On the three compuses and at the five civic and business forums that I have visited the past 10 days, there are two questions that come up for discussion more than any others.
One is whether the Reagan-GOP victory two weeks ago signals the long-heralded, often-anticipated but never yet realized political realignment that could usher in an era of Republican and conservative rule.
The second is whether the Moral Majority and like-minded religious political action groups have emerged with sufficient influence on the new government to rewrite social policies, regulations, laws and even the Constitution, according to the dictates of their own conscience.
I thought it might be useful to devote several columns to those two topics -- and to what these conversations lead me to think may be an unsuspected connection between the two questions.
First, on the long-term significance of the Nov. 4 vote. Sifting through the returns of that election makes it clear that for the first time in a generation, it is sensible to ask whether we might be entering a new political era -- an era of Republican dominance. The election was plainly more than a repudiation of Jimmy Carter. The voters also gave the boot to a dozen Democratic senators and two dozen representatives, most of whom were also identified with the policies of welfare-state liberalism. As a result, the Republicans captured both the White House and the Senate and cut the Democratic majority in the House by more than half -- their best showing since 1952.
But 1952 proved to be a flash in the pan, a personal victory for Dwight D. Eisenhower, which, it quickly became clear, did nothing to disturb the long-term Democratic dominance of government. Democrats regained their congressional majorities in 1954 and held them until now.
To find an earlier example of the kind of basic realignment of party strength some observers think may have begun this month, you have to go all the way back to the Roosevelt-Democratic victories of 1932 and 1936, which ended a long period of Republican ascendancy.
Rooselvelt and the Democrats won in 1932 because millions of voters suffering the ruinous consequences of the Great Depression left their old political allegiances to vote for FDR.
Something like the reverse of that occurred this month. Millions of traditional Democrats who had supported FDR and his Democratic successors broke their old allegiances and voted for Ronald Reagan. They were reacting to the decline in living standards, the squeeze of inflation and interest rates and the frustration of American power abroad, as symbolized by the Iranian hostage ordeal. In some instances, they were also protesting the changes in social customs, life styles and community standards condoned or encouraged by liberal legislatures and judges -- the issues of the Moral Majority.
In both the urban areas of the Northeast and across the South (the two bases of the New Deal), millions of white Democrats abandoned Carter for Reagan. Enough of them also rejected the Democratic senators and representatives they had been returning year after year to make this look like more of an old-fashioned party-line vote than anything that we have seen since the ticket-splitting fashion took hold in the 1950s.
Was there an ideological message in the 1980 vote? There sure was. You cannot look at the defeat of such stalwart liberals as McGovern, Culver, Javits, Bayh, Nelson, Brademas, Corman, Church, Magnuson -- the list goes on and on -- and not get a message.
There was more ideological content in Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign speeches than there was in Roosevelt's speeches in 1932. You had to be very shrewd to discern the shape of the New Deal in the rhetoric of FDR's 1932 campaign. But you had to be dense to miss the message of Reagan's campaign: a flat-out repudiation of basic economic, diplomatic and social policies of the reigning Democratic liberalism.
There is enough issue-content in the Reagan campaign rhetoric to give shape and structure to a long-term political realignment if those policies produce the benefits Reagan and the Republicans promised their millions of new supporters this fall.
But when you have said all this, there is still reason to hesitate in describing the 1980 election as more than a half-step toward a new Republican-conservative era. Something very important was missing in 1980 from the pattern of the 1932 election and earlier realigning elections.
In 1932, millions of additional people were drawn into the electorate. Millions who had been bored by, indifferent to or cynical about the elections of the 1920s decided they had an important stake in Roosevelt's election.
That did not happen in 1980. On the contrary, voting turnout again declined, continuing a 20-year pattern of disenchantment. Particularly significant was the fact that most of the "baby-boom" generation, now between 25 and 35 years of age, sat on the sidelines of this election, expressing no choice.
Until they throw their weight into the political balance, it is premature to talk with any certainty about the beginning of a new era of politics.
Reagan and the Republicans have a historic opportuity to change American politics, but the critical decisions on that change still have to be made.