THE Republicans' assumption of power in Congress this week is seen correctly as a turning point in US politics. The nature and importance of the change may not, however, be widely understood.
The Democrats won a House of Representatives majority in 1930 and surrendered it only twice - in 1946 and 1952 - over the last 64 years. They had a Senate majority for eight fewer years over this span, and the independence of individual senators made Democratic ascendancy in the upper chamber less complete than in the lower. The Democrats dominated the House from the Great Depression into the 1990s - the longest continuous one-party control in the history of competitive democracies.
It's been hard for us to see this experience in other than partisan terms. That is, Democrats have tended to like their long congressional ascendancy, though some have acknowledged problems accruing from it. Republicans have decried it, but their protests have often sounded like sour grapes. The Democrats got their majorities through free elections, didn't they?
In fact, this prolonged one-party control was a terrible problem for both parties and for the country. Several generations of House Republicans were consigned to careers in which they saw little prospect of doing more than throwing wrenches into a Democrat-run machine. The Democrats developed bad habits, encouraged by the sense that their House bastion was impenetrable.
The cost in terms of national interests was immeasurable. Alternating power is the principal instrument of popular control in a democracy. When the practical reality that such control was lost settled in (by the early 1970s), it had a devastating impact on public confidence. The ``political game'' was seen to go on the same way ``inside the beltway'' year after year, no matter what the public called for.
By the 1970s, interest groups had learned that they had to live with a Democratic congressional majority, regardless of who controlled the White House. Some Democrats became expert at exploiting this ``you're going to have to deal with us'' status. Democratic incumbents raised huge campaign war chests from political action committees (PACs) - especially from business PACs, though business was supposedly tied to the GOP. In short, ``interest group liberalism'' settled in as the norm in the capital. It was propelled by many different conditions. But central among them was the fact that prolonged one-party control of Congress in an age of heavy governmental intervention encouraged the development of fixed, mutually aggrandizing relationships between the dominant congressional party and the many economic interests.
Americans saw that something wasn't working right, and complained loudly. Indeed, the theme of the ``angry electorate'' was a constant not just in 1992 and 1994 but during the last two decades. Voters didn't know what to do about the condition, however. They saw a problem, but not a solution.
This confusion arose in part from the fact that much of the public had moved away from a high degree of ``party consciousness.'' An electorate with lots of formal education, operating in an independent political environment, will inevitably be less party-bound than its predecessors. It had been taught that it was supposed to ``vote for the person, not the party.''
But in elections like those for the US House, the policy stands of individual members are little known to the general public. Also, incumbents had acquired disproportionate campaign resources. In this environment, voting ``for the person'' stood in the way of effective popular control - something achievable only by alternating party control of Congress on a regular basis.
Though profoundly disadvantaged, the Republicans for a long time did little to change it. Their only effective option was trying to raise voters' party consciousness: ``You don't like the way things are going? Then give us a chance and we'll do the following things differently.''
Such an effort might fail in any election. But it was certain to have fair long-term prospects in a very competitive democracy. The Democrats had a lock on the public's loyalties for only 20 years after the Depression. By the 1970s the ``New Deal political agenda'' had lost favor with wide segments of the populace.
Nonetheless, the decision of House Republican leader Newt Gingrich to nationalize the 1994 election through the ``Contract With America'' was widely ridiculed - and not just by Democrats. What deserved criticism instead was the Republicans' long failure to attempt a coherent national message or promise in congressional campaigns. Mr. Gingrich was right that this failure was in the first instance an intellectual one.
The US public says it wants a new politics - new approaches to policy and new processes inside beltway politics. Few of us can put partisanship completely aside. Still, we can see the importance of a public call being answered by the 104th Congress and beyond.