REPUBLICANS won big victories in last month's elections on the basis of an unusually coherent ideological appeal. From Massachusetts to Washington state, GOP candidates called for less government and more decentralized government.
The most-talked about element of the Republicans' campaign was the ``Contract With America,'' 10 measures that GOP House candidates promised to bring to floor votes in the new Congress. Seven of the contract's proposals deal primarily with government's role. For example, the first would amend the US Constitution to require that the federal budget be balanced each year. Proposal 5 calls for a tax bill that would give an additional $500 per child tax credit to families earning up to $200,000 a year.
In general, polls show that backing for a variety of curbs on the modern state and the politicians who direct it has been growing in popularity for at least 15 years. What's been happening to change so many people's minds?
Many of the Great Society programs have grown enormously. The total tax-take on income, along with Social Security and Medicare taxes, are a burden for many people, including those who like the programs. Some of the new or expanded programs have proved to be flawed. In short, ``big government'' by attempting much almost inevitably fails often and these shortcomings summon up criticism.
There's much truth in this explanation. Still, it doesn't explain the magnitude of the shift in public sentiment; and it certainly can't account for the fact that in countries with different political traditions, there's been a loss of confidence in governmental solutions.
What we have been witnessing is a shift from the industrial to the postindustrial era. In its own way it's as momentous as was the transition from agricultural to industrial society that preceded it. The industrial era began in the 19th century and brought with it concentrations of power in large enterprises. This was dramatically evident in the business sphere, which generated demand for a like concentration in labor organization. Communications saw parallel developments, culminating in US experience in a single dominant telephone company and the ascendancy of the ``big three'' television networks in broadcasting. In such an environment, enlargement of the authority and reach of the national government was widely thought to be appropriately ``countervailing.''
In the US, the industrial era prompted political reform movements: Progressivism, the New Deal, and then the Great Society, which sought to expand government's power (a) in response to the concentration of private power, (b) in order to assist people newly made vulnerable, and (c) to use some of the increased wealth that industrialization provided to establish ``social safety nets.'' This long sociopolitical era and the party system it sustained has been ended - in the title of Daniel Bell's brilliant 1973 book on the subject - by ``the coming of postindustrial society.'' If the dominant impulses of industrialization were centralizing and government-enhancing, those of the postindustrial years have pushed toward the precise opposites. In the economic and communications spheres, dispersion and decentralization have proceeded apace. In this new setting, centering political power in national government bureaucracies has seemed increasingly anomalous.
Political realignment thus became inevitable. It has proceeded in stages: Proposition 13 and the early ``taxpayers'' revolt; the ``Reagan Revolution''; the ``antigovernment mood'' of the early 1990s; and, last month, the GOP's big legislative victories.
The magnitude of this change is at once exaggerated and trivialized by calling it ``antigovernment.'' Americans don't want to dismantle the modern state. They have been saying, however, that government has grown too much and attempts things for which it is poorly suited. Today's Americans simply no longer grant the same legitimacy to calls for more government that they did in the country's industrial era.