What Is Driving US Politics

WE don't question that weather patterns develop: We see them do so in time-lapse satellite pictures. They develop out of more basic land temperature, sun angle, ocean current factors. We cannot predict their course; but neither are they random.So with politics. We are told that Americans went to the polls yesterday in a sour mood. They find neither the Democrats nor the Republicans better suited to reviving the economy. They want to limit legislative terms. A Louisiana governor's race flirted with the theme of white supremacy. All this in the context of Americans' preference in recent years to split Washington rule between Republican executive and Democratic congressional leadership. Let's look at what's taken to be today's political weather. First, the economy is both branches' and both parties' responsibility - for its condition and its prospects. For 10 years now, Washington has been in a nominal spending-cut mood (nominal, because spending for areas like health care have continued to grow). It actually began under Jimmy Carter, who left Reagan a very tight budget in 1981. Reagan's tax cuts without real spending cuts left a San Andreas fault-sized deficit. This impeded congression al spending initiatives. What is Congress to do, if not spend money? That question is only partly ironic. This has been a period of retrenchment and restructuring, of the federal, state, and local governments, as well as of business and industry. Not political philosophy but electronics advances, global competition, and absorption of the costs of the real estate and investment excesses of the '80s are driving the restructuring. It is silly to lay Congress's perceived non-performance at the door of legislato r personality, even if some politicians are lulus. And term limitation would make none of the underlying factors disappear. Note too that split party and split executive/legislative rule today are the norm in the states as well in the federal government. This is partly due to a professionalization in the state governments, akin to that of the federal government. "Successful professionals and proprietors who would be willing to contribute part of their time to legislative service will be unwilling to abandon lucrative principal occupations for full-time legislative service," writes Morris Fiorina, Harvard political scientist, in the Public Perspective. This trend favors Democrats. (Interestingly, teachers are the fastest-growing occupation group in legislatures - which also favors Democrats. Education has taken a beating in state budgets.) Racial politics. Well, you can look at the media fascination with David Duke, win or lose. Or you can consider that Americans, white and black, agreed throughout the Clarence Thomas hearings that the black justice should be put on the court. Or you can consider the success of companies like Xerox in bringing minorities into leadership positions. The American mainstream is increasingly accepting diversity; Duke is part of America's past, not its future. Professional politics. Advocacy and lobbying clout is now widely entrenched in Washington and elsewhere, among education, women's, environmental, communications, and other interest groups. Congress and the White House must contend with these, and with the "think tanks" which have come to rival liberal campus faculties. Where governance is so divided, it is hard for parties or individuals to make an evident difference. The new politics: energy and the environment. Bush and the Republicans recently lost a vote in my household "for not adhering to a good, solid energy policy." "The problems he said he would address and didn't should have come before the 95 percent he's spending his time on," the young family member argues. "Not that the Middle East isn't important. But if you want to get the economy moving you don't start a war. You have to get started on an energy policy. A lot of problems are piling up because he has no domestic strategy. I guess that's the environmentalist in me." A new generation is entering politics. For it, restructurings and job losses reflect a climate of short-term loyalty, set against an activism that expects the erosion of general living conditions to be resisted.

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