The Cathedral has long recognised that intelligent discourse with its enemies is counterproductive. It has recognised that the way to win the debate with the masses is through emotional conditioning. As the Jonathan Haidt has shown, and commercial advertising has demonstrated for decades, it's the emotional tail which wags the rational dog. [Ed:Amongst cognitive misers.] The Cathedral tries to paint causes in a positive light always. All the Gays depicted on television and the media are funny, nice and agreeable, all the Conservatives; nasty, unattractive and ignorant. The whole thrust of Cathedral ops is to conflate agreeableness with Liberal values and disagreeableness with Conservative ones. If you can make people feel good about an issue they will vote for it.
Since democracy is little more than group/mood affiliation, it stands to reason that elections are basically popularity contests, which explains both Obama's and Reagan's massive victories, as both men were massively popular with voters, and both just seemed kind of cool (Reagan wasn’t called the “Teflon president” for nothing). What's even more interesting, though, is how pop culture plays a role molding what beliefs/moods are popular. My new crazy theory is that elections can be predicted, in part, by what’s considered cool in pop culture.
In keeping with this, a case can be made All in the Family played a decent-sized role in Reagan's first election because Archie Bunker was a subversively popular character who happened to represent blue collar conservatism (and it was blue-collar conservatives who broke strongly for Reagan in the South, IIRC). In contrast, Mike (played by Rob Reiner) was kind of a pussy loser who happened to be the spitting image of a rational hippie leftist. Carroll O’Connor’s charisma enabled the character of Archie Bunker to be viewed as a lovable bigot (the general typecast of conservatives for the past several decades), which probably helps to explain why conservatism was viewed more favorably come 1980.
There is plenty to consider when making this case, of course. Carter was by no means that beloved of a president when 1980 rolled around. However, Reiner’s character was probably similar to Carter in terms of political symbolism, so if people viewed Reiner as a loser, they probably wouldn’t think much better of the president who represented the same roles. On the other hand, even if AITF didn’t exist as a show, it’s still difficult to imagine that Carter would have been popular with the people come 1980, so perhaps a Republican victory would have been inevitable.
However, the inevitability of a Republican victory aside, there is still a lot to explain about Reagan winning while a) campaigning as a fairly conservative candidate and b) winning by such a large margin. It’s hard to imagine, say, George H.W. Bush inspiring a similar margin of victory in 1980.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Reagan tried to get nominated for president in 1968 and 1976, and lost both times. What’s telling about the first loss is that Reagan lost to Nixon, who was basically a social leftist with strong foreign policy credentials (thanks to Kissinger, of course). Nixon was responsible for bringing about the EPA and expanding the already sizable welfare state. He was also the only Republican elected president between 1960 and 1980, and since he was fairly leftist in his administration, it’s reasonable to say that the Nixon/Ford administration was hardly a relief from the massive leftism that had begun to plague American society.
In fact, looking at the presidents of the 20th century, it becomes clear that progressive ideology starts to become popular with Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the century (for good reason, as Teddy was very much a man’s man) and remains somewhat popular until Wilson fucks everything up.* Progressivism’s popularity waned somewhat until the end of Hoover’s administration. Hoover wasn’t much of a progressive, but he was a technocrat, albeit an inept one, and thus FDR was able to make progressivism popular again by his campaigning and his personableness. FDR certainly epitomized style over substance, since he seemed nice and agreeable, but never actually managed to fix the economy; instead, he made things much worse. From FDR onwards, the history of 20th and 21st century presidents evidences a fairly rapid descent into progressive ideological affiliation. Pretty much all of the Democrat presidents since FDR have been basically progressives, as have most Republicans (Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush postured as moderates, Nixon as a realist, albeit a very progressive one, and Ford as a lame duck).
Thus, there are really only two presidents since FDR who have bucked the progressive trend: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.** Getting back to my crazy theory, it seems to me that the victories of these two conservatives** is due in large part to conservatism being popular in pop culture at a time when progressivism was briefly uncool. Reagan won in part because Carter was an uncool loser, but probably also in part because Reagan was a movie star (always cool) and probably also in part because there was a lovable bigot on television during Carter’s administration.
With Bush, he benefitted from Clinton turning into self-parody. While Clinton was certainly a very cool president, and happened to have lots of personal charisma, he was also easy to mock, and even a lenient press couldn’t be tempted to pass up on a sex scandal. Toss impeachment and easy fat jokes into the mix, and Clinton became fodder for mockery during the tail-end of his term. The DNC, rather ineptly, decided to choose Clinton’s VP Al Gore to run against Bush, which hurt the DNC’s chances of victory, especially since Gore was nowhere close to being as cool as Clinton, and Clinton’s coolness was fading at the time. Bush, then, posed as the ideological heir to Reagan, the GOP’s only cool 20th century president, save possibly for Coolidge, and the rest is history.
My theory that All in the Family made the election for Reagan is a little far-fetched to say the least, but perhaps this is a subject worth studying to some degree. It would certainly be interesting to see if conservatism’s short-lived popularity is really nothing more than conservatism being cool for a brief moment in time. And if Reagan’s victory can be partially attributed to Archie Bunker, then what does that say about Democracy?
* Harding’s administration is regarded by historians as especially inept, which is impressive given that he didn’t even serve a full term, and was succeeded by Coolidge. Harding’s landslide victory (60%+ of the popular vote) was predicated on his promise of a return to normalcy and a more isolationist foreign policy.
** By this I refer to their campaign sloganeering more than the practical realities of their administration. Both Bush and Reagan were championed as true conservatives, though the latter’s popularity has waned considerably since the last half of his second term. Both were fairly popular presidents during their time, and both were considered indicative of the conservative establishment.