EVER since the New Deal, the big split between liberals and conservatives in the United States has been over the proper scope of government. Throughout this entire span, in varying settings, liberals have urged more government to address domestic problems. Conservatives have argued for less, or at least insisted that continued growth would be harmful. For nearly four decades, through the late 1960s, Americans more often than not backed the liberals. In the 1970s the public shifted to the view that government, for all the good it does, had grown excessively. The liberal Democratic era was over. Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981 with a mandate at once clear and perplexing - to somehow change direction, without discarding desired features of the social programs that had accumulated for 50 years.
The big political question of the 1980s was whether the dissatisfaction with liberalism's insistence on more government would evolve into something broader than ``Kick 'em out for a while'' - whether there would be a real conservative era, or just the end of the liberal one. The verdict on the Reagan experiment would help determine the answer, but so would larger historical forces. After all, liberalism's triumph in the 1930s entailed more than an affirmation of FDR's programs. Worldwide, movements and philosophies were urging a bigger role for the state.
The political resolution of the '80s has become evident. The public endorsed the broad outlines of Reagan's approach. And deftly practicing ``second generation Reaganism'' - which calls for the continued reining in of federal spending through curbs on taxes, while modifying such Reagan failures as his approach to environmental issues - George Bush is now getting exceptional approval among almost all groups.
Even more important, earlier protests over governmental inadequacies and abuses broadened to produce one of history's rare transformative moments: resolving internationally a century-long argument over the proper role of the state with the decisive victory of philosophies stressing the need for greater limits. Obviously, centralized control had been carried much further in some countries than in others, and at every stage the US stood out even among democracies for its relative restraint. But it's apparent, too, that the present intellectual climate, here as abroad, is inhospitable to efforts to extend government's taxing, spending, and bureaucratic reach.
American liberals wish it were otherwise, of course, and some detect liberal light at the end of the conservative tunnel. A new liberal journal, ``The American Prospect,'' will bring out its maiden issue in April. Its founders include Princeton sociologist Paul Starr and journalist Robert Kuttner. They see liberalism regnant. Kevin Phillips - the conservative analyst who manages to say just what liberals want to hear, with the special virtue of having it seem an admission against interest - thinks conservatism has had its day.
If conservatism would only conform to the stereotype many liberals have raised for it - relying on ``the unrestricted market'' and claiming that governmental interventions (outside national defense) are almost always bad - liberalism would have a terrific opening. Most of us believe that energetic national government authority is sometimes needed if the country is to realize its promise. The debate is over how much authority, and where it should be used.
Liberalism's present problems are not that it sees positive functions for government. They entail its abandonment of a coherent search for what actually works in advancing high national objectives in favor of a reflexive commitment to the interests of the bureaucratic state.
Some observers, including conservatives, think the conservative movement is losing its drive. Certainly it is losing a certain kind of nervous energy. Before Reagan, conservatives had been on the outside of American governance looking in for so long that some had become irate - enormous energy of a sort. But it resembled the voltaic restlessness of teenagers, commendable in some ways for a time but not for a lifetime.
Over the '80s conservatism moved inside the store and started running things. The test for this new establishment is not whether it can recapture the exuberance of its lost youth, but whether it can elaborate a successful new paradigm. It starts from the certain recognition that the American polity, or political system, reaches far beyond national government as such and has far greater resources.
These additional resources - of the federal system, business, private groups and agencies of all kinds - need to be energetically employed along with those of central government in finding answers to national needs. We're still groping for this new integration. But there's no going back to the ``more government is better'' philosophy that gave liberalism its long ascendancy.