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Changing Patterns in American Politics
By Robert Casier, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science
As we approach the threshold of the 1980s, the American political scene is laced with
conflicting and contradictory patterns. The public today overwhelmingly wants increased
governmental services, yet by equally wide percentages thinks taxes are too high.
Proposition 13 has become a worldwide phrase symbolizing popular discontent over taxes.
According to a recent Gallup poll, self-described conservatives now outnumber liberals
by a record 20 percent margin. Paradoxically, the Democrats, the more liberal of the
two major parties, continue to win most of the elections at the national and state
levels. What do these developments mean? In an attempt to gain perspective on these
and other questions, this address focuses on changing patterns in American politics.
Unfortunately, political terms change their meaning with the passage of time. Today's
conservatives are often the liberals of yesterday. Moreover, there is no agreement
upon the usage of contemporary political labels. While beset with problems, the course
of recent events can best be charted by tracing the evolution of liberalism and conservatism,
which are the two major ideological themes in American politics.
Traditional Liberalism and Conservatism
A good point of departure is New Deal liberalism, initiated by the election of Democratic
President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. The 30s were turbulent times. In many respects
the New Deal was a pragmatic response to the problems of the day. The experimental
and rather uncertain nature of the New Deal was explained in poker-playing terms by
Thurmond Arnold, a member of Roosevelt's administration. When asked to explain liberalism,
Arnold replied, "Liberalism is deuces wild."
Understanding American politics during the 1930s was considerably easier than it is
today. Party identification was more solid and evenly divided between Democrats and
Republicans. Voting was primarily confined to a single set of issues-those relating
to the domestic economy. In an attempt to solve the Great Depression, the New Deal
embarked on a course of government intervention in the economy marked by such innovations
as large-scale public works, collective bargaining, social security, and unemployment
insurance. Many of these changes reflected the notion that the previous lines dividing
what the government should or should not do had been drawn in the wrong place.
Liberalism had come full circle from its 18th and 19th century laissez-faireposition,
for originally liberalism had been a protest against government interference in the
economy. Republican president Herbert Hoover, a 20th century laissez-faire advocate,
objected to the association of the idea of liberalism with the New Deal. Nonetheless,
the meaning of liberalism did change. Those opposed to New Deal liberalism were called
conservatives. Primarily identified with the Republican Party, the main features of
the conservative position were strong support for the free enterprise economy, opposition
to the extension of executive power wielded by Roosevelt, and isolationism in foreign
During the New Deal period, Roosevelt successfully put together a number of groups
which produced a majority coalition. These included the urban working class, ethnic
minorities, Catholics, Jews, intellectuals and the Solid South. With a broadened base
of support, the Democrats replaced Republicans as the dominant party in voter identification,
a position which they retain to this day. A somewhat different interpretation of the
Democratic upsurge was explained by an anonymous wit: "Republicans sleep in twin beds-some
even in separate rooms. No wonder there are more Democrats."
Immediately following World War II, New Deal issues began to fade. During the 1950s,
public opinion polls showed that foreign policy concerns superseded the economy as
the most important problem facing the American people. A bipartisan foreign policy,
initiated by Democratic President Harry Truman, regarded the containment of international
communism as the first priority. The Truman Doctrine, NATO, and the Korean War followed.
Most conseratives, adamantly anti-communist, joined ranks with Democrats to extend
the number of global security alliances. Isolationism, for a time, was in repose.
Consensus in foreign policy prevailed.
Relatively prosperous economic conditions during much of the fifties muted partisan
differences between Republicans and Democrats. In the absence of polarizing issues,
World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower drew votes away from the Roosevelt coalition.
Although voters switched to a popular presidential candidate, the Democrats remained
the dominant party both in terms of voter identification and, with the exception of
a brief two year period, retained control of Congress. Support for the traditional
conservative ideological position gradually eroded as the American public and Republican
administrations accepted social security, deficit spending to combat unemployment,
and a foreign policy involving global responsibilities.
