1980s >> 1984 >> no-964-december-1984

God Returns to the White House

The 1984 US Presidential Election campaign, which seemed to have been going on for ever, is at last over. For some of the hopefuls who fell by the wayside, such as Gary Hart, the run up to 1988 has already begun. (The BBC 9 o’clock News on October 29 called this Life after Mondale — where was the life with Mondale you may ask!) The overwhelming victory of Ronald Reagan had appeared inevitable all through and there is little evidence that the alternative strategics suggested for the Democrats (Jesse Jackson’s “rainbow coalition” being the front runner) would have produced a better result.

Reagan’s victory clearly owed nothing to the brainpower of the candidate; he was clearly reluctant to engage in even the two so-called debates with his opponent. Indeed his performance, stripped of its multi-million dollar showbiz trappings, was more akin to “The President’s Brain Is Missing”, that brilliant lampoon from Central TV’s Spitting Image, than the wise pontifications we are taught to expect from those “born to rule”.

Equally it could not be put down to the promises made in the Republican election platform, at least not the sort that appear to offer immediate benefits to workers, such as increased welfare spending or “fair fares” on public transport. Such apparent concern for the workers’ plight was noticeably lacking, and any promises made were to increase rather than make good the cuts already made in this area. The charity soup-kitchen and in a few places even the parish workhouse have reappeared as features of American working class life. How can a party with such a record and campaigning on such a platform win such an overwhelming victory? A glance at the areas of the country which voted Republican tells us that very few of those workers who are dependent on the “welfare” programme did vote for Reagan, either in 1980 or this year. A strategy which writes these votes off is certainly brutally cynical, but a winner none the less.

A radio commentator at the Republican convention in Dallas in August put this particular brand of cynicism down to what he termed “compassion fatigue”. His viewpoint was that capitalists (not only American ones, of course) have been getting so fed up with the welfare handouts they have been forced to give that they are now flatly refusing to finance any more. Despite all these apparent handouts, however, the queue of the needy is longer than ever. It is very difficult for any party trying to run capitalism, even on a “radical” reformist basis, to counteract this without being wide open to counter-attacks alleging “profligacy”.

Having seen on TV excerpts from the Democrats’ convention in San Francisco in July, it was natural to speculate on how much worse the Republicans could be when their turn came. In the event they comfortably exceeded the grimmest expectations with a degrading display of sycophancy and puerile hero-worship that beggared belief. An especially disturbing thought was that if Reagan’s campaign managers had thought that votes would have been lost by all the ballyhoo they could easily have toned it down. They didn’t and their judgement has been proved right. The Times (29 October 1984) referred to his luck with the present trends in the American economy (and luck it is, as capitalism cannot be “managed”) and said: “The other thing most Americans clearly like about Reagan is his unashamed patriotism”. Sad as we are that so many workers think this way, this figures. Indeed it parallels the Falklands campaign of two years ago and the way Thatcher used it to improve her poll ratings. That it is Reagan rather than the party he leads that projects this image is shown by the election results viewed as a whole. The other Republican candidates for office had at best only moderate success in clinging to Reagan’s coat tails.

Another feature of Ronald Reagan is his tendency to treat really serious issues in a light-hearted vein. This was highlighted by his “joke”, cracked during a radio microphone test, about ordering the bombing of Russia. The following extract from The Times says: In a letter due to appear in the September 24 issue of Forbes magazine, Mr Reagan writes: “Granted. I shouldn’t have said it, even though I was sure I was saying it only to the several people who know me well and with whom 1 work. The damage, if any, was due to the worldwide press dissemination.”

We should not forget either the union bashing tactics of his administration, typified by the smashing of the air traffic controllers strike. Union membership is now only 18 per cent of the total labour force. Even this does not appear to have lost him votes in the present political climate.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Dallas convention was the light it shed on the activities and influence of the movement known as Moral Majority. This body is one of a number of overlapping forces consisting of politically-minded fundamentalists (Protestants who claim to believe in the literal truth of the Bible). Part of their aims is revealed by a new one of the brood, the American Coalition for Traditional Values. The Times comments: “The title says it all: ‘The coalition parades a strong ‘pro-family’ line, is vehemently anti-abortion. wants prayer in school, an emphasis on strong defence and stricter welfare policies. It is opposed to homosexual rights and is against the Equal Rights Amendment that would cement equal rights for women into the constitution.’” (21 August 1984)

Moral Majority, the best financed and most visible of the interlocking groups, is led by Jerry Falwell, a Baptist minister from Lynchbury, Virginia. After a short period of gathering momentum they surfaced in 1980 at two pre-election rallies. In April a “Washington for Jesus” event had overt political overtones. In the late summer a rally in Texas was attended by Ronald Reagan in person, to endorse the aims of the movement. The day after the 1980 election Moral Majority claimed credit for supporting Reagan and backing some extreme right wing candidates who won election to Congress. They argued that in the two previous presidencies there had been a moral decline which had seen “liberals, humanists and leftists conspire to take God out of public life”. (“The New Christian Right”—article in Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the Year 1981 by Martin E. Marty.) Although a religious man himself, Marty easily disposes of Majority’s claim to speak for any silent majority which they may say exists, and mentions highly personalised scandals in which some of its prominent members have been associated.

Between elections the efforts of Majority and their allies carried on at a more local level. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the Year 1982 reported “an alarming increase in demands for the removal of books and material from schools and libraries. Many of the books being questioned dealt with American history, feminism and racial attitudes.” The Majority also claimed to be monitoring television programmes allegedly for “sexual, profane and violent content”.

The election campaign of 1984 found Moral Majority in the Republican party’s machinery and working hard to register “Christian” voters. Jerry Falwell delivered the benediction at Reagan’s formal nomination, his “coronation” as some dubbed it. Support for Majority’s views has been expressed during the campaign by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, through the Archbishop of New York’s intervention against Geraldine Ferraro on the abortion issue, and the Mormon Church. At Dallas, The Times (21 August 1984) reported, “some observers are concerned at what they regard as a mix of politics and religion that is growing uglier”. Four days later the same newspaper was clearly disturbed at the surfacing of “a style of anti-communism that the Republicans have not worn since 1964″. The Republican Party may not have been responsible for dubbing Russia as “socialist”, but they have certainly taken advantage of the seeds of confusion sowed by the Bolsheviks to commit some monstrous crimes of their own. We need only recall the activities of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Un- American Activities Committee. It appears all too likely that another attack of this deadly disease is imminent.

All this suggests that there is a considerable danger of something akin to the Fascism of the 1930s emerging in the USA. It is to be hoped that American workers will not make the mistake of thinking that things could have been much different had Mondale been elected president. The same forces would have exerted the same pressures at local and national levels as at present. The hope lies in a greater participation by the American working class in the democratic process, to establish socialism.

E.C. Edge

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