Old Gods and New Paradigms
June 16, 2014
This is not to say that Bush lost because he did not have a new paradigm. An old one would have done just fine. Indeed, Ronald Reagan invoked the best paradigm, which just happens to be an old one, at the Republican Convention by quoting words of unmistakably Lincolnian character. They conveyed the spirit of achieved self-respect and individual responsibility that Lincoln understood to be the core of American democracy.
It was not just the economy. True, a majority or near majority of voters cited its poor condition as the most important issue in the election, per capita income was down in 1991, and eighty to ninety percent of Clinton and Perot voters disapproved of Bush’s handling of the economy. But the recession in a technical sense ended in the summer of 1991, the economy grew by nearly 2% in 1992, and, according to exit polls, a majority of voters remained loyal to the Republican theme of smaller and less costly government.
Economics have cycles but nothing is inevitable. Would it not have made a difference if Bush’s Desert Storm victory speech had turned to domestic issues and outlined a plan for dealing with them? Would not an even greater difference have been made if Bush had come to office committed to growth and the theme that the electorate would still embrace four years later? Lack of consumer confidence, which means confidence in the future, was a drag on economic recovery. This was perhaps the most relevant piece of data for this election because Presidential elections are more about the future than about the past. Judging by the past, voters concluded that Bush had little to offer for the future.
This was true in matters beyond the economy and domestic issues. In the four years of the Bush Administration, the world changed in remarkable ways. The Administration deserves credit for handling well the end of the Cold War but it seemed less sure about what to do next and how to talk about it. The term “New World Order” lasted hardly longer than the Gulf War itself and its scope and bearing on post-Cold War problems was never clear in any case.
This is not to say that Bush lost because he did not have a new paradigm. An old one would have done just fine. Indeed, Ronald Reagan invoked the best paradigm, which just happens to be an old one, at the Republican Convention by quoting the words of unmistakably Lincolnian character. They conveyed the spirit of achieved self-respect and individual responsibility that Lincoln understood to be the core of American democracy. The Bush campaign did not conjure this spirit or any other except the ghosts of Clinton’s past indiscretions. They did not scare enough people.
What of the future? This depends in some sense on what Clinton will be able to make the term “New Democrat” mean. It is clear so far only that a New Democrat is shrewder than an Old Democrat. To be elected, Clinton had to prove that he was not just another tax-and-spend, hostage-to-the-special-interest-groups Liberal Democrat. So, instead of spending he talked of investing, mentioned taxing only the rich, and invited the media to watch him poke Jesse Jackson in the eye. Effective campaigning and rhetoric, apparently, but what will it mean for Clinton’s government? Will investing in “human infrastructure” mean anything other than more spending by the Department of Education? Shortly after the election, Clinton met and made up with Jackson, who reported that he and Clinton had the same agenda. Taking the usual heavy self-service discount from Jackson’s words, one still must wonder whether the term “New Democrat,” like square circle, is anything more than two words.
This will emerge as Clinton takes office, making decisions and not just promises. As he does, it appears he will be aided by two trends. First, unlike his predecessors, he will find the world a relatively benign place. We now face no threat comparable to the Soviet Union. There is less likelihood, therefore, that, should his Administration act on the impulses of moralistic internationalism, Clinton or American voters will learn lessons as rapidly as Jimmy Carter or they did in the late 1980’s. Iran is still around, of course, and arming heavily, but the dangers it and other nations pose will take time to develop. Second, the economy is reviving, apparently, and will probably be in good shape as 1996 approaches. Some economists are even predicting a boom for the mid-to late 90s. It is not difficult, of course, to imagine ways in which both the economy (e.g., inflation after a Clinton stimulus, continued no growth in Japan and Germany) or the world (e.g., reactionary Russian belligerence, increased terrorism after the Middle East peace talks collapse) could go sour. But it is likely that over the next couple of years Clinton will have a friendly environment in which to work out his definition of New Democrat.
In the meantime, Republicans, no longer distracted by the cares of office, have the time to decide what they are about. One early aspirant for the role of defining Republican idea is the New Paradigm. Indeed, this was an idea spawned within the Bush White House, only to be smothered, as one of its progenitors— James Pinkerton— tells us, by the visionless technocrats who ruled there. Pinkerton’s recent defense of his progeny suggests that in this case the technocrats did OK.
According to Pinkerton, five principles define the New Paradigm: the global market, empowerment, choice, decentralization, and “a principled…commitment to what works.” The global market is not a principle but a fact, and if it were a principle should it be anything other than free trade? What is new here? Choice and decentralization are not new to conservatives either, while empowerment, originally a leftist word, says little to the older conservative terms. Finally, most wonderful of all, is “a principled commitment to what works.” This is as sensible an idea as a virtuous devotion to vice but probably not as much fun.
