Commentary Magazine


American Politics, Then & Now

The administration of President Carter offers an appropriate occasion for asking a question that will be raised with growing frequency as this nation approaches the bicentennial observance of the writing of the Constitution: has the American political system changed fundamentally? If no accident befalls him, Jimmy Carter will be the first Democrat in this century to serve a full term in the White House without having to lead the nation into war or out of economic disaster. Indeed, the historical rarity of the present moment is even more striking: Carter is (so far) the first Democratic President since before the Civil War to serve a full term without either war or depression and to have a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. The Carter administration offers, in this sense, an example of a “normal” administration in the hands of what has become the nation’s dominant political party.

Would the political system inherited by President Carter be recognized by its architect, James Madison? Or by the powerful Republican Senators of the late 19th century? Or even by Harry Truman? We can turn to the Federalist Papers for an account of what that system was supposed to be in 1787; if that seems too antiquarian a source for the restlessly contemporary modern mind, we can turn to descriptions written a generation ago by leading journalists and political scientists.

In 1948, the late John Fischer published in Harper’s magazine an article on the “Unwritten Rules of American Politics” that was at the time, and for many years thereafter, widely recognized as the best brief analysis of the distinctive features of American politics. He drew upon the writings of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina politician and intellectual who nearly a century before had set forth the doctrine of the “concurrent majority.” In Calhoun’s time, of course, that doctrine was a defense of the Southern resistance to federal legislation aimed at restricting the spread of slavery, but Fischer, aided by the writings of Peter Drucker, found in the theory of the concurrent majority, stripped of its extremist and partisan language, an enduring and fundamental explanation of the American constitutional system.

That system was designed to preserve liberty and maintain a national union by a set of procedures meant to insure that no important decision would be reached without the concurrence of each interest vitally affected by that decision. In Congress, no important bloc would be voted down on any matter that touched its central concern. In nominating a presidential candidate, no one would be acceptable who was objectionable to any significant body of opinion within the party. In electing a President, both parties would sacrifice any interest in principle or policy to accommodate the views of the average voter and thus would almost always offer an echo, not a choice. Politics would be non-ideological, conflict would be minimized, and such policies as survived the process of interest-group bargaining would command widespread support and thus be likely to endure. All these were, to Fischer, the strengths of the system. It had costs as well—a disposition to inaction, a tendency to magnify the power of well-organized pressure groups, and a shortage of persons able to speak for the nation as a whole. But to Fischer, the strengths clearly outweighed the weaknesses, primarily because man is fallible: the very slowness of the system insured against the premature commitment to error. As Learned Hand once wrote, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

Fischer’s concern for moderation, even at the price of inaction, was understandable in its time. In 1948, the Democratic party was split into three wings. Progressives (and the Communist party) were supporting Henry Wallace and Southern reactionaries were supporting J. Strom Thurmond, while beleaguered Harry Truman was struggling—as it turned out, successfully—to hold the Democratic middle.

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Persons who believe that all this has changed point to the legislative explosion that occurred during the 1960′s and early 1970′s. Without benefit of a national emergency which in the past had always been necessary for the system of veto groups to be set aside, there poured forth from Congress an unprecedented wave of policy innovation. The Southern filibuster was broken and civil-rights bills became law. The caution of the House Ways and Means Committee was overcome and Medicare and Medicaid were passed. The fears of federal control of schools that for long prevented federal aid to education were set aside and such aid became a massive and growing reality. The War on Poverty, the model-cities program, and the rest of the Great Society legislation arrived, to be followed, toward the end of the 1960′s, by the emergence of environmental and consumer legislation. Between 1966 and 1970, at least eighteen major consumer-protection laws and seven major air- and water-pollution laws were passed, and the activity continued well into the 1970′s.

