IT'S accepted wisdom that last November's vote was a ``watershed election,'' and that the nation's politics now follows a different course. There's obviously something to this, what with a new congressional majority calling for big changes in the way government works and what it does.
Perhaps the most striking feature of today's ``new politics,'' however, is the reassertion of a very old American theme. This fact would not have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville. More than a century and a half ago, he described the American public as ``engaged in infinitely varying the consequences of known principles ... rather than in seeking for new principles.''
The most distinctive feature of this country's social-political system from 1775 on to the present is the amount of room it gives individuals to manage their own lives - and the heavy responsibility it thus places on their shoulders. The United States was formed amid a great burst of religious individualism, which saw ordinary people assume unprecedented responsibility for the management of religious institutions, and gave them unprecedented autonomy in their moral choices.
Political individualism followed close behind, as democratic government was established. In the economic sphere, the principal vehicle for individual choice - private property - assumed a status less challenged here than in any other country.
This engagement of citizens religiously, politically, and economically released enormous energy. The idea that the society belongs to everyone turned people loose to do and create as never before. Even today, America's restless individual energy shows no sign of flagging. It has been maintained in part - as George Washington prophesied - by a steady stream of immigrants, attracted by the promise of a fuller individuality.
A populace this individualistic has always been notably reluctant to grant too much authority or deference to government. Still, it's incorrect to say that individualist America is antigovernment. Americans insist that government do neither more nor less than their claim to individual rights and opportunities requires. The American ideology doesn't seek to emasculate the state, but rather to subordinate it to the individual.
This hasn't changed since our constitutional system was established in the late 18th century. Its entire architecture is designed to provide government strong and energetic enough to promote individuals' claims for a fuller life - and at the same time checked and balanced so that it can't intrude on individual action.
Has all this worked perfectly? Of course not. But the system has worked well enough that we've kept it in place for 207 years.
What was distinctive about the years from the beginning of the New Deal in the 1930s on through the Great Society in the 1960s was that much of the public was inclined to accept more government as something necessary to protect individualist claims in an era defined by such central events as the Great Depression, World War II, the cold war, and the civil rights revolution.
Today, there's been no turning against those basic judgments. The constituency wanting less governmental intervention than in 1965 is practically nonexistent.
What's distinctive about our own era is that few people see growth of the state as conducive to individual betterment, while many see it as actually detrimental.
The debate over welfare reform illustrates this clearly. Few Americans want to take down the social ``safety net.'' President Clinton remarked in a recent radio address, ``I don't believe we should punish people because they happen to be poor or because of past mistakes. And absolutely, we shouldn't punish children for their parents' mistakes.'' Happily, almost no one else - of whatever party - wants this either.
The present welfare system is faulted not for the motives that underlie it but for its practical results. It is seen as satisfactorily advancing neither individual opportunity nor individual responsibility - the central objectives, in most people's thinking, of a properly functioning social service system.
Who can disagree that these ends are hard to obtain? But, after the experience of the last quarter century, who can argue persuasively that the ``more government'' assumptions underlying the New Deal and the Great Society offer even the slightest prospects of success?
The public isn't so much seeking something new with regard to government, as reasserting a familiar value. It's not antigovernment. It is deeply committed to the historic American ideal of an individual-centered society and polity. And in fits and starts over the last quarter century, it has moved steadily to the view that contemporary government has strayed beyond its limited, subordinate role in such a system.