This shift in Republican orientation led many Republicans to conclude that their party
should offer the American public "a choice, not an echo." The Republican decision
in 1964 to present Barry Goldwater as a presidential spokesman for traditional conservatism
ended in disastrous defeat. A delighted Lyndon Johnson, reflecting on his sweeping
victory over Goldwater, quipped: "I think it is very important that we have a two-party
country. I am a fellow that [sic] likes small parties and the Republican party is
about the size I like."
The 60s: Rise of the New Liberalism
The dramatic changes of the 60s, however, were soon to challenge the strength and
unity of the Democratic Party. Race, along with civil disorder, crime, drugs and other
moral concerns such as pornography, abortion and the death penalty became important
domestic issues. Concurrently, American foreign policy was dominated by increased
involvement in Vietnam. Thus, the pattern of American politics shifted from one dominated
solely by economics or foreign policy to a new pattern characterized by multiple issues
which evoked a strong emotional response. As a consequence, the body politic became
fragmented. Symptomatic of this pattem was a decline in party identification and the
rise of independent voters.
Divisions within the Democratic Party actually began soon after World War II when
the Democrats, led by Hubert Humphrey, incorporated a strong civil rights plank in
their 1948 party platform. Southern defection from the Democratic fold in the 1948,
1952 and 1956 presidential elections marked the initial crack in the New Deal coalition.
The days of the Solid Democratic South ended abruptly.
By 1963, spurred on by the civil rights movement, the racial issue replaced economics
and foreign policy as the most important problem facing the American public. In response,
the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sponsored a series
of civil rights proposals which were enacted into law and then were expanded by administrative
and judicial interpretation. In time, busing and affirmative action appeared as divisive
issues. Support for these ideas gave liberalism a new dimension. George Wallace emerged
on the scene and became a political force in the 1968 and 1972 elections. Cracks in
the FDR coalition became wider as increasing numbers of New Deal liberals, both in
and outside the South, stopped supporting Democratic presidential candidates.
Public opinion studies indicate that working classes are liberal mainly on traditional
economic issues associated with the New Deal. Many years before the rise of contemporary
social issues, polls showed that the less affluent had a low level of tolerance for
unconventional ideas. Recent examples of this pattern include negative attitudes towards
the protests of the 60s and opposition to life-style changes associated with the counter-culture.
Workers may be economic liberals, but they are often conservative on social issues.
Many of the "hard-hat" defenders of American policy in Vietnam are today often opposed
to affirmative action and quotas in job recruitment and promotion. As recent members
of the middle class, workers seek to protect their newly obtained gains. These developments
help explain why support for Democratic candidates from the working classes, an important
element of the Roosevelt coalition, is no longer as certain as it was in the past.
Along with other items on the new political agenda, Vietnam also had a great polarizing
effect on the voters, especially among Democrats. Opposition to the expansion of the
American effort in Southeast Asia during the Johnson and Nixon administrations produced
a strong anti-interventionist, neo-isolationist faction within the Democratic Party.
To Senators Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and others representing this new liberal
viewpoint, the watchword became "No more Vietnams." The post-World War II consensus
on American foreign policy had ended.
From the changing political patterns of the 60s there emerged a new ideological outlook
which today is variously described as Reform Liberalism, Radical Liberalism or the
New Liberalism. In foreign policy, this view reflects a retrenchment from the strong
internationalist stance of traditional liberalism. Fear of another Vietnam has led
many New Liberals toward an unwillingness to commit U.S. troops anywhere abroad. Some
of the current domestic positions taken by the new breed of liberals include insistence
on affirmative action and quota programs for minority groups and women, support for
abortion and gay rights, legalization of marijuana, an avid concern for the environment,
and an attack upon corporate power.
Thus, on a variety of issues New and Radical Liberals often take stands at variance
with traditional supporters of the New Deal coalition. New Deal liberalism, then,
has become the Old Liberalism. Consequently, the Democrats are today a divided party
which encompasses, somewhat uncomfortably, both the Old and the New Liberals.
