The frantic swings in American political life over the past five years have perplexed the world. Martin Walker sees them as symptoms of a bigger shift in the balance of power following the end of the cold warby Martin Walker / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Republican ascendancy in US politics has been hailed by supporters at home and abroad as an historic shift that will fulfil Speaker Newt Gingrich’s promise “to replace the welfare state with the conservative opportunity society.” Less than three years earlier the electoral victory of Bill Clinton, defeating an incumbent president and installing the first Democrat in the White House for 12 years, was hailed as a similarly historic success for a revitalised Democratic party, invigorated by a modernised concept of American social democracy.
The Zeitgeist, or at least the fashionable interpretation of deeper political currents, can change fast in the information age. And yet, as we might expect from two baby-boomers from broken homes who somehow avoided the Vietnam war, whose only jobs were university lecturing and elected office, and who each owns the same private car (a 1966 Ford Mustang convertible), the Clinton and the Gingrich visions have some common features.
Neither one could abide the classic foreign policy presidency of George Bush. Each built his political appeal on the promise of a middle class tax cut, to be financed through a diminished and “re-invented” government bureaucracy, with Americans educated and challenged to compete in the bracing new world of the global economy. Each believes in an activist government. In the Clinton view, it has a duty to equip the public with the educational tools to succeed; in the Gingrich view, to steer them towards the moral values without which success has no meaning. Clinton would intervene in the schools and economy, Gingrich in the private lives of welfare mothers and the history curriculum of the schools.
Some of these common threads suggest that something more fundamental is at work than merely a conventional shift in the balance of power from left to right, or from an activist concept of government to a shrunken one.
One of the most distinctive rhythms of American political history has been the tidal flow of power from White House to Congress and back again. If the usual business of government was shared in creative but often uneasy tension between the two, crisis always strengthened the presidential hand. From the presidencies of Jackson and Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, a clear pattern emerges of military, economic or political crisis becoming the occasion of a shift in the balance of power from the Capitol to the White House. But the power subsequently shifted back again. The successors to those four presidents, Martin Van Buren and Andrew Johnson, William Howard Taft and Warren Harding, are not names associated with any great assertion of presidential power.