Now that it's all over, what I'll remember most from this long campaign is our reticence to blame the government for hard times.
It is curious, because we've been tougher on leaders in easier days. But here we are in a mess that a Nobel Prize-winning economist described as "the most serious in magnitude" since the Depression, with more than 10 percent of us out of work, and we still didn't go to the polls and "throw the bums out."
There will be some two dozen new Democrats in Congress next year, twice the usual mid-election change. But the Democrats were not quite able to turn a victory into a rout. The Senate will stay Republican. The biggest winners on Tuesday were incumbents.
Maybe it was predictable. Six years ago, we threw Ford out and the economy got worse. Two years ago, we threw Carter out and the economy got worse. This year, we seem to have thrown out some of our high expectations.
In recent polls, 60 percent of us expected the recession to go on through 1983, and 83 percent of us expected to make downward changes in the way we live during the decade. Only 33 percent blamed Ronald Reagan for our economic troubles. No wonder the Democrats had trouble all summer pinning the blame on the elephant.
There is a new feeling about the American future. Some call it pessimism, others call it realism. But as pollster Daniel Yankelovich says, "People are preparing to live in a less bountiful society."
Yankelovich predicted the political effect of this change in our attitudes for the November issue of Psychology Today. "Ordinarily, when people's hopes and expectations are assaulted, they react with fury, even paranoia," he wrote.
But when their expectations are already lowered, so is their anger. In fact, Yankelovich suggested that constant bad economic news has a curious effect on the bulk of citizens, who are, by their own accounts, coping satisfactorily with their lives.
"The majority of Americans received one impression from the press (things are dreadful) and quite another from their own lives (things aren't so bad). Therefore, in the new climate of diminishing expectations they count themselves lucky if their situation has not worsened."
I saw this sense of "relative luck," along with the fear and anxiety, wherever I traveled this fall. In Massachusetts and Nebraska, worried people comforted each other with the phrase, "At least it's not Michigan."
In Michigan, people whose
companies were solvent read
the papers and counted
their blessings. Across the
Midwest, union members
were less likely to press on ward than to hang on.
I don't want to exaggerate our lowered expectations. After all, it's economic fear that brought the Democrats back up from 1980. But even the winners didn't make speeches about Great Societies. Where the Democrats took over, it was with a pitch to protect the basics, like jobs and Social Security.
The Democrats knew better than to attack Republicans for belt-tightening. Their most effective argument was that Reaganomics didn't tighten all belts equally. As liberal Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts put it after his stunning victory Tuesday night over Republican Rep. Margaret Heckler: "We're not asking the federal government to spend more money, but that it be spent with a better sense of equity."
The most telling accusation leveled against Reagan was not about his cuts but about his generosity: to the rich, to the Defense Department, to the arms sellers.
In his piece, Yankelovich suggested that the political theme song for the Eighties is an old Nat King Cole standard. "The party's over/It's time to call it a day." There's truth and value in this realism. It's come home to us that we can't heal every domestic wound or every world conflict by continually enlarging the American pie.
But at the same time, there's always a risk that people who expect less will finally settle for less, and less, and less. There's a risk that they'll sink from realism to pessimism, from acceptance to passivity.
Maybe we lowered our expectations and raised our tolerance level this year. But we also began to draw our bottom line, against unemployment and unfairness. This line winds all the way to Washington.