Last year's Presidential election differed from elections of the recent past not so much because of how people voted as why. For millions of Americans cultural values displaced pocket books as the chief determinant of Presidential voting. Because McGovern was widely perceived as standard-bearer of the New Politics, his nomination catapulted into the political arena some basic questions of identity and purpose which Americans have rarely tried to resolve by political means. The final voting patterns in the election—especially the widespread, selective ticket-splitting—confirmed what the polls and observation had already revealed: that the Presidential election of 1972 had become a cultural class struggle with Richard Nixon cast as leader of the masses and George McGovern as the spokesman of an embattled revolutionary elite. This, to say the least, was a strange situation for an electorate in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by a large margin, and it led, for the first time in American history, to a landslide defeat for the majority party.
The theory and practice of American politics left many well-informed observers unprepared for the large-scale, grass-roots revolt of Democrats that occurred on November 7. Though they warned that McGovern would have problems with traditional Democrats, neither Muskie nor Humphrey foresaw the massive popular rejection of the party's nominee. Most of the national Democratic leadership apparently believed the McGovern line—so popular among columnists and media pundits—that alienated Middle Americans would embrace George McGovern as their natural spokesman once Governor Wallace was out of the race. The theories of voting behavior offered by academic political scientists supported the expectation that when the chips were down, party loyalty would prove compelling and would pull back into the Democratic ranks those who had preferred another nominee or who had misgivings about McGovern or his positions. Theory and practice alike supported an expectation that bread-and-butter issues would prove more “basic” than “superficial” disagreements and that in times of continuing inflation and unemployment regular Democrats would finally vote their pocketbooks as they had done so frequently in the past. In short, economic issues, party identification, and McGovern's special appeal to the alienated would assure his ultimate acceptance by traditional Democrats.
The fact that McGovern did not receive an expected increase of support immediately after his nomination offered a jolt to this view of matters, but was quickly and widely attributed to the Eagleton affair. Yet, although the dumping of this attractive young Senator, and the vacillation associated with the decision to dump him, certainly did not help Senator McGovern's prospects, it seems clear that the second “McGovern phenomenon,” his decisive election defeat, cannot be explained either by the events surrounding the Vice-Presidential nomination or by the very real weaknesses in organizational and leadership skills shown by Senator McGovern during the campaign. To understand the defeat of the Democratic nominee it is necessary to go back to the first “McGovern phenomenon” and place it in its appropriate cultural context. Only then will it become clear why and how Senator McGovern was so overwhelmingly defeated by a moderately popular Republican incumbent—at a time when economic problems were real and widespread, when the Vietnam war had not come to a halt, when violent crimes were still on the rise, when the incumbent was beset by a series of messy scandals.
The old Roosevelt coalition of the Democratic party, whose disintegration laid the foundation for the second “McGovern phenomenon,” was a loose amalgam of the economically less advantaged against the economically more advantaged. The depressed and traditionally Democratic South provided the base, to which was added the industrial working classes of the urban North and West. The ethnics, like the Northern blacks, were integrated into the coalition by virtue of their socioeconomic status. The Roosevelt coalition was cemented by the common interests of millions of Americans of relatively low education, relatively low social status, and relatively low income, who suffered a relatively high incidence of unemployment and who shared an aspiration for a larger voice in the government and a larger slice of the socioeconomic pie. Studies in voting behavior only served to confirm what Democratic politicians, in putting together the coalition, had already understood: that the principal political cleavages in the United States reflected differences in socioeconomic status.
This is not to say that the nation was rent by economic class war, or that either party was economically homogeneous. There were working-class Italians, small-town Yankees, and Midwestern farmers who voted Republican; there were upper-income Southerners, patrician Yankees and New Yorkers, and some “progressive” professionals who voted Democratic. But despite some overlapping characteristics, the two parties had distinctive socioeconomic bases, and of the two, the Democrats, at least since Roosevelt, concerned themselves above all with issues of economic status, security, and opportunity. This preoccupation was the distinguishing characteristic of the New Deal, Fair Deal, and the Great Society, and of the volumes of Democratic social and economic legislation put on the books during the last three-and-a-half decades.
