rapidly in the succeding decades. The “superior” few, who disdained the ideals of four-square living, multiplied, while the many, who had shared those ideals and communicated them to their children, diminished in numbers and in self-confidence. When a society no longer knows what kind of people it desires to produce, the major institutions abandon their socializing functions and the pathway from childhood to maturity becomes complicated and hazardous.

Who replaced cummings’s “clean upstanding well-dressed boy”? For Whalen, John F. Kennedy is one who embodied traditional virtues, traditional commitments, and traditional pride in our national accomplishments, but did so in a form acceptable to all, or almost all, Americans. Kennedy “told his fellow citizens that America was a good country which could become better. He expressed the faith they felt in themselves, their values, and their ideals. He called for individual sacrifice on behalf of those ideals, and this struck a deep chord among young people. . . .” Patriotism was the core of the Kennedy Presidency and the Kennedy legacy—but it was a patriotism tempered by realism, by a concern for ordinary citizens, and above all by a sensitivity to the new media-inspired style of life that came to the fore in the 1960’s.

Whalen describes the rise in recent decades of a new culture class, which takes its bearings and its values from communications technology, especially television. John Kennedy, “though a conventional and traditional politician, . . . stood within the media culture” inhabited by this new class, reached it, and “offered the reassuring possibility of heroism.” “Kennedy-style media politics,” Whalen asserts, “had special appeal to the upwardly mobile upper-middle class.” For Whalen, then, Kennedy was the first and last politician to combine the skills and virtues of the old politics with a style attractive to the new class.

Leaders are very important in Whalen’s conception of politics; he devotes a large part of Taking Sides to discussions of six contemporary politicians who have sought or exercised national leadership: Barry Goldwater, John Lindsay, Richard Nixon, John Connally, Henry Jackson, and, of course, John Kennedy. The Democrats (and ex-Democrats) come off rather better than the Republicans; among the latter, Goldwater fares best. Goldwater symbolized the “resurgence of aggressive, self-confident conservatism” with which Whalen has substantial sympathy, but the Goldwater movement suffered from romanticism and “stale free-enterprise rhetoric,” and Goldwater himself is charged with a share of responsibility for Watergate:

Although they [Goldwater and like-minded politicians] knew from personal experience Nixon’s limitations and flaws of character, they set no watchdogs on his White House. Although they were painfully aware of the arrogance and ignorance of the men around the President, who systematically humiliated them, they made no protest. They did not even demand the bare minimum due them as the administration’s loyal legislative shock troops—continuing private access to the President. They took their orders from underlings and confined their grumbling to the Republican cloakroom, fully justifying Nixon’s contemptuous judgment that he could keep the right wing in line with rhetoric and occasional patronage plums.

Whalen’s harshest judgments are reserved for Nixon, the President who had “the mind of an intellectual and the temperament of a huckster.” His assessment of the former President, however, does not seem altogether on target. Like most close observers of Richard Nixon, Whalen is impressed by the synthetic quality of the ex-President’s personality: “plastic,” he calls it, “transparently artificial and mechanical.” Nixon is described (inconsistently) as “dumb,” as a conspirator desiring nothing more than power, fearing nothing but its loss.

The notion that those political leaders whom we admire are motivated by principle while others simply crave power is eternally beguiling, but it contradicts all we know about the psychology of power-seeking and it wrongly implies that in politics evil and disaster more often result from opportunism than from dedication to impersonal, non-material goals. In fact, the great political crimes of the century have been conceived not by careerists but by zealots. Watergate, too, was conceived and perpetrated not for “personal gain” (as Nixon never tired of telling us) but for principle. In the tapes Richard Nixon stands revealed not only as a man prepared to lie and cheat and break the law, but as one who never doubted that his values and his vision justified these transgressions. Fanaticism is the great enemy of restraint in the use of power: small surprise, then, that beneath the “plastic” personality there stands revealed the certainty and utter self-righteousness of the fanatic.

Whalen’s revulsion from Richard Nixon does not extend to all those associated with him. John Connally strikes him as “equipped to be President.” He “looks like a President,” he knows politics, and he understands the needs of the hybrid economy and the nation’s changed international position. Nonetheless, “Connally seems finished politically.” In an age of image politics, the charge of complicity in Watergate is deadly—regardless of guilt or innocence.

Who, then, remains with the skills, knowledge, and vision equal to the Kennedy legacy? Whalen is attracted to John Lindsay’s “charisma” but faults Lindsay’s inability to deal with the diversity of conflicting interests that is the essence of politics. His choice falls in the end on Henry Jackson, “the last new frontiersman.” Whalen shares many of Jackson’s preoccupations and perspectives, especially the concern with national defense and the conviction that the Nixon-Kissinger détente is in fact “a policy of gradual accommodation to emerging Soviet dominance and phased capitulation to Soviet demands.” He sees Jackson as embodying the combination of attitudes required by contemporary problems and desired by contemporary voters. Jackson “stands where the majority of the voters presumably stand; somewhat to the Right on social issues, to the Left on economic issues, and withal astride the commanding center of American politics.” Whalen does not doubt that if Jackson can be nominated, he can be elected. But if the Democratic party has abandoned pragmatic politics and its own tradition in pursuit of headier ideological pleasures, Jackson’s potential electoral strength may prove of little weight to those who choose the next Democratic standard bearer.

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“What ails America?” Whalen asks. He answers: “Our sickness of the spirit arises from a prolonged absence of just pride in what we have attempted and what we have accomplished.” The U.S., he believes, is a successful society fallen victim to a prolonged identity crisis. Neither his description of the symptoms nor his diagnosis seems entirely accurate. Consider, for example, the following assertion: “What was distinctive in American culture was mechanical, technical, and managerial, capable of satisfying seemingly human needs and desires to be sure, yet seemingly incapable of supporting a secure identity.” Or, “The ‘American way of life extolled from the platform was an appeal to visceral patriots and a synonym for a middle-class standard of living, not a binding set of shared memories, customs, and associations.”

Whalen almost surely cannot mean it when he suggests that we have lacked the shared memories, associations, customs, and values which alone are capable of supporting a national identity. It is true that Protestantism, egalitarianism, science, pluralism, pragmatism have produced a rather flat and literal culture, short on ritual and shared symbols. It is true, too, that our shared symbols have emphasized the commonplace and that our greatest accomplishments are collective and anonymous—taming the wilderness (as we used to call it). moving West, vanquishing (as we used to call it) the Indian, preserving the Union, building political democracy, pioneering a technological revolution, emancipating people from drudgery and providing them with a modicum of leisure and well-being. But our national experience is nonetheless real though it lacks elegance, our shared memories nonetheless binding though they do not feature heroes of noble blood.

Despite such doubtful or inconsistent judgments, Whalen’s book is a stimulating treatment of the times, filled with insights, characterized by intelligence and realism, a good antidote to much of the cant which passes in our times for thoughtful social criticism.

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