Look around for a few minutes and remember the past--look particularly at the White House and its current occupants--and you have to conclude that a lot of people who were burning flags in the 1960s have begun waving flags in the 1980s. This may be a part of the recurring pendulum swing from left to right and back again that seems to be a basic element in the cycles of American politics, or it may mean simply that the people of the postwar baby boom are now reaching an age where many Americans discover that they are actually conservative; most likely, it represents some degree of interaction between the two factors.
Nobody knows how permanent the rightward swing may be, how far it will go or how long it will last; this year's congressional elections will give us some information and the 1984 presidential election will provide a lot more. Meanwhile, Burton Yale Pines has been gathering his own somewhat less comprehensive evidence and he hastens to inform us that the United States has "begun a new era."
"Since the late 1970s," he says, attitudes and policies have been changing in ways repudiating liberalism's two-generation reign . . . Attitudes have changed so profoundly in many areas that they seem certain to endure for some time."
The crowning achievement of the traditionalist swing is undoubtedly the election of Ronald Reagan. But it is buttressed by a myriad of related developments, including the exclusion of women's rights from the Constitution and the attempt to make balanced budgets a part of it, the reaction against recent policies on abortion, capital punishment, environmental protection, the rights of accused criminals and other issues. "The traditionalist movement, after all, did not begin with Ronald Reagan," Pines says, "and it will not end with him." True enough, but meanwhile it is using him as hard as it can--and he seems determined to turn things around, while he has the power, as thoroughly as Roosevelt did with his New Deal.
So, in his less spectacular way, is Burton Yale Pines. Although his book assumes a veneer of objective reportage, little real effort is made to disguise its outright position of pure advocacy. It has been subsidized by such organizations as the Heritage Foundation (where Pines is now a vice president, after acquiring respectable journalistic credentials at Time magazine), and the investment has clearly paid off. This competently packaged product pulls together many strands to present a comprehensive picture of what looks like a mass movement to the right.
The problem may lie precisely in this pulling together, and particularly in the segment that provides the book's title. Back to Basics is an educational movement dedicated to the proposition that children should be taught to read and write capably before they are allowed to indulge in such subjects as "Problems of Democracy" or "Great Themes in Science Fiction," that they should be required to dress decently in school, to pay attention and generally behave in a civilized manner. Pines describes this movement, not incorrectly, as "a massive reaffirmation of educational traditionalism and the repudiation of the counterculture legacy in the nation's schools." But many people who believe in such goals, if not entirely in the national organization pushing them, may be surprised to find their aspirations used as a titular umbrella under which are clustered such diverse phenomena as Phyllis Schlafly, the National Conservative Political Action Committee and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Pines' foremost heroes are people who find William F. Buckley and his ilk "too timid, too middle-of-the-road and too theoretical . . . too elitist." Many people would subscribe to the last two items in this description, but the first two might fail to win a majority vote. And conservatism in one area does not necessarily imply conservatism across the board. Surely one can believe in literacy without believing in fundamentalism?
Ultimately the problem with Pines' book is also its strength: the fact that the author is a committed element in a dialectical process, whether he likes that term or not, trying to assume the posture of an objective observer. As such, like such adversaries as Ralph Nader and Bella Abzug, he tends to see only part of the picture, to perceive only one side of the central questions he poses, and to interpret what may be temporary phenomena as the inexorable working of historic forces. He tries to maintain some semblance of balance (reporting, for example, with approval, that the Moral Majority repudiated a "self-appointed" spokesman who "demanded the death penalty for homosexuals,") but such fine distinctions seem to be matters of degree more than of basic orientation.
His orientation tends to reveal itself in his lapses into a special language, where "well-intentioned" clearly means "stupid" or "dupe," and in attitudes which cast large segments of American society, including environmentalists, feminists, the news media and some religious leaders, in the role of enemies. Because of this orientation, his answer to the question he raises (is the current rightward drift basic or superficial, temporary or permanent?) is totally predictable and dubiously reliable.