THE NEW PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE
Edited by Lamar Alexander and Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Hudson Institute, 357 pp., $12.95 (paper)
In large part because they are selling themselves as much as
their ideas, presidential candidates like to campaign on broad
themes rather than a laundry list of specifics. Yet in order to be
judged sincere by the voters and serious by the press, a candidate
must have a coherent set of proposals dealing with issues as
diverse and complex as taxes, arms control, welfare, and education.
To generate these proposals, candidates turn to experts for
One such candidate, and first out of the gate with a book tied
to his run for the top office, is former Tennessee governor and US
Education Secretary Lamar Alexander.
Alexander has just edited a collection of essays entitled "The
New Promise of American Life," the product of a two-year project he
headed at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank.
The book's 20 contributors include co-editor Chester Finn on
"governmentalism," William Kristol on traditional values, and
Howard Baker on foreign policy.
"The New Promise of American Life" is billed as a response to
"The Promise of American Life," written in 1909 by Herbert Croly
(founder of the New Republic magazine). Croly's book outlined the
progressives' vision for the new 20th century; Alexander's presents
a critique of progressivism and a conservative blueprint for the
Croly began by noting the obvious: Life in the United States was
becoming more and more centralized. Advances in travel and
communication were linking once-isolated communities. Corporations,
labor unions, and cities were growing, while small businesses,
family farms, and small towns were withering. Only the federal
government, Croly argued, could stand up to these new combinations
of power and represent the interests of individual Americans. In
his words, "the national advance of the American democracy does
demand an increasing amount of centralized action and
Croly's call for a larger, more active federal government set
the stage for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's
Great Society. As a result, according to Alexander, the federal
government "has grown too big, too meddlesome, too greedy, too
controlling." Even worse, relying on Washington has weakened the
fundamental institutions of American life, the family, church,
neighborhood, and school.
Alexander sees the Republican rout in the 1994 elections as
proof that Americans have rejected the vision Croly outlined.
What kind of United States do Alexander and his fellow
contributors envision? Issues that truly require government
involvement would be handled at the lowest level of government
possible. Some federal agencies would be eliminated and most of the
rest would be moved out of Washington. Congress would have shorter
sessions - Alexander's call of "Cut their pay and send them home"
has become famous - and term limits to keep it responsive to voters.
Economic policy would aim to unleash private enterprise through
lower taxes, which would be tied to consumption rather than income
to encourage saving. …