Yet socioeconomic class was not the only basis of group identification in America during these years—religious, ethnic, regional, and national identifications were also widely in evidence—and economic and welfare issues were by no means the only problems facing Americans in the 40's and 50's—the Second World War, the spread of Communism, and the growing involvement of America in international affairs were events of indisputable importance and had a great impact on the American consciousness. It is true that when it came to actual voting in elections, these issues were less decisive than economic and welfare issues, but it is a mistake to conclude from this fact that political party competition is always and necessarily a “tame” version of the economic class struggle. As only a little reflection serves to remind us, the most important issues are not always economic issues. In our history, the American Civil War, the excited struggle to secure a sober America through the Eighteenth Amendment, the bitter debate over the League of Nations, the intensity of the fight for women's suffrage, are only a few examples of issues and events which polarized the nation on the basis of non-economic identifications. As Harold Laswell, an especially astute commentator on values and social process, has pointed out, time and again throughout history such factors as religion, race, language, caste, or attitudes on moral issues have served as the basis of common political action; they have aroused passions of great intensity and precipitated struggles of long duration.
These issues, and the values peculiar to them, may be called broadly “cultural,” to differentiate them from the “welfare” values and issues that are of basically socioeconomic significance. In the United States in the past decade we have seen the rise of such cultural issues to political salience. That we are living in a period of cultural revolution has been widely remarked. Indeed, the issues associated with cultural revolution have been central to American politics at least since the occupants of Grant Park—described according to one's perspective as “our children” or “those bums”—diverted (with a large assist from the electronic media) attention from the proceedings in the 1968 Democratic convention to the violence in the streets. The impact of cultural conflict on the 1968 Presidential campaign was minimized in part because both Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon embodied traditional American culture, in part because Humphrey understood early in the campaign that his only chance lay in focusing the campaign on the economic issues which still cemented together the diverse groups of the old Roosevelt coalition. Urban riots, crime, campus violence, Vietnam—the cultural issues—were Nixon's issues. Humphrey knew that his hope lay in the bread-and-butter issues and the pull of party identification. By playing both to the hilt he nearly succeeded in splitting the electorate on the basis of the old economic cleavages, and he almost won the election.
In 1969, however, when George McGovern made the decision to run for President, he knew that his hope lay elsewhere.
“I've made up my mind [he told Tom Wicker of the Times], I'm going all the way. I'm going to run for President and the coalition I'm going to put together is going to be built around the poor and the minorities and the young people and the anti-war movement.”
McGovern's “strange new coalition of the discontented and the disadvantaged and the alienated,” as Wicker called it, shared an outsider's perspective on the traditional political culture. McGovern's “crucial insight” was to see the political potential of these outsiders. And when he captured the Democratic nomination with his coalition “built around the poor and the minorities and the young people and the anti-war movement” the die was cast, the nature of the 1972 Presidential contest was decided. In the long campaign through the primaries McGovern had presented himself as the veritable embodiment of the New Politics. By the time of the convention he became just that. Yet as the candidate of one cultural class, he became the opponent of another. McGovern came to be perceived by millions of Americans as a man who had gone over to the enemy.
Who is this enemy? What are the values that separate the New from the Old Politics? It is probably nearly impossible to state these in a way that would be acceptable to both parties. As is the case with many cultural issues they can perhaps be best communicated via the symbols, or code words, of conflict: “the streets of Chicago,” Mayor Daley, hard-hats, hippies, Hubert Humphrey, quotas, pot, draft resisters, university disorders, the Vietnam spring, Forest Hills, community control, Richard Nixon, the flag, Archie Bunker, the American Dream. Everyone knows these code words: they define the sides and the stakes in a struggle over individual morality and national purpose. They cohere because the attitudes associated with each culture, the “old” and the “new,” support a total vision of society, culture, and personality.
