Theodore J. Lowi. A "critical" election misfires.
The 1972 elections leave us once again with a profound political question: Why do we have so many problems and so few issues?
Most of America's dilemmas seemed to come to a head in the late 1960s. By 1968 rioting was widespread among lower-income groups, and disaffection was so rampant among the middle groups that an incumbent President was not even welcome at a convention of his own party. Yet the 1968 campaign was empty of everything except a moderate suspense as to the outcome, and even the question of winning was interesting only because politics has become good box office, another entertainment in TV's Wide World of Sports.
The midterm elections of 1970 also occurred amid widespread confrontations. Cambodia and Kent State brought many things into focus. Congress' sigh of mea culpa on the war made debate possible and dissent respectable. There were signs of maturity in the approaches to America's race problems. Yet the cumulative effect of the 1970 elections was utter boredom and irrelevance. All the war talk sounded moderately dovish, and all the domestic talk sounded moderately law-and-orderish, washed as they were into obscurity by a detergent called the "social issue." There were no issues at all. Everyone seemed to see society's problems in about the same way, and the candidates appeared mere mouthpieces for a consensus that had existed before the election--that seemed always to have existed.
So too with 1972. Before the political year began we were apparently overrun with problems. We were still suffering from what Meg Greenfield of The Washington Post had in the early 1960s called the "problem problem." Cities were less safe, yet more expensive; peace was closer but war had never been so vicious; governments had never tried so hard, taxed so much, or been so close to bankruptcy.
Yet for the duration of the campaign there were no issues. Not once did Mr. Nixon have to take off the Presidential cloak; no threat ever made that necessary. America's problems were simply not translated into points of political relevance. The best we came up with was the question of George McGovern's character. That being the case, something has gone wrong with American political institutions.
Most of our elections, including national elections, are routine affairs. Mandates are rarely more than the idle bluster of the winner. Elections are important because they give a few people license to rule for a limited period of time; and that is important, whether an issue was settled or not. But every generation or so we have expected more from an election, and we have gotten it. Every thirty to forty years conditions seem to be ripe for a "critical election." It is a situation in which political parties suddenly spring apart on important issues, candidates honestly and consistently differ, and the citizenry turn out to vote in unusually high proportion, exhilarated by the prospect of a real choice.
Critical elections usually occur during or after a serious domestic crisis. They usually follow a period in which one of the major parties has gone through a serious defeat and regeneration, because it is usually in such a period that a party is weak enough to be permeated by new leaders intensely committed to a specific solution for a defined social problem. The 1932 and 1936 elections were the last occasions when we witnessed a party coming out of reconstruction with a clear electoral orientation, a program and a commitment to change. The results of decisions and electoral realignments made at that time still affect us today.
Similar conditions prevailed in 1972. In fact many of the most astute political historians have been expecting a critical election since 1964, because they felt that conditions were by then comparable to 1932. Reasonable observers can of course