The Era of 'Big' Government: Why You'd Miss It If It Went

By Dionne, E. J., Jr. | Commonweal, February 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Era of 'Big' Government: Why You'd Miss It If It Went


Dionne, E. J., Jr., Commonweal


The new radicalism in American politics, exemplified by the Republican Contract with America, means that the debate in 1996 and beyond is not simply a contest between political parties. It's a confrontation between fundamentally different approaches to economic turbulence, moral uncertainty, and international disorder. American politics has been unsettled in recent years because most Americans sense that the country has not adapted well to these changes, and because they are ambivalent about them. They see enormous potential in technological change and the global economic revolution, but also know that both carry high costs, challenge old values, and threaten the living standards of many. Like most people facing comparable choices in other times, Americans would like to reap their gains from the new era and minimize the costs it will impose. The central political question is whether such a tradeoff can be managed, and how.

It is Newt Gingrich's genius to be the first major Republican politician to pose many of these questions explicitly. His strategy would make technological change itself the priority and push government aside. "We do have an economic game plan," said the House Republicans in their post-contract manifesto, Restoring the Dream, "and its central theme is to get bureaucratic government off of America's back and out of the way." What has been called Third Wave conservatism posits that virtually all the constructive changes in the next era will take place in the private marketplace.

This new conservatism harks back not to Ronald Reagan but to the Gilded Age of the 1890s. "Today," wrote Paul Starr in The American Prospect, "the forces of the nineteenth century are laying siege to the accomplishments of the twentieth century in the name of the twenty-first." The new conservatives would resolve the country's political crisis by shrinking government. They would resolve the economic crisis by accelerating the economic transition. Denying any link between economic developments and the country's moral state, they would leave the solution of the moral crisis to traditional institutions, limiting the government's charitable endeavors in the hope that this would revive religiously based programs for social and personal uplift. All this would resolve the international crisis by transforming the United States, in Newt Gingrich's memorable phrase, into "the decisive economic power on the planet, which is the most competitive nation, which is capable of leading the human race, and which has reestablished here at home a culture that works."

The new conservatism will fail not because it isn't bold - it is very bold to try to restore nineteenth-century doctrines - but because it seeks to define away almost all the problems that Americans want politicians to grapple with. The new conservatism is premised on the idea that there is no trade-off in the new era, that if only economic change goes forward unfettered, everyone will be better off. But most Americans don't believe that. Nor do most Americans define the moral crisis simply in terms of the misbehavior of others and presume that more and better preaching will solve the problem. They experience the moral crisis in their own lives, in worries about whether their own work will be rewarded and how they will raise their children. There is overwhelming distrust of government, but this does not translate into the overweening confidence in the corporate sector that so characterizes the new conservatism. The popular anger at government reflects not simply an impatience with bureaucrats but also a disappointment at government's failure to help citizens who are working their way through a difficult economic period. Americans want some protection from both the government and the market to preserve space in which families, voluntary associations, churches, and the other institutions of civil society can thrive.

If the old liberals seemed too eager to have the government usurp the authority of those institutions, the new conservatives appear blissfully unaware of how the economic marketplace can encroach on their prerogatives. …

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