Divided Parties: Democrats and Republicans
Although the New Liberals are a clear minority in the nation as a whole, they are
very active in Democratic Party politics and have a disproportionate influence in
relation to their numbers. Their power was demonstrated in the nomination of George
McGovern in 1972. McGovern's overwhelming rejection was due not only to his economic
and foreign policy positions but also because he and his supporters were perceived
to be out of touch with the American public on the social issues. McGovern was successfully
portrayed, although somewhat inaccurately, as the candidate of the 3 A's, "abortion,
amnesty, and acid."
The division between the Old and New Liberals within the Democratic Party and the
shift of voting allegiances appeared to give the Republican Party an excellent opportunity
to develop a new majority coalition. This possibility was outlined by conservative
writer Kevin Phillips in his book, The Emerging Republican Majority (1969). In 1972,
Republicans did sweep the traditionally Democratic South, and there was some middle
class voter protest over social questions, but the Republicans made no permanent inroads
into the Roosevelt coalition. Presidential election victories by Richard Nixon in
1968 and 1972 did not bring about a grass-roots resurgence of the Republican Party,
which has increasingly become dependent on the support of Northern white Protestants.
In recent years the percentage of people identifying with the Republican Party has
actually dropped below 20 percent.
Although more homogeneous than the Democrats, the Republican Party also has had its
own divisions. President Nixon, for example, angered many traditional conservatives
by adopting policies such as deficit financing, price and wage controls, detente with
the Soviet Union and the beginnings of the normalization of relations with Communist
China. After Watergate, there was serious talk among conservatives about establishing
a new party to replace the Republicans, but a Gallup poll in 1975 indicated that only
25 percent of the general population would vote for a new party favoring policies
more conservative than those of the present Republican Party. Apparently only a small
percentage share Archie Bunker's lament: "Mister, we could use a man like Herbert
The Democrats are also in trouble. At first glance, President Jimmy Carter's 1976
victory might be interpreted as a re-affimmation of the FDR coalition. After all,
Carter did carry the South, the Black, Jewish and Catholic vote and significant segments
of other groups that have traditionally supported the Democratic Party. A closer look
at the election results, however, suggests that all is not well for the Democrats,
especially in presidential politics.
For example, two elements of the coalition which continue to identify themselves as
Democrats and vote for Democratic congressional candidates are Southern whites and
Northem urban Catholics. In presidential elections, however, these groups are no longer
dependably within the Democratic fold. Although Carter did win the South, partially
as a result of regional pride, he failed to win a majority of the Southem white vote.
The new South, which includes a large number of Black voters, is not the same South
of the New Deal days. Carter actually ran behind Roosevelt in every Southern state,
including Georgia. Among urban Catholics a reason for diminished support for Democratic
presidential candidates is the increasing importance of abortion as an issue. It is
noteworthy that the Republican platform in 1976 called for constitutional amendments
to ban both forced busing and abortion.
Adding to the problems of the Democrats, the Carter presidency has alienated some
of his major 1976 support groups, including Blacks, Jews and organized labor. Carter's
moderate conservative economic stance, for example, has helped to curtail economic
spending programs favored by Blacks and organized labor. Tensions between the Black
and Jewish communities, which earlier emerged over affirmative action and quotas programs,
have been recently heightened by questions involving the Palestinian Liberation Organization
(PLO). This is illustrated by the emotional departure of U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young
and failure by the Carter administration to criticize overtures to the P.L.O. by other
Black leaders such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The New Deal coalition may not yet
be dead, but it is no longer strong and healthy.
Neoconservatism: A New Political Force?
Another challenge to the FDR coalition has been mounted by a group of intellectuals
who earlier endorsed the New Deal. It is a paradox that the 1960s gave birth to new
versions of both liberalism and conservatism. The term "Neoconservatism," which gained
popular usage only in 1976, is in many ways inadequate. This new intellectual persuasion
represents a diversity of viewpoints reflected by such writers as Irving Kristol and
Daniel Bell, founders of the magazine, The Public Interest. Kristol would as readily
accept Neoliberal as a description of his position. Bell, who rejects the new category;
proclaims in his book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism(1976): "I am a socialist
in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture." The purpose of
the final chapter of this recent book, according to Bell, is to affirm liberalism
as a political philosophy.