Because they cohere, each of these symbols suggests an entire syndrome. On the floor of the Democratic convention in Miami Jerry Rubin commented jubilantly that while he had three sets of floor credentials, Mayor Daley could not get into the hall. To one side in the cultural conflict this comment suggested an open convention, kids working inside the system, a new style of life come to power, political reform, the representation of Chicanos, women, blacks, an end to the immoral war in Vietnam. But to the other side, watching the Miami convention on television and noting the fact, as newsmen never tired of pointing out, that the people who had been in the streets in Chicago were now inside Convention Hall, Rubin's comment undoubtedly conjured images of drugs and disorder, of an irrational politics smacking of fascism, of anti-Americanism, of disregard for loyal service to the party, of mistreatment of labor representatives and white ethnic groups. Class war echoed in the charges of “elitism” and “anti-labor snobs,” being hurled back and forth at Miami. The rejection of a proposed preamble to the Democratic platform confirmed that there would be no nod in the direction of the Old Poliitcs. McGovern's careful avoidance of the name of Lyndon Johnson emphasized the rejection of the bad old past. The presence of Gay Lib and advocates for legalization of abortion underlined cultural cleavages.
No movement that comprises such diverse groups as lower-class blacks and upper-class white college students is culturally monolithic, but the New Politics, like the Old, has dominant themes and a dominant mood. The New Politics is the expression of the political counter-culture; it is united by its opposition to the traditional political culture, and it challenges that culture's central beliefs: the belief that politics is based on self-interest; that conflict is a permanent feature of politics; that the pursuit of individual purpose is socially beneficial; that freedom is rooted in law; that equality of opportunity and individual achievement constitute a just basis of reward; that power is an instrument necessary to social and international peace; that deprivation is an appropriate social incentive; that those who cannot work should be supported by public funds and those who will not should be treated less generously; that authority rests on force as well as consent; that authority must be protected and preserved; that work (read discipline) has intrinsic value for persons and societies; that citizenship requires obedience to laws with which one disagrees; that violation of the law should be punished; that order is a prerequisite to both liberty and justice; that patriotism is a social virtue; that the U.S. is a basically decent and successful—though imperfect—society. The political counterculture notes the self-interest of the old political classes and charges corruption. To the self-interest and materialism of the Old Politics it opposes the morality of the outcast and the innocent (read young); to the ethic of discipline it opposes the belief that frustration and deprivation are the sources of aggression, violence, and crime. To the venality of the Old Politics it opposes a new idealism. Against the injustice and oppression tolerated by traditional politics it offers hopes and demands: for a society that will be more just, more humane, more fun.
The Old Politics assumes that it is the function of government to protect and preserve domestic tranquility, to foster respect for the law of the land, to reward individual achievement and initiative, to conduct politics with moderation, to compromise. Though practice has not always reflected these values, their relevance and moral status has never been doubted. The New Politics has roots in the tradition of civil disobedience. Its dominant style is moral outrage, tinged with violence. Tolerance is less highly regarded than rectitude; compromise is less important than moral consistency. The good guy of the old political culture is the law-abiding, hard-working tax-paying provider. The good guy of the new political culture is the outcast (together with his champion). The characteristic vice of the Old Politics is corruption; of the New, fanaticism. At its worst, the rhetoric of the Old Politics is sentimental and chauvinistic. At its worst, the rhetoric of the New is apocalyptic and snobbish, filled with the contempt of one cultural class for another.
The Old Politics, like the New, has a characteristic style: a tendency to trust authority, to value tradition, to avoid conflict, and to seek consensus. The style of the New Politics is roughly the opposite; it is characterized by a tendency to distrust authority, to prefer the new, to seek conflict in the form of “confrontation.” Lyndon Johnson, with the deference he showed Speaker Sam Rayburn, his cooperation with Republican President Eisenhower, his indefatigable search for consensus in the Senate, offers a good example of the style of the former; Bella Abzug, with her noisy distrust of leadership, her energetic confrontations, and her adversary demeanor, is almost a caricature of the style of the latter.
