• U.S.


6 minute read
John F. Stacks

THE HARD PART ABOUT WRITING books that predict the future of America’s ever more volatile political scene is that before the ink dries on the galley proofs, the future has already arrived. By the time the books are in stores, the writer is either dead wrong or looks as though he or she was predicting the obvious. After all, it was only three years ago that Bill Clinton became President and seers prophesied that he would build a new Democratic majority–despite the fact that he was elected with only 43% of the popular vote. And it was only 14 months ago that Newt Gingrich and his troops seized control of the U.S. Congress, promising a stable conservative majority.

And now? Gingrichism seems spent, as his party’s presidential candidates battle it out in the primaries, offering various versions of supply-sideism, populist anticapitalism and everything else other than budget cutting and fiscal restraint. And Bill Clinton? For the moment, he looks like the odds-on favorite for re-election. What a difference a few days make.

Only slightly behind the curve of this week’s reality comes a spate of intelligent, well-written books from the pundits predicting a revival of liberalism. Not that any of the writers use the L word; it is not the sort of term one uses any longer in polite company. Rather, all foresee the rise, again, of “progressivism.”

The best of the new books is by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., one of the country’s most thoughtful political journalists. They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era (Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $24) argues that the Gingrich phase of American politics is neither conservative nor revolutionary but instead reactionary, harking back to the Big Business Republicanism of the late 19th century. Gingrich is only the latest in a line of Republicans stretching back to Barry Goldwater who have attacked government as the cause of the country’s problems. Dismantling government, they promise, will improve the economic well-being of all Americans by reducing taxes and regulations and free the capitalist economy to generate new wealth for everyone. The inherent flaw in this prescription, Dionne argues, is that it implies the free market is the way and the light. He predicts that government, as it did at the dawn of the progressive age back at the turn of the century, will again have to be strengthened as a counterweight to the forces of pure capitalism.

This is a sound argument, as far as it goes. After all, the powerful forces of an increasingly freewheeling world economy have been depressing middle-class wages and producing what Dionne calls the Anxious Middle–voters who are disenchanted with government but fearful of the creative destruction that is producing big winners and a lot of losers in the national economy. Dionne believes that the very technological revolution that Gingrich extols and that is roiling the American economy will hasten the day when the G.O.P.’s antigovernment mantra becomes unworkable.

Dionne is joined in his thesis by a colleague at the Washington Post, Dan Balz, and Los Angeles Times reporter Ronald Brownstein. Their book, Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival (Random House; 424 pages; $24.95), traces the (brief) reign of Gingrichism to both a profound disillusion with Washington and the failure of Bill Clinton’s first two years in office. But, they write, “If the Republican Party acquires no broader mission than retrenching government for its own sake, it has little chance of resolving the full range of economic and cultural concerns that brought it to power–and thus little chance of maintaining sustained allegiance from the swing voters who decide national elections.”

Add to the chorus New York magazine political columnist Jacob Weisberg, whose book, In Defense of Government: The Fall and Rise of Public Trust, will be published in May by Scribner. He argues that the liberals failed not because their ideas were wrong but because they got carried away and tried to turn Americans into welfare-state Swedes. Weisberg predicts that a more modest agenda–one accepting the idea that some people will fail, that life is full of risks that can’t be legislated away–will let a new progressive agenda flourish. The government is currently overdrawn and overextended, he agrees, but the casting of the government as enemy of the people is silly. “It is an unfortunate construct of language that we refer to government in the third person, as an it,” he writes. “In a liberal democracy like ours, the pronoun we should use is the first person plural. Government is us, collectively.”

James Carville, in his We’re Right, They’re Wrong (Random House and Simon & Schuster; 183 pages; $10), puts it a little more bluntly, no surprise given his Ragin’ Cajun persona. The Republican attack on government, he says, “is simply a case of criminally stupid priorities.” His book is a rambunctious and amusing defense of liberalism and its concern for the common man; he even throws in tips on how to make potato salad. The only discouraged note he sounds is on the subject of race. He sees the country pulling apart along racial lines and admits frankly that he doesn’t know what to do about it.

New Jersey state senator Gordon MacInnes in his Wrong for All the Right Reasons: How White Liberals Have Been Undone by Race (New York University Press, Twentieth Century Fund; 236 pages; $21.95) is a bit more hopeful on that front. He blames liberals–and uses the word pejoratively–for having abandoned the white working class in favor of race-based solutions to poverty. Progressives–he uses that label approvingly–can rebuild a consensus by emphasizing common values like work, family, education and opportunity, not entitlement and racial preferences.

For all the progressive hopes voiced by these authors, it is still true that the accumulated frustrations of the past several decades have come to bear largely on government. With real wages falling, redistributive government looks like theft from the middle class on behalf of the lower class. Unlike the heyday of the Great Society, when Americans were willing to have the government tax away some of its rising wealth on behalf of the poor, the painful readjustments now under way in the economy allow for little taxpayer generosity.

Nor do any of these writers allow for the fact that being mad at the government and being mad at Big Business are not mutually exclusive. Instead of a return to progressivism, we are already getting a kind of recombinant populism, in the person of Pat Buchanan, that is angry at everything and nearly everybody. Rather than a revolt against Gingrichism, Buchanan’s populism actually takes the politics of discontent one step further, into what Buchanan calls a “peasant rebellion,” in which no establishment institution is safe.

Now Buchananism will surely produce a reaction. What will it be? Maybe there’s a book in it somewhere.

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