As important as the number of new programs adopted was the way in which they were adopted. The veto groups and congressional blocs that were thought to stand astride each checkpoint in the legislative process, letting nothing pass without first extracting every necessary concession, were scarcely to be found. The bill creating federal aid to education went through committee review and floor debate virtually without amendment, leading three Republicans on a House subcommittee to boycott the hearings on the bill because of the “hasty and superficial consideration” it was receiving. The original Medicare plan made provision only for paying the hospital bills of the elderly; Congress added a provision for public payment of doctors’ bills as well. Congressional deliberations on the auto-safety bill of 1966 made that law, in virtually every particular, stronger than what the President had requested; when the conference committee considered the versions passed by the House and Senate, it resolved all remaining issues in favor of the tougher—that is, the more anti-industry—provision. By the end of the 1960′s, the American Medical Association, long described as one of the most powerful interest groups in Washington, had been defeated and the automobile industry stood revealed, in Elizabeth Drew’s phrase, as a “paper hippopotamus.” Ralph Nader had become the best-known and perhaps the most powerful lobbyist in town.

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II

The opposite view is that, despite the frenzy of the 1960′s, nothing of fundamental importance changed. The Carter Presidency has been functioning rather much like the Truman Presidency: unheroically, with little public enthusiasm, winning some battles and losing others. Liberal ideas of 1948, such as civil rights, national health insurance, and federal aid to education, were defeated; liberal ideas of 1976, such as national health insurance, welfare and tax revisions, and new labor laws, were likewise defeated. Though the nation was at peace in 1948 as in 1976, both Presidents were preoccupied in large measure with foreign affairs—the Marshall Plan, NATO, and international trade in the case of Truman; the Panama Canal, tension in the Middle East, and relations with Turkey in the case of Carter. Both Presidents saw Congress debate at length a bill to deregulate natural gas and neither President was able to get out of the debate exactly what he wanted. Truman vetoed a deregulation bill passed in 1950, Carter signed a compromise deregulation bill in 1978. During his first year in office, Carter won on 75 per cent of the congressional votes taken on his program, far lower than the level of support enjoyed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Johnson in their first or second years.

The “conservative coalition” of Republicans and Southern Democrats which has been the bane of liberal legislation was, according to the Congressional Quarterly, alive and well in the 95th Congress. During 1977, it appeared in about one-fourth the recorded votes in the House and Senate and won about two-thirds of the time that it appeared. Truman would not have been surprised.

The burst of legislation in the 1960′s was not the result, in this skeptical view, of any profound change in American politics, but was simply a consequence of the Goldwater fiasco. The Lyndon Johnson victory in 1964 gave the Democrats so large a majority in Congress that Northern Democratic liberals acquired a control of Congress that formerly only a national crisis would produce. Northern Democrats could have passed the aid-to-education bill and come within a few votes of passing the Medicare bill even if every Republican and Southern Democrat had voted against them. Moreover, the Goldwater candidacy brought Republicans to power in parts of the South and thereby reduced the control that Southerners, by virtue of the seniority system, had once wielded in Congress. In 1962, Alabama had eight Democratic Congressmen; after 1964, only three were left.

The changes did not stop in 1964. Going into the 1966 election, Virginia may have had as much power in Congress as it had in the days of Madison and Monroe, 150 years earlier. Democrats from that state held the chairmanships of the Senate Finance Committee, the House Rules Committee, and the Senate Banking and Currency Committee. “After the election,” writes Gary Orfield, “all were gone as the Old Dominion lost a century of seniority.”

But with the 1970′s, normalcy returned, and with it either (depending on one’s political convictions) stagnation or prudence. The struggle over the energy bill was mountainous, and yet what the mountain brought forth was not even a mouse, but a Tinker Toy out of which a gifted administrator might be able to fashion a reasonable facsimile of a mouse. Congress has reasserted its influence over foreign affairs, in part by the enactment of five or six dozen provisions of foreign aid and other laws requiring congressional assent to presidential initiatives. Whatever vision one has of a fair and rational tax code, there seems little prospect of Congress transforming that vision into reality. Traditional porkbarrel bills, such as public works, continue to prosper in Congress; the only remarkable feature of the present day is that the President, for reasons not well understood even by leaders of his own party, has tried—with only limited success—to block some projects.