In retrospect it is not difficult to trace the rise of the political counter-culture to prominence. The political counter-culture grew dialectically out of the values of the dominant political culture, out of the humanitarianism and liberalism associated with the New Deal, out of the idealist's disdain for bourgeois society. It grew too out of the perceived imperfections of social reality and the impatience and offended sensibilities of intellectuals. Among some liberals and Democrats, sympathy for the outcast, defense of minorities, rejection of materialism, regard for the accused, concern for the poor and the weak, dislike of nationalism and war grew and changed almost imperceptibly into a new political ethic that disdained the Old Politics and old politicians, preferred the nation's enemy, apologized for rioters, shielded black extremists, “understood” young revolutionaries. For many liberals an unfortunate side effect of the concern for securing justice for black Americans was a tendency to regard the whole white South as morally untouchable. The distance between the white South and the national Democratic party grew: the Presidency of the Southerner Lyndon Johnson actually did more to accelerate than to moderate tensions. The estrangement between labor and the new cultural class has its roots in the social conservatism of the working classes, in the contempt of some liberals for the grubby trade-union mentality noted so long ago by Lenin. It grew rapidly with the attacks of the counter-culture on middle-class life and middle-class values.
The values of the New Class spread among the idealists of society: intellectuals enamored with righteousness and possibility; college students, for whom perfectionism is an occupational hazard; portions of the upper classes freed from concern with economic self-interest; clergymen contemptuous of materialism; bureaucrats with expanding plans to eliminate evil; romantics derisive of Babbitt and Main Street. The values of the counter-culture, spread throughout the population by expanding college enrollments, were purveyed to the public at large by magazines oriented to intellectual fashion and by the mass media, with their elevation of the cultural category of style to paramount symbolic status. The Vietnam war exacerbated conflict between the traditional culture and the counter-culture because it raised questions of morality and political obligation and because the well-publicized mass demonstrations, without exception, served to celebrate the counter-culture as much as to register disapproval of the war in Southeast Asia. (It is this association of the anti-war movement with the counter-culture that rendered the war of so little use as an issue to George McGovern. Another candidate, culturally less defined, might have been better able to turn popular discontent over the war to electoral advantage.)
But if it is not difficult in retrospect to trace the rise of the political counter-culture, it is not difficult either to understand why the dominant culture should seek to protect its vested interest in traditional values. One is, after all, one's culture, and cultural revolution is the most painful kind of social change, causing as it does a loss of confidence in one's basic relation to society. Rapid cultural change corrodes the sense of self, casting doubt not merely on values but on standards of value, not only on the answers one gives but on the questions one asks. Cultural revolution threatens to declare millions of Americans living relics, superannuated, irrelevant, superfluous.
Cultural-class differences cut across socioeconomic lines to unite portions of various social and economic categories: portions of the middle and working classes, portions of the Protestant and Catholic and Jewish populations, portions of the black bourgeoisie, portions of the executive and professional classes—most of those who belong to each of these categories are members of the traditional cultural class. Education has a bearing on cultural class differences, but the cultural classes do not divide simply on the basis of amount of education. There are intellectuals, college professors, and professionals on both sides of the cultural-class struggle. Cultural-class differences rest on a view of the world rather than on any specific body of information or set of skills. Neither income, education, nor occupation coincides precisely with cultural divisions.
Working-class Americans, middle-class Americans, upper-class Americans—significant numbers of each share traditional cultural-class values. Cultural revolution endangers both the discipline and the rewards of traditional culture; only the completely dispirited would fail to defend their way of life against an enemy. That most Americans perceive the counter-culture as an enemy has been reflected in public-opinion polls for at least half a decade. Most Americans did not see Chicago as a “police riot.” They did not view university disorders as understandable—if misguided—expressions of the idealistic young. They do not view America as a sick or a repressive society, or crime as a quasi-legitimate form of political protest. They do not even regard the Vietnam war as a moral crime. Neither do they view the achievement ethic as the cultural artifact of a bygone era. Most Americans—the ethnics, the Catholics, the blue-collar workers, the union members, the Jewish small businessmen, the Southern whites, the Northern, Eastern, Western, Middle-western middle classes, the fundamentalists, the middle-class blacks, the Knights of Columbus, the Elks, the Moose—have a vested interest in the culture as well as in the economy; in the 1972 election, their interest in the culture was decisive.
