The People’s Voice and the Politicians’ Perception of the People’s Voice
VTR Date: October 28, 1980
Guest: Decter, Midge
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Midge Decter
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Midge Decter has been my guest twice before as one of our most articulate critics of feminism in America. Well, I’ve asked her to The Open Mind again today, but to discuss this time a fascinating article she has published in The American Spectator. It’s entitled “The People’s Yes.” And in it, Midge Decter reviews and deplores the destructive, dangerous failure to communicate that so frequently exists in our country between popular ideas and movements and our political leaders’ perceptions of what the people actually think; perceptions that too frequently are tied to what the people thought before, not now. Marshal McLuhan said that, “We tend to march into the future looking through a rearview mirror.” Well, Midge Decter says that at least our leaders are doing so once again now, and to our detriment. Failing to see that our earlier cynicism, our need for withdrawal from world affairs, our earlier demeaning sense of self-doubt, despair, and dislike are largely being displaced by a more formative sense of America’s value and worth. And she senses that our political leaders once more are behind our times and our thoughts. This is what we’d like to talk with Midge Decter about today.
Thank you for joining me again today, Midge. I wanted to ask you first of all whether we couldn’t separate out this larger question – and perhaps it is larger in the best sense of the word – of why there is this break between what the people think now and what our political leaders assume they think, and the question of what it is that you’re concerned about, what area of thought, what area of concern that our leaders have not felt coning through from the people? What is that feeling?
DECTER: Well, I sense that there is a new and rapidly growing mood in this county. It’s easy to misinterpret because it’s very difficult for people to find the right counters, the right symbols in which to express what they feel, particularly on very large issues. The new mood that I think is everywhere around, and I think so, I will be frank to say, partly because I find it in myself, and I’m one of these people who believe that if you want to know what’s going on, the first place you should look is in yourself, on the assumption that most people are more or less alike. And this new mood is a mood – I would say “desiring,” but it’s something much stronger than desiring – an urgent need to feel that this is a decent country, that we are a decent people, that we have by and large conducted ourselves, however mistakenly, decently as countries go, that this is a society worth affirming. And I think they feel this need desperately.
HEFFNER: And you said that you felt that this might be misinterpreted. What did you mean?
DECTER: Well, it is in fact being misinterpreted in the sense that it’s been divided up. When you read about the new mood in the country it’s divided up into very specific issues. For instance, one of the things that’s said is that there are a new group of hawks in the country who are getting very warlike, or there are a new group of people who are fighting for the family, or there are groups of people who attach themselves to this issue or that issue. It’s got the name “single-issue politics.” And there are of course very articulate minorities who are engaged in a single-issue politics. But the public that is responding to them, it seems to me, is responding to them in a kind of piecemeal fashion, because there’s nowhere you can find articulated the whole range of general feelings you have. So that none of these single groups actually expresses this properly. I think people do feel shocked to discover that this country is becoming a weak power. I think it happened while their backs were turned. And they don’t like it. They don’t like the idea that the United States is so weak that it cannot even protect its own citizens abroad, for instance, let alone control its own destiny in many ways. They don’t like that idea. I think they are terribly worried about the general moral breakdown. I think we are all terribly worried about the general moral breakdown and the climate of nihilism. These two things are related. They are all part of the same response to the assault on American society that has been going on for 20 years now.
HEFFNER: I’m a little bit puzzled by the nature of the connection. On the one hand, you talk about the better feeling about ourselves – we are not what we were saying we were.
DECTER: Yes, yes.
HEFFNER: …ten years ago perhaps. We’re better people. We’re perhaps, as has been said, the last great hope of mankind. Perhaps. Why do you make the connection between that and the feeling that we’ve grown weak, we’re not as strong as we used to be, we may not play the same power role that we did in the past. Is there a necessary connection between those two, as you seem to feel?
DECTER: Well, I think there isn’t. First of all, I mean, it is objectively the case that we have grown weak, or if that’s putting it too strongly – I don’t think it’s putting it too strongly, but some people would think so – that we have grown relatively a great deal weaker than we once were.
HEFFNER: Others have grown strong?
DECTER: Well, others. All right. Relatively weaker than. Others have grown a good deal stronger than we. But it goes beyond that. And the others in this case I think we should name. Namely, the Soviet Union has grown very strong. But I think the condition of our weakness goes beyond that. We have responded externally to assaults against us: the murder of our diplomats, the kidnapping of our citizens, economic blackmail from OPEC and so on. We have responded to all these things like a weak power, and threatening now and then in an empty way and threatening. We have allowed situations to deteriorate in places that are really in our sphere of influence. I think that is a clear-cut perception that the country has grown weak. But I think that the sense that we are a good people is connected very much to the idea, not only that a good, since we are decent people we are entitled to defend ourselves, we are entitled to stand our ground, we are entitled not to be pushed around by everyone, but also that American power is a force for good in the world. I really think that by and large the American people, most of them, believe this, hope this, and are even willing to pay the price for it.
