An American Dilemma

An American Dilemma

R. Shep Melnick

Why Americans can't live with big government, and can't live without it.

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1m 54sec

Like New England weather, American politics during the 1990s has been subject to abrupt and drastic changes. In early 1992, Republican president George Bush seemed a shoe-in for re-election, Democrats were in firm control of Congress, and pundits were sure that the era of divided government was here to stay. But just a year later, Bill Clinton was sitting in the White House and the ascendant Democrats, now in control of both the presidency and the Congress, were promising a new era of activist government. Yet it didn’t happen. In 1994, after the health care debacle, the Republicans captured both houses of Congress for the first time in more than 40 years, vowing to roll back federal entitlements and regulatory programs. "The era of big government is over," Clinton famously conceded in 1996. But later that year, it was the conservative Republicans who were in retreat, their majority whittled away as Clinton, promising to protect Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment from Republican "extremists," easily won re-election. Who will control Congress and the White House after the 2000 elections is anybody’s guess.

These frenetic ideological changes in the political atmosphere do not simply reflect the fluctuating fortunes (or the follies) of individual political leaders, nor are they just the results of the longstanding practice of throwing the rascals out. They have occurred too frequently to be taken for the "cycles of history" in which liberalism and conservatism alternately lay claim to the public’s favor. They suggest instead that basic contradictions in the American view of government, after gathering force for a century, are finally coming to a head.

Americans spent much of the 20th century expanding the reach and powers of the federal government. Yet at the same time, the practices and institutions that connect citizens to the public realm—from locally based political parties to regional loyalties—were steadily being undercut. No lasting public philosophy arose to provide a coherent explanation of government’s new role. Today, as a result, we have a political discourse that fails to acknowledge one of the central realities of our political life: "big government," Bill Clinton notwithstanding, is here to stay.

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