December 0, 1993
Five years ago Washington Post reporter E.J. Dionne Jr. made punditorial waves with Why Americans Hate Politics, a manifesto for moderates. “Liberals and conservatives,” he announced, “are framing political issues as a series of false choices.” [pg.11] Most Americans sensibly want both economic progress and a modicum of economic security; both individual mobility and stable, supportive communities; both personal freedom and a respect for the traditional virtues and the centrality of families; both racial and sexual justice and yet everyone held to the same high standards at school and on the job. Crafting policies that balance these and other seemingly opposed values may be difficult, but it’s what politicians are paid for.
Instead, Dionne charged, politicians of both parties generally took the easy way out: they simplified, exaggerated, personalized, and sloganized. Conservatives reduced the huge, complex problems of moving toward an integrated global economy to a simple matter of “getting government off our backs.” Liberals dismissed concerns about the erosion of family and neighborhood life, of patriotism, of competence and literacy, with the mantra of “diversity.” And so on until many, perhaps most, voters became exasperated or apathetic. “The current revolt against American politics,” Dionne concluded, “is the mainstream’s rebellion against this false polarization.” [p.326]
Surprisingly, things seem to have sorted themselves out since then, at least enough to justify the new prognosis in They Only Look Dead. Instead of continued stalemate and futility in national politics, Dionne now foresees a clear, meaningful choice between two coherent and intellectually serious party programs. What brought this about? In a word: defeat. The repudiation of George Bush’s rudderless Republicanism in 1992 allowed Newt Gingrich to win the party over to his radical conservatism. And the voters’ equally stinging rebuke to Democratic muddle in 1994 will, Dionne predicts, force liberals to work out a New Progressivism, more realistic, adaptable, and in the end, electorally successful than Gingrichism.
One of the best things in They Only Look Dead is its account of “why Gingrich happened.” According to Dionne, American conservatism has long harbored a tension between traditionalists and libertarians, bankers and cowboys, the party of order and the party of freedom. The former (McKinley, Coolidge, Taft, Eisenhower, etc.) emphasized fiscal prudence, orthodox economic policies, skepticism about progress, respect for established forms (including government), and (at best) a sense of responsibility or trusteeship toward the poor and the environment. The latter (e.g., Hayek, Goldwater, Gramm), by contrast, favored unregulated competition, untrammeled innovation, and unmitigated individualism, as well as occasional visionary (or crackpot) policy schemes. Neither Nixon nor Reagan felt able to roll back Progressivism and the New Deal altogether, or perhaps even wanted to. The result was strident anti-government rhetoric without the wholesale retrenchment of government it implied.
Bush was trapped by these contradictions. Gingrich has cut the Gordian knot. He has done so, Dionne writes, by “resolving the contradictions within contemporary conservatism on the side of a radical vision”: to wit, “a large-scale dismantling of the federal apparatus ... related to welfare and income support, consumer and environmental protection, economic regulation and management.” [p.227] Powered by an irresistible wave of technological progress and economic growth, the “conservative opportunity society” will supplant the “liberal welfare state.”
But although Gingrichism advertises itself as a recipe for the 21st century, it is, Dionne shrewdly notes, a throwback to the 19th. The futuristic politics of the “Third Wave” is fundamentally the same as the laissez-faire politics of the Gilded Age. A vast and complicated economic transition-- to national scale then, to global scale now -- evokes a simple, ruthless political response: winner take all. The losers then were small farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers, who had fought the American Revolution and forged the country’s republican ideals. They and their ideals were pushed to the margins by industrialism, just as present-day American workers and their New Deal “social contract” are threatened by global competition and technologically-driven downsizing. And exactly like their 19th-century predecessors, the Gingrichites “cast all worker protections as ‘socialism’ and any effort by government to write rational rules for a new style of competition as an attack on property rights.” [p.268]
It didn’t wash back then, Dionne points out, and it won’t wash now. Appalled by the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism -- concentration, inequality, corruption, pollution, adulteration, and so on -- Progressives of both parties created a structure of economic regulation which, along with the social-welfare measures of the New Deal, became the broad, consensual middle ground of 20th-century American politics. This common-sense understanding that a free-market economy, whatever its virtues, cannot function on automatic pilot will survive the public’s disgust with Democratic incompetence and cultural insensitivity.
They Only Look Dead is an astute and humane book, and I hope Dionne is right. But I have my doubts. It is possible to argue (as Thomas Ferguson, for one, has done very convincingly in his recent, magisterial Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems) that Progressivism and the New Deal were the results not of a popular consensus but of a conflict among elites. An alliance of capital-intensive industries, investment banks, and internationally-oriented commercial banks, interested in low tariffs, free trade, an active U.S. diplomacy, and less affected by regulation and high labor costs, financed the Democratic Party in opposition to the labor-intensive, isolationist domestic manufacturers who financed the Republican Party. The stronger faction won; hence fifty years of liberal internationalism.
I’m simplifying, of course, but only to make the point that American politics bears little resemblance to the descriptions in civics textbooks or newspaper editorials. In electoral politics, as with every other activity in a market-based society, consumers have a say but investors have control. Dionne doesn’t seem to appreciate this sufficiently. In Why Americans Hate Politics and They Only Look Dead he has brought calm good sense to bear on problems that arguably warrant something deeper and fiercer.