Commentary Magazine


They Only Look Dead by EJ. Dionne, Jr.

Middleman

They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era
by E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Simon & Schuster. 352 pp. $24.00

In his last book, Why Americans Hate Politics (1991), E.J. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post, and one of our most thoughtful political commentators, took issue with both contemporary liberalism and contemporary conservatism and attempted to articulate a new middle ground. His belief, on the one hand, in the desirability of a vigorous public sector—big government—put him in opposition to conservatives of most stripes. His aversion, on the other hand, to the “antidemocratic impulses” reflected in multiculturalism, radical feminism, and the like sharply separated him from the liberal mainstream. Between the two poles, Dionne attempted to delineate a renewed liberalism that would rescue itself from irrelevance by learning “the many lessons that conservatism has to teach about the value of tradition, value, and community.” Dionne, in short, was mapping out the very path Bill Clinton attempted to walk as he campaigned for the presidency in 1992 as a “new Democrat.”

Four years and nearly one complete term of the Clinton administration have passed since Why Americans Hate Politics was published, and Dionne’s position has evolved. In his new book, instead of offering a prescription for repairing liberalism, he has abandoned the term altogether, evidently accepting the conclusion that the “L-word” has become synonymous in the public mind with bureaucracy, big government, and failed social experiments. Now he embraces “progressivism”—a term with more neutral associations and also with roots in America’s past. Not only does he provide an outline of “progressive” politics, but he boldly argues the case for the prediction set forth in his subtitle: “progressives will dominate the next political era.”

Dionne deploys a wide reading in America’s past to explain and defend this somewhat counterintuitive proposition. Relying on a cyclical view of American history, he likens present-day Republicans to the party of the late-19th-century Robber Barons, and describes Newt Gingrich and his crowd as advocates of a “Gilded Age conservatism dressed up in the finery of a high-tech age.” But just as the Gilded Age was followed by a progressive era, it is, Dionne writes, only a matter of time before the pendulum swings again and America reenters a period marked by the “careful but active use of government to temper markets and enhance individual opportunities.”

For evidence of this new dawning, Dionne turns to the successes (and the failures) of Bill Clinton. Clinton campaigned for the presidency stressing themes that lie at the center of the new politics Dionne favors—the intelligent use of government to improve the public weal. His victory at the polls, however narrow, showed that an electoral coalition could still be forged to stand behind such a program.

But Clinton’s presidency, as Dionne concedes, illustrates not merely the potential for a new politics but also the pitfalls that might derail it. For one thing, the administration’s policy initiatives have been repeatedly hijacked by the left wing of the Democratic party. Thanks to pressure from that direction, Clinton’s promise “to end welfare as we know it”—a pledge which had broad political appeal—has gone unfulfilled. His effort to reform health care also ended in failure, and of a more spectacular sort: instead of working toward incremental change, the President adopted a maximalist approach and succumbed to the temptation to redesign the entire health-care industry from the ground up. The. result, of course, was a disastrous political setback for the Democratic party in the November 1994 congressional elections.

Ironically, however, the failings of the Clinton administration give Dionne reason for hope. The middle ground he is fighting for remains uncontested and can still be gained. The Democrats could still seize the moment by responding to the needs of what he calls the “Anxious Middle”—the silent majority that wants (he believes) not less but more effective government. What progressives need do is embrace policies that foster both “liberty and community,” while also taking into consideration the “neoconservative challenge to liberalism”—by which Dionne appears to mean the recognition that aside from the obligations of our government to its citizens, there are limits to its reach as well.

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Much of what Dionne has to say sounds eminently sensible. But there is one obvious problem: the liberals whom he now labels “progressive” seem entirely oblivious to his call, and the Democratic party as a whole remains mired in failed ideas and policies. Bill Clinton’s difficulties with the party’s left wing—on welfare, health-care reform, and other critical issues ranging from trade to crime—have hardly occurred by accident. There is, rather, a long list of matters on which the party appears locked into positions very far from what Dionne’s Anxious Middle could plausibly be said to want.

Affirmative action is one such issue, and it is a significant failing that it goes undiscussed in Dionne’s book. Divisions over the ill-conceived policy of racial preferences have already done a great deal of damage to the Democrats and their electoral prospects, in particular by driving the so-called angry white males from the party’s ranks. The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), which puts the future of affirmative action before the voters in a referendum this fall, is likely to have tremendous implications for the outcome of the presidential election in a key battleground state. Not a word about any of this gets mentioned here, even though—or perhaps because—affirmative action has given liberalism (or “progressivism”) a very bad name.

This is not to say that Dionne does not have many pertinent observations to offer about the contradictions of contemporary American politics, and interesting comparisons to draw between our current dilemma and other moments in our past. Some of his policy prescriptions appear reasonable; vouchers for education is one, though again it is an idea unlikely to kindle enthusiasm among today’s “progressives”—on the contrary, it is a proposal dear to many conservative hearts. There is, in sum, little real evidence here that a new era is aborning. “Progressives” may only look dead, as Dionne suggests in the title of his interesting book, but this may also be a case where appearances are not, in the end, deceiving.

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