Wages Matter Most

The political book of the year predicts a Progressive revival--and is too easy on Bill Clinton

Why Progressives Will
Dominate the Next
Political Era

Buy They Only Look Dead

"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.

books picture 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.

DIONNE sees today's politicians as "adrift" in a sea of crises they are either unable to address (Republicans) or unwilling to address honestly (Democrats). "The Four Crises of American Politics" form the substance of Dionne's important second chapter. These are:

* The economic crisis made by the new world economy, which "seems to break the link between the success of the affluent and the well-being of everyone else" --notably the growing segment of the anxious class that lines up every morning in "'the global hiring hall,'" in the words of the labor analyst Richard Rothstein, where wage levels are driven down by the desperate masses of the Third World.

* The political crisis created by the economic crisis. Voters still hold government responsible for the economy, but government has never had less control over what is no longer a national economy but is a world one. "For politicians in the democratic countries, this marriage of ever-higher levels of accountability with less actual power is a nightmare."

* A moral crisis manifesting itself in historically unprecedented rates of divorce, family breakup, and illegitimacy.

* A crisis of purpose over America's post-Cold War role in the world, which was exposed in the debates over Clinton's interventions in Haiti and Bosnia.

Dionne skillfully links the first three crises, but his synthetic gifts desert him in his discussion of the fourth, which he treats mainly as an inside-the-Beltway dustup among elites, when more is at stake. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post, is too much a man of the Washington establishment to confront basic questions of national strategy in an era when both parties are pledged to balance the budget--questions like Why should U.S. taxpayers forgo social investments, as Dionne calls for in order to help solve the economic crisis created by the new world economy, so that we can defend Europe against ... well, whom? His establishment world view creeps into his discussion of Clinton's foreign policy. Thus he says, "Toward Russia [Clinton] pursued a consistent policy of general sympathy for Boris Yeltsin and sought to avoid moves that might strengthen nationalist feeling in Russia." Though criticized as too soft on Yeltsin, "the policy did seem to prevent the worst from happening." The assumption is that Clinton's words were or could be causal as to events in Russia. That is the kind of pre-Copernican thinking that few still question in Washington and that has led to grand expectations about "the U.S. role in the world," which in turn have led to national hubris, disillusionment, and distraction. Even Bill Clinton, after defeating the "foreign-policy President" on a platform of domestic renewal, has fallen back on foreign policy to display strength. Why can't he display strength over raising American wages? One reason is the Washington foreign-policy establishment's grip on the engines of respectability and its monopoly on the vocabulary of seriousness.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In