"BEHIND our New Deals and New Frontiers and Great Societies you find, with a difference only in power and nerve, the same sort of person who gave the world its Five-Year Plans and Great Leaps Forward--the Soviet and Chinese counterparts."
The person who wrote that, in a book published last year, sees no essential difference between the democratically elected governments led by Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy and the dictatorships of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Not one reader in 10,000 could guess the author's name, though it is easy to conclude that he is a political imbecile. Who else could believe such nonsense? The majority leader of the House of Representatives, that's who: the redoubtable Dick Armey. That Armey holds a Ph.D. says more about the state of American education than all the headline-grabbing studies about teenagers who can't place the Civil War in the right half century. The kids are only dumb pending knowledge; Armey is ignorant by ideology. But let E. J. Dionne take it from here:
This sort of thinking is now so common that it has been forgotten how radically different it is from the tradition on which the United States was founded--a tradition to which contemporary liberals, moderates, conservatives and libertarians all trace their roots.... Free government is different in kind from despotic regimes because its fundamental purpose--to vindicate the rights of individuals--is different.
His citation from a book published to continental indifference and his superbly decisive gloss are typical of Dionne's evidentiary resources and intellectual weight. His Why Americans Hate Politics was by leagues the political book of 1992, cited in news reports, editorials, and columns, and frequently by candidate Bill Clinton, who used Dionne's analysis of how both parties were dominated by ideology-besotted elites to argue for a "third way" of governing between alternatives he called "brain-dead." Parenthetically, something that used to be encouraging about Clinton--his appetite for books--is less so now that he is First Reader and we can see his openness to ideas as an aspect of his unfinished political identity. At all events, They Only Look Dead deserves to be to 1996 what Why Americans Hate Politics was to 1992, not only for its intrinsic qualities but also for the good news announced in its subtitle.
That news is good not just for "Progressives" but also for that much larger group of Americans whom Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich has called "the anxious class"--the sinking middle class, whose real wages have been frozen or falling since the late 1970s. The anxious class elected Bill Clinton in 1992 and then, frustrated by what Dionne calls the "dysfunctional" Democrats, helped to make Armey, Gingrich & Co. the new congressional majority in 1994.
Whether the majority will hold is another question. As Dionne makes clear, the "radicalized conservatism" of the new Republicans has nothing to say to the anxious class except, Work harder and lobby for the return of child labor. The Armey-Gingrich view of virtually any act of government as incipient tyranny--FDR as Stalin, JFK as Mao--rules out help from Washington in making the transition to the new world economy. This leaves the social fate of the anxious class up to the market, which to the Republicans is the sphere of freedom, much as government is the sphere of coercion. But the market, specifically the new world economy and the technological revolution, created the anxious class in the first place. Thus, in the face of the country's overriding problem, the Republican Party is in principled bankruptcy.
That is why Dionne predicts a revival of progressivism--the faith of turn-of-the-century Progressives and their New Deal legatees in the ability of government to expand freedom (think of the GI Bill of Rights) by hindering the hindrances of birth or environment or historical moment which otherwise tend to restrict economic opportunity to the few. "By moving American conservatism toward a rendezvous with nineteenth century laissez-faire doctrines," Dionne writes, "Gingrich and his allies will force their opponents to grapple with the task of constructing the twenty-first-century alternatives to laissez-faire."
"Their opponents" means the Democrats, and Dionne devotes much of his book to the Democrats' still-ramifying failures of intellect, nerve, memory, and political imagination. In his first chapter, "Why Politicians Don't Get Respect Anymore," he shrewdly suggests that the Democrats' fellow-traveling with the anti-government rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s left them nothing to argue about with Republicans. The "politics of moral annihilation"--the attack ads, the scandal-mongering, the personal vilification, that have driven public faith in politics and government to toxic depths--filled the philosophical void. Dionne rightly says that "the overall impact of the foul atmosphere ... is [to favor] the anti-government right, because the most obvious target of the public's anger (as the Republicans demonstrated in 1994) is the government." Thus the Democrats, by leaving the field of principled argument to the Republicans and by failing to defend their progressive tradition ("their main reason for existence"), robbed that tradition of legitimacy and left uncontested the public impression that government is theft.
"In this climate," Dionne observes, "it's easier to convince voters that your opponent will hurt them than that you will somehow help them." This appears to be the Democrats' strategy in this year's congressional races: morph your opponent into a clone of the immensely unpopular Gingrich and engage in "Mediscare" over Republican "cuts" in Medicare. It is easier to go negative than to meet the new Republican Party in open debate over, for example, progressive alternatives to the Republican surrender of Medicare to for-profit HMOs and big insurance companies--a surrender that an American Academy of Actuaries study predicts could both drive up the cost of traditional Medicare and make doctors even more unwilling to treat Medicare patients.