February 15, 2003


Life, Liberty And Property (Michael Barone, Feb. 14, 2003, National Journal) (it appears you may need to be signed up for the e-mail report to access the full essay)
In the first two-thirds of the 20th century, this country was industrial America, a country that was moving toward standardization and centralization. This was an America of ever-bigger corporations, a bigger and more bureaucratized government and standardized professions and scientific communities. Such an America led to the assimilation of immigrants, to cultural conformity, and to common social experiences such as the comprehensive high school and the military draft. It was a society temperamentally inclined toward centralization, normalization, standardization. In that America, Theodore Roosevelt's Republicans and Woodrow Wilson's Democrats competed for the first third of the century over which was the better centralizing party. But after the Depression of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats had a huge advantage as the party favoring vigorous and active government.

In the last third of the 20th century and now in the first third of the 21st, we are living in postindustrial, Information Age America. The economy is increasingly decentralized and market-driven rather than regulated by government or manipulated by oligopolies; American culture is increasingly variegated, as people feel free to choose different lifestyles and as new peoples come from other lands; affluence and surging economic growth produce many economic and cultural niches in which Americans can choose to live comfortably. It is a society temperamentally inclined toward decentralization, away from bureaucracies and toward markets, toward individual choice rather than standardization. This America has a natural tendency to vote Republican, although it is willing to vote for Democrats, such as Bill Clinton, who fashion their public policies and political tactics to suit its predispositions. George W. Bush seems to understand the character of this society: A theme running through his 2000 platform -- tax cuts, education, Medicare, Social Security -- is allowing more individual choice rather than requiring everyone to fit into the same bureaucratically defined template.

There is a similar contrast in how Americans fight their wars. Industrial America fought its wars by using its centralized industrial strength. Large military forces made up of draftees and armed with unsophisticated, mass-produced weapons and mat’riel -- these were what we brought to World War I and what enabled us to win World War II and to avoid defeat in Korea. But as industrial America became postindustrial America, industrial war fighting worked less well in Vietnam. Now postindustrial, Information Age America is winning its wars with a volunteer military, with tactics that put a premium on skill and personal initiative, and with highly sophisticated equipment far beyond the capacity of any other country. We saw this in the Persian Gulf War; we saw it even more in Afghanistan; we will likely see it soon in Iraq. This military is an institution that reflects the basic character of the nation led by George W. Bush, a leader who understands his nation far better than do those who ooze with contempt for him.

On the performance of this military, and of this president, much depends -- including the course of American politics for the next several years, perhaps the next several decades. But it is clear that this nation at peril, alike though it is in its basic character, is importantly different in its politics from the 49 percent nation that we thought we knew so well until the 2002 election returns started coming in.

Mr. Barone's long, detailed, and persuasive case for a sea change in American politics comports well with what we know of historical norms, but, as a conservative, it just seems too good to be true. We hope, but doubt. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2003 10:45 AM
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