Democrats Don't Have To Be Dinosaurs


Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era

By E. J. Dionne Jr. Simon & Schuster -- 352pp -- $24.00

It should come as no surprise that the populist campaign of Republican Patrick Buchanan is showing signs of life. As far as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. is concerned, the global economy, stagnant wages, and a sense that things are out of control have long been on top of voters' minds. Yet, Dionne writes in his perceptive new book, They Only Look Dead, most politicians haven't gotten the message.

Buchanan's vituperation over trade agreements and corporate greed fills a vacuum left by both parties, says Dionne. The author convincingly argues that while Republicans and Democrats debate old issues about whether government should be big or small, the squeezed middle class is desperate for government that governs well. Consequently, Dionne is able to make a strong case that opportunity is knocking for the Democrats to come up with a positive alternative to Buchanan's economic nationalism--and a less convincing case that the party will respond.

Although the "Anxious Middle" of the U.S. electorate realizes that government can only do so much, Dionne believes voters "are worried about their prospects in an economic order in which government withdraws and removes basic social protections." He attacks the GOP for mistaking voter anger about politics-as-usual and Democratic failures for public rejection of government. But he also scores the Democrats for squandering an opportunity during the Clinton Administration's first two years to demonstrate "the possibilities of reformed and modernized government."

To justify his faith that the public is ready for an innovative government led by Democrats, Dionne looks to a period of similar upheaval--the late 1800s, when agrarian America was moving into the Industrial Age. Like conservatives today, the robber barons believed material progress depended on unfettered capitalism. Eventually, the Gilded Age gave rise to the Progressive movement and legislation restricting market excesses. The Democrats may look dead, but Dionne thinks the public is ready for a new Progressivism, and the Democrats, he says, are the only organization able to deliver.

But for Democrats to come up with a prescription that will help the middle class expand opportunities in the new economy would mean a rethinking of Democratic liberalism, says Dionne. He believes liberals have failed to meet the desire of Americans for creative government. If they're to carry on the Progressive tradition, they will have to discard the notion that government has boundless capabilities.

You don't have to be a Bill Clinton fan to agree with the author that in 1992, the President was smart to tap voters' sense of economic crisis and fears about crime and the decline of the two-parent family. Even though Clinton helped reposition the Democrats on these questions, party divisions were so deep that he was unable to "forge a new intellectual synthesis." But Dionne fails to emphasize Clinton's personal failings: He didn't stick to his campaign themes, nor did he have the leadership qualities to convince his party to support him.

Clinton aside, disarray is just another name for Democrats, and Dionne may be overestimating the chances of a Democratic philosophical epiphany. If Clinton wins a second term, there's no reason to believe his party is any more likely to unite behind him than they were two years ago. Democrats remain divided over such issues as welfare reform, trade, and health care. So even if they manage to win a small House majority in the upcoming elections, it's hard to believe that Democrats are on the verge of a big comeback.

Still, whether or not you agree that the Democrats are on the rebound, Dionne's book is worth reading. He is probably the most astute of our current political commentators at describing and analyzing the development and philosophies of political movements. After examining the pushes and pulls within the Democratic Party, he performs a similar analysis of GOP divisions and how House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) united them. Dionne's analysis: That unity could be ephemeral, as the primary season is showing. And the new Republicans' rejection of government is bound to fail, says Dionne, because the voters ultimately won't buy it.

They Only Look Dead ends with a potpourri of initiatives that Dionne suggests Democrats can use as the basis for their New Progressivism. Many of them--making pensions more portable, say, or initiating a public campaign to encourage fathers to care for their kids--aren't new, but are on the right track. The most innovative is "second-chance homes": Young welfare mothers would live in supervised settings with their children. This type of program, Dionne argues, accepts the seriousness of moral concerns while acknowledging the role of government in helping the needy. But his proposals for universal health care would be costly. And requiring higher labor and environmental standards from countries that are parties to free-trade pacts is probably unrealistic.

Recently, the Democrats have floated new proposals such as tax breaks for companies that provide a certain level of training, wages, and benefits. But for some problems, there may be no real solutions: It's far trickier for new Progressives to address dislocations caused by global competition than it was for past reformers to treat capitalism's abuses within our borders. But Dionne is right about the big point: Middle-class fears won't go away, and politicians who don't help voters navigate the new economy shouldn't be shocked if their rage finds expression in radical outlets.

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