Bell's commentary suggests that some labelled Neoconservatives have held steadfast
to their convictions in a period when New Liberals have shaded to the Left. Herbert
Hoover must be smiling. Many leading Neoconservatives have been "referred to as refugees
from the political left." It is therefore not surprising that this amalgam of old
liberals and ex-socialists, more often than not, retains ties with the Democratic
Party. A good example of a Democratic politician who falls neatly under this new label
is Senator Patrick Moynihan of New York.
Neoconservatives should be differentiated from traditional conservatives such as columnist
William F. Buckley Jr., economist Milton Friedman, and politician Ronald Reagan, for
these men advocate an unfettered free market economy. In sharp contrast, Neoconservatives
accept the social and economic programs of the New Deal and even some of President
Johnson's Great Society initiatives, such as Medicare. Both Bell and Kristol call
for some form of national health insurance, and even Kristol, the more conservative
of the two, favors the idea of guaranteeing every family a minimum annual income.
Thus, to a degree, neoconservatism represents an extension of New Deal liberalism.
The ideal of equality historically has been defined by liberals in political terms
such as equality before the law. During the 1960s, with the passage of national voting
rights laws, legislation mandating access to public accommodations, and the Warren
court decisions embodying the principle of one-person, one-vote, the United States
moved closer toward the reality of legal equality. Neoconservatives applaud these
changes as another acceptable extension of the Old Liberalism.
In contrast to the New Liberals, however, Neo-conservatives reject the idea that government
should guarantee the equality of outcome or result. It is appropriate, say the Neoconservatives,
that differences in talent, motivation and productivity lead to inequalities in status
and income. They object, therefore, to affirmative action programs and welfare policies
that reduce incentives to work. Another Neoconservative theme contends that recent
attempts to redistribute society's resources have led to a government overload-an
increasing demand for services which cannot be matched by tax resources. The Neo-
conservative cautions that increased moves toward redistribution of wealth will hinder
the rate of economic growth upon which taxes depend. In summary, Neoconservatives
have doubts that government can or should try to resolve all of our economic and social
Pre-eminently, Neoconservatives see the current crisis in America as cultural-a matter
of values and morals. Over the centuries conservatives have stressed the importance
of the moral order and have placed an emphasis on the preservation of traditional
values embodied in the family, neighborhood, and church. The contemporary crisis of
authority in the United States is attributed chiefly to the rise of an "adversary
culture" with its contempt for convention and its focus on the exploration of new
experiences. Neoconservatives criticize a hedonistic lifestyle and point to the dangers
of liberating individuals from the restraints imposed by traditional social institutions.
One is reminded of Ambrose Bierce's astute observation that a conservative is "a statesman
who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to
replace them with others."
There are also important differences between the New Liberals and Neoconservatives
on foreign policy matters. Vietnam itself was not the critical dividing issue for
there was no consensus among the new conservatives on the war. What bothers the new
conservatives is the neo-isolationist spirit that followed the war, for they feel
that the United States should stand fast with those nations committed to Western democratic
values. This posture is reflected in strong support of our European allies and Israel.
Conversly, Neoconservatives are skeptical of Soviet foreign policy designs and therefore
have reservations about detente and Salt II.
Some members of the Left are prone to place the entire blame for Vietnam's contemporary
problems on our intervention there. Columnist Max Lerner recently recounted (8/79)
how one New Liberal member of a congressional team investigating the Vietnam refugee
problem stated that it was the presence of the U.S. Fleet that "encourages people
to run." The Neoconservative is much more comfortable with Lerner's retort, "The heart
of the matter is communist rule."
How important is neoconservatism? Peter Steinfels, executive editor ofCommonwealth
magazine and author of The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America (1979),
maintains neoconservative influence derives its strength from the fact that it is
congenial to powerful forces in American life. The American Enterprise Institute has
in a short period of time become the conservative "think-tank" counterpart to the
long established and liberally oriented Brookings Institution. The new institute is
a welcome addition to the pro-business forces who historically have been on the short
end of the academic input.
Some Leftist critics think Steinfels has exaggerated the influence of the neoconservatives.
Christopher Jencks, for example, regards them merely as "a creation of magazine journalism."
