Tonight we will be discussing Edsall and Edsall, Chain Reaction, a very influential book that has profoundly shaped liberal and Democratic perspectives of politics since the 1960s – usually in terms of “what went wrong”. In terms of our period, Chain Reaction is critical since the conservative reaction described pivots on the year 1980, and the Reagan revolution.


In addition to Edsall, I will therefore be asking you to read my chapter on 1980, “Captive America”, which I am distributing together with this handout. (The chapter comes from a book that will be appearing at the end of 2005: please don’t cite it outside the class without my approval).


The Edsalls’ book is attractive in offering a systematic explanation of the long-term shift in public attitudes. In explaining the transition from liberal hegemony in the sixties to conservative dominance in the eighties, the Edsalls stress the politics of taxes and rights, but above all, of race. In various forms, these issues came to dominate most domestic policy issues, and divided many lower and middle-class whites from the older New Deal coalition. Conservative policies succeeded in “pitting those who bear many of the costs of federal intervention against those whose struggle for equality has been advanced by interventionist government policies.” In their view, the conservative coalition that has been in the ascendant since the late 1970s has used a politics of substitution, presenting policies in a socially acceptable form free of overt racial references, but nevertheless manipulating racial fears. Complaints about welfare cheats, welfare queens, and freeloaders disguise the older rhetoric of black laziness and fecklessness. For the Edsalls again, Democrats must be blamed for failing to acknowledge the social and political pressures building under them during the 1970s; but the primary culprits were the conservatives, organized in the Republican Party.


The Edsalls’ argument appeals to modern liberals, since it allows virtually every aspect of conservative ideology to be dismissed as covert racism. In similar mode, Thomas Frank’s re cent book What's the Matter with Kansas? argues that issues of morality and family, gender and “values,” seduced working people to support conservative politicians, and thereby betrayed and sabotaged their own economic interests. Just as the Edsalls highlight race as the critical distraction from authentic issues, so Frank addresses the (spurious) politics of morality. Frank sees “the culture wars [as] a way of framing the ever-powerful subject of social class. They are a way for Republicans to speak on behalf of the forgotten man without causing any problems for their core big-business constituency.” Once again, conservative politics are seen as a masquerade, a form of false consciousness, rather than “real” politics.


Both Frank and the Edsalls present powerful arguments, and the stress on race is especially important. Throughout American history, racial fears have permeated issues that on the surface have no racial content whatever. Debates on welfare, crime and drugs clearly did, and do, have racial subtexts. Even when minorities are not the direct targets of the polemic, we find fears that white people themselves will be seduced into stereotypically black patterns of violence and sexual immorality, perhaps induced by drugs. Indeed, the Edsalls may actually understate a strong case. They devote little attention to foreign policy matters, in which racial themes were clearly in evidence. The political shift in the mid-1970s was driven in part by a widespread sense that the white Euro-American world had forfeited its centuries-long global hegemony, a decline symbolized by the loss of the Vietnam war, but also the rise of Arab oil wealth, the Japanese economic boom, and the vociferous demands of radical Third World nations. Foreign news reinforced a sense of racial crisis at home.


But even when we acknowledge these racial agendas, I would argue that they are not sufficient to explain the political changes that the United States experienced. Race, rights and taxes contributed to the political shift, but so did many other issues, foreign and domestic, in which racial themes are hard to discern. International and military issues also played their role, especially fears of Communism and terrorism. Neither Frank nor the Edsalls credit conservatives for responding to real or well-grounded concerns or fears in these or other areas. So in critiquing Chain Reaction, we will be studying the development of conservatism and the New Right in the 1970s and 1980s (the two terms are not synonymous), and seeing how far the Edsalls’ analysis holds.


Questions I will be asking you to think about include the following:


Obviously this list is anything but comprehensive. Please note that at every point I will be asking a follow up, “How do we know?” – ie if you think a point is fair or unfair, I want to tell me how a scholar might wish to test this approach. What kind of sources might prove a given point?