In short, once extraordinary majorities evaporate and national crises recede, it is politics as usual. Recently, Senator Edward M. Kennedy attacked Congress for being “the best money could buy” and criticized the profusion and influence of interest groups. Though Kennedy was deploring what Fischer had applauded, the categories of description were very much the same.

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III

Both interpretations of American politics are partially correct. Congress remains able, long after the 1960′s, to pass sweeping new laws almost without regard to the normal constraints of interest-group bargaining, as it did when it decided in 1978 to abolish mandatory retirement before age seventy or decided in 1973 to give absolute protection to endangered species. And Congress continues to experience great difficulty in formulating a coherent policy on matters such as taxation, energy, or school desegregation. As Anthony King has recently observed, our political system has acquired the contradictory tendencies of a human crowd—“to move either very sluggishly or with extreme speed.”1

Three things account for the schizophrenia of contemporary politics: one is the greater ease with which decisions can be transferred from the private to the public sphere; a second is the “atomization,” as King terms it, of political institutions; a third is a change in the governing ideas of our time. The first factor has caused the American law-making system to be in a state of permanent excitability; the second has made the outcome of any excitement difficult to predict; and the third has been the source of the energy that determines whether the system will be in its manic or depressive phase.

Madison and the other framers of the Constitution created, as everyone knows, a federal government designed to prevent the mischief of faction and the tyranny of temporary majorities by so arranging its institutions that ambition would be made to check ambition. Douglass C. North, the economic historian, has stated one consequence of the Madisonian system this way: in order to reduce the ability of interest groups to capture the government, the constitutional order attached a high cost to utilizing the political system as compared to the marketplace for making decisions. The “entry price” for politics was high, and thus only the largest or most popular factions were able to pay it. This price was both tangible and intangible. The material cost was the great effort required to organize groups (parties, factions, lobbies) influential enough to get an issue onto the agenda of Congress and to coordinate the decision of Congress (and its many parts) and the President. The non-material cost was the widespread belief that a large range of issues—public welfare, civil rights, the regulation of economic enterprise, even for a while the building of public works—was outside the legitimate scope of federal authority.

The late E. E. Schattschneider once observed that “he who decides what politics is about runs the country.” Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything. There has been, in North’s terms, a “drastic reduction in the cost of using the political process” relative to the cost of using, for similar results, the market. That reduction has been the result of easier access to the courts (by fee-shifting and class-action suits), the greater ease of financing interest groups with foundation grants and direct-mail fund-raising, and the multiplication of government agencies and congressional staffs.

Not only have the money costs of using political strategies fallen, the ideological costs have declined as well. Until rather recently, the chief issue in any congressional argument over new policies was whether it was legitimate for the federal government to do something at all. That was the crux of the dispute over Social Security, welfare, Medicare, civil rights, selective service, foreign aid, international alliances, price and wage controls, economic regulation, and countless other departures from the past. But once the initial law is passed, the issue of legitimacy disappears, and, except in those few cases where the Supreme Court later holds the law unconstitutional, does not reemerge.

Once the “legitimacy barrier” has fallen, political conflict takes a very different form. New programs need not await the advent of a crisis or an extraordinary majority, because no program is any longer “new”—it is seen, rather, as an extension, a modification, or an enlargement of something the government is already doing. Congressmen will argue about “how much,” or “where,” or “what kind,” but not about “whether.” One consequence is that the workload of Congress will grow astronomically.

