One Year into a Revolution? (Developments since the Congressional Elections of November 1994)

By Chretien, Raymond | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

One Year into a Revolution? (Developments since the Congressional Elections of November 1994)


Chretien, Raymond, Queen's Quarterly


FOR a country born of revolution, the United States has a political system that is extraordinarily conservative and resistant to change, an objective the founders clearly had in mind when designing a constitutional regime that remains virtually unaltered after 200 years. The careful distribution of power ensures that enthusiasms of the moment are seldom translated into legislative enactments. Political fervour that sweeps periodically across the United States has been for the most part like a storm over an ocean, creating turmoil on the surface, but seldom penetrating to the deeper layers below.

Because the rhetoric of "revolution" or "reform" is so rarely translated into deep-seated change, reformist movements, when they do occur, appear to observers to be especially intense. These powerful reactions reflect the recognition of the advocates themselves, either consciously or subconsciously, that an extraordinary effort is required to attain minimal results in a system intended to temper popular outbursts.

The 1994 elections, in which the Republican party captured both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years, marked the emergence of one of these occasional storms. Observers, including Canadians, are naturally intrigued by these changes and by the questions they entail: how durable is this latest revolution and how real the change? In this an event of seismic proportion or merely a tempest that will blow itself out?

We at the embassy in Washington have a privileged venue for observing the debate, along with the responsibility of assessing and reacting to developments to ensure that Canadian interests are safeguarded. My intention in this paper is to offer several observations on these recent events, one year after the 1994 elections.

The Backdrop

IT has been argued that the 1994 elections are a watershed representing a reassessment of America's attitude toward government, a phenomenon not seen since the 1930s. For over 60 years, since the disheartening experience of the Depression, it was a fundamental tenet of US politics that government, and most especially the federal government, had a central role to play in American society.

Political maelstroms since the Depression - the Great Society of the 1960s, Watergate, and the Reagan Revolution - did not alter the average voter's perception about the role of government. The Great Society represented the implementation of the uncompleted Democratic agenda left over from the 1930s. The scandals associated with Watergate made for fascinating political theatre but had few lasting implications for the operation of government. The Reagan Revolution, despite its political rhetoric challenging the prevailing philosophy of government, made few discernible changes to the relationship between citizen and state.

Major initiatives emerged from these political upheavals, but the fundamental assumptions about Washington's role in society remained intact. Such events undoubtedly contributed to the growing cynicism about government and its ability to solve the problems of the individual citizen, but these undercurrents did not translate into meaningful change. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that what the average American expected of the federal government at the beginning of the 1990s differed little from the expectations at the end of the 1930s.

The Plan and the Players

HAS the 1994 election led to a major reassessment of and consequential change to the place government occupies in the lives of Americans? At first glance it appears that this may be so. There is no question that the new Republican majority, especially the freshment in the House, have a commitment to reducing the role of the federal government, and they have brought with them a concrete agenda for doing so. Having imbibed the conservative rhetoric of the Reagan years, they arrived in Washington with the electorate's profound doubts about what government can accomplish for the individual. …

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