Lazarus, arise and walk!

Liberals' night of the living dead is over


Andrew Ross
February 24, 1996 10:51PM (UTC)

When E.J. Dionne looks around, he sees what historian Robert Wiebe saw in the dying decades of the 19th Century: "Americans everywhere crying out in scorn and despair."

And Dionne is encouraged.

Now, as then, he believes a fast-changing economy, social dislocation, moral squalor, and political cynicism -- characteristics of the laissez-faire Gilded Age -- are precursors of a new progressivism, one that will be dominated by the political heirs of FDR and Harry Truman, not Newt Gingrich.

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"Not since the industrial transition at the turn of the century and the mass dislocation of the Great Depression have Americans felt a greater desire for creative approaches to governing," Dionne writes in "They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era" (Simon & Schuster).

As Dionne, a political columnist with the Washington Post, pointed out in his previous book, "Why Americans Hate Politics," both liberals and conservatives have responded to such desires with little more than irrelevant sloganeering.



"In their search for answers," Dionne writes in what is essentially a sequel, "the voters seem to be veering from one set of convictions to another" -- from George Bush, to Bill Clinton, to Newt Gingrich. Each failure increases the anger and confusion of voters who want their government to do something -- only to find confirmed their "disbelief bordering on cynicism that the government will actually do anything worth doing."

But the resulting attacks on "big government" -- on any government -- are now backfiring, Dionne believes. "Far from routing Progressivism, (they are) a precursor of its renewal," he continues. "For two decades, Progressives have been timid in defending their project, and distracted by cultural politics." Thanks to Gingrich's and his fellow "third wave conservatives" attempts to take America into a high-tech version of laissez-faire, "their opponents are forced to grapple with the task of constructing the 21st century alternatives." Whether the progressives will get it right, however, is not nearly so certain.

The "new" progressives, says Dionne, will need to streamline and tailor government, along the lines proposed by the Progressive Policy Institute and Al Gore's "reinventing government" program, without returning to the traditional Democratic "cult of governmentalism." Government has a crucial role to play in such areas as health, education and the environment, Dionne says. But he agrees with Bill Clinton's State of the Union message that "the era of big government is over."

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SALON spoke to Dionne on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.

Your book is subtitled "Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era." When does that era start?

It's already begun. It came about largely because the Republicans badly misread their mandate from the '94 election. Voters were reacting mostly to Democratic failure -- in health care, welfare reform, political reform, and all those other nice things President Clinton talked about, like using education and job training to help ease people through the new economy. Republicans acted as if voters were opting for much smaller government, cuts in Medicare, education and environmental regulation. The fact they turned on the Republicans gives you a sense of what the voters were really thinking.

What were some key, concrete turning points?

Three things stick out in my mind: First, the week when Bob Dole gave a speech bragging that he had voted against Medicare and Newt Gingrich talked about Medicare withering on the vine. Second, the government shutdown. Republicans thought the country was so anti-government that they wouldn't be punished for it. Finally, there are the Republican primaries. Rather than smaller government, you have Bob Dole talking about corporate executives making a lot of money while average wages gained only five percent. You have Pat Buchanan sounding like Jesse Jackson when he talks about Wall Street. And the purest representative of the small government line, Phil Gramm, has dropped out of the race.

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You talk a lot about the need for progressives to address the "anxious middle" -- people who seem to be falling behind in this new economy. So far, the only candidate who seems to be doing that is Pat Buchanan.

What Buchanan sees, and a lot of other Republicans don't, is that a lot of Christian conservatives are also part of the anxious middle. They're worried about their living standards, worried about their kids' economic future; they're often the ones suffering from layoffs and economic uncertainty.

If Buchanan doesn't quite qualify as a new progressive, who does? Who are these "new progressives"?

