Why Americans Hate Politics: A Reprise

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

December 1, 2000

The Clinton presidency will be seen historically as a moment of lost opportunities. It?s impossible not to contemplate what Clinton might have accomplished absent the scandal that wasted most of 1998, sapped his authority, and led to the impeachment battle that will permanently scar his presidency.

But the sense of a lost chance is heightened by the other fact about his term in office: the Clinton years will be seen as a time when American politics changed fundamentally. If Bill Clinton did not achieve as much change as he might have, his presidency fundamentally altered the contours of the American political debate.

The surface changes are obvious enough. When Clinton assumed office, the budget deficit was a central and debilitating fact of public life. Government could not consider new projects in the face of a sea of red ink?a reality that helped doom Clinton?s own health care proposal. With the deficit eliminated, it is possible again to have that most fundamental of political arguments: whether the government should do more or cut taxes.

Shrewd conservatives understood that the end of the deficit meant liberals could be bolder in proposing new programs because they could do so without also proposing new taxes.

Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal warned early on that the era of “balanced budget liberalism” would be dangerous to conservatives who had become accustomed to swatting new programs away with arguments that they were unaffordable in light of the deficit. Had not government grown in the early 1960s and 1970s, Gigot asked, when deficits did not figure so prominently in the political debate? The ambitious plans offered by Bill Bradley and Al Gore for expansions of health coverage, pre-school and after-school programs, and efforts to fight child poverty ratified Gigot?s prediction.

The old battles over the role of government were also rendered obsolete. Ronald Reagan?s cry was: “The government is not the solution. The government is the problem.” George W. Bush has put his case much more modestly. “Government if necessary,” he says, “but not necessarily government.”

The difference between the two statements is profound, and Bush has gone out of his way to underscore just how big the difference is. In the fall of 1999, he criticized “the destructive mind-set” holding “that if government would only get out of the way, all our problems would be solved.” Today?s “destructive mind-set” was, just yesterday, a principled conservative argument. “Too often,” Bush said for good measure, “my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself.”

What led to this rethinking (or repositioning) was the defeat of the genuinely ambitious antigovernment program the Republicans offered after their triumph in the 1994 elections. Even those who disagree with what the Republicans tried to do owe them a debt for clarifying the issues. In the wake of the budget fights of 1995?96, it was no longer possible to assume that the country was antigovernment, especially if that meant cuts?you can still hear the Clinton speeches?in “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.” That congressional Republicans proposed nearly as much federal education spending as Clinton did in 1999 (albeit in a different form) suggests how well they understood where public attitudes were drifting.

The most significant policy victory of the post-1994 Republicans was the welfare reform bill of 1996. But the abolition of welfare has had the effect of strengthening the claims of the poor in the public debate. If the poor go to work and still find themselves poor, the moral presumptions of mainstream morality are on their side. And the shift of public spending to programs for the working poor (the earned income tax credit is the most notable and successful) has made it extremely difficult for opponents of economic redistribution to argue that government was intervening on the side of “dependency” or “laziness.”

There is, finally, the simple and very large fact of the prosperity of the 1990s. Debate will go on for years over what precisely created the boom times, when they started?many conservatives still see these good years as part of “The Reagan Economy”?and what combination of policies, economic factors, and accidents brought us back to both low inflation and low unemployment. After the stagflation of the late 1970s and the massive joblessness of the early 1980s, many economists assumed (reasonably enough) that this Nirvana was impossible.

But if the sources of 1990s prosperity will be debated, what cannot be argued is that all the dire warnings offered during the 1993 budget debate were proven wrong. The supporters of supply-side economics insisted that the significant tax increases on the wealthy proposed by Clinton would lead to economic doom. They did not. The wealthy may have paid higher taxes, but their incomes rose and so, more dramatically, did their capital assets.

Here again, shrewd conservatives understood that their side had suffered a significant?and, in this case, self-inflicted?defeat. The Republicans? mistake, wrote Ramesh Ponnuru in the National Review, “was to overstate the case against Clinton?s tax increases.”

“Instead of predicting that his bill would reduce growth?they said it would plunge the economy into recession,” Ponnuru went on. “When this didn?t happen, and the economy after a few years of subpar growth started chugging along, Republicans were embarrassed (as much as politicians get, anyway), and, more important, left with nothing to say.”

