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Six New Policies for America in the '90s

By Michael Lind. Michael Linda senior editor of the New Republic, is the author of ''The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution'' (The Free Press). / September 8, 1995

TODAY, halfway through the 1990s, American politics is trapped in a debate between the ideas of the 1970s and the ideas of the 1980s.

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The ideas of the 1970s are those of left-liberalism - the liberalism of the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party, which defeated the Johnson-Humphrey wing between 1968 and 1972. The left-liberals replaced the older liberal emphasis on economic equity with a new obsession with racial and gender issues. They abandoned the idea of a colorblind society and racial integration for the idea of a multicultural society and racial preferences imposed by federal judges and bureaucrats. Left-liberals paid little attention to the economic needs of working Americans, most of whom are white, and concentrated on extending quotas in college admissions, the professions, and government contracting for nonwhites of both sexes and for white women, many of them affluent.

In only a decade, the new Democratic left-liberals managed to drive away the two core constituencies of the older Democratic Party of FDR, Harry Truman, and LBJ - white Southerners and Northern white ethnics. The defection of the so-called ''Reagan Democrats'' allowed the Republicans to control both the presidency and the Senate for most of the 1980s. The ideas of the '80s were those of the conservatives: chiefly, trickle-down economics. The Republicans were given a chance - and they failed. Huge tax cuts enriched only Americans who were already affluent or rich - and did so at the price of causing the deficit to triple under Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile, the real income of the average worker stagnated or declined.

By 1990, both '70s-style liberalism and '80s-style conservatism had failed. Unfortunately, no new political force within or outside of the two parties, representing ideas of the 1990s, has appeared. The result is an American electorate that tries to change the channel every few years - and finds nothing but reruns. Bill Clinton, who ran as the candidate of change, has governed as an old-fashioned '70s left-liberal, committed to defending racial preferences for Democratic constituencies. Voter disgust with Clinton and the Democrats delivered the Congress to Republicans who are equally trapped in the past. Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and Dick Armey, having learned nothing from failed Reaganomics, are doing their best to give bonanzas to the rich while forcing middle-class Americans to bear the costs of deficit reduction.

The American people deserve something other than the warmed-over liberalism of 1975 or the reheated conservatism of 1985. We cannot find the answers for our problems in the politics of George McGovern or Ronald Reagan. A new generation of leaders is needed, to articulate and implement fresh ideas in the 1990s.

What are these ideas?

Colorblind liberalism

A generation of racial-preference programs has failed to lift poor black and Hispanic Americans out of poverty. At the same time, racial preference has pitted whites against nonwhites - and also pitted blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans against one another in competition for government favors. If racial preference is continued, the major beneficiaries of a program intended to help the black victims of slavery and segregation may be recent Hispanic immigrants whose ancestors did not suffer discrimination in America because they did not even live in America. Why should white Americans be penalized on behalf of immigrants?

Abolishing racial preference is no longer just a conservative idea. Growing numbers of thoughtful people on the center and left of the political spectrum are coming to agree that problems like black and Hispanic poverty and low educational levels can be better addressed by race-neutral reforms like workfare, equalization of school funding, and national education standards. This was the conviction of early 1960s theorists of colorblind liberalism like Bayard Rustin and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. After a 30-year detour, it is time to revive colorblind liberal social reform.

Immigration restriction

Proposition 187 in California started a debate over high levels of immigration that began several years ago in other democracies like Britain, Germany, and France. Today as many as 1.5 million legal and illegal immigrants may be settling in the US every year. Most of them compete with poor native-born Americans for jobs and public services; many of them end up on welfare. Despite the arguments of conservatives like Peter Brimelow, the problem with mass immigration is not culture or race. It's jobs. When growing numbers of poor Americans cannot find well-paid work, it makes no sense to import millions of poor foreigners who will compete with them. An immigration policy that ends our 30-year-old policy of importing foreign poverty, without discriminating on the basis of race or nationality, is long overdue.