This Is an Election About Less than It Seems

GEORGE F. WILL

September 07, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Trollope's political novels have been calle ideal reading for a lazy Labor Day weekend because if a breeze blows over a few pages while you nap, never mind, plunge back in.

The narrative moves at such a measured pace that nothing much will have been missed. This presidential campaign may now be like that. Its themes are clear.

A Democrat more liberal than he wants to seem, and a Republican less conservative than he wants to