Moving Right, Moving Left

To argue all these things defies a certain popular assumption: that Clinton, far from moving the political debate away from the right, capitulated to the Republicans, notably by signing the welfare bill and by declaring that “the era of big government is over.” Both were significant concessions, the first in policy, the second in rhetoric. Both enraged liberals and the democratic left.

It?s also true that the Clinton years saw the culmination of a political realignment in the South that guarantees Republicans will be competitive in congressional elections for the foreseeable future. It?s hard now to imagine a Democratic lock on the House of Representatives comparable to its dominance in the years 1954 to 1994. That era is over, too.

But in the end, Clinton?s tactical shifts toward the right moved the debate away from the right. The fundamental fact of politics in the year 2000 is a shift in the predominant mood. Politics is less ideological, and specifically less ideologically conservative, than it was in the late 1970s and 1980s. Attitudes toward government itself are still far less positive than they were in the early 1960s, before the cultural revolution, Vietnam, and Watergate. But philosophical hostility toward government has ebbed, replaced by a pragmatic inclination sympathetic to the expansion of public goods and in search of public action in spheres such as education, child care, health care, and the effort to right the balance between work and family life.

Here again, the conservative Ponnuru is more persuasive than any moderate or liberal could be. “Whatever they may say, conservatives know in their bones that their position is weak,” he wrote in the late fall of 1999. “What these conservatives sense is that, at a level of politics deeper than the fortunes of the political parties, the ground is shifting away from them. What they have not noticed is that the 2000 election is shaping up to be a ratification not of conservatism but of Clintonism?and will be so even if the Republicans win.”

In light of the Clinton scandal, the much-touted public impatience with the “poll-driven politics” associated with the president, and the resulting “Clinton fatigue” that has been so much discussed, how could this be? Much depends on how you define “Clintonism.”

In Why Americans Hate Politics, published on the eve of the 1992 election and which the editors have asked me to revisit here, I argued that voters were tired of the false choices presented by an ideologically driven “either/or” politics, and impatient with a political debate that emphasized “issues” over “problems.” Issues were used at election time to divide voters. Problems demand solutions after the election is over. Following Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I argued that most Americans preferred to see politics as involving “the search for remedy.”

The book saw conservatives as suffering from a deep tension between their free-market, antigovernment libertarian wing and a traditionalist wing more interested in defending values that had come under attack in the 1960s than in market economics. Liberals were also in trouble. While their core programs (Medicare, Social Security, help for the needy, equal rights) were broadly popular, the left had stopped justifying its efforts in the name of values to which most Americans subscribed?work, family stability, consequences for criminal behavior, and a respect for the old-fashioned bonds of locality and neighborhood.

With both parties to the debate in difficulty, politics worked itself out as a series of wars. Conservatives might not unite around a program, but they could agree to roll back liberalism. To do so, they used tensions in American life over race, gender equality, and cultural change (or “race, rights and taxes,” as Thomas and Mary Edsall put it plainly) to divide the liberal camp and hive off working class voters suspicious of liberalism?s core values. Liberals often played into conservative hands by seeming to deny that a virtuous community depended on virtuous individuals and by opposing changes in the welfare state aimed at reinforcing certain values (work and family stability among them).

A New Political Center

Why Americans Hate Politics suggested that a new political center was waiting to be born. That center would reflect the public?s “liberal instincts” and “conservative values.” It would be moderate in its cultural attitudes, broadly tolerant but also respectful of traditional popular leanings on matters of work, faith, and family. The phrase “tolerant traditionalists,” invented by William Galston, is a fair summary of the book?s take on where a majority of Americans stand on cultural matters. Alan Wolfe?s exploration of middle-class social and political attitudes, One Nation After All, broadly confirmed this view.

But the new center would also be progressive in its view of government?s capacity to ease the suffering of the poor, reduce economic injustice and inequalities of opportunity, and expand access to education, housing, health care, and child care.

It is an inevitable temptation for anyone who has written a book about politics to see subsequent events as vindicating his (or her) view. Having admitted that, I?d argue it?s fair to see the past eight years as a long and largely successful war against false choices.