Since there is virtually nothing the government has not tried to do, there is little it cannot be asked to do. Congressmen try frantically to keep up with this growing workload by adding to their staffs, but of course a bigger staff does not produce less work, it produces more, and so the ideas, demands, and commitments presented daily to a legislator grow even faster. Moreover, Congress creates a bureaucracy of its own to keep up with the information-gathering and policy-generating capacities of the executive branch, leading to what Senator Daniel P. Moynihan has characterized as the “Iron Law of Emulation.”2

This dramatic expansion of the political agenda has helped alter the distribution of political power. At one time, the legislative process was biased in favor of the opponents of any new policy. The committee system and the great powers of committee chairmen meant that the crucial calculation to be made by a proponent of a new policy was not how many congressmen were in favor of it, but which congressmen were opposed to it. The fact that the proposed policy was new and that there were few or no precedents for governmental action in that area made it easier for a Wilbur Mills, a James Eastland, or a Howard Smith to use their position on the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, or the House Rules Committee to block consideration of the proposal. But when the government is already doing something in the area, then there is an existing agency of government, and its associated private supporters with a stake in the matter, and at the very least the appropriations bill for that agency, and usually the legislative amendments proposed by that agency, must be considered.

Political scientists have frequently described American policy-making as “incremental.” Some have used the term admiringly, because the process it describes builds consensus; others have used it critically, because that process prevents radical change and misrepresents some interests. But whatever one thinks of the concept, it is increasingly hard to believe it generally descriptive. We have brought under new regulatory machinery whole sectors of our economy; changed in one sudden blow the legality of a mandatory retirement age; rewritten (in a manner almost no one understands) the basic law governing retirement systems; banned the use of whole categories of chemicals; given to Congress a legislative veto over important parts of our foreign policy once reserved entirely for the President; adopted a vast and expensive system for financing health care; put under public auspices a large part of the American rail system; created public financing of presidential campaigns; changed the meaning of “equality of opportunity” from “fair competition” to “the achievement of racial goals”; and come close to authorizing cash grants to parents of children attending parochial schools and private colleges. These may be good ideas or they may be bad ones, but it is hard to describe them—and dozens of others like them—as “marginal” or “incremental” changes in policy.

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IV

The second change has been the atomization of certain key political institutions, notably Congress and the political parties. Congress has, to a degree, been de-institutionalized and individualized: its leadership has become weaker, power within it has been dispersed, the autonomy and resourcess of its individual members have been enlarged. As a result, it is no longer helpful to think of Congress as consisting of blocs, each representing an interest group and each having a potential veto over measures affecting its vital interests. This might strike some readers as a gain—vested interests can no longer so easily say no to things they oppose. But such a view neglects the price that has been paid for this: if nobody can say no and make it stick, then neither can anybody say yes and make it stick. If there are no vetoes, neither are there any imprimaturs.

The individual member of Congress has gained enormously at the expense of committee chairmen, party leaders, and interest groups. He or she now has a large personal staff and a voice in the choice of the staff members of committees. (The congressional bureaucracy is probably the fastest-growing one in Washington, with no nonsense about civil service to inhibit it. The staff in 1976 was three times larger than it was in 1956.) The seniority system no longer governs the choice of committee chairmen to the exclusion of all other considerations; in 1975, House Democrats, by secret ballot, deposed three committee chairmen and elevated in their stead more junior members. Committees no longer regularly meet behind closed doors (whereas almost half of all House committee meetings were closed to the public in 1972, only 3 per cent were by 1975). Al Ullman cannot dominate the Ways and Means Committee the way Wilbur Mills once did, it is unlikely that Robert Byrd or his successors will have the power that Lyndon Johnson did when he was Senate majority leader, and though Tip O’Neill is a stronger Speaker than Carl Albert, he is a far cry from Sam Rayburn.

