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Killing the virus in U.S. politics

Recent months have witnessed an attack of unprecedented passion and ferocity against the national government. The Republican Party apparently has embarked on a crusade to destroy national standards, national projects and national regulations, and to transfer domestic governing authority from the national government to the states. A near majority of the Supreme Court even seems to want to replace the Constitution by the Articles of Confederation. There has not been so basic an assault on the national government since the Civil War.

Unbridled rhetoric is having consequences far beyond anything that anti-government politicians intend. The flow of angry words seems to have activated and in a sense legitimized what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid strain" in American politics. For historians there is a certain charm in watching the Rev. Pat Robertson resurrect the old hysteria about the sinister influence of Adam Weishaupt and the Illuminati of 18th-century Bavaria. On the wilder shores of unreason, the national government is seen as a diabolical conspiracy to take away the people's guns so that the United Nations, flushed no doubt by its victories in Bosnia, might send in its black helicopters to destroy American freedom and enslave Americans in a despotic New World Order.

Mr. Dooley's definition

The Wall Street Journal recently published a book review under the headline "Fix Washington before it enslaves us all" -- rough language for Bill Clinton in the century of Stalin and Hitler. Private militias prepare to defend American liberties by assault weapons and bombs. Federal officials, even those from benevolent nature-loving agencies like the forestry service and the fish and wildlife service, become targets of crazed gunmen and must maintain constant radio contact with their offices. A fanatic, Mr. Dooley reminds us, "does what he think th' Lord wud do if He only knew th' facts in th' case." Fanaticism reached its unspeakable climax in Oklahoma City.

This, as noted, is certainly not what Newt Gingrich had in mind in his denunciations of the national government. But the speaker blamed the murder by a South Carolina woman of her two children on the poisoning of the culture by liberal Democrats, and his own logic must indict the anti-government demagogues as unwitting accomplices in the Oklahoma City outrage. Is it too much to hope that this will encourage the speaker in rhetorical restraint? (Answer: Yes, it is probably too much to hope.)

Oklahoma City, according to the polls, has led the public to reconsider the cliches and to decide that the federal government is not such a monster after all. But it has not deterred the anti-government wrecking crew on Capitol Hill in their mania for devolution and deregulation -- that is, for dismantling the national government, shifting its functions to the states and repealing or eviscerating national laws that protect the consumer, the investor, the worker, the minorities, the poor and the dispossessed or that benefit scientific research and development, education, the environment and the arts.

Moreover, in a lobbyists' saturnalia, industry representatives present willing Republican legislators with statutes designed to increase corporate profits at the expense of the general welfare. Thus Sen. Slade Gorton's proposed castration of the Endangered Species Act was drafted, the New York Times informs us, by a group of Washington, D.C., lawyers representing the timber, mining, ranching and utility interests that have a heavy financial stake in the outcome.

The assault on the national government is represented as a disinterested movement to "return" power to the people. But the withdrawal of the national government does not transfer power to the people. It transfers power to the historical rival of the national government, and the prime cause of its enlargement -- the great corporate interests.

Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was the father of "big government." As he observed of the greedy trusts of his day, "If this irresponsible outside power is to be controlled in the interest of the general public, it can be controlled in only one way -- by giving adequate power of control to the National Government." The fight against government regulation of corporate privilege, Roosevelt added, "is chiefly done under cover; and especially under the cover of an appeal to State's rights."

Getting the government off the back of business really means putting business on the back of government. It is a delusion to say that because state government is closer to the people it is, therefore, more responsive to their needs and concerns. Local government is the government of the locally powerful. Historically it has been the national government that has served as the protector of the powerless -- workers, farmers, minorities, children, disabled, old folks -- against local exploitation or neglect. Had the state-rights creed triumphed, we would still have slavery in the United States.

And historically the national government has been more honest and efficient than state government. State governments are doubtless better now than they used to be. But how well, in fact, are they doing today with problems that lie primarily within their own jurisdiction, like deteriorating schools and escalating crime? Are state governments doing such a swell job in meeting local responsibilities that we should now dump on the statehouses a carload of national responsibilities?

As for bureaucracy, duplication, waste and fraud, will there be more or less if a single federal agency is replaced by 50 separate state agencies? Just wait until local politicians get their little hands on those federal block grants. Social Security and Medicare, nationally administered, are much better run than state-administered welfare and Medicaid. Washington is in a position to recruit abler people than most state capitals.

As the Economist said the other day in an article on the resurgence of tuberculosis in America: "National surveillance worked well until the 1970s. When, against expert advice, responsibility for this work was given to the states, the programme fell apart." A lot of programs will fall apart if the speaker has his way. Almost unnoticed have been the proposed cuts on funds for scientific research and development. "If approved," Dr. David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate, writes, "they will threaten the very foundations of science in this country."

And what will happen when states engage in a debasing competition to attract business and keep out the poor by cutting costs through low wages, minimal working conditions, minimal environmental protection, no unions and no benefits? A contest in meanness will not enhance the quality of American civilization. Before the devolutionists go too far in destroying national authority, the speaker might read his followers the sixth and seventh Federalist papers where Hamilton points out the dangers arising from "rivalships and competitions of commerce" among the states. He might even remind them that the Constitutional Convention was called to stop economic warfare within the Articles of Confederation. National problems require national remedies.

Alexis de Tocqueville was no admirer of centralized authority, but he was a sharp observer. It remains as generally true today as it was when Tocqueville visited America in 1832 that, as he put it, "the business of the Union is incomparably better conducted than that of any individual state ... It has more prudence and discretion, its projects are more durable and more skillfully combined, its measures are executed with more vigor and consistency."

The know-nothing crusade against government springs from a conviction that, if we get government off our backs, our problems will solve themselves. But, far from solving problems, the old unregulated laissez-faire economy of the 19th century generated the problems that produced class war and the Communist Manifesto. What rescued capitalism from Marxist prophecy in the 20th century was the work of reformers like the two Roosevelts who used the national government to humanize the industrial order, to cushion the operations of the economic system, to strengthen the bargaining position of workers and farmers and consumers to reduce the economic gap between the classes, to ensure against recurrent depression by built-in economic stabilizers; above all, to combine individual opportunity with social responsibility.

Signs of slippage

Things have been slipping back in this era of supply-side, trickle-down economics. Top Heavy, Prof. Edward N. Wolff's study for the Twentieth Century Fund, shows the United States to be first among industrial nations in the inequality of wealth. Britain is notorious as a class-ridden society, but the top 1 percent of families in Britain own only about 18 percent of the nation's wealth. In America the top 1 percent own more than 40 percent.

The Gingrich drive to cripple the national government and to cut taxes for the rich and social programs for the poor will only embitter these inequalities. Unless something is done, Felix Rohatyn sees the America of 2000 as divided and demoralized, "a nation of outcasts within a nation of wealth."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendent American individualist, also was , like Tocqueville, a sharp observer, and he became at times exasperated by the grousing about government he kept hearing around him. "It is folly," he wrote in his journal, "to treat the state as if it were some individual arbitrarily willing this and so ... I confess I lose all respect for this tedious denouncing of the state by idlers who rot in indolence, selfishness, and envy in the chimney corner."

Arthur Schlesinger is Schweitzer professor emeritus at the City University of New York and a winner of Pulitzer Prizes in history and biography.

Dow Jones & Co. Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal. All rights reserved.