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The dream of deliverance in American politics.

The Dream of Deliverance in American Politics.

The Dream of Deliverance in American Politics. Mona Harrington. Knopf, $19.95. One of the left's great failings in the eighties has been an inability to explain convincingly why Ronald Reagan is so popular--at this point, the most popular second-term president in the history of polling. The official line is that he's "personally popular' because he's so good on television but most people disagree with his policies. Surely, though, there's more to it than that; we're not a nation of idiots.

Mona Harrington's book is a serious, careful, intellectually honest attempt at a comprehensive theory about why, now and forever, left politics have never caught on in this country. She argues that Americans have always held so dear the idea that there are no irreconcilable conflicts here (especially economic ones) that when such conflicts make themselves evident, we find a mythic scapegoat instead. The conflicts are resolved, but by brute strength, and in a way that's terribly injurious to the losers--all because we can't talk about them openly. The New Deal was a popular success because it identified a villain-- corporate power. Reagan has a clear villain too, big government at home and communism abroad, and that's why he is so popular. The war in Vietnam is an example of the flaw in our approach: we believed that if we could only get the crooks and the com-symps out of the South Vietnamese government, our side would prevail. We over and over convince ourselves that installing some simple, fair process will exorcise the demon and return the country to its natural, conflict-free, everybody-wins condition.

What's really going on, though, Harrington says, is a series of great clashes over money and power between three groups: localists (farmers and small businessmen), majoritarians (industrial workers), and functionalists (corporate managers). Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were mainly majoritarians, Carter was a functionalist, and Reagan a localist, though every successful national politician has to draw from at least one of the other two groups. Today, because the long period of economic growth that helped paper over the struggle between the three groups is over, we may be forced to abandon the dream of deliverance and get down to some serious and explicit pie-slicing.

It's an intriguing theory, and it leads Harrington over all sorts of interesting ground, from the Federalist papers to populism to the formation of Carter's cabinet. And certainly the role of myth in politics, though hard to get at, is an important subject--if you don't believe me, ask your family next Thanksgiving dinner what they think the federal government spends more on, welfare or social security. The main problem is that Harrington's whole elaborate argument rests on the premise, which she presents as so obvious that it doesn't need to be argued, that only through economic planning can our problems really be solved. If you disagree, then this book will seem like a long fly ball that lands just outside the foul pole: impressive, but no score.
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Author:Lemann, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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