In 1996 E.J. Dionne, Jr., published a book called They Only Look Dead, unfortunately subtitled, “Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era.” Al Gore won the election in 2000, true enough, but his margin of victory was disturbingly small.
However, there’s nothing wrong with Dionne’s hindsight:
Thus the new conservatism’s emphasis on a battle between “big government” and “small government” is a misleading and false choice because it disguises what is at stake: not merely the size of government but the direction of government policy — the incentives government will be offering and the values that will dominate policy making.
The central issue in American politics in 1996 and beyond is thus not whether new rules will be written but what those rules will be and the extent to which they will make it easier or harder for average Americans — and especially those in the American middle — to prosper in a new era.
There is a final difficulty with the new conservatism that goes largely undiscussed: Its program has been tried before and found wanting. That is the importance of realizing that the new laissez-faire is simply Gilded Age conservatism dressed up in the finery of a high-tech age. Both doctrines cast all worker protection as “socialism” and any effort by government to write rational rules for a new style of competition as an attack on property rights.
Throughout this century American voters knew better. They understood that a free economy could not function in the absence of rules, workers’ rights, government spending on public goods and continuing public investment to enhance the skills and opportunities of the workforce.
This understanding was not confined to liberals or Democrats. It was accepted also by most Republicans. It was Dwight Eisenhower, after all, who sponsored the Interstate Highway System, one of the great public works in American history, and supported the first student loan program to help poor and middle-class Americans go to college.
Much of the American business community eventually came to welcome government’s role in preventing chaos in the marketplace and redressing social wrongs. This understanding of politics, drawn from America’s Progressive tradition, defined the center of gravity in both parties.