Clinton's Democrats Bid Farewell to the Politics of the Industrial Revolution

July 26, 1992|By TIMOTHY J. MULLANEY

"Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?''

K? (Republican campaign jingle mocking Grover Cleveland, 1884)

''Get to know Bill Clinton the way Gennifer Flowers did.''

0 (Come-on for Republican phone hotline, 1992)

McLaughlin Group, -- get a history lesson! When the history of Gov. Bill Clinton's seizure of the Democratic Party is written, no one will care that he pushed the party to the ''center,'' that he and Sen. Al Gore were baby boomers, or that he made a play for suburban independents and Republicans.

That's all true, but what the commentators miss is what it all adds up to. In the Democratic Party this year, politically speaking, the Industrial Revolution died. And it's about time: Economically speaking, the U.S. Industrial Revolution died a long time ago. Long live the Information Age.

Millions complain that political parties have nothing to do with their lives. They're right. That's how Ross Perot got his 15 minutes of celebrity. But commentators act as if disillusionment with parties has never happened in America. They're wrong.

It happened the last time we went through an economic transformation of this magnitude, the Industrial Revolution. Politicians bred on the coalitions established in the party realignment of 1860 had no clue what it meant that agrarian America was giving way to smokestack America. The erosion of parties ended only when to the nation's conflict over industrialism came to a head in 1896, when Republicans won a realigning majority.

The same disillusionment has happened now because neither of today's parties has figured out what a program or a coalition for the post-industrial age should be. Instead, Democrats pine for another 1932, the last time they forged a newly realigned majority, and Republicans just wander.

Forget 1932. Consider what historian James Sundquist said about the election of 1896 in his book ''Dynamics of the Party System:''

''The 1896 election was the first to be fought out along the new line of cleavage that had been developing in American politics since the 1860s, cutting across the line established [in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln won] on the issues of slavery, war and reconstruction.

''For 20 years the two-party system had been based on dead issues of the past. It had offered the voters no means of expressing a choice on the crucial issues of domestic economic policy around which the country had been polarizing -- slowly at first, but beginning in the 1880s at a headlong pace.''

Sound familiar? Today's parties have been just as confused about what the wane of industrialism and rise of a service-based and high-value-added manufacturing-based economy means. That's because the voters are confused too.

The kind of dirty-pool politics that has dominated presidential elections for 20 years happens when parties can't fathom the still-emerging divisions of the time. While we're figuring it out, we blather. That's why the nation knew about Grover Cleveland's love child, why Michael Dukakis thought competence was the only ideology that counted, and why 1992 Republicans want to talk about Gennifer Flowers.

Much has been written about how, as baby boomers, Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been shaped by different experiences than elders like George Bush. We've heard about Vietnam and Watergate, feminism and the arms race.

All are important, but none matters nearly as much as the change in the most fundamental experience that shapes everyday lives -- how we make a living. Messrs. Clinton and Gore came of age in a different economy than did President Bush or Democrats like Mario Cuomo. It made them different people.

The last realignment of U.S. political parties, in 1932, was about how to divide the spoils of industrialism. The next realignment will be about how -- even whether -- America will face up to being a largely post-industrial nation, and how we go about making an information economy work for us.

That realignment just happened -- before your very eyes -- within the Democratic party. Liberals like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Gov. Mario Cuomo and Sen. Tom Harkin lost for the same reason Democrats have lost the White House for years.

They're out of touch not -- as Republicans charge -- because they rely on government as an agent of change, but because of how they want to use government power, and for whose benefit. They want government to help labor unions, prop up old-line manufacturers who use union labor and preserve high-wage manufacturing jobs in America that can be done by low-wage labor elsewhere. Plus, they want to subsidize those whom industrialism leaves behind.

The beneficiaries of these policies no longer add up to a winning coalition. Most Americans haven't worked on the factory floor for decades. Even General Motors employs more white collars than blue. This year, for the first time, the majority of the electorate lives in the suburbs, home of nearly all the information companies building the new economy.

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