The paradoxes of the New Paradigm do not end with principled pragmatism. Technocrats ruled the Bush White House, Pinkerton tells us, but then insists that the goals of politics are no longer in dispute. A big consensus has formed: no socialism, but no throwing people out into the snow. Since everyone wants economic growth, affordable health care, better schools, and improved quality of life, the argument is only about techniques, how to bring these things about more efficiently and cheaply. But what are people who argue about technique if not technocrats?
Worse, what Pinkerton is searching for is ways to make government techniques more effective. And what techniques. Pinkerton discloses that his response to the Los Angeles riots was to argue for a Civilian Conservation Corps run by the Pentagon. He reports Bush’s questioning retort, “Isn’t this the sort of thing we’re fighting against?”, as if it alone were sufficient to prove poor old George out of touch and forever lost in the old paradigm. But is not Pinkerton’s idea the sort of thing Republicans should be against? How is this empowerment or decentralization? Should we not call it, rather, affirmative government? As affirmative action encourages racial injustice now for the sake of some hoped for day of justice yet to come, so does affirmative government grow and meddle now to empower people with the vague hope that it can shrink later. This is indeed not virtuous devotion to vice but vicious devotion to virtue.
It can be said in defense of Pinkerton’s New Paradigm that it is what the American people want. Exit polls showing that people want smaller, less costly government also showed that they did not want their benefits cut and were happy to cut defense spending and to tax business to keep them. In other words, people now like Republican themes until they realize what they mean for them personally. The New Paradigm, then, is an effort to respond to this electorate. By promising that government will do things but not cost too much, it is a compromise between what Americans want from government, which is a lot, and what they are willing to pay for it, which is not much.
It is quite possible that the New Paradigm, touted by a New Republican coming out of a Republican Leadership Council, who had the religious right under control, could win a presidential race in 1996, if Clinton stumbles, or in 2000. How Republicans should feel about this depends upon how the New Paradigmers respond to a simple question. Does the New Paradigm rest on the principles of smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation, and commitment to the rights of individuals rather than groups, and market solutions rather than government activism or not? If the answer is yes, than the New Paradigm is only a campaign slogan. If no, then the careful aping by Republicans in future elections of the Democrat’s road to the White House in 1992 would confirm that the New Paradigm is a kind of 21st century high tech Me-Tooism. While adopting this paradigm might lead to electoral victory, it would be a defeat for the Republican party and, we must think, for the nation, in a more profound sense than the one suffered in the recent presidential election.
There is another approach. Pinkerton claims that the old gods of Republicanism failed in 1992 and that Republicans must seek salvation in new ones. In fact, the old gods of smaller government, lower taxes, and less regulation were put on the shelf shortly after the election in 1988. They should be brought out again as the best way to insure our prosperity, although their importance goes beyond that. But there is harder work to do.
Even if these gods emit an aura of prosperity, they are bound to appear a bit austere as they go about interfering in the lives of us mortals. They will demand the sacrifice of some dearly beloved benefits, for example, if they are to reduce the deficit and the size of the Federal government. It should be a central task of the Republican Party to make this acceptable. It will not be easy. Almost 80 years of Democratic progressive government has had its effects.
An equally important task is to sort out the factions that make up the party. The pollsters tell us that Republicans are now seen as more narrow-minded, intolerant, and rigid than in the past and that this cost Republicans support in the recent elections. The source of this new image was the influence in the party, particularly at the convention, of the religious right and Patrick Buchanan.
It may be easy for some Republicans to dismiss the religious right or to wish that it would simply go away. But this would be a mistake. For more than seventy years, evangelicals have correctly noted and, in various ways, struggled against the seed of atheism that fell on American soil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and has grown steadily since. That it has been from the beginning, in many cases, and for some time largely an unconscious atheism does not diminish but only disguise the damage it causes to our lives. The Republican Party should be happy to include those who struggle against it.
It should not, on the other hand, include any who do not accept that we are created equal, in the sense that all men are entitled to be judged on their own merits, on the basis of what they have achieved, regardless of their religion or race. The rebirth of American freedom and the birth of the Republican Party derived from devotion to this principle. It cannot be abandoned or compromised without bringing an end to both.
Sorting out the party’s factions, then, should not be a process of trying to create some superficial synthesis or bland compromise. It should be, rather, a process of finding the equipoise formed by the tensions between the various Republican factions. The only sound basis for such a delicate balancing will be the old Republican gods and the principle of God-given equality central to Republicanism and American democracy.
A good domestic enemy will help enormously in finding this balance, of course, but above all it is a question of leadership and consummate political skill. Such leadership is rare but not impossible. It appears that we will have some time to find it.
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