Was there really a New Right in the 1970s? What motivated the New Right? Was it so new? When people use the term “New Right,” what is the ideological message implied in this usage? Is the phrase normally used in a sympathetic or hostile way?


Why did the New Right grow so sharply in significance during the 1970s? How much of the growth was ideological, how much was owed to new forms of raising support, eg direct mail fundraising?


In what senses did the New Right deploy a “politics of resentment”?


What issues caused the greatest strain to the old New Deal coalition?


What role did demographic factors play?


How about religious factors? Regional factors? Gender concerns?


How do Jewish issues reshape political alignments? What about Catholic issues?

What issues caused the greatest strain to the old New Deal coalition?


Major question – so what are the major components of the conservative coalition by the end of the 1970s? What are the pressing issues of each group? How far do the concerns of one faction agree with or conflict with the issues beloved of another group?


What are the major issues of concern to conservatives by 1980? What themes do they have in common? What did they want to change? Which aspects of “the sixties” were they most able and most enthusiastic to change? Which aspects would be more difficult?


Frank and the Edsalls see the conservative concerns as misleading or hypocritical. Can a case be made for the validity of conservative concerns and complaints?


How far did the new conservative alliance of the 1970s and 1980s reflect class concerns?


Why did issues such as guns and gun control prove so potent in mobilizing conservative activism?


In what ways did liberal critics of the new conservatism fail to appreciate their enemy? How far was their understanding of the Right based on misleading stereotypes? Did an ideological blindness prevent them organizing an effective response?


Reagan and the Republicans won big in 1980. How far do you think resulted from immediate concerns arising from the horrors of that year, and how far from deeper concerns and issues? How could we test either view?


Did a social and cultural shift to the Right accompany or precede the conservative election triumph of 1980? How could we test this view?


Who were the “Reagan Democrats”?


How important was Barry Goldwater in shaping the new right of the 1970s? What about George Wallace?


How far had Jimmy Carter already gone in his term to acknowledging conservative concerns?


How did racial politics feed into other concerns?


How is America’s crisis portrayed in gender terms, as a betrayal of traditional manliness?


In American history, certain elections are regarded as critical in marking major and lasting party realignments – eg 1896, 1932, 1968. Does 1980 belong in this epoch-making category?


What role do changes in campaign financing and fund-raising play in shifting political realignments?


Though the most significant wing of the new right takes the form of respectable conservatism, we can also see an upsurge of the far right. What forms does this take? What kinds of new ideology affect the far right in these years? What is the influence of movements like Christian Identity and neo-Nazism? What impact does the Turner Diaries have? How serious a threat was the far Right terrorist campaign of 1984-85?


Survivalism is an important movement of these years. Why? How does that relate to the American radical heritage, in movements such as communalism, separatism and apocalypticism?




Finally, some specific questions about CHAIN REACTION


What is the book about, and what is its central theme or point?


Do the Edsalls make their case well and clearly? Is the book well-written and well-argued? (the two points are not necessarily the same!) If not, why not?


The fact that the book was published indicates that somebody thought it made an important and innovative point – there’s no point in just rehashing old familiar arguments, or so we would think. What’s new about this book? Is it a controversial study?


What did the book tell us that was not previously known? What can we learn about how the book fits into the existing literature, yet advances beyond previous knowledge? What earlier or established position is it arguing against?


Do the Edsalls push the evidence to make it fit into contemporary concerns and obsessions? How?


Are there questions that you would like to ask that the authors do not deal with, or cover poorly?


What can we learn from the footnotes and acknowledgments about how the Edsalls went about their research?


In short – how do you evaluate Chain Reaction as a means of understanding recent American politics?


And a thorny follow-up question – assume that the Edsalls were right in their analysis. How have the events of the subsequent fifteen years or so validated or contradicted their thesis? What would we have expected to have happened in American politics, and what actually happened? How have they done as prophets? What is their PQ (Prophecy Quotient, a phrase I just invented). What do these results tell us about their arguments?