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Clinton's History Lesson

November 26, 2000|Bruce J. Schulman | Bruce J. Schulman teaches history and American studies at Boston University. His new book, "The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Politics, and Society," will be published next spring

BOSTON — With an uncertain mandate and a divided Congress, the 2000 campaign will little alter the nation's near-term course. But this historic election will reshape the way Americans view the past. A clear win by George W. Bush would have ensured that the past 30 years entered the history books as an era of conservative political and cultural ascendancy: the gestation, triumph and consolidation of the Reagan revolution. But Al Gore's popular-vote victory suggests that Americans have crossed Bill Clinton's fabled bridge into the 21st century, that the past generation has ushered in a more cosmopolitan, more expansive Information Age.

Campaign 2000 was not the first presidential election to change the past. Consider the campaign of 1840, when the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison, narrowly defeated President Martin Van Buren in the infamous "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" campaign. Textbooks portray the era from the late 1820s to the late 1840s as the age of Jacksonian democracy. It marks the origins of modern U.S. democracy: a vibrant two-party system, political nominating conventions and the right to vote for nearly all adult white males. Even voter participation in presidential elections took off during this period. By 1836, almost every state allowed voters, instead of state legislatures, to choose their representatives to the electoral college.

But if Harrison had lost, the picture would look quite different. Until 1840, the United States possessed no functioning two-party system; there had never been real competition between candidates and parties throughout the country. Sure, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans contested elections in the early republic. But they were more regional and class organizations than genuine political parties. For a generation, during the era of good feelings, there was only one political party; Presidents James Madison and James Monroe ran basically unopposed.

Despite factional strife, there was no sense before Harrison's victory that Americans were witnessing the birth of modern politics. The Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign allowed Whigs to gain mass support and to compete seriously in the North and the South, the old East and the new West. A different result in 1840 and Americans never would have seen this period as the crucible of the two-party system.

The remarkably close 1960 election also reshaped the past. Historians today view the period of unprecedented prosperity and unchallenged global supremacy that stretched from World War II until the end of the 1960s as the heyday of American liberalism: the era of big government par excellence. In those decades, the hand of the federal government reached into every nook and cranny of American life. The GI Bill helped veterans attend college and buy homes; Social Security and Medicare practically eliminated poverty among the elderly; civil rights legislation ended the most odious instances of racial discrimination; and interstate highways made suburbs--and rush-hour traffic--possible.

Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower interrupted the progression from Harry S. Truman's Fair Deal to John F. Kennedy's New Frontier to Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. But today we are most impressed with the essential liberalism of Eisenhower's presidency. Eisenhower embraced what he called "modern Republicanism," by which he meant a sober, moderate policy that promised to preserve New Deal programs and not roll them back as conservatives desired.

But imagine how the postwar era would look if Richard M. Nixon had triumphed. Might we not emphasize more the rumblings against liberalism among blue-collar white ethnics, the discontent that later created the Reagan Democrats? The postwar period might be remembered as the seedtime of conservatism instead of the heyday of idealistic, visionary liberalism.

Campaign 2000 will similarly rewrite history. A clear Republican triumph would have sharpened the dominant view of the past three decades as a conservative era. The conservative tide rolled in when Nixon defeated liberal standard-bearer Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968; the combined total of Nixon's vote with that of third-party candidate George C. Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor, added up to a resounding defeat for liberalism. Four years later, an openly conservative Nixon, running on an avowedly anti-government platform, won a monumental landslide. Watergate allowed the Democrats to break through in 1976, but Jimmy Carter represented the most conservative, southern wing of his party. The original New Democrat, Carter favored a balanced budget, rebuked organized labor and criticized affirmative action. Then came Ronald Reagan and his understudy, George Bush.

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