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 the 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 burning, Willie Horton, and abortion) and had turned off average voters because they refused to openly discuss government "solutions" to problems. Dionne almost eerily foreshadowed 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 failed to 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 replaced 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. (Alcohol 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 and 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 post-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."

If, after reading this economic analysis, you perceive the specter of Labor Secretary Robert Reich peering over your shoulder, don't be surprised. Reichian pet phrases dominate the two chapters in which Dionne explains the problems he believes the country faces. Wages are stagnant, companies are relocating offshore, greedy multinationals have broken their implicit "contract" with workers, people need to be retrained for the information age, etc., etc.

Then again, maybe not. As Michael Cox and Richard Alm pointed out in these pages ("The Good Old Days Are Now," December 1995), if you add fringe benefits to wages, calculate median net worth, or simply measure consumption of housing, automobiles, and such new consumer goods as VCRs and PCs, you'll find that American living standards have continued to rise. "If the average consumer owns more of everything plus the bonus of new products," wrote Cox and Alm, "then it's hard to fathom how a nation could have lost grou nd over the past 20 years."

Since Dionne is presumably targeting Democrats, it's no surprise that he might try to shock his readers by exaggerating the substance of the GOP's legislative agenda. Dionne acknowledges that the Republicans are trying to slow down the growth of government, if not shrink it altogether. But he sees sinister forces influencing Newt Gingrich. The speaker, he suggests, may sound like a futurist, but his ideological mentors are the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, not the entrepreneur s of Silicon Valley. Newt's soulmate is Bill McKinley rather than Bill Gates.

Dionne likens Gingrich to Mark Hanna, the political architect of the McKinley victory in 1896. "Just as Hanna and McKinley embraced industrialism ('the Second Wave'), [Gingrich believes] the new Republican Party needs to be the conscious agent of the new, global, information age economy," Dionne writes. "Gingrich, like Mark Hanna, believes he sees the future clearly, and he intends to organize and master it." He adds: "Hanna had considerable sympathy for government intervention and Progressivism."

Dionne is on to something here, but he doesn't realize what it is. He claims that the ultimate goal of Gingrich Republicans "is unabashedly a revolt against the New Deal and Progressive traditions…[that revolt would move] American conservatism toward a rendezvous with nineteenth-century laissez-faire doctrines."

But by making Gingrich a champion of laissez-faire, Dionne has set up a straw man. In fact, Gingrich has great sympathy for the muscular Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt, the man who succeeded McKinley in the White House. Newt's deterministic futurism is not that far out of line with the central planning advocated by the early Progressives. Gingrich's Third Wave rap speaks of "forcing the scale of change necessary to be successful in the twenty-first century," of "accelerating the transition to a high technology, information based economy."

At a more practical level the speaker exposes his resistance to letting messy market forces operate. Even calling a pure flat tax "nonsense," as Gingrich did in February, suggests a sympathy to Progressive-style micromanagement. Both Gingrich and today's Progressives say they embrace the future; rather than letting it evolve on its own, however, they believe they must shape and direct it.

And we've seen little evidence to date suggesting that laissez-faire is the GOP's goal. House Majority Leader Dick Armeyline–Dionne's real ideological nemesis–may want to replace the federal tax and regulatory codes. And Dionne takes his shots at Armey, saying at one point: "To assert as a flat rule, as Representative Armey does, that 'the market is rational and the government is dumb' is to assume that it is rational to accept problems created by unemployment, low wages, business cycles, pollution and simple human failings; and dumb to use government to try to lessen the human costs associated with them. Mr. Armey might believe that; most Americans do not." For the purposes of this book, however, it does little good to attack Armey, because he isn't calling the shots; the speaker is.

Gingrich has made it clear that the Republicans would "preserve, protect, and defend" Medicare and merely cut funds for public broadcasting by a small percentage. Social Security, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and the Tennessee Valley Authority are still in the federal budget and will be in 2002. Meanwhile, the GOP continues to fund 14 cabinet departments, with some Republicans suggesting we add a 15th–the Department of Science. At last check, even the most austere budget the Republicans offered would still have the feds spend $12 trillion over the next seven years. Hardly a move toward laissez-faire.

How did those bad Republicans attract so many voters? Dionne explained this succinctly in a Fox Morning News interview on February 14: Democrats in the 103rd Congress, he said, offered their own "contract with America"–universal health care, along with welfare, lobbying, and campaign reforms–and when the Democrats couldn't pass their contract, voters opted for the House Republicans' Contract with America, with its balanced-budget amendment, term limits, tax cuts, and regulatory reforms.

If we take Dionne seriously, he must be the P.T. Barnum of political analysts, believing there is a sucker born every minute who can't distinguish between a package of policies that would dramatically expand the power of the federal line government (the Democrats' legislative agenda in the 103rd Congress) and one that would restrain it (the actual Contract with America). Dionne seems to say, "No matter what proposals you offer, if you dress them up nicely enough, those dummies will vote for 'em."