HEFFNER: But when we felt so strongly as a people that we were a good people, that we didn’t have to hide our heads in shame over anything, we weren’t at that time the great power that we became in the first quarter or the first third of this century. So I don’t see quite what the connection is between feeling that one has the capacity to hold one’s head high in terms of what one does as a citizen of the world, what the connection is between that and great power. Because when we felt best about ourselves, I suspect, we were not playing the role of great power.
DECTER: Well, I would take issue with that. These are very difficult kinds of things to compare historically, because one was not there in the 19th century of the 18th century. But I would take issue with that based on my own experience. That decade which came to acquire such a very, very bad reputation, namely the bad old 1950s, which really can be said to have begun about 1946 and probably lasted until about 1956, ’57, ’58, something like that – that decade we have named “The Fifties” – was a decade in which there was a general feeling that American power was being used to good purposes, and that it was a benign power, that American society with all its shortcomings was on the whole a benign society, that it was for all its shortcomings probably a better social arrangement than any other, any of us could see. I think there was, except for a few unimportant sectors of the intellectual community, I think the 1950s was not a time of dreariness or the age of the silent generation or the age of conformity or all these bad things that people named it; it was a time of high spirits in this country and enormous energy and productivity and tremendous intellectual ferment, artistic ferment, and…
HEFFNER: What happened, Midge?
DECTER: Well, (Laughter) what happened is that… One of the things I think happened is that people in a very reckless and careless way – and in this case the people I mean are not the majority of the public, but the people who do the talking and who circulate the ideas in this country and who have an enormous influence because they’re the ones who put into the culture what are the dominant fashions. Those people got bored with leading sober and responsible life as Americans.
DECTER: Yes. You know, Robert Nesbitt, who is a brilliant sociologist, once remarked that, “Boredom is the most underrated force in human life.” And certainly it is an underrated force in the recent culture of the United States, I think. People got bored and restless. I remember. I was there4. It was my generation. They got… It was a very heavy burden of responsibility that the United States had undertaken, and heavy burdens of responsibility do constrain action. And the 1950s was a time, for instance, when the virtues of family life were very much extolled. It was the age of the great population explosion. And there we all were in our households producing these children and very much concerned about the quality of our domestic life and domestic relations.
HEFFNER: Who became bored with this? The people?
DECTER: Oh no. No. The intellectual community became bored with this.
HEFFNER: And did what?
DECTER: And returned to, either sought out a new kind of radicalism in some cases, or returned to the old radicalism in others. Because life seemed very burdensome. Also, there is another thing that happens to, particularly to intellectuals, I think. I think they’re particularly prone to this. And by “intellectuals” here, I don’t only mean eggheads and highbrows. I mean the people who make a living by circulating the ideas.
HEFFNER: The scribblers.
DECTER: The scribblers, the teachers, television, talk show hosts (Laughter), the serious authors as well as the scribblers, playwrights, TV drama writers. The people who create the climate of the culture. There was a kind of seizure of what I could call, and would not be original calling it that, because Eric Fromm once characterized it in the same way, a fear of freedom. The great danger to free people is that every once in a while their freedom gets to be too much for them, too big a burden of responsibility. And then you get these explosions of movements and ideas saying that this life is not satisfactory and we have to make some radical changes. And the radical changes are always announced in the name of freedom. But they usually end up on some track which is in fact, in fact carries the implication that you’re going to be relieved of freedom. And I think that that was very much a part of the new radicalism of the 1960s, which sent abroad in the land that everything that was bothering everybody was society’s fault. Well that idea.
HEFFNER: Our fault. America’s fault.
DECTER: Yes. But not my fault. And if I was not happy, society was somehow to be held accountable for this. And the impulse to blame society and to demand that society be reconstituted so as to take care of all these problems is an impulse away from freedom. And that was going on inside the country. And then it met up with the most unpopular war, obviously the most unpopular war this country has ever engaged in, maybe one of the more unpopular wars in human history, which was a failed and mistaken policy from which we had great difficulty extricating ourselves. We got into an awful mess in Vietnam, and that external fact combined with the internal to create this climate in which attacking ourselves for being a great, failed society just got to be a kind of automatic piety.
HEFFNER: You don’t think that self-flagellation stemmed to some extent at least from the unreality of the older assumptions about the power that we could wield in the world, the failure to recognize that our power might not be diminishing except relatively, that others were growing in strength, that we weren’t losing this nation and that nation to those others, but they were gaining them?
