The End of the Conservative Era

The confusion and division in American society concerning the policies of the Reagan Administration is typical, Robert McElvaine argues, of the waning of a political era. Noting a parallel to the Eisenhower Administration at the end of the 1950’s, McElvaine contends that the country is no longer satisfied with either the philosophy or the programs of the Reagan years, and that the Democrats, building on the best principles and practices of the New Deal, can provide an answer to the problems facing America.

McElvaine supports his premise by analyzing the record of the Republicans during the last two decades, skillfully using statistics, expert opinion, and salient examples to show that much of the Reagan program has been detrimental to the well-being of the majority of Americans and that some of the much-maligned policies of the Democrats have been more successful than is generally acknowledged. Numbers and charts, lucid and reasonable analysis and explanation, a thorough knowledge of recent history, and some well-chosen quotations from people such as Joe Biden, Mario Cuomo, and Jesse Jackson underpin his argument. Free of the self-congratulatory arrogance of the ideologue, McElvaine’s discussions of such basic issues as health care, the environment, education, agriculture, and crime make the heart of his work something like an ideal textbook, illuminating and clarifying issues often distorted by partisan political debate.

Indeed, while his book is clearly partisan in conception, McElvaine’s ideas are so central to the spirit of American democracy that his systematic examination of such emotionally charged issues as the Equal Rights Amendment, the rights of the individual, the obligations of the government, and the nature of religious freedom will remain timely even though some of his references (he quotes Gary Hart extensively) have already been undercut by the rush of history. The book will probably be a source for the Democratic platform in 1988 and will also serve as a guide to understanding the programs. His extensive use of contemporary rock music as a barometer of the national mood is overdone, however, and leads the book to a rather desultory conclusion. Although the book articulates a position for the already committed, its lucidity and scope should nevertheless give McElvaine’s ideological adversaries something substantial against which to measure their ideas.