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President Clinton began to embody it in the '92 campaign. He lost his way partly because of the failures of the Democratic Congress. Sen. Bill Bradley speaks for a lot of it, indeed has been quite explicit in looking back to the Progressive Era. There are a lot of younger Democrats and some moderate Republicans, like Sen. John Chafee, (R-R.I.). You also see signs of a progressive re-emergence: in the new leadership of the AFL-CIO; moderate and liberal Christian groups have begun to organize, and community service programs are proliferating. I'm also interested in Betty Friedan's latest project, to bring feminism closer to the concerns of average working women.

But do you have to do what Bill Bradley did -- leave the two-party system?

No, I absolutely don't think that. While Teddy Roosevelt had his Progressive breakaway in 1912, history shows that the two parties are very permeable, and open to movements for change. Sometimes third parties highlight issues, but most of the time, they aren't necessary because insurgencies can work in either party. And it's very hard to get a third party off the ground.

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So even though voters aren't too fond of either party right now, one of them will embody this new progressivism?

Right. The obvious place is the Democratic Party. The Republicans have their own progressive tradition, dating back to McKinley, but one of the striking things is how Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey want to take the party away from that tradition entirely. One of the things to watch is what these assorted moderate and progressive Republicans do over the next ten years.

But will voters forgive Bill Clinton and what you call the "dysfunctional Democrats" for their broken promises? Both you and Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein in their new book, "Storming the Gates" (Little, Brown), make a compelling case for how the Democrats in '92 showed a basic inability to govern.

Yes, the Democrats face a much bigger burden of trust today. And I don't think Clinton himself has decided how far he wants to go in this direction. Perhaps he thinks that just opposing the most unpopular parts of the Republican program will be enough to carry him through November. It won't. To win re-election, Clinton also has to be about the larger project, which he was in 1992.

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And will he do the right thing?

I have absolutely no idea. The signals go both ways from this administration. There are some signs, in areas like education and the environment, that he understands the appeal of a basic progressive message. I think he'll win in November, though I think Lamar Alexander could give him a race if he gets through this period. Democrats are now feeling much better about the elections than they ever expected to five or six months ago. But it will be hard for them to retake the House. The Senate looks even more difficult.

So it could be a while before we enjoy the fruits of this new progressive Jerusalem.

More political instability is inevitable. We have gone through an immense period of turmoil -- economically, socially, and morally. But the basic logic is that in the end, voters are looking for democratic -- small 'd' democratic -- government to do certain things to help make this transitional period easier for them. So they can find their footing and their own opportunities in it. I think ultimately that points to active government.

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Your book feels almost as much like a call to arms as a crystal-ball gazing prediction. Why did you feel the need to write it?

Liberals and progressives seem to have accepted the other side's categorization that they are other than normal Americans. But the progressive tradition, going back to Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, Harry Truman and Kennedy and LBJ, is the normal tradition. Richard Reeves said the message of my book was, "Lazarus, arise and walk." What I'm trying to do here is give heart to progressives, to say, stop thinking about yourselves as being outside the American mainstream. You arethe American mainstream.

Is some of this personal? A sense that what you see now is not the America you grew up in?

I grew up in a working-class community in the '50s and early '60s in Fall River, Mass. I grew up with a lot of poor kids who did the classic American thing: they worked hard and they got somewhere. And we all got some assistance from government. Those of us who went to college on student loans have paid the government back many times both through loan payments and taxes, so it was a good investment that the country made -- in the individuals, and in America's future. It disturbs me now that even if my kids do fine, they will be growing up in a country that is terribly class-stratified, that has enormous pockets of poverty, and with people who feel they don't have the opportunity for self-improvement, who are stuck, resentful and angry, for understandable reasons.

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James Fallows ("Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy") argues that journalists have contributed to these feelings of anger, resentment, and cynicism.

We journalists tend to be obsessed with the inner workings of campaigns, and some of that is good. Theodore White showed in his books that a lot went on in campaigns that the public didn't know about, and that it was worth telling them about. But when that is all we report, we are telling voters that the entire process is simply about manipulation, and that is all that is going on. And we make voters, as Todd Gitlin once put it, the cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement.



Is liberalism really back from the dead? Join the conversation in "Issues" in Table Talk.


Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

MORE FROM Andrew Ross

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