Some of the enhanced autonomy and status of individual, especially junior, members of Congress was won by back-bench revolts against leadership, but much of it was given to them by leaders attempting to build their own power by doing lasting favors for the rank-and-file. When Lyndon Johnson was Senate majority leader, his stature among freshmen Senators was high in part because he adopted a practice in the 1950′s of giving to each new Senator at least one major committee assignment rather than, as had once been the case, of making them wait patiently for the “Club” to admit them into the ranks of the deserving. Among the latter-day beneficiaries of this generosity were George McGovern and Walter Mondale. In 1970, with only six years’ seniority, McGovern became chairman of a Select Committee on Hunger and Mondale, with only seven years of service, chairman of a Committee on School Segregation. The well-publicized hearings of these committees did not harm the political ambitions of their youthful chairmen. In decentralizing power in Congress in order to enhance (temporarily) the power of a given leader, the leader is acting much like the man who keeps his house warm in the winter by burning in his fireplace the furniture, the doors, and the walls. Soon there is nothing left to burn.

It is not just the formal apparatus of party and leadership in Congress that is weaker, but the informal and social organization as well. Not long after Fischer wrote, William White described the Senate “Club” of veteran, chiefly Southern, Senators who dominated its affairs and acted, not surprisingly, entirely in the spirit of Calhoun and the concurrent majority. Within a decade after White wrote, the “Club” was pretty much finished, the victim of deaths, retirements, defeats, and—above all—political change. In 1949, in the Congress elected when Fischer was writing, Southerners held twice as many committee chairmanships as did Northerners and Westerners combined. By 1977, the Southern committee chairman was the exception, not the rule. In the period 1947-56, Gary Orfield notes, half of all the Democrats in Congress were from the South; today, less than one-third are.

Individual members of Congress are far more secure in their seats than once was the case, and with increased security goes increased freedom from those organizations, be they political parties or interest groups, that once controlled the resources necessary for reelection. Between 1952 and 1974, only about 6 per cent of the incumbent representatives seeking reelection were defeated, a substantial decline from earlier in this century. Moreover, of those running for reelection, fewer face close contests. When Fischer wrote in 1948, the winner of most House contests received 55 per cent of the vote or less. By 1972, most winners received 60 per cent of the vote or more. As political scientists like David Mayhew have pointed out, safe seats have become the rule, not the exception. Barring major electoral turnovers, such as in 1964, it may be that most new entrants to Congress will come from those districts where incumbents have decided voluntarily to retire.

Campaign-finance laws will strengthen this pattern. By restricting individual donations to $1,000, they limit sharply the chances of unknown and unwealthy candidates amassing large war chests to challenge well-known incumbents. By restricting donations from special-interest groups to $5,000, they limit the extent to which money can be the basis of group influence over legislators. (Rich candidates can still finance their own campaigns without restriction.) And if public financing of congressional campaigns should become law, one can be confident Congress will see to it that this “reform,” like all others it has enacted, serves the advantage of incumbents.

The individualization and decentralization of Congress that has been the result of these changes in its internal affairs has been further augmented by the general decline of the political party, the increased use of radio and television for building personal followings in election campaigns, and the emergence of campaign organizations, often designed and staffed by professional campaign consultants, that are the personal property of the candidate rather than the collective effort of the party.

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One consequence of these changes can be seen most dramatically in the Senate. From 1900 to 1956, only 30 per cent of the major-party candidates for President or Vice President came from the United States Senate; between 1960 and 1976, 70 per cent were Senators. The Senate has become the incubator of Presidents. When parties cannot pick presidential candidates but instead meet in conventions to ratify the choices made in two dozen or more primary elections and hundreds of local community caucuses, they discover they are often choosing among Senators because of the enormous advantage these persons have in developing a national reputation. The Senate is covered by the national press in a way the House is not; skillful and ambitious Senators can preside over dramatic hearings (into auto safety, the drug industry, malnutrition, organized crime, or intelligence-gathering) that are televised. Senators have the resources (a Senator from New York, for example, has a staff budget of around $1 million a year) to develop issues and reach national constituencies with which they wish to be identified. Computers can be programmed to produce huge and precisely indexed national mailing lists useful for reaching both voters and contributors.

