THE American people may be in need of a new ideological compass. Old notions of left and right are neither accurate nor workable, especially in this presidential election year. From within both political parties one hears reports that the strategists are advising certain candidates to tilt this way or that - toward liberalism or conservatism in appealing to the electorate. But the traditional definitions of political identification have been bent all out of shape. In the 20th century, the Republican Party has been fundamentally ``conservative'' and the Democratic Party fundamentally ``liberal.'' The Republican articles of faith emphasize minimal government control, a balanced budget, a strong dollar, and a favorable balance of trade. The Democrats are identified with comprehensive government programs, especially in social welfare, even though these may lead to deficit spending.
After eight years under Ronald Reagan, Republicans still regard themselves as the party of the right, but the identifying markers are no longer recognizable. First of all, the federal deficit has grown more than under all preceding administrations combined. The dollar no longer is the standard currency bearer in the world and is accompanied by an unfavorable balance of trade. Military spending is largely responsible for the deficits, but it has produced neither a corresponding increase in the national security nor an economic bonanza. The term ``welfare state'' has been an anathema in Republican theology, but it is descriptive today of massive government underwriting of defense-related industry.
Government-supported welfare activities have been criticized by conservatives, not solely because of cost to the taxpayers, but because of the slovenly habits they foster. Loss of initiative, crippling dependency, inefficiency, moral erosion - these are among the deadly sins associated with welfare. But if we read the reports of the General Accounting Office carefully, we find that welfarism has shifted from the social to the industrial sector. These reports tell of tens of billions of dollars flowing to defense contractors without proper value being received by the American people. The mis-spending involves flawed weapons systems that have continued in production despite notifications of defects by government inspectors.
The reports also tell of sham competitive bidding, falsified charges, blatant padding of expense accounts, and outright fraud. Crimes have been cited, but no one has gone to jail. The names of companies involved in the cheating scandals have been publicly identified and contracts have been suspended, but after a few months the contracts are restored. Military spending in many cases has turned into open welfare.
The President has publicly noted extra food stamps coming into possession of some relief recipients, but little has been said about taxpayers picking up the tab for expensive executive dining rooms, or for country club charges, or for kennel fees, or for advertising and promotion that have nothing to do with defense.
Meanwhile, almost as a reflex action, the Democratic Party is now in the unfamiliar position of calling for a balanced budget and for shoring up the value of the dollar. In terms of foreign policy, the Democratic Party still feels it is under the McCarthy onus of being soft on communism, which has led it in previous administrations to take drastic and ill-advised military initiatives and involvements - costly involvements from which Republican presidents had to extricate the country. Another paradox is to be found in the fact that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were able to make greater progress in improving relations with the two major communist nations than any of their Democratic predecessors were.
Even as strategists for both parties seek to outmaneuver each other, neither party is addressing the country's overriding economic crisis. Foreign nations - Japan and West Germany in particular - are outproducing the United States and are using the capital generated by their production successes to acquire ownership not just of American corporations but of American real estate. Attempts have been made to minimize this development, but the trend line of foreign holdings in the US commands serious attention.
The essence of capitalism is the use of money to make money. The US has advertised itself as the world's prime capitalistic nation, but no country in the 20th century has been more proficient in converting high productivity into dynamic capital investment than Japan.
In terms of the old ideological definitions, not just inside but outside the US, everything that has supposedly been nailed down is coming loose. The field is wide open for a presidential candidate who can ask the right questions, steer clear of the stale semantics of right and left, and define a course based on the requirements of a free society in a volatile world.
What is the basis of genuine national security? What are the obligations in the world arena that nations must accept if nuclear war is to be averted? How can peace be institutionalized? How do we use our vast resources - not just natural resources but the resources lodged in the human brain - to restore a fully productive and creative economy? How do we keep the seas from becoming an international sewer and the skies from being poisoned? How do we upgrade not just our industrial establishment but the conditions of life for millions of Americans - not just because it would make a healthier nation but because it is the right thing to do?
The political campaign so far has not been bereft of posturing and mumbling. The election campaign provides an opportunity for a man who wants to be president to sound like a president.
Norman Cousins, former editor of The Saturday Review, is on the faculty of the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.