Chain Reaction: The Impact Of Race, Rights And Taxes On...

Monday Book Reviews

January 06, 1992|By Katy J. Harriger

CHAIN REACTION: THE IMPACT OF RACE, RIGHTS AND TAXES ON AMERICAN POLITICS. By Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall. W.W. Norton. 339 pages. $22.95. THOMAS and Mary Edsall's "Chain Reaction" provides a compelling, and often chilling, explanation for the decline of the Democratic Party and the success of the Republican Party in presidential politics.

It traces the beginning of the end for the Democrats to the election of 1964. Phoenix-like, the Republican Party emerged from the ashes of the Goldwater defeat with an agenda that would, over the next two decades, give it a virtual lock on the White House and make deep inroads into the traditional Democratic loyalty of middle- and working-class voters.

The agenda was centered around conflict over race, rights, taxes and reform. The Democratic Party's positions on those issues created a "chain reaction," defined by the authors as "a point of political combustion reached as a linked series of highly charged issues collide," which has changed fundamentally the face of American party competition.

The Edsalls argue that race is the issue that drives the changes they describe. Republican success on other issues, such as taxes, "traditional values" and law and order, can be explained in large part by the linkages perceived by voters between those issues and race. Thus, the anti-tax movement of the 1970s is seen as rooted in middle-class resentment of a welfare system serving a primarily black constituency. Likewise, the high percentage of black males among those who commit crime causes issues of law and order to be heavily steeped in racial images. Public opinion polls regularly show that for white voters the Democratic Party is associated negatively with all those issues.

This book has many strengths. It puts together in one place the huge body of statistical evidence accumulated over the past several decades that chronicles such shifts in the electorate. It draws together in a coherent picture a number of diverse explanations for the decline of the Democratic Party in presidential politics.

For example, the Edsalls link the Democrats' internal rules reform after 1968 to the party's position on civil rights for blacks and other minorities, and to the disenfranchisement of middle-class white, urban ethnic voters. The disenfranchisement exemplifies the problems the Democrats face. Having excluded those voices from the decision-making apparatus of the party, the leadership has become out of touch with the concerns of a sizable portion of the party's natural economic constituency.

While pushing a civil rights agenda that included busing, fair housing and affirmative action, the party leadership failed to recognize the real burdens that these programs imposed on working-class whites. The resentment that resulted made those voters easily susceptible to the blatant racial appeals of George Wallace and the more coded ones of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

This is a book that needed to be written and should be read by anyone who seeks to understand the current state of American electoral politics. However, there are some weaknesses.

The central importance of race sometimes seems overstated. While there is little doubt that race is one of the issues that has undermined the New Deal coalition, it seems equally clear that the images of the two parties with regard to foreign policy and general economic competence can also explain much of the change. Those competing explanations find further support in the fact that the Republicans' success has been most consistent in controlling the presidency, the office where -- in the minds of American voters -- responsibility for America's standing in the world and its general economic health is lodged.

Perhaps what is most troubling is what the Edsalls fail to say. They describe the shifts in the American electorate almost as if they happened in a leadership void. The manner in which public opinion data are presented suggests that the attitudes of racial resentment suddenly appeared among the electorate, that the Republicans simply discovered those attitudes, and then -- being the good party strategists they were -- tapped them in order to win the White House.

That analysis minimizes the role of leaders and party elites in the creation of public opinion and the mobilization of people to act upon their racial and economic fears. While the Democratic Party may deserve much of the blame for its own demise, I was troubled by the failure to judge the Republicans' cynical manipulation, and at times unfounded creation, of people's fears through sophisticated campaign techniques.

Lee Atwater, the Republican campaign strategist who engineered much of the race-coded campaigning, acknowledged on his deathbed that what he had done was wrong. George Bush, seeing the seeds of racial intolerance he planted take root in Louisiana, denounced David Duke and signed the Civil Rights Act this year.

Having described so well the forces that have created the current racial polarization of the electorate, the Edsalls would not have risked their objectivity had they taken a stand against campaign practices that feed our fears and divide us as a people.

Katy J. Harriger is associate professor of politics at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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