There's plenty of evidence that voters knew exactly why they trended Republican in 1994. In a post-election survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said they felt the federal government was more of an opponent than an ally in their pursuit of the American Dream. And the antipathy of middle-class voters to government remains. Last fall, reports The New Republic, a series of focus groups sponsored by the AFL-CIO (!) found that working-class Americans were somewhat optimistic about the future but "didn't think their wages would rise, nor that politicians, government or unions would come to their aid." They felt they would improve their lives by taking a second job, improving their work skills, or starting their own businesses. And they "thought the biggest threat to their success came from government spending and taxes."

Despite the evidence, Dionne uses his subtitle to assert that "Progressives will dominate the next political era."

"Most in the Anxious Middle," he says, "are wary of the economic change now under way but skeptical of efforts to turn the process back. They are dissatisfied with the responses that have come from government so far, but are worried about their prospects in an economic order in which government withdraws basic social protections."

Dionne may indeed have identified the wishes and longings of the Anxious Middle, even though that's a doubtful assumption. But political realities make a revival of government activism problematic. Dionne conveniently ignores the long-term constraints structural deficits will place on future policy makers. He acts as if such obstacles as the $5 trillion national debt, perpetual $200 billion interest payments, the pending entitlement crisis, the unshakable bipartisan resistance of voters to higher taxes, and the fiscal time bombs of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare don't exist.

In 1910, at the peak of the Progressive Era, the federal budget consumed less than 5 percent of national income; it now absorbs 22 percent. Without major changes in entitlement programs, that figure will surpass 30 percent by 2020. How could neo-Progressives credibly sell new spending programs in this atmosphere? Dionne offers no clue.

And what would Dionne's new Progressivism offer the Anxious Middle in programs? Not much. He wants the federal government to provide all the things Clinton hasn't been able to get: universal health care; campaign-finance reforms; expanded government child care, job training, student loans, and national-service programs like AmeriCorps. Enact the 1992 Democratic platform, and all will be well. As Michael Barone pointed out in a Wall Street Journal review of this book, Dionne has reduced Progressivism to little more than a bundle of petty bribes for voters.

Though Dionne claims to be a pragmatist, he never offers any evidence to demonstrate that his policy proposals would in fact work. Do government job-training schemes increase employment for anyone other than the bureaucrats who administer the programs? Do higher minimum wages help low-skilled workers find better jobs (or any jobs)? Do tough limits on campaign spending give people of modest means greater access to the political process? The record shows they don't. But even though his policy prescriptions don't deliver their intended results, Dionne keeps plugging them.

Dionne can't make a compelling case for a Progressive revival. But supporters of limited government should not take solace. Newt Gingrich's affection for central planning could delay any federal downsizing. And Dionne points out another problem that could derail the capacity of the Republicans (or any other limited-government coalition) to restore constitutional government: the tense and tenuous relationship between cultural conservatives and libertarians.

The "leave us alone" coalition of gun owners, home schoolers, small-business owners, anti-tax advocates, libertarians, and religious conservatives nurtured by conservative strategist Grover Norquist united behind Republican candidates because it had a comm on enemy: Democrats who gladly used government power to tax and spend and regulate their lives. By February 1995, the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed was echoing David Frum's seminal 1994 book Dead Right, saying that "in an essentially conservative society, traditionalist ends can be advanced through libertarian means."

Yet once the Contract with America passed the House, cultural conservatives stopped leaving us alone. "Family groups" backed the requirement that an anti-violence "V-chip" be placed in every new television set. To the horror of free speech advocates and such high-tech supporters as Reps. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) and Rick White (R-Wash.), the Family Research Council browbeat Republicans into adding criminal penalties to the telecommunications bill for those who distribute information on the Internet that might be "harmful to children." (That provision has been challenged in federal court.)

And while the Christian Coalition says it favors welfare reform, it doesn't want to end federal micromanagement entirely: The coalition opposes the Senate's welfare bill because it would let states decide whether they will continue to give welfare payments to mothers of illegitimate children. An approach more constitutionally consistent would end the programs at the federal level and cut taxes appropriately. Even some pro-family conservatives are frustrated by the Christian Coalition's demands. As one disgusted activist told me, "I'd rather let governors do something stupid [continue to fund illegitimacy] than keep federal bureaucrats in charge of welfare." Other pro-life activists worry that "family caps" might encourage welfare mothers to have abortions. If cultural conservatives merely insist on pulling the levers of power, the libertarian-leaning members of Norquist's coalition (who make up about 20 percent of the electorate, judging from Times Mirror polling data) could walk away.

By shedding their statist tendencies, contemporary Progressives could contribute much to effectively redirecting policy–from devising plans that devolve power from government agencies to individuals and voluntary institutions to replacing Medicare and Medicaid with programs that don't cripple taxpayers. Placing time limits on regulations, an idea promoted in a bill sponsored by Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Jim Chapman (D-Tex.), is another area that seems ripe f or people of "free market Progressive" leanings to investigate. The era of big government may be over, but there's still plenty of work to do.

Rick Henderson (DCReason@aol.com) is Washington editor of REASON.