Whose Story Will Win? Why This Election Matters

By Callahan, David | Commonweal, October 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Whose Story Will Win? Why This Election Matters


Callahan, David, Commonweal


For decades, die-hard liberal Democrats have invoked Harry Truman's maxim that when voters have a choice between a real Republican or a Democrat posing as a Republican, they will choose a real Republican every time. But this year, with President Bill Clinton careening to the center in his quest for re-election, Truman's folk wisdom could hardly be more wrong. Clinton is leading in the polls in large part because he has been so effective in co-opting key Republican issues like crime, fiscal responsibility, and family values. For legions of disillusioned Democrats, Clinton's bid to burnish his credentials as a fake Republican underscores the vanishing differences between the two major parties. The vote in November, many say, is about nothing at all.

Does the outcome of the election really make no difference? To believe so is to neglect a central reality - and irony - of the present moment: Even as two centrists vie for the White House, American politics writ large is becoming more ideologically competitive than at any time in recent memory. And, contrary to the cynics, what happens on election day will dramatically affect this competition.

The conservative resurgence that ended Democratic control of the Congress in 1994 is far from exhausted, even if many of its legislative ambitions have been thwarted. Thanks to a new emphasis on devolution and the push for a balanced budget, the assault on activist government has reached an unprecedented level of intensity. The conservative vision of a pared-down government that transfers power to the states and reduces federal regulations is more politically viable today than during the Reagan years. At the same time, the conservative focus on morality and personal responsibility has now penetrated to the very core of American political discourse. Whatever their legislative record of recent years, conservatives have made continuous forward progress in refining a grand story of American life that stresses the need to downsize government and return to traditional values.

Meanwhile, a renewal of progressive politics may already be under way. As inequality and economic insecurity grow in American life, so too does the manifest need for new measures to correct the imperfections of the marketplace. More immediately, as conservatives take aim at government programs and regulations that most Americans support, it has become easier for progressives to talk again about the virtues of government in a way that resonates with the public. And intellectually, progressives are better positioned now than at any other time in recent years to take advantage of the growing backlash against Social Darwinism in American life. After years of being hobbled by their own stale rhetoric and ideas, progressives have begun to fashion a new grand story of American life. The old liberal story from the 1960s stressed the need for an activist government that fought poverty and secured the rights of various long-oppressed minorities. It promised that growing prosperity and rising economic equality would go hand-in-hand. That story stopped selling to the public when wages stagnated, when welfare programs were seen as failing, and when the rights revolution snowballed into divisive identity politics.

In the new progressive grand story, activist government is being put forth as a basic necessity of twenty-first-century life. Government is needed to help traverse a turbulent period of economic transition and to protect Americans from the ravages of the global economy. Government is required to help stem inequality that seems to rise inexorably upward, no matter how much prosperity the market creates. …

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