When Fischer wrote, presidential candidates were still picked by conventions in which party “bosses” were influential. In 1948 there were presidential primaries in only fourteen states, and in five of these unpledged delegations ran at large. The open party caucus was almost unheard of. Though the Democratic party was deeply split among its ideological factions, the extremists of the Left and the Right did not contest the primaries but organized instead as independent parties. President Truman had only nominal opposition at the 1948 convention. In 1976, there were primaries in over two dozen states, wide open local caucuses in many others, and President Ford faced serious opposition in both the primaries and the convention. In each party, the ideological divisions were obvious and wide. Party regularity was an important consideration in 1948 for convention delegate and presidential candidate alike; anybody who used such a term in 1976 would have elicited either a smile or a yawn. When compromises were made in 1948, they were made to attract the middle-of-the-road voter; when they were made in 1976, it was to appease the more militant party activists (Walter Mondale was put on the Carter ticket to soothe the liberals, Robert Dole put on the Ford ticket to help please the conservatives). That Carter, a governor with no clear record on national issues, was able to win the Democratic nomination, was right in keeping with the political style of 1948; in 1976, however, it was seen as a curiosity to be explained by the temporary triumph of image over ideology in the wake of Watergate.

All these factors have tended to make the Congress of today, in comparison with that about which Fischer wrote in 1948, a collection of individuals rather than blocs. More precisely, blocs exist, but they are typically formed by the Congressmen themselves, on the basis of personal political convictions or broad allegiances to regions or sectors of society, rather than in response to, or as an instrument of, an organized interest outside Congress. Perhaps the largest and most significant bloc today is the Democratic Study Group, an organization of liberal Democrats in the House. It has leaders, a staff, a budget, regular meetings; its influence is hard to measure, but far from trivial. There is also a Black Caucus and a Northeast-Midwest Economic Advancement Coalition. In 1948, Congressmen were more likely to organize into a “farm bloc,” or a “labor bloc,” or an “oil bloc.” Such influences still operate, of course, but groups based on ideology or racial or ethnic identification have become more important than those based on economic interest. And Congressmen change their minds more frequently, making it harder to count in advance on their position.

More assertive and individualistic members combined with fewer sources of influence mean that more effort must be devoted to rounding up votes. In the House, Representative John Brademas, the Democratic whip, is assisted by no fewer than 35 deputy or assistant whips and spends on this vote-producing operation over $400,000 a year, more than three times as much as was spent in 1970. One assistant whip with long experience recently complained that his job is “a hell of a lot more difficult than it used to be.”

The individualization of politics has meant that interest groups have had to individualize their appeal and link it directly to the electoral fortunes of individual Congressmen. Thus, the rise of “grass-roots” lobbying—the careful, often computerized mobilization of letters, mailgrams, delegations, and financial contributions from individual citizens in each legislator’s district or state. When the AFL-CIO was locked in struggle with the business-oriented National Action Committee on Labor Law Reform, the two sides were estimated to have generated nearly five million pieces of mail to Congress. Mark Green, director of Ralph Nader’s Congress Watch, said that grass-roots lobbying has made Washington “an absolutely different city these days.” Today, he noted, “you lose bills in the districts, not in Washington.”

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V

But if key political institutions are becoming so atomized, how does any policy get passed? The explanation, I suspect, is to be found in the third change in politics—the enhanced importance of ideas and of ideology. To return to Anthony King’s metaphor, what makes the difference between the sluggish and the rushing crowd is the force of a compelling idea.

The Congress of 1968 or 1978, much more than that of 1948, is susceptible to the power of ideas whenever there seems to be a strong consensus as to what the correct ideas are. Such a consensus existed in the mid-1960′s about the Great Society legislation; no such consensus about these matters exists today. This helps explain, as Henry J. Aaron has noted, the changing prospects of social-welfare policies. Consumerism, ecology, campaign-finance reform, and congressional ethics are other examples of ideas with strong symbolic appeal that, so long as the consensus endures, are handled by a political process in which the advantage lies with the proponents of change.

