Culture and Politics

OUR COUNTRY: THE SHAPING OF AMERICA FROM ROOSEVELT TO REAGAN by Michael Barone, New York: Free Press, 805 pp., $29.95 THE gap in the 1988 electorate between Southern white men and single, urban women, writes Michael Barone in ``Our Country,'' was as large as that between bankers and factory workers during the New Deal. But the division of American politics along economic lines, he argues, has been the exception; culture conflicts are the rule. Reagan's cultural revolution organized political conflict along a different axis from that of Roosevelt's economic reforms, but Barone also shows how Reagan was the legitimate heir of the president for whom he voted four times. Through a series of superb portraits of political leaders and voting districts, Barone has written the most compelling history we have of the evolution from Roosevelt to Reagan.

This is a book of broad and unpredictable sympathies. It begins with stunning evocations of Protestant President and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Irish Roman Catholic Tammany boss Charles F. Murphy. The New Deal politics of economic redistribution, Barone argues, created not class conflict but an enormous, culturally homogeneous, home-owning, blue- and white-collar, suburban middle class.

Thanks to Social Security in the 1930s, and the GI bill and housing subsidies after World War II, the New Deal presided over an immigrant success story. On the one hand, that success undercut the politics of class conflict that had generated Democratic Party political triumphs. On the other hand, intellectuals and some middle-class children grew contemptuous of mass conformity. Adlai Stevenson became the first leading Democrat to criticize rather than celebrate mainstream American culture. Stevenson, Barone suggests, initiated the cultural politics that would bear fruit in the ``adolescent angst'' of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the ``national self-criticism'' of the 1960s. Barone has no sympathy for what he sees as elitist contempt for the values of ordinary Americans. He embraces Reagan, who, like Roosevelt before him, made Americans feel good about their country again.

Vietnam, Barone rightly insists, was central to the 1960s politics of cultural despair. He endorses what he sees as the popular sentiment, that we should have either won or gotten out. Believing that Nixon's program of Vietnamization plus bombing was a strategy for American withdrawal, Barone has little patience with critics of Nixon in Vietnam. He also shows how Nixon's domestic program extended liberal policies. What brought Nixon down, Barone argues, was that he could not contain the cultural conflicts tearing the country apart. And in the cultural conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, Barone has chosen sides.

That choice speaks not only to culture but also to America's role in the world. Condemning those who used Vietnam to oppose American interventions abroad, Barone defends American force as an instrument of world peace and prosperity. Our humiliations abroad, he suggests, as well as the economic downturn at home, can be traced to the refusal to maintain a military presence in the Persian Gulf. In his military buildup as in his cultural politics, Reagan was the inheritor of the Roosevelt-Truman Democratic Party to which he had belonged.

It looked for a time as if the Iran-contra scandal would undermine Reagan's restoration of American self-confidence at home and authority in the world. But the cultural conflicts of the 1980s proved more important both in restoring Reagan's popularity and in electing his successor. Although ``intellectuals and journalists'' did not want to face up to it, Barone concludes, ordinary Americans had reason to be frightened of black crime in a country where 46 percent of jail inmates are black. It is not surprising, therefore, that ``the story of executive wrongdoing and cover-up which would help determine the outcome of the election'' would be not Iran-contra but Michael Dukakis's initial endorsement of, and subsequent evasion of responsibility for, the Massachusetts furlough program that released Willie Horton.

For those puzzled by how Reagan and Bush could inherit Roosevelt's America, ``Our Country'' is the book to read.

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