From two-party state to the party-hearty state

By Erik Jay
web posted February 7, 2000

Less government, more personal responsibility. Republicans are supposed to stand for this; they say they do. Even their enemies say they stand for less government. Of course, they mean it as an insult. But is it true? Does the GOP stand for, support and work toward the goal of less government and more personal responsibility in American life?

In the 1990's, having spent abundant time in the explication of our social woes and the analysis of our woe-is-me culture; having made a "contract with America" that gave them both houses of Congress for the first time in this writer's lifetime; having finished all their homework, done all the footwork, and laid all the groundwork; having by mid-decade taken over both the intellectual momentum and the reins of government, the GOP could have gone through Washington, D.C. as Sherman did Atlanta.

And that's a perfect metaphor, is it not? Why, these Republicans are obsessive, crazed, evil people who actually want American children to starve to death!

Aren't they?

Maybe, maybe not. Fact is, there are more "no-free-lunch" free-lunch programs than ever. Instead of pillaging and looting, the mid-90's GOP takeover gave us the final installments of the Clinton Chronicles.

Now that's just fine, especially if you're a Clinton supporter. And, truth be told, the miserable legislative history of the 1990's isn't Bill Clinton's fault -- he's not even a legislator, for crying out loud. The problem is the Republicans.

Or should I say, "Republicrats"? Neither Will Rogers nor George Wallace saw "a dime's worth of difference" between the Republicans and the Democrats, and Norman Thomas famously remarked that the Democrats would adopt his socialist platform quickly and willingly, while the Republicans would do so slowly and grudgingly. That was in 1948.

Richard Nixon, a twice-elected Republican president, imposed wage and price controls in 1974, when the inflation rate was under 5 per cent. About 25 years from Norman Thomas braying to Nixon saying, "We're all Keynesians now" -- not a long time when you measure it in, say, years, but measured by the shredding and trashing of our national character, a tragic period nonetheless.

Oddly, though, for a party that has been in "opposition" for most of the past 100 years, the Republican's own slide in stature, from Senators such as Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater to the likes of John Warner and Olympia Snowe, has paralleled the nation's. It is evident that no one and nothing -- not Ronald Reagan and his uplifting rhetoric, not almost two decades of bull market growth, not the Libertarian Party and Harry Browne's sequel to "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World" -- has been able to stem the rise of collectivist doctrine to a place of primacy in our major social institutions. The Republican Party has abetted, even overtly aided, this rise.

The virtual merger of the two major political parties was inevitable given the institutionalization of pressure-group politics; why let a little thing like philosophical principle stand in the way of divvying up the spoils of interest-group lobbying, influence peddling, international finagling, and old-fashioned corruption? There is far too much money to be made to play it straight, although a few examples of electoral rectitude -- Rep. Ron Paul of Texas prime among them -- pop up regularly enough to remind us that the rot of corruption still has a way to go before completely devouring our political institutions. But Ron needs lots more help, in and out of elective office.

With the mantra of "off our back" the young GOP Turks of 1994 swept into a shocked Washington, D.C., vowing an end to useless cabinet departments, wasteful spending, the regal trappings of Congress, political payola, and endemic dishonesty. With as much moral arrogance as Bill Clinton evidenced with his ludicrous claim to head the "most ethical administration" in American history, these self-satisfied new scions of the right were play-acting as deacons of some Congressional church: The exorcism was imminent, and the wastrels and micro-managers of the shadow government (civil servants, bureaucrats, EPA regulators) were to be thrown to the outer darkness. The New Crusade was launched!

And within 18 months the Crusade had foundered on the Newt Gingrich reefs. A Clinton showdown, a government shutdown, botched PR, spoiled-kid snippiness, incompatible personal agendas, inflated egos, boatloads of bipartisan blarney and baloney -- the morphing process, making Republi-cans into Republi-crats, was proceeding apace. As the mainstream media is wont to say of conservatives who sell out, "They were growing in office."

What they really grew was indistinguishable, in large part, from the Democrats, with nary a squawk from anyone. People used to fret about tyrannical one-party states, or anarchic no-party states; but what we've ended up with is a party-hearty state, where continued boom times enable a stressed-out populace to afford the various elixirs that rinse the mind of cares and worries and distracting nonsense like, you know, like politics, man.

Erik Jay is editor of "What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage" which you can subscribe to by visiting http://erikjay.com.

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