Analysis of the election has focused on its short-term effects. What's ahead for Social Security? Will we stay President Reagan's 1981 course? But the election can also be seen as part of a longer process--as an incident in the transformation of a postwar America. An America used to government action in war and economic emergency is changing into a peaceful and prosperous America increasingly resentful of government intrusion. It is a nation in which diverse cultural groups insist on being allowed to go their own way.
In this perspective, 1982 was not a repudiation of 1980, but rather a continuation of it: a vote for limited government, on both economic and cultural issues.
That seems clear on economic issues once you strip away the heavy prose. The election was a contest to see who would administer mid-course corrections of the type we saw in 1982. But the starting point for the Senate Republican and House Democratic leaders is about where the 1981 Reagan budget and tax cuts left us. A decade ago the question was: how much should government grow? Now it is: how much should government be limited?
That is true in state government as well. New Democratic governors, faced with declining revenues and balanced budget requirements, will have to limit, not expand, government. In New York, traditionally the most generous welfare state, Democrat Mario Cuomo won, barely. But Republican Lewis Lehrman established Cuomo's agenda by proving that New York's high taxes are costing it jobs and that the fiscal problems that nearly bankrupted the state in 1975 are still a threat. So Cuomo has promised a cap on spending and is likely to resist demands for higher welfare benefits and wage increases for public employees.
On cultural issues, the voters' desire to limit government may not be so clear, if only because these issues were not so prominent in a time of recession. Still, voters made some decisions, if only by refusing to endorse government action.
That's what happened on the abortion issue. After the 1978 and 1980 elections, opponents of abortion had political momentum. They defeated prominent liberals and helped elect a president who shared their views. Their opponents were in disarray. Today the picture is almost reversed. The political process has rejected attempts to ban abortions. Anti-abortion activists gained no victories of note in 1982, and are certain to be weaker in 1983 than 1981.
Anti-abortionists are generally associated with the right; gun control advocates with the left. They have this in common: both seek to change the conduct of others, members of different cultural groups, because of strong moral convictions that others' conduct is destroying human life.
If the anti-abortionists' cause has been declining quietly, the gun control advocates' cause was shot down with a bang in California, where a gun control initiative was rejected by a 63-37 percent margin. In what is probably the nation's culturally most liberal state, gun control could got only 4 percent more of the vote than legalizing marijuana did 10 years ago.
This was not the result of inattention. The issue became the central focus of California politics: gun control opponents raised $5 million and spent it on TV ads; gun control advocates spent less than $1 million. Turnout appears to have been high among gun control opponents. Certainly the voters of California were saying to the groups that back gun control, just as voters generally say to the morally motivated cultural groups who oppose abortion: hands off.
The historian William McNeill has argued that government power increases in time of war and may tend to decrease over long periods of peace. He sees the 20th century as an era of active governments, mobilizing for war and responding to economic crises in much the same way. But after 37 years without a major war, our tolerance for powerful government seems less than it was.
We resist a draft, much less the universal military training Harry Truman championed; we have a visceral aversion to the means necessary to enforce tough immigration laws. We want the welfare state disciplined, and we don't want government telling us how many abortions or guns we can have.
On most of these issues we had different attitudes 30 years ago, when the memory of total war was still fresh. We are increasingly unwilling to tolerate what we regard as government intrusion, whether it is advocated politically by the left or the right.