When the Bubble Bursts
November 20, 1984        

In “What’s Happening in America (1966)” Susan Sontag observed: “Most of the people in this country believe what Goldwater believes, and always have. But most of them don’t know it. Let’s hope they don’t find out.” Apparently they’ve found out. Is this cause for despair? Yes, and maybe not.

Yes, obviously, for the powerless. I trust their suffering will be documented in the “Voice” throughout the next four years. This is the left’s primary, constitutive obligation.

But if in a democracy the voice of the people is divine, then perhaps we should (in principle) rejoice that so many people, thanks to Richard Viguerie, have at last found their voice. The New Deal coalition, the embodiment of the “liberal consensus,” was always, its long duration not withstanding, a fragile affair. The “Reagan revolution” consists, in large part, of the belated discovery by many working-class and lower-middle-class people that they have long been paying substantial taxes without receiving proportionate benefits. Regrettably, they have misidentified the main beneficiaries of their in voluntary largesse as the poor, rather than the owners of the private economy, who are subsidized via research and development, the training and channeling of the work force, and a militarized, interventionist foreign policy. But their root intuition—that the tax system is burdensome and unfair—is not groundless.

Neither is their suspicion of reform from above: i.e., by courts and bureaucratic regulations rather than by legislatures. The considerable immediate benefits of federal legal and administrative rulings on integration, affirmative action, abortion, and criminal justice may make it difficult for the left to remember that “the politics of a country founded very importantly on [public] opinion cannot indefinitely be supported without it, still less in its teeth,” (as Walter Dean Burnham has written). The executive branch is overweening and unaccountable, as most people obscurely feel, and the left may need to reconsider its understand able and hitherto often necessary reliance on legal and administrative remedies. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, enlarging the writ of the courts and federal bureaucracies may have seemed like a good idea. We may regret that strategy in the ‘80s.

The decline of liberal superstitions, however benign, is inevitable and desirable. But I don’t mean to suggest that the Reagan landslide is a genuinely populist phenomenon. The amount of old-fashioned flummery and deceit practiced by both sides on the electorate attained the usual high standard, and the Reagan campaign was a near-apotheosis of the new politics of image-manufacture and mass-marketing technique. Besides, a great many people who voted for Reagan disagree with his policies on abortion, arms control, and Central America—yet another argument for plebiscitary democracy, which might (since Lyndon Johnson disregarded his even larger “mandate” in 1964) have averted the worst catastrophe in recent American history.

But even plebiscitary democracy is a poor substitute for participatory democracy, economic as well as political. The current economic recovery, a product of Federal Reserve Board manipulation, the inflow of foreign capital, and ultimately marginal high-technology “growth” industries, is a bubble. When it bursts, corporate and financial leaders will propose plans and planning structures dominated by themselves. These plans will be undemocratic, inequitable, and inefficient. At that point (or at some point) the contemporary left’s best legacy—the still barely developed ideal of participatory democracy—may come to have wider appeal as an alternative to the authoritarian “populism” of the right.