We are interested in how public will, created by a leader in a political motive such as the New Deal, is then disempowered. How does a leader reverse the power of a public motive? How does s/he establish a new framework, a new public motive?
The New Deal provided motivation for governmental action for fifty years. The material conditions of the nation could be cast into the frame of the New Deal and would motivate public action to address them. The way that they were addressed was framed by the New Deal's notion that the dispossessed of society were dispossessed because of the irresponsible actions of those at the levers of the economy. Government was their representative in addressing the failures of capitalist leadership to protect the common man and woman. By the 1960s, the television screens and magazines projected the pictures of the hungry of Appalachia. The uncaring practices of the coal companies, flush with the largesse of greed, were focused upon as the cause. The programs of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty provided leadership to organize people to address their problems. The New Deal form was reinstantiated.
Ronald Reagan was to succeed in defusing the political power of the New Deal motive. In doing so, he managed the public/private line, moving many concerns back to being private concerns that the New Deal form had seen as public matters. Reagan was to accomplish this by substituting another motive that replaced the faith of Roosevelt with the faith of Reagan. We are interested in studying that process.
Franklin Roosevelt had called upon the myth of the American pioneer to give faith that our problems could be overcome. Political leadership often taps our myths to provide such faith.
By "myth" we mean a fundamental and popularly recognized narrative form in which people believe and which shapes historical experience. Notice that myth does not mean that the narrative is false. Indeed, myth is a complex weaving of truth, often sprinkled with elements of the false, in which questions of fact pale beside the importance of the truth of the general narrative flow. Thus, Roosevelt used the myth of the pioneer who moved ever west, conquering each new frontier and bringing civilization to the entire American continent.
Reagan called upon two powerful American myths:
The Cowboy myth. This is actually a version of the myth of individual power. Americans portray the power of the single, dedicated individual to accomplish their dreams. Daniel Boone used his verve to conquer the wilderness of Kentucky; Andrew Carnegie founded a huge empire by being a dedicated pursuer of industrial organization. In the media world of the 1950s, the myth had become instantiated in the lone cowboy who would go into a town reeling under the oppression of the lawless and would through individual initiative clean up the town and restore peace and tranquility. The cowboy myth portrayed the power of the individual, even in his isolation, against the forces arrayed to destroy him.
The market myth. Americans also believe in the "natural" market in which some freely sell and others freely buy and value is attached in the exchange. That the market is the natural state is one of the oldest beliefs of capitalism. Ancillary to this believe is the believe that through its natural mechanisms, the market transforms individual selfishness into community good. In the 1950s, this idea was represented by Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. Also current at that time was a linkage between the market and democracy: the market was a kind of way that people voted by using their money to favor the things that they wanted. Thus, the market became linked with the free choice that was democracy.
Reagan was to use these two myths as the rhetorical resources to construct a frame that would give his countrymen a new faith and in the process destroy the New Deal.
To make the coalition work, the movement needed to find issues that crossed the differences of the groups in the coalition, permitting unified political power.
Several ideas were central to the rhetoric of the New Right. The general narrative was the genius of individual initiative, ordered by the free market and freed from the oppression of government, accomplishing great advances in American culture.
Our interest in 1980 is not in Reagan's election but in how he established the political power of his conservative message through his speaking.
Several material conditions of the time provided opportunities for Reagan if he could transform them into political power through his discourse.
The New Deal programs were now funneling money to the middle class. The dispossessed seemed relatively comfortable rather than the impoverished of the pre-Great Society days.
By the New Deal's own measures (and measurement was critically important to the social engineering strategy of the New Deal), it was failing. Inflation had reached fifteen percent in 1980 and the New Deal programs committed the country to about three percent. Unemployment was between seven and eight percent in 1980 and the commitment of the New Deal was to three percent. In short, the New Deal appeared by its own measures to be powerless.
An aging industrial structure was inefficient and these inefficiencies were leading to loss of business and unemployment.
The economy was becoming less industrial. The New Deal had been a political motive constructed to frame and deal with the industrial age.
The success of the New Deal had built tremendous bureaucratic structures of regulation. Where those regulations were aimed at the greedy, they now penetrated to most Americans lives. Thus, Americans in some ways were displaced by 1980 from the dispossessed to the greedy. The New Deal was less appealing and more threatening.
Could Ronald Reagan transform these conditions into political power and reduce the power of the New Deal?
The other great change of the era was the growth of television.
Television had emerged through the 1950s and 1960s.
Television represented the growth of the mass media. The decline in public communication that had begun with the radio, accelerated. Television was a home living room phenomena. As politics moved into television, it moved out of public space into private space.
Television did not so much present political messages in the early days. Although the first political commercials had run in 1952, they had been crude. Broadcast speeches were often merely eavesdropping on speakers speaking to audiences. The impact of television was not on discourse, but as a presenter of images of reality. Vietnam and the brutality of Southern racism presented a reality which discourse had to address.
The question was how leaders could begin to use television in a way that enhanced their leadership.
Reagan was to achieve the synthesis of speaking and television through the spectacle. The spectacle featured the visual. Like the New Deal's pictures of the poor, It presented the visual in a way that evoked emotion, but this emotion was pride and patriotism. Lots of flags and grandeur. Thus, it exploited visual symbol and gave it meaning through its words.
What material conditions did Reagan have to transform into political power in 1980?
How did Reagan undercut the motivational power of the New Deal motive?
Describe the way into which issues passed from public to private through Reagan's discourse.
Did Reagan's discourse motivate political action? How?
How did Reagan manage the dialectic of permanence and change?
How did Reagan appeal to strong American myths?
How did Reagan adapt to the television environment? How does that adaptation compare to FDR's adaptation to television?
A recession hit the American economy in 1982. How would the New Deal have transformed the recession into political power? How would Reagan have transformed it into political power?
Reagan has been called "the Great Communicator." Make the case for that label? Do you agree with the case? Why or why not?
|those in the less advantageous circumstances of life||dispossessed; victims of the greedy||"on a diet"|
|business people||greedy; "money changers"; bankers|
|those working for the government||"your government"|
|the President||the leader of the great army of the people|
|cause of the problem||"the money changers have fled their seat in the temple of our civilization"|
|why problem would be solved; reason for faith||people willing to accept his leadership of the great army of the people|
|relationship of government to the problem||will take leadership of people in solving|
|relationship of people to government||seek leadership of government in addressing their problems|
|historical figure||pioneers who conquered so much|
|Gift of the founding fathers||flexible Constitution|