The big government vs. small government argument has faded. The discussion of work and family issues is no longer cast as a war between the family and feminism. Most Americans accept both the legitimacy of women?s quest for genuine equality and the importance of protecting family life.

The argument now focuses on how to balance work and family and how to protect the family within a highly competitive labor market. In her just published book The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy, Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol argues that a central?perhaps the central?purpose of progressive social policy should be “how we as Americans can continue to care for our grandparents, while doing a much better job than we now do of supporting all working parents as they do the hard and vital work of raising our nation?s children.” So much for any side in the political debate claiming a monopoly on the family or “family values.”

Americans of all races have tired of racial polarization. Although arguments about affirmative action still go on?and although events such as the O.J. Simpson trial show that large attitudinal gaps between blacks and whites persist?much of the discussion about race now focuses on expanding opportunities.

Although the welfare bill passed by Congress was deeply flawed, there is little argument that the purpose of social policy should be to promote work and to expand the rewards to those who join the workforce. Here again, Bush?s responses are revealing. He chose to take loud public issue with the Republican Congress when it proposed to slow payments of the earned income tax credit. When he declared it wrong to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor,” he was talking about the EITC. The Republican leadership quickly dropped the plan.

The crime issue, so potent in every campaign between 1968 and 1988, has ebbed with falling crime rates. It?s hard to accuse anyone on any side of being “soft” on crime. And the gun control issue, once of enormous benefit to political conservatives, has become something close to a fair fight as suburban voters make their preference for gun regulation known.

The discussion of the role of religion in public life has also been transformed. The political influence of the religious right has declined, in part because it is no longer easy to cast political progressives as hostile to the views and interests of religious people. Vice President Al Gore?s endorsement of government assistance, within limits, to the work of religious charities reflects a sea change in Democratic attitudes.

And although homosexuality is still a difficult issue for many Americans, as Wolfe?s study found, it is less divisive than it once was. Gays and lesbians enjoy an acceptance undreamed of three decades ago and can find defenders of their rights in both political parties.

All these changes might be summarized as the decline of the old “wedge” issues which divided the electorate by race, culture, and religion and the rise of what might be called “bridge” issues that assemble new coalitions by reaching across old divides. Bush?s use of the adjective “compassionate” in front of “conservative” is an example of such bridging at the rhetorical level. The grope toward a new consensus on education policy?combining reform and tougher standards with more money?is a substantive example.

Which means that Americans have gone from hating to loving politics, right? Of course nothing could be further from the truth. This is one of many paradoxes of the Clinton presidency?and the problem with talking unambiguously about the triumph of Clintonism. For many reasons of his own making (and also because of the ferocious mistrust of his opponents), the Clinton who wanted to be a unifier and a consensus builder became instead a profoundly divisive figure. Precisely because his political successes so enraged some of his opponents, Clinton could not afford to hand them heavy weapons, as he did in the sex scandal. His opponents, in turn, had difficulty letting go of their hostility, as was evident in the fiercely partisan and personal debate over the Kosovo war, so different from the remarkably civil and substantive argument that preceded the Gulf War.

But some problems in politics may be short-term, the result of immediate electoral calculation. Because voting has been so closely divided between the two major parties in recent congressional elections (and because the future control of Congress hangs on so few seats), neither party has been in a mood for compromise?or for doing anything that might give the other side even the tiniest advantage. The 2000 election is a war for control of everything. It is a “three branch election,” as William Kristol has said, since not only Congress and the White House are at stake but so, indirectly, is the future direction of a closely divided Supreme Court.

So if the old ideological battles born in the 1960s and culminating in the 1980s (or, perhaps, 1994) are over, that certainly does not mean that philosophical differences have disappeared from politics.

But after the 2000 elections settle some of these questions, we may have the opportunity to move on from simply waving shirts bloodied from past battles into a cleaner and (you?d like to hope anyway) more enlightening debate about the future. The argument of Why Americans Hate Politics was not for a phony consensus or a bland centrism that suppressed differences. It was for a more robust give-and-take over issues that matter not just at election time but afterward, not just to political elites but to voters whose lives could be eased and enriched by better government. As a country, we?re not there yet. But over the decade, we?ve made more progress than we?d like to think.