The worst nightmares of the American left appear to have come true.footnote Like the beast of the apocalypse, Reaganism has slouched out of the Sunbelt, devouring liberal senators and Great Society programmes in its path. With the fortieth President’s popularity-rating soaring above eighty percent (partially thanks to an inept assassin), most surviving liberals seem frightened out of their moral fibres. Pragmatic as well as right-leaning Democrats have joined with Republicans in a new ‘era of good feeling’, slashing vital welfare spending to make way for the biggest and most ominous escalation of arms spending in history. Public discourse has been commandered by multitudes of ‘post-liberals’, ‘neo-conservatives’ and ‘new rightists’ who offer the grotesque ideological inversion of positive discrimination for the middle classes and welfare for the corporations. Indisputably a seismic shift rightwards is taking place at every level of American politics with grim implications for the future of minorities, women and the labour movement. It is far less clear, however, whether the 27% of the electorate who voted for Ronald Reagan have actually inaugurated the long-awaited ‘New Republican Majority’. For some pundits, 8 November 1980 was nothing less than the Eighteenth Brumaire of American conservatism, while for others it merely marks the beginning of another chapter in the endemic crisis of the Presidency that has plagued every administration since 1964 (two of them with larger initial mandates than Reagan).

However, before Reaganism’s futures can be interrogated, its genealogy needs to be better understood. The notes that follow attempt to provide historical parameters and lineages for a series of hypotheses—some of them very speculative—about the rise of the so-called ‘New Right’ and its role in the Reagan coalition. In particular I focus on how sweeping changes in electoral structures and political technologies, together with the socially centrifugal forces arising from stagflation, have shaped a new political terrain which is incomparably more congenial to the growth of right-wing populism than to social democracy. At the same time I attempt to indicate why real political restabilization will probably remain more elusive than ever, as the ease with which popular fronts of the right can be constructed is belied by their internal volatility and generally illusory unity.

It is hardly surprising that California politics provided the launching pad for Ronald Reagan’s presidential ambitions. In the first place California acts as a kind of prefigurative microcosm of national politics; its internal antinomies tend to anticipate the form and content of social conflict in the rest of the country. Thus, Berkeley, Watts, Delano literally and symbolically heralded the movements of the sixties and early seventies, while Orange County was celebrated as both birthplace and promised land of the New Right. The polarization of the Southern suburbs against campuses and ghettoes offered a model laboratory for contriving united fronts of middle-class and white working-class backlash against integrated housing (1964–65), abolition of the death penalty (1965, 1976), the rights of farm labour (1972), school busing (1979) and property taxes (1978).

Essential to the orchestration of these single-issue movements was the availability of plebiscitary mechanisms that maximize the impact of large inputs of money and advertising. Indeed, California stands in another premonitory relationship to national politics as the first state in which traditional party apparatuses were superseded by new technologies of political manipulation. As Arthur Hadley has noted: ‘California is important. For California is the first state in which the traditional functions of the party broke down. In the years following 1910, the reform movement of Hiram Johnson laid hands on the corrupt party system of California and reformed the parties out of practical existence. Jobs were placed in civil service, the initiative and referendum were adopted, and cross voting in primaries legalized.’footnote1 The next step in California’s political revolution occurred in the early thirties when Whitaker and Baxter became the first public relations firm in the world to specialize in professional campaign management. A further innovation was Louis B. Mayer’s mobilization of Hollywood’s celluloid power to defeat Upton Sinclair’s radical epic (‘End Poverty in California’) movement in the 1934 gubernatorial election. Having largely destroyed the formal power of party bosses to control the nomination process or to dispense patronage, the emergent system of California politics opened the way for any group of wealthy backers to attempt to valorize some celebrity-commodity as political capital. The ‘ideal candidate’ no longer needed to be found, he could be manufactured. Democrats as well as Republicans have cultivated the homunculus, but the latter have been more effective in linking controversial candidacies with electoral agitation via rightist initiatives and referenda (conversely, campaigns like Proposition 13 and the Los Angeles anti-busing movement have produced a bumper crop of highly visible and popular new Republican candidates).

Fifteen years have passed since Ronald Reagan was catapulted into the California governorship on a wave of anti-student, anti-black reaction. In the interval national politics, particularly at the senatorial and presidential levels, have assimilated several of the most distinctive aspects of what used to be called California’s ‘anti-politics.’ First of all the number of states nominating presidential candidates through direct primaries has more than doubled during the last twelve years (see Table 1) and less than a quarter of convention delegates are still selected by the traditional methods of party caucus or state convention. This has radically displaced the strategic locus of the nomination battle from the smoke-filled room to the television studio. For both incumbents and challengers, campaigning has become a virtually permanent process (Reagan, for example, campaigned almost uninterruptedly from 1976 onwards), requiring unprecedented financial resources and mass-media exposure. To appreciate the relative novelty of this approach it should be recalled that the first candidate to seek his party’s presidential nomination by focusing on primaries was Estes Kefauver in 1950. Interestingly, Kefauver, the hard-fisted hero of Senate anti-crime hearings, was also the first presidential candidate to establish a national following through extensive television coverage. On the other hand, the last candidate to achieve nomination without fighting his way through the primaries was Hubert Humphrey in 1968, who was selected in the old-fashioned way by party bosses and lobbyists behind the closed doors of the national convention.