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
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
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. …