Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986).
Where the United States chooses to intervene actively, as in the Middle East, Central America and southern Africa, American politics can be a matter of life and death. Serious examinations of the American political scene are therefore of more than local interest. This study is a welcome addition to the growing body of critical analyses of American politics.
Ferguson and Rogers confront an apparent paradox. At a time when American politics and social policy has moved steadily rightward, American public opinion (as registered by polls) has remained broadly supportive of New Deal liberalism and even moved leftward on some issues. Ferguson and Rogers provide a mechanism to explain elite domination of government policy in the face of popular preference: the investment theory of party systems. Efforts to control the state require a great deal of money and time. Political parties respond to those who “have good and clear reasons for investing to control the state, and the resources necessary to sustain the costs of such an effort.” Thus groups of corporations, industrial sectors and similar elites “define the core of the major parties, and are responsible for sending most of the signals to which the rest of the electorate responds.”
They argue that the investors who supported the New Deal were internationally active commercial banks, investment banks and capital-intensive industries. Benefiting from international trade, they opposed protectionism while supporting an internationalist foreign policy. Because they were capital-intensive, they could afford to support various pro-union labor laws and social welfare measures, taking labor on as a junior partner in political alliance. Though intra-alliance conflicts existed, the coalition held until cracks appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the US economy became increasingly dependent upon a world market which it had lost the ability to dominate.
Ferguson and Rogers argue that the New Deal investors responded by moving to the right domestically, supporting cuts in social spending, tax rollbacks and reduced government regulations. In terms of foreign policy, the investors favored increased interventionism, with accompanying huge increases in the military budget, as an answer to growing Third World nationalism. This analysis, with its implication that the New Deal investor coalition had not previously been strongly interventionist, seems dubious. John Kennedy, supported by this coalition, first dispatched troops to Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson, another of this coalition’s presidents, carried out a massive escalation in Vietnam and also used Marines to prevent an outbreak of democracy in the Dominican Republic. It is not clear that this investors’ coalition ever opposed interventionism, except briefly immediately after Vietnam. More likely, what has occurred is a return to normal elite attitudes which now lack popular support or actually confront popular opposition.
The 1984 election demonstrated the effects of this shift rightward as Mondale ran against the budget deficit and for a military quarantine of Nicaragua — hardly a campaign to inspire those on whom the Democratic Party depends for victory. In 1984 as in 1980, the largest political party, with almost half the eligible voters, was the party of the non-voters. This party contained most of the poor and unemployed, a group in which potential Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one. If those potential Democrats had been mobilized, the Republican “landslide” would have disappeared.
Barring the unforeseen, American politics will continue to be decided in a universe marked by mass demobilization, blunting any efforts at leftward movement. If we apply the Rogers/Ferguson framework to foreign policy, certain consequences seem likely. Interventionism — unless it causes enough American casualties — is unlikely to generate mass opposition. Support for the contras and other surrogates will continue. Given the strength of the well-funded, committed pro-Israel lobby in the United States, and Israel’s role in the Middle East and elsewhere, US Middle East policy is likely to be worse than in other parts of the Third World.
It is difficult to read Right Turn without thinking of Mike Davis’ Prisoners of the American Dream, which covers similar ground. Davis, unlike Ferguson and Rogers, wrote a work of political economy, linking his analysis to the accumulation of capital, examining politics through the lens of historical process. Ferguson and Rogers have produced a work of left elite theory. Certainly, elites have made history more frequently than anyone. Mass movements are unusual; most fail. Yet contradictions generated by capitalism may provide the only avenues upon which to focus progressive action. Ferguson and Rogers, useful as their work is, are always several steps removed from historical process. Ultimately, their universe is too static.