One of the most fascinating questions about this election is why so many people should have failed to anticipate the outcome of a struggle in which counter-culture was pitted against traditional culture, with the issue to be settled by majority vote of the whole adult population. The explanation lies first, as I have noted, in the widespread conviction that economic values would be perceived by most people as more important than cultural values. It seems to have been assumed that the “common man” would ultimately vote for the party traditionally associated with full pocketbooks, even though it has been clear for some time that the new cultural class divisions did not coincide with economic categories. The special appeal of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern to the upper-income white suburbs and white youth in elite educational institutions should have been adequate notice that something new and probably incompatible was being added to the old interest-based Roosevelt coalition.
Second, although the antipathy of the New Politics for the Old was widely commented upon, the fact that the disdain and disapproval were mutual was generally ignored in the weeks just prior to and after the Democratic convention in July. That McGovern supporters would leave the party if a representative of the Old Politics (such as Hubert Humphrey) were nominated was widely anticipated, but that hundreds of thousands of regulars would behave similarly if McGovern were nominated was not really a subject of concern. In short, that the distance between Humphrey or Jackson or Wallace or some Muskie supporters and McGovern was as great as that between McGovern supporters and the Old-Politics candidates was either not noted or not commented upon. A corollary error lay in the assumption that it would prove possible to weld the “alienated” supporters of George Wallace and the “alienated” supporters of George McGovern into a single bloc—another example of the failure to take culture seriously. The insistent expectations of McGovern supporters that the super-traditionalist Wallace supporters would rally 'round the New Politics rested either on the belief that Wallace voters would subordinate social and cultural values to economic values, or that they would not notice the difference between McGovern's and Wallace's “populism,” or both. This belief was absurdly mistaken.
Third, a factor of crucial importance that almost completely escaped notice was the position of Richard Nixon in the cultural-class struggle. The Republican convention was a carefully orchestrated symphony of the themes and rhythms of traditional culture. As conductor, President Nixon played cultural politics with consummate skill: flags, girls, speeches that honored work, respect even for Democrats, “True Grit,” tolerance, moderation, patriotism. It should have been clear that in a contest between the New and the Old Politics Richard Nixon could be expected to attract vast numbers of Old-Politics votes cast on the basis of cultural rather than welfare values. And it should have been clear that a race between Nixon and McGovern would become a battle over which side would control the definition of cultural morality in the decade to come.
Senator McGovern's basic problem in the Presidential campaign was an inability to establish identification with traditional American cultural values. Perhaps nothing expressed this more forcefully than McGovern's failure—no matter how hard he tried—to shake off his association with the carriers and symbols of one side of the struggle over values in contemporary society. At every campaign stop he was hounded by questions about the “three A's”: amnesty, acid, and abortion, words that symbolized for many Americans the attack of the counter-culture on patriotism, the achievement ethic, and traditional religious morality respectively. There is a double irony here, for all his life this minister's son must have seen himself as a spokesman for highmindedness. It is of enormous significance that in his fervent efforts to communicate his moral acceptability to the electorate he fell back with greater and greater frequency on the Scriptures and on the language of his Methodist past.
Style, as Freud remarked, is the history of the man. In an effort to establish himself within the traditional culture McGovern returned instead to Social-Gospel Protestantism, a minority creed which shares with the counter-culture a devotion to purity of motive and an inflexible idealism, as well as a rejection of self-interest, materialism, and power. The Senator's message became the message of the missionary and the evangelist: repent your sins, turn away from Mammon, walk in the paths of righteousness, do not store up goods or power against tomorrow, remember the lilies of the field, have faith. The return to the minister's role could not move McGovern onto the majority side of the great cultural divide, and it could not save his party from the inevitable consequences of having forgotten—in its idealism—that even the masses do not live by bread alone.