DECTER: Well, that’s a very complicated idea, what you have just articulated. Because the reason that we were losing to the others and that they were gaining strength is that we had… Well, first of all, we had enmired ourselves in a mess and had lost… Because that’s always a very shaking experience, I’m sure, to lose a war, which is what we did in Vietnam, is always a traumatic experience for any society. And especially a traumatic one for this society which had always had been innocent of defeat of this kind. But it wasn’t simply that the, the reason the others were gaining on us is that we were permitting them to do so, after all.
HEFFNER: And I suspect that, from what I have read of what you have written, that you feel that in part we lost that war because of those prior feelings that stemmed from the boredom of the fifties, that stemmed from a feeling of distress with where we were, that in a sense we lost it because we no longer felt that good about ourselves. Is that a fair reading?
DECTER: I don’t think so. I think we lost that war because we had made it unwinnable. I think we lost that war because the war itself was a mistake. It’s not a war we should have gone into. We didn’t understand what we were getting into, and we didn’t take it on in the necessary terms. We got into the Vietnam war because a group of extremely arrogant and quite inexperienced people in Washington.
HEFFNER: The best and the brightest?
DECTER: The best and the brightest assured themselves that this was something that could be pulled off with very little effort. And it could be pulled off – which will really bring us back to our beginning subject – it could be pulled off without consulting the American people about it. No need to tell them what we were doing, and no need to explain to them that we were in fact getting into a war. Because that might be politically unpopular. And therefore they kept convincing themselves that this was something, with just a little bit more, just a little bit more we could have it all taken care of. Until we were in too deep. And it brings us back to our subject because that was a disaster brought about by the fact that the American people, which has proven itself on the whole, by and large, to be more reasonable and capable of more complexity of attitude than any of the politicians that we have seen in I don’t remember when, they were not appealed to. No one said to them, “Look, we are going into war here because we feel it is a necessary part of our foreign policy which is to contain the spread of communist power. We are liable to have a long, dreary, rotten struggle.” It’s very hard. You know what General Montgomery once said is, “One of the cardinal rules of warfare is never get into a land war in Asia.” “And we aqre getting into a long, drawn out, agonizing conflict.” And to appeal to the American people to support them in this. On the contrary. They kept, first of all, they permitted the American middle class to keep its children out of that war, so as to keep them quiet, with no success. And they kept on until finally that fateful escalation in which it turned, we turned around and there were half a million men there. But year by year, the best and the brightest were assuring themselves, one another, and the president they served that they had anew gimmick, they had a new trick that was going to take care of the problem.
HEFFNER: So you’re suggesting we didn’t create a people’s yes in terms of…
DECTER: We did not in terms of the Vietnam War. Now, I’m not, I am not predicting retroactively that there would have been such support. It’s too easy to do that. That the people would then have risen up and said yes. But the only possibility for getting public support would have been to explain to them what the government had in mind, and appeal to them to support this effort.
HEFFNER: And I gather what you are saying now is that similarly we are not listening, or our politicians are not listening to the yeses that the American people are uttering. They’re not hearing the positive.
DECTER: Not yet they are not. I think they’re beginning to. But they, I think they’re really not getting the message. At least as I read the newspapers every day and compare what I read in the papers and the statements that our leaders are making, and I compare that with what my own eyes and ears and nose tell me about what is going on around me, I think they’re not getting their message. I’ll give you an example. In this presidential, the Carter versus Reagan presidential campaign, it is said very confidentially on one side that Reagan is going to get Carter on the economy, and that Carter is going to get Reagan on the war/peace issue. And it’s assumed that the way that you appeal to voters and the main thing with voters are their pocketbooks or their own private interests. I do not think that is so. I do not think that is so at this moment. I do not think that is what is moving in the country at all.
HEFFNER: By the time people see this program, they’ll know which choice has been made.
DECTER: Yes. But whichever choice they’ve made, those two simple descriptions will not have described the choice.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you the one question that I’ve been saving. And we just have one minute left. Does that mean that those who I call the scribblers, the intellectuals, those who have the leadership role in creating public opinion, that they have changed and have created the nationalism or new patriotism that you sense is abuilding?
DECTER: No, I don’t think so. I think they are beginning to respond to it.
HEFFNER: Then how did it come about?
DECTER: Well, it came about because reality finally does reassert itself. I mean, you can tell women they don’t want to have babies for a very long time, and then one morning they will wake up and say they want to have babies. And you can tell people that they live in a bad, racist, cruel, rotten, unjust society. For awhile they’ll kind of nod their heads. And then one morning they will wake up and say, “Hey, wait a minute. I am not a bigot. I am not unjust. I’m a decent person. And I’m not going to sit still for this kind of theory being thrown at me any longer.”
HEFFNER: And out of that comes the new America?
DECTER: And out of that, hopefully. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: And I’m afraid that’s all the time we have today for that kind of discussion. But let’s come back to that again, Midge Decter. Thank you very much for joining me today on The Open Mind.
And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again on The Open Mind too. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”