When a consensus evaporates or a symbol loses its power, issues are handled by a process which, like that in 1948, gives the advantage to the opponents of change. But sooner or later, a scandal, a shift in the focus of media attention, or the efforts of a skilled policy entrepreneur such as Ralph Nader or John Gardner will bring a compelling new idea to the top of the political agenda, and once again action will become imperative.

I do not wish to enter the argument whether there has been an “end of ideology” in the West or whether there is a heightened degree of “ideological constraint” in the public at large. Within Congress, however, the Republican party seems to have become more consistently conservative and the Democratic party more consistently liberal. Whatever has happened in society, the principle of affiliation among legislators has become, I think, more clearly based on shared ideas, and to a degree those shared ideas conform to party labels. (More accurately, the notion of party in Congress has been infused with more ideological meaning by its members.)

The point is debatable and easily overstated, but one illustration suggests what may have happened. In 1949, the House voted on a bill to deregulate natural gas. The influence of party was scarcely detectable and, had we the data, the influence of ideology only slightly more so. The Democrats split almost evenly (49 per cent in favor, 51 per cent opposed); the Republicans were a bit more lopsided (73 per cent in favor, 27 per cent opposed). In 1977, the House voted again on a comparable though not identical bill. Now, the influence of party was almost complete: 75 per cent of the Democrats opposed it; 88 per cent of the Republicans favored it. Pietro Novola at the University of Vermont has found that ideology and partisanship were vastly more important than economic interest (whether one comes from a gas-consuming or gas-producing district) in explaining the 1977 congressional vote.

Much attention has rightly been paid to one source of politically influential ideas—the “New Class” composed of persons having high levels of education and professional occupations. This group is decidedly more liberal than other groups in society, so much so that Everett Ladd was able to conclude that by the early 1960′s, a majority of the “privileged” elements in society considered themselves Democrats and voted for Democratic candidates for Congress. The New Class is responsive to, and provides support for, politicians who favor abortion on demand, environmental-and consumer-protection laws, and equal rights for women.

But every class has its counterpart class. The discussion of the New Class, and even its label, leads attention away from what is happening to other, non-liberal groups in society. Upper-middle-class white Northern Protestants, once the bastion of traditional conservatism, have not been converted into a liberal New Class, they have been split into two deeply opposed groups. Sidney Verba and his co-workers found that in the 1950′s, this group was the most conservative identifiable segment of American opinion. By the 1970′s, however, a profound change had occurred—one part of this group had become even more conservative, while another part had become very liberal. High-status Wasps are now the most polarized class in America, and to the extent that this class contributes disproportionately to political elites, these elites have become more polarized.

These divisions of opinion contribute powerfully to the kind of “one-issue” politics so characteristic of the present era. Pro-abortion versus pro-life; gun control versus the right to bear arms; gay rights versus traditional values; ERA versus anti-ERA; nuclear energy versus solar energy; proponents of affirmative action versus opponents of reverse discrimination—all these causes and more make life miserable for the traditional, coalition-seeking politician. Weakened institutions, individualized politics, and the rise of an educated, idea-oriented public combine to make it highly advantageous for political entrepreneurs to identify and mobilize single-issue constituencies and to enlist them, not only into electoral and legislative politics, but into court suits, referendum campaigns, and even calls for constitutional conventions.

The importance of single-issue politics is, of course, much discussed, but not without a touch of hypocrisy. Most columnists and commentators began to criticize this phenomenon only when it took directions of which they did not approve. Anti-war politics, the drive for abortion on demand, the effort to obtain gun control, and the opposition to nuclear energy are typically described by liberals as “movements” or “concerns.” When the right-to-life forces or those opposing gun control get organized, however, their critics not only disapprove of their ideas, they deplore their use of “extremist” tactics.

