Politically, the unthinkable is happening everywhere: Italy, Israel, Poland, China, France. Forget for the moment that we are talking about greatly different political systems. The common thread is there. Whether the evidence is a failure of the Christian Democrats (for the first time in 41 postwar cabinets) to head up the Italian government or the inability of Israel's Labor Party to stage a convincing comeback from what had been regarded as a "fluke" defeat last time or the amazing strength shown by Polish Solidarity or the French Socialists' upset sweep or the dispossession of both Mao's legacy and his bureaucratic heirs, these must be accounted terrible days for governing establishments and orthodoxies. They are terrible days, that is, for complacent leaders who had thought they represented -- in perpetuity -- a political mainstream from which all divergence must be minor and marginal.
Fortunately, we do not need to waste time wondering if it "can happen here."
It already did. In fact, I only take note of the larger trend because I think it is the context in which the blown-away Democrats need to consider their own condition. People think the '60s were radical. I think something far more radical is afoot now, a political impulse whose meaning "left" and being the opposite of conservative or "right" and so forth.
Defiance of assumptions and expectations and of the agreed-upon (it was thought) political boundaries within a society is now the norm. No one is more baffled by this than the displaced leaders who had dimly believed themselves to be entitled to their authority, believed their handiwork to be inviolate and -- in their worst misapprehension -- supposed that their countrymen generally accepted the limitations on their own freedom of action this implied. Well . . . surprise ! . . . everything turns out to be negotiable and vulnerable. There are, of course, some Democrats who are unsurprised by what has happened in this country because they refuse to acknowledge it. This, I calculate, will prolong their exile from office at roughly the rate of one day lost for each day of self-delusion.
The basic all-important fact about the Reagan budget-cutting triumph (as a political achievement, not necessarily as an act of wisdom or beauty) is that there was no opposition to it. Yes, there was resistance, some of it very sensible and impassioned. But when Reagan pushed what was supposed to be the opposition, it collapsed. It simply isn't there . It has been retired or enfeebled or frightened by what it perceives to be the prevailing political opinion in the country. And yet you can still hear the scholastic arguments being put forth, breathtaking in their irrelevance, that the Republicans and conservatives did not get a mandate for what they are doing now , that the whole business is somehow illegitimate or a gigantic mistake, that if you just go back and study the election results of November with care you will see that in only three districts out of seven . . .
That -- regarding their rout as the product of a terrible misunderstanding -- is one response. Another has been to hope that the new Reagan dispensation will succeed now so that it can fail later. To some extent this rests on a cold-blooded calculation that the Reagan figures don't add up right and that the president needs to be seen getting his way and then going economically bust for people ever to reject his political message. There is also the hope -- I think not so well placed -- that once people really see what the new administration is up to they will "come to their senses" -- wake up and say: Oh my God, how could we have ?
I think the second of these expectations is especially wishful. The upending of several decades worth of vaguely liberal, middle-road orthodoxy, with all its attendant excesses in the name of policies no one troubled to examine anymore and its you-wouldn't-dare approach to political challenge, strikes me as being probably precisely the upending people had in mind when they made Reagan president and gave him a sympathetic Congress.
People in this country will tolerate a lot. They will tolerate what they consider too much. When it gets to be way too much, they will throw you out. This is what happened to our now-displaced political establishment, and it does not bode well for its speedy recovery, since the Reagan people would have to fail painfully and spectacularly and indisputably for the voters to run out of patience anytime soon. I think what strikes those displaced persons as outrageous and beyond the political pale also doesn't seem so unacceptable to people generally. My point is that the first step required in the creation of an opposition is a willingness to oppose what is there -- and that means (a) taking seriously both the results of the election and the policies being put forward by the winners and (b) meeting their arguments head-on.
On the latter score, it is self-evidently not enough to try to hold up to ridicule a collection of government positions on the ground that they are at such great variance from one's own or from what one had expected everyone to believe. That time is gone. (The greater the variance, in some cases, the greater the political appeal.) Nor is it very clear what the Democrats would offer if it did come about that the Reagan government vanished as quickly as Jimmy Carter's did. More of what went before? More of what helped to get them kicked out in the first place?
Chairman Jim Jones of the House Budget Committee, a sensible, moderate man if ever there was one, came up with a sensible, moderate budget alternative to Reagan's. There were not nearly enough takers to beat Reagan. That, along with other evidence, says to me that the Democratic oppostion will not be able to reconstitute itself by a kind of half-liberal alternative to Reagan or a threat to return to the governing traditions of the past two decades. They are said to be "rethinking" things. I believe they should rethink big, meet Reagan's radical, anything-goes, hell-let's-do-it approach with a comparable irreverence -- especially toward their own assumptions and dogma. It's the only way to come back. Otherwise, they might go the way of Mao Tse-tung.