Ideas, however, do count. The noted British economist John Maynard Keynes put it aptly
some years ago when he said, "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt
from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.
Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from
some academic scribbler of a few years back..."Almost without exception, leading Neoconservatives
have or now hold positions at important universities, including a good number at Harvard.
It was once popular to say that the road to political power in the United States was
to go to Harvard and turn Left. Today some of the students who go to Harvard may take
a different turn.
Ideological and Operational Spectrums
Does the rise of new varieties of liberalism and conservatism reflect a basic change
in public opinion? Surprisingly, popular identification with a conservative orientation
is not new. In 1939, at the height of New Deal Liberalism, a majority (52 percent)
of the public regarded itself as conservative. There is an obvious paradox here because
New Deal programs were liberal for that era. How is this paradox to be explained?
Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free in The Political Beliefs of Americans (1967) draw a
distinction between the operational and ideological spectrums. Operationally, on specific
government programs which touched the daily lives of individuals, Cantril and Free
found that well over a majority of Americans were liberal. According to these authors,
Americans are ideological conservatives only in a broad sense that they believe government
interference should be kept to a minimum.
Recent surveys reaffirm these conclusions. Americans, who are conservative in a general
sense, also overwhelm-ingly say that today there are not enough public services for
improving education, national health, the environment, or the condition of Blacks.
The only public service which lacks general popular support is welfare. Welfare has
become a pejorative term that applies almost exclusively to those poor who are on
public assistance programs.
New and Radical Liberals are quick to point out that there is no similar negative
stigma towards special tax breaks for the rich, subsidies and guaranteed loans to
business, or even social security benefits. What accounts for the apparent contradiction
in public attitudes which frown upon government aid to the poor but not to other members
of society? Although socialist writer Michael Harrington wrote some years ago about
the poor in the United States as being "invisible," the fact is that welfare grants
administered by state and local governments are more visible than the more hidden
Besides welfare, disenchantment with the New Liberal programs of the 60s also stems
from resentment by the general taxpayer about new programs that aid only a selective
part of society. Social security, unemployment insurance and Medicare are accepted
because they are universal and therefore do not set one group against another. Surveys
demonstrate that middle income groups now find themselves more in the role of a contributor
than a beneficiary of domestic spending programs. Given the tax advantages to people
at the top, an increasing proportion of the funds necessary to pay for the expansion
of public services has been shouldered by the middle class. Herein lie the seeds of
a tax rebellion, exemplified by Proposition 13.
What did Proposition 13 signify? Was it, as Howard Jarvis asserted, a statement against
large government and taxes of all kinds? Proposition 13 was indeed a tax revolt, but
it was specifically directed against increased property taxes in a state with a huge
financial surplus. Inaction in Sacramento on property tax relief and the budget surplus
represented a failure by state politicians to read the public mood. An analysis of
polls taken before the June, 1978 vote revealed that whereas Californians thought
property taxes were too high, there was little concern about other types of taxes.
Contrary to Jarvis, the polls indicated that, except for a few items such as welfare,
a large majority of Californians was satisfied with the extent of most state services.
Of those satisfied with state services, a majority voted in favor of 13. It follows
that the voters, still operational liberals, wanted a reduction in a specific tax
without a reduction of public services.
Proposition 13 had some unintended consequences that relate to conservative and liberal
perspectives. It is rather ironic that 13 resulted in a traditional liberal objective
to have the state assume greater financial responsibility for health, education and
welfare. Local control of governmental services, long a conservative stance, has been
eroded by the state funded bail-out measures which have followed in the aftermath
of 13. Failure by landlords to pass on tax reductions to renters has led to passage
of rent control measures in several California communities, a position which is anathema
to conservatives. The California political climate at present is a mixture of conservative
and liberal sentiments.
Political attitudes on the national level are also ambivalent. Public opinion is now
in agreement with a long established conservative stance that inflation is the most
serious economic problem facing the country. Americans, however, do not necessarily
agree with conservative proposals of how to deal with economic problems. For example,
during the 1978 congressional campaign, the Republicans attempted to make the Roth-Kemp
massive tax-cut proposal the centerpiece of their economic program. The lack of Republican
success can be partially explained by a 1978 poll which indicated that about 90 percent
of Americans subscribed to the idea that "controlling inflation is more important
than cutting taxes." But how would the public control inflation? Polls have consistently
shown that most Americans favor price and wage controls, which is clearly a non-conservative
position. Thus far, Americans remain ideological conservatives and operational liberals.