To the extent that ideas determine whether the atomized political system will move speedily, sluggishly, or not at all, the principal task of political analysis becomes that of understanding the processes whereby certain ideas become dominant. This requires more subtle techniques for studying public opinion than any that have been routinely employed, techniques that will measure the intensity of feeling as well as its distribution and will distinguish opinions capable of providing the basis for political mobilization from those that are mere expressions of preference. And we require better knowledge about the organizations that shape opinion—the mass and elite media, the universities, and those acrónymic groups that manage to devise and implant compelling slogans.

In John Fischer’s day, scholars studied big business, labor unions, medical societies, and farm groups. Today, we need to understand better how elites learn ideas in their colleges and law schools and from the magazines of opinion. How else can we explain, for example, why a generation of legislators who believed in the virtues of business regulation by independent commissions is being replaced by one seeking to deregulate many of those businesses, often over the bitter objections of the regulated industry? Or why a generation that applauded John F. Kennedy’s inaugural promise to defend liberty anywhere, at any price, has become one that prefers to minimize risks of every kind, in every place?

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VI

We are at a loss for a word or phrase to describe the new features of the political system; scholars even disagree as to whether it is all that new. Such terms as “veto-group politics” seemed most appropriate for the system that Fischer and later David Riesman described thirty years ago; that powerful insight allowed many discrete facts to be summarized in one economical statement. Today, the system is more confused and so our political vocabulary has become more prolix and less precise.

Viewed in a longer historical perspective, what we are seeing may not be all that new. The Congress in which Madison and his immediate successors sat was highly individualized. Strong, institutionalized congressional leadership did not emerge until the latter half of the 19th century; one contest for Speaker in 1856 ran to 133 ballots. Factions abounded, but national interest-group organization did not occur until the end of the 19th century. “Single-issue” politics existed, the abolition of slavery being the most conspicuous example. But in Madison’s time, and for many decades thereafter, national politics was less a career than a hobby; the federal government played a minor role in human affairs; the range of issues with which Congress had to deal was small; and ideological cleavages tended to occur one at a time. Now, governing is a profession, the government plays a large role, and issues tend to pile up, one atop the other, in a network of multiple and profound ideological cleavages. Whether one describes as “fundamental” the changes in institutions and ideas that have accompanied the rise of modern government is in part a matter of style. Yet one must be impressed by the change in the dominant ethos of the times—whereas the period 1890-1920 was the great era of institution-building in voluntary associations, political parties, corporate enterprises, and congressional leadership, the last decade or so has been one that has criticized, attacked, and partially dismantled institutions.

From a broader, international perspective, one might say that the changes I have described add up to nothing of fundamental importance. The American constitutional order, with its separate executive and legislative branches and its independent judiciary, remains very different from the British system of cabinet-in-parliament. And so it does. (It is ironic to note the stirrings among British politicians who would like to see their system, which stifles the backbench member of Commons, changed into something more “American.” They may suppose that they can combine the advantages of strong party government with the advantages of powerful legislative committees and more autonomous legislators, but I suspect they are wrong.)

By the standards of liberals and socialists, the American system remains far more conservative than that of European democracies. Where is our national health insurance, our comprehensive income-maintenance scheme, our government ownership of key industries? By these tests, the American system is conservative. But by another test it is far more activist and innovative than almost any European democracy: what other country has anything like our detailed federal regulation of business enterprise, our elaborate set of “tax expenditures,” our affirmative-action programs addressed to the demands of a growing list of ethnic and racial minorities? Some rather careful distinctions must be made before one can compare how American policy-making differs from that abroad.

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What is more striking to me is that, since the 1930′s, there has occurred in this country an extraordinary redistribution of political power without any prior redistribution of income or wealth. Those persons, of the Right as well as the Left, who are enchanted with economic explanations of political life have their work cut out for them if they insist on ignoring the powerful transformation in ideas that seems to lie at the heart of these changes.


Footnotes

1 The American Political System (American Enterprise Institute, 1978), p. 393.

2 See his article, “Imperial Government,” in the June 1978 COMMENTARY.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.




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