The Changing Game of US Politics Five Books Analyze Historical and Contemporary Campaign Practices in Presidential Elections

Article excerpt

THERE'S a certain majesty to the 1992 campaign - the 52nd time, in unbroken succession, that Americans have freely selected their president. But there's also a mountain of hyperbole, triviality, and banality, a condition exacerbated by the number of words written and spoken about a United States national election. That 15,600 journalists gathered in New York City for the 1992 Democratic Convention attests to how much US politics gets overdone.

How rewarding, then, to tune out the babble and enter the domain of informed analysis. Five new books on various dimensions of US politics ably provide this welcome reprieve.

Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties (Thunder's Mouth Press, 240 pp., $11.95 paper), by David Kusnet, is yet another in a long line of primers by and for Democrats concerned with their party's failures in national elections. This one is well written, ably argued, and full of sound judgment. Kusnet has been active in Democratic politics for the past two decades, working, for example, as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale in his 1984 campaign and for Michael Dukakis in his 1988 bid.

Kusnet begins with the central question about the Democratic Party's decline - why a party that knew so well how to address and represent a national majority in a series of presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt's through Lyndon Johnson's (before the Vietnam War engulfed him) now struggles so to fashion a majoritarian appeal.

Though he says the country needs the leadership of liberal Democrats in the executive branch, Kusnet offers a devastating criticism of his party's liberal establishment - as harsh as any that a conservative or Republican critic has ventured. The problem is not, he insists, a matter of Democrats nominating less telegenic candidates or falling victim to the other side's negative advertising. Rather, the party has lost at the national level because it lost the confidence of a large and diverse assortment of Americans.

I would quibble with Kusnet's choice of terms in framing his argument. The Democrats, he says repeatedly, need to speak more effectively to the "middle class" and to fashion a reinvigorated "populism." This terminology is rhetorical oversimplification left over from campaign speechwriting. Kusnet shows that his party lost touch with the views and values of Americans all across the economic spectrum, not just those in the middle, and that "populism" has no meaning beyond paying attention to the preferences of the public at large.

The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected (Harvard University Press, 400 pp., $29.95), by political scientists (and twin brothers) Earl Black and Merle Black, is a summation of the immense political changes that have transformed what was historically the country's most distinctive region.

The Blacks point out that the region's long, exclusive attachment to the Democratic Party, from the age of Andrew Jackson on through the New Deal and World War II, was based on a sense of estrangement. The South held to values that set it apart from the rest of the US, sadly so in the area of race relations, and had different needs, as the country's poorest and most agricultural section.

Today, the South has rejoined the nation; in many areas, from economic standing to social values, it is now more a microcosm of the US than an exception to the predominant lines of national development. Herein, the Blacks argue, lies the full extent of the South's importance to the Democratic Party.

When the region flipped over in stages from the l950s through the 1980s to become the most Republican part of the country in presidential balloting, this meant something beyond the fact that the Democrats were left with a big hole in the electoral college. A Democratic party, the Blacks maintain, that can't compete effectively in presidential politics in the South will be unable to do so nationally. …