Political Reforms and Single Issue Politics
Another changing pattern in American politics over the past decade has been political
party reform. Historically, reformers in both parties have sought to open the presidential
selection process so that the nomination not be determined by "bosses" in "smoke-filled"
rooms. Presidential primaries, initiated around the turn of the century, doubled from
15 in 1968 to 30 by 1976. By 1972, for the first time in American history, over half
the convention delegates were selected as a result of a popular vote, instead of by
party leaders. In 1976, federal funding of presidential politics was introduced. Reforms
in the Democratic Party now provide for a delegate selection process which encourages
greater rank-and-file participation as well as rules to ensure proportional representation
of minorities, young people and women. All of these changes, designed to make the
presidential nomination more democratic, served to weaken the role played by party
organization and leaders.
A critical insight into the dynamics of American politics is offered by political
scientist James MacGregor Burns. Writing prior to recent party reforms, Burns observed,
in The Deadlock of Democracy (1963), that we actually have a four-party system in
the United States in which both Republicans and Democrats are split into presidential
and congressional parties. As presidential candidates now go their individual ways
in raising funds to be matched by federal subsidies, the separation between presidential
and congressional parties has grown. Party structures no longer play the integrating
role they once did when they raised and distributed most campaign funds.
Given the new nominating and funding processes, Democratic members of Congress had
little to do with the selection of Jimmy Carter. Carter added to the strain between
the presidency and Congress when he ran as an "outsider," an anti-Washington candidate.
Furthermore, in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, candidates for the House and Senate
now find it expedient to disassociate themselves from presidential candidates of their
parties. Little wonder that President Carter has had difficulty in dealing with a
Congress nominally controlled by the Democrats.
The lack of unity between the executive and legislative branches is compounded by
an increased lack of cohesion within Congress. Recent congressional reforms have led
to a proliferation of subcommittees. This year, for example, 142 subcommittees operate
in the House of Representatives alone. What have been the consequences of this decentralization
of authority? Jurisdictional confusion not only makes it difficult for Congress to
unite behind a common program but also complicates the task of presidential leadership.
Imagine the coordination difficulties faced by the Department of Health, Education
and Welfare in gaining approval of its programs from about 40 different committees
and subcommittees. Further, the fragmentation of congressional committee power offers
the special interests a better chance to control legislation on their behalf.
The number of interest groups operating on Capitol Hill is staggering. On Carter's
1977 energy proposal, which was severly amended, 117 separate interest groups were
in action. President Carter, explaining his difficulties in securing the passage of
energy legislation, stated: "You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction
by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme
position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath, by one unyielding group
Unyielding and moralizing postures have become the hallmark of single issue politics.
Groups uncompromisingly dedicated to one cause are rampant, whether the issue be abortion,
gun control, nuclear power or defense. Divergent groups often lay claim to a monopoly
of truth and virtue which impedes the compromises necessary to make a political system
Campaign finance reform has brought about some unintended results. A study of the
1976 presidential election, released earlier this month (10/79) by political scientist
Herbert E. Alexander, confirms that public financing of campaigns caused a decline
of party fund raising and the reduction of grass-root volunteer activity. Labor union,
corporate and other special interest groups, funded by their political action committees
(PACs), have filled the void. The number of PACs has increased from approximately
500 in 1976 to nearly 2,000 in 1978, and they now contribute eight times as much to
congressional elections as do the two major political parties.
A weakened party organization and a fragmented congressional structure mean that special
interest groups dedicated to a single issue constituency often prevail over the views
favored by a majority of public opinion. Gun control is an obvious example. The pattern
of influence is not new, but it has been exacerbated. The danger is generally recognized
and crosses party lines. In an inteniew last month (9/79), former Republican President
Gerald Ford concluded that "the most serious threat to traditional political parties
is the rapidly growing single issue faction."
