Elections and Democratic Dreams

Elections change history in unexpected ways. This is the twentieth anniversary of one such election, when Ronald Reagan was voted into the White House. No one foresaw the changes that election day wrought on his key issue -- namely, the bitter and dangerous rivalry with the Soviet Union. The unexpected outcome was not only the rivalry's sudden and spectacular demise, but the way it unraveled.

The November 4, 1980 election gave the presidency to Reagan over incumbent President Jimmy Carter, but it also heralded the beginning of a remarkable social movement. On that same day, in 59 of 62 local referenda throughout western and central Massachusetts, a resolution was passed that demanded a halt to the superpowers' nuclear arms competition. Organized by the Traprock Peace Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, the referenda's overwhelming support in a period of heightened fear of and hostility toward Moscow -- the sentiments that propelled Reagan's candidacy -- lead a number of political activists, intellectuals, and philanthropists to seize the opportunity to organize on a grander scale.

The result was the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign and allied organizations that swiftly altered the landscape of the debate over nuclear weapons and U.S.-Soviet relations. Within months, hundreds of non-profit groups had sprung up to challenge longstanding beliefs about the necessity of nuclear deterrence and military prowess. And within two years, Reagan himself was forced to acknowledge that nuclear weapons were not usable, and soon began to negotiate the sort of arms-reduction agreements he had run against in 1980. Congress became newly emboldened to restrain Reagan's darker impulses, even imposing unilateral arms control on space weapons and nuclear tests.

The ideas for disarmament and cooperation fostered by the anti-nuclear movement seeped into the Kremlin and were embraced soon after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Notions of "cooperative security" and "non-offensive defense," developed in the West and brought to Gorbachev by American and European intellectuals, gradually infused official Soviet thinking.

When Reagan's presidency was rocked by the Iran-contra scandal in late 1986, he immediately took up Gorbachev's peace overtures and, just a few months later, both signed the first treaty to reduce nuclear weapons and sketched out the reductions still being realized today.

One can argue many influences on this extraordinary history, but the peace movement -- possibly the largest citizens' crusade in American history -- was fundamental in articulating the public demand that pressured and encouraged leaders to take risks to end the nuclear danger. The fact that this peace movement was born, in effect, on the same day that Reagan's presidency was also given birth is particularly poignant.

What surprises lurk in the politics of this election? The obvious parallel to 1980 is the anti-globalization forces that rocked the world's trade ministers in Seattle less than a year ago. Those groups, from the anarchic to the scholarly, were nurtured in a similar way -- a few activists and critical intellectuals, backed by a handful of progressive donors, gradually building a movement and a case against the ill effects of a globalized economy.

This, indeed, is the pattern for most successful attempts at profound political reform: a cohort of innovative thinkers allied with grassroots activists change the social values underlying the political culture, and some attentive political leaders respond creatively. This is happening, and will happen, again and again, here and abroad. A safe bet is that the anti-globalization movement -- which insists on higher wages, better working conditions, and environmentally safe practices in manufacturing -- will be the first to confront the new president, with possibly profound consequences.

But it may be that there are other social forces swirling beneath the surface that will rise quickly to alter the course of history. Elections are not just about presidents, after all, but about democratic dreams of a better life.

John Tirman is author of Making the Money Sing: Private Wealth and Public Power in the Search for Peace, published this autumn by Rowman & Littlefield. He is a program director at the Social Science Research Council in New York.


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