Tell Me a Story Line

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 51 (March 1995) 14-15

We are still sorting out the meaning of last November's election results. How significant was the GOP landslide? Was it, as Republicans insist, a momentous ideological turning point, or simply, as Democrats hope, an intense but momentary electoral outburst representing a trans- ideological frustration with politics in general and the vacillations and blunderings of the Clinton Administration in particular?

The election was clearly, in some sense, a repudiation of the Democratic Party: there is no getting around the fact that while no incumbent Republican Congressman, Senator, or Governor suffered defeat, Democrats went down all over the place. But the question remains-were the Democrats punished simply for their incompetence, complacency, and longevity, or were the voters issuing a broader ideological judgment against them?

If the former is the case, the proper historical analogy for this off- year election would be 1946, when the voters, frustrated with wartime restrictions, swept the Democrats from office only to return them to grace (and maintain them in the presidency) two years later. But if the latter analysis holds, we should look instead to 1930, where the Republican loss of Congress presaged a Democratic sweep of White House and Congress in 1932 and political domination for a long time thereafter. (There is always the possibility, of course, that neither precedent will hold.)

Only the clairvoyant would presume to offer a definitive judgment on the long-term significance of the election, but some useful clues can be found if one places the election in the larger perspective of American political history. As one who-prior to lapsing into a belated career as an ink-stained wretch-spent his entire adult life teaching and writing about American politics, I have a few modest suggestions.

If history is to be something more than the recounting of one damn thing after another, it needs an overarching theme, or story line. Survey courses of American history typically fall into two parts-from the colonial beginnings to the Civil War, and from after the Civil War to as close to the present as the instructor chooses to proceed. In both cases, the story line is read back from its climax to what preceded it, and those antecedent events are typically interpreted in light of their end point. Thus for the first part, reading back from its denouement in 1861-1865, the grand theme is the conflict between nationalism and sectionalism, and events prior to the firing on Fort Sumter are set in the framework of the gradually developing tensions between North and South.

The story line for the second part, with its continuously receding end point, is less precise and more subject to reinterpretation. But in most recent tellings it follows closely the outline of what might be called the progressive paradigm. The paradigm-whose defining historical moment was the New Deal-suggests that the story of modernity is the inevitable growth of big government in response to the imperatives of economic expansion and consolidation. The development of a complex national economy, in this view, required the counter-development of a federal authority equipped to manage macroeconomic conditions, regulate private business in the public interest, and provide a measure of security against the vagaries of industrial life.

From the premises of the paradigm flowed justification for ever- expanding powers of central government. The political pattern that followed from its determinist scheme moved from laissez faire to mild regulation to the welfare state to the planned economy to one or another form of socialism (though most American progressives preferred to speak vaguely of "social democracy" rather than of fully realized public ownership and control of the means of production).

The overarching story line dictated the interpretation of events and periods within it. Thus liberal episodes in the American past such as Populism and Progressivism, the New Deal and the Great Society, represented necessary adjustments to the unfolding nature of things, whereas conservative decades like the twenties, the Eisenhower fifties, or the Reagan eighties were aberrations-interludes, as they were often called-marking anachronistic protests against the grain of history. In the perspective of the progressive story line, liberals were by definition in the right, conservatives in the wrong (although, it was occasionally conceded, conservatives could serve history's purposes by "consolidating" previous liberal advances or even by restraining those liberals who sometimes moved faster than history, at a particular moment, allowed).

The paradigm prevailed for so long because it seemed so persuasive. Only the most blinkered libertarian, after all, could deny the progressive scheme altogether. Modern industrial development did tend to the growth of big government. Organization did breed counter-organization. The flaw in the paradigm issues from a subtle fallacy-the assumption that if, given modern conditions, some increase in government is not only good but necessary, then more of that necessary good thing must be even better. But that conclusion follows neither in logic nor in history.

Americans caught on to that lesson in the episode of the 1960s' Great Society. The Great Society represented the logical extension of the Depression-era New Deal into conditions of prosperity. But the Great Society was, all in all, a great debacle. It did not solve the social problems at which it threw huge amounts of money; it created debilitating habits of social dependency; and it provoked social divisions and unrests that still bedevil the nation. Big government had been granted its fullest American test and been found wanting. It did not work.

With the failure of the Great Society, the progressive story line began to fall apart. Richard Nixon's Watergate disaster hid that collapse for a considerable time-even as it induced amnesia over his crushing defeat of George McGovern's prototypical 1972 progressive candidacy-but Jimmy Carter's inept presidency (truly an "interlude") could not obscure the decay of liberalism any more than it could prevent the triumphant return of conservatism under Ronald Reagan.

It was Reagan who definitively broke the New Deal hold over the American mind, who brought to full awareness the inchoate intuition that big government was no longer unambiguously a good thing, that it was in fact at best problematic, at worst the unwitting source of our deepest problems. Suddenly the commonsense perception broke: it was the 1930s, with its unprecedented experience of economic catastrophe, that had been the aberration in the American experience-the twenties, the fifties, and the eighties had all, in their various ways, marked returns to the norm. It followed from that perception that a dominant free enterprise economy, undergirded by a safety net for the small minority who could not make it on their own, made more sense of the American experience than did visions of a collectivist social democracy. And so the story line of post-Civil War America got rewritten.

By appearing to turn away from the reappropriated story line-and by the curious bad luck of being President when the end of the Cold War brought international affairs into utter confusion and presumed irrelevance- George Bush for a moment conceded the political ascendancy to an opponent who won in the only way a contemporary Democrat could win: by running as a chastened and reformed neoliberal. But the Clinton presidency quickly ran aground on the rocks not so much of its incompetence as on the incoherence of its ideology. The President, it seems, is at any given moment a progressive or not depending on his audience, his mood, and the latest polls.

Enter Newt Gingrich and the new Republican majority's "Contract With America." Are the American people fully committed to the Contract's vision of where the nation should be headed? Of course not-no more than they were committed in the early days of the New Deal to the program put forward by FDR and his advisors. But they are, as they were, intrigued and encouraged by a determined political leadership sure of itself and of its understanding of the American experience. The GOP's new/old version of the national story line may or may not mark a significant political turning point. Much will depend, for instance, on who the party comes up with as a presidential candidate in 1996. But if you're going to bet against the 1994 election being such a turning point, you ought to get very long odds.