James Madison, regarded as the principal author of the United States constitution,
wrote extensively about the danger of faction in a democratic society. The chief danger
of popular government, according to Madison, was the tendency for the majority to
turn to a single leader for solutions to problems in times of crisis. Democracy often
ended in despotism. Therefore, in order to prevent majority tyranny, a system of separation
of powers and checks and balances was established. The experiences of the Johnson
and Nixon administrations on Vietnam and Watergate point to the dangers of an imperial
presidency in modern times.
Important as it is to establish a political framework which can check the abuse of
power, the separation of powers should not be viewed as an end in itself. The purpose
of government is to govern. Today we have separated political institutions being influenced
by powerful interest groups generally committed to a single objective. For government
to perform effectively the separation of powers must be bridged.
To build this bridge it is necessary to recognize the vital role of political parties
and the necessity of strong presidential leadership. There will be little coherence
in public policy until presidential leadership fashions an effective governing coalition
which looks beyond the narrow range of single issue politics. Columnist Meg Greenfield
identified the essence of the problem in a recent Newsweek editorial (8/79) when she
stated that our "larger interests are meant to transcend that atomized world of me-first
Private interest groups play an important and necessary role in a democracy. The present
fragmentation of American society dominated by single issue politics, however, makes
it infinitely more difficult for political parties and other political institutions
to play their historical integrating role in representative government. Some of the
recent party and congressional reforms, which have made the task of governing more
difficult, should be re-assessed. Political reforms are to little avail if they result
in a political world where powerful interest groups have an unwritten, extra-legal
veto over the decisions of public bodies.
An encouraging development took place a week ago (10/17/79) when the House of Representatives
narrowly voted for new limitations on political action committee contributions. During
the debate on the measure, Speaker "Tip" O'Neill reminded his colleagues that the
PACs were a threat to the two party system. When his remarks were met with jeering
laughter, O'Neill countered: "You, with the smiles on your faces, do you want to get
up and tell me how much you got from the special interests?" No one got up.
Does Neoconservatism, however inadequate the term, offer a new systhesis in the dialectical
clash of ideas? Richard Bolling, a prominent Democratic leader of the House of Representatives,
thinks so. There are some promising signs that a new American ideological consensus
may be developing. Neoconservatism reaches to the Right in its support for cost-efficient
decentralized government and its commitment to the importance of incentives embodied
in the idea of equality of opportunity. On the Left, the new conservatives accept
the necessity of collective society both to ensure basic human needs and to eliminate
all vestiges of legal discrimination.
Today voices on both sides of the political spectrum express concern about what basic
values are important in life. Many on the Left are what James McGregor Burns calls
qualitative liberals-those who are deeply concerned about the moral, aesthetic and
ecological aspects of life. Neoconservative Daniel Bell urges thoughtful Americans
"to reject the hedonistic emphasis on the satisfaction of private appetites, which
is involved in so much of the pursuit of goods." There are, then, increasing numbers
who question whether the prioity of consumer wants, characteristic of modern society,
is either necessary or desirable, especially in an era of diminishing resources.
Critics on the Left, including Steinfels, wonder whether the restraints applied in
an era of declining expectations may apply mainly to the poor and powerless. With
the impact of inflation pressing on the middle classes, there is indeed a present
danger that those on the lower-end of the socio-economic ladder may be treated with
what Senator Moynihan once referred to as "benign neglect." Any new coalition of forces
which shuns the disadvantaged may well produce a majority consensus, but it is one
fraught with danger.
Clearly, more attention must be given to a definition of the public good which takes
into account the needs of the underprivileged. It is, however, not in the public interest
to increase the role of government to the point where economic inefficiencies are
encouraged and the individual is suffocated by a maze of regulations. In a democratic
society there must always be a balance between the public and private sectors.
Given the changing institutional and ideological patterns of American politics, Americans
would do well to reexamine what Madison said nearly two hundred years ago: "To secure
both the public and private rights against the danger of . . . faction, and at the
same time to preserve the form of popular government, is then the great object to
which our inquiries are directed."