TODAY, halfway through the 1990s, American politics is trapped in a debate between the ideas of the 1970s and the ideas of the 1980s.
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?
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.
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.
Law and order
Both the left-liberals and the Reaganites unintentionally undermined law-enforcement in the US. The left-liberals, more worried about the police than about criminals, tied the hands of law enforcement agencies with excessive procedural restraints. Meanwhile, the conservatives reduced the tax base necessary for adequate policing. As a result, there are now more homicides than police officers in the US (the 1960s ratio was the reverse).
Seventies-style liberals paid little attention to economics, focusing instead on issues like racism, sexism, and abortion rights. The '80s conservatives believed in an economic utopia, ''the global economy.'' According to their ideology, universal free trade by means of pacts like NAFTA and GATT would lead to universal prosperity.
In fact, there are real conflicts between the needs of the majority of working Americans and the ambitions of multinationals and overseas investors. For decades, American multinationals have moved production abroad, or threatened to, weakening unions and driving down domestic wages and benefits. Meanwhile, international investors have turned transnational capital markets into a global Las Vegas.
An economic nationalist administration would not practice indiscriminate protectionism, but would work with the governments of other industrial nations to preserve free trade and free investment where these are good for ordinary citizens, and to manage or restrict forms of trade and investment that do more harm than good.
Foreign policy realism
With the cold war's end, an American foreign policy based on an alliance with Europe, Japan, and China against Russia no longer makes sense. Without a great-power threat in Europe, local wars like the Balkan war do not affect vital American interests. In East Asia, the US no longer has an incentive to ignore Japanese mercantilism in return for Japanese toleration of US military bases. And the pro-Chinese policy followed by presidents since Nixon looks increasingly out of date, as China mutates into an authoritarian-capitalist great power hostile to the United States.
The foreign policy panacea of the left-liberals - multilateral world policing under the auspices of the United Nations - has failed in Somalia and Bosnia. It was a bad idea; the US should promote its own interest with its own forces. The right is equally confused. Conservative internationalists, obsessed with Russia, want Americans to guarantee the security of Poland and perhaps even Ukraine by extending NATO. That would be as great a mistake as completely withdrawing from the world into the Fortress America advocated by conservative isolationists like Patrick Buchanan.
The best guide in the multipolar world of the 21st century will be balance-of-power realism. The US will have to enter into alliances to check rising threats like China. In the interests of national security, the US may have to ally itself with repugnant regimes (a US-Vietnamese entente against China, for example). In the future, American foreign policy cannot be shaped around institutions (like the UN, NATO) or simple strategies (like containment). It will have to be a flexible policy with a fixed goal - the national interest.
Perhaps the most important of the ideas of the 1990s is political reform. Our systems of campaign finance and political advertising need to be overhauled, to eliminate the buying of candidates by interest groups and rich donors. Elections need to be made easier, to increase voter turnout (which is lower in the US than in other democracies). We should also consider scrapping our outmoded plurality system of winner-take-all elections for fairer voting methods, like proportional representation and cumulative voting. The two major parties have cooperated for years to rig voting regulations against third parties. Neither one is interested in real campaign- finance reform. Only voter anger will force them to clean up their acts.
Here are six ideas of the '90s. Will they find a candidate or a party to promote them? Stay tuned.