Middle Management

They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era , by E.J. Dionne Jr., New York: Simon & Schuster, 313 pages, $24.00

Did reporters, pundits, and politicians completely misread the meaning of the 1994 elections? Did voters bring the Democrats' 40-year congressional reign to a screeching halt because the public believes government was trying to do too little rather than too much? Are Americans ready to end their flirtation with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole and instead enter the 21st century embracing government activism? Washington Post political columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. thinks so, and these contentions form the surprising and "debatable" (as Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal says in a cover blurb) thesis of They Only Look Dead, Dionne's latest book. Dionne, whose weekly column relentlessly cheerleads for the Clinton administration, believes the anti-government fervor articulated by the 104th Congress is in fact out of touch with the desires of middle-class voters. As soon as th e Republican coalition collapses from its own internal contradictions, he says, a new, more muscular form of Progressivism will lead the Democrats to victory for decades to come.

Those who haven't read Dionne's columns or seen him on the weekend talk shows may remember his best-selling Why Americans Hate Politics, one of the most talked-about political books of 1991. In it, Dionne argued that the Republicans and Democrats had become obsessed with beating each other up over differences in "ideology" (defined by him as such divisive but symbolic issues as flag burni ng, Willie Horton, and abortion) and had turned off average voters because they refused to openly discuss government "solutions" to problems. Dionne almost eerily fore shadowed the ways in which populists (Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Brown) and technocrats (Paul Tsongas, Bill Clinton, Perot again) would attract disaffected voters in 1992 by reminding them that the political process was unresponsive and government no longer worked.

Because Dionne was so prescient, he merits serious attention. But since his last book was published, the 1994 congressional election--the most ideological national campaign in 30 years--has intervened. Dionne says that his goal this time is to flesh out the thesis he put forward in Why Americans Hate Politics : "Voters are angry at government not just for what it has done, but for what it has failedto do," he writes. "The current political upheaval can thus be defined less as a revolt against big government than as a rebellion against bad government--government that has proven ineffectual in grappling with the political, economic and moral crises that have shaken the country" (emphasis in original).

But this book does not extend the arguments made in Why Americans Hate Politics ; it repudiates them. Instead of offering a defense of the pragmatic, New Democrat policies Dionne recommended in his earlier book, They Only Look Dead eviscerates free markets and capitalism and touts Progressive Era-style central planning as the key to national salvation.

The early Progressives were wildly successful reformers. They busted the trusts, routed the big-city political patronage machines, professionalized government and corporate bureaucracies, and even repl aced the narrowly targeted, partisan newspapers of the day with mass-circulation, "objective" dailies.

But Progressives didn't shake up the establishment merely to make trouble: They had a coherent philosophy, which stressed the role of the government in making citizens--especially those in the lower classes--informed, politically active, and virtuous. (Alc ohol prohibition was a logical consequence of the temperance movement the Progressives encouraged.) The Progressives were the first political movement to institutionalize the nanny state, with the conscious strategy of making individuals, above all else, political creatures. As Dionne notes, Progressive icon John Dewey "saw democracy not simply as a form of government but as a 'way of life.'"

Dionne believes the four American "crises" he identifies--economic, political, moral, and international--beg for New Progressive solutions. He begins by singling out a bloc of swing voters he calls the "Anxious Middle," a group that "feels pressed by economic change and worries that the country is experiencing a moral and social breakdown. Its members are angry at government but uneasy over the workings of the economic system. They crave self-reliance--and honor this virtue in others--but fear that both the government a nd the economy are blocking their own paths to self-sufficiency." Dionne's goal is to show how Progressives can win the allegiance of the Anxious Middle.

"The increasing ease with which money, equipment and whole factories can be moved to anywhere in the world has created all manner of dislocations," says Dionne of the economic crisis. "If employers don't like certain regulations, they can just pick up and move. Competition in the world market forces many of them to do just that."

Dionne's other three crises actually have economic roots. The political crisis, he says, is also caused by globalism. Over the past three decades, "rising trade flows, the opening of the poorer countries to investment and job shifts made easy by changes in transportation and technology have left the social democratic bargain"--the decision of Western democracies to offer citizens subsidized housing, health care, guaranteed vacations, near guarantees of job security--"in tatters....These changes add up to a major decline in the power of democratic governments all over the world, [which combines] with regular voter rebellions against government and taxes to give politicians everywhere less money to spend, depriving them of the universal lubricant of democratic consent."

The moral collapse cultural conservatives harp on too has an economic component. As old-fashioned virtues waned, line Dionne says, "the marketplace seemed to reward speed and impatience, sudden fame and rapidly made fortunes. It punished excessive loyalty, whether by the companies to employees or by employees to their employers; whether by investors to the firms they financed or by the managers of those firms to their stockholders. Employers were under increasing pressure to cut expenses, which encouraged 'downsizing.' Employees sensed less employer loyalty and returned less."

Dionne's international crisis revolves around conflicting visions of America's place in a postendash Cold War world. Yet he finds economic roots for this crisis as well. Dionne says the collapse of the alliance between nationalists and internationalists who were also anti-communists, along with uneasiness about the future of middle-class jobs, fuels doubts about the viability of the liberal commercial regime that America dominated from the end of World War II until the early 1990s. "When George McGovern spoke the words 'Come Home America' in 1972, he was mocked as an isolationist. Twenty years later many Americans seemed ready to make the trip."

How can America fight back? Dionne says Bill Clinton offered a Progressive response for each crisis: Universal health care, spending on public works, and job training would make workers feel more secure; campaign reforms would restrain lobbyists and the "reinventing government" initiative would make federal agencies effective and responsive; "ending welfare as we know it" would reassure the middle class that only the "deserving poor" got public assistance; and passing the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade would keep America engaged in the global economy--as long as we insisted on provisions in those trade deals that would protect workers and the environment from rapacious multinational corporations.

As we all know, Clinton's record has been mixed, at best. And Dionne confesses that many of the president's failures either resulted from self-inflicted wounds or were exacerbated by Democratic congressional barons who stymied governmental reforms that might strip away their fiefdoms. Yet, Dionne says, Clinton's unshakable faith in Progressive ideas provided the inspiration for his administration's policy agenda.

Then came the Republicans (insert ominous background music), who would roll back the Progressive regulatory state, which Dionne describes as a "marriage between the market economics preached by capitalists and the welfare and worker protections preached by socialists. Most economic decisions remained in private hands, but national governments used the tools at their disposal--notably spending--to take the edge off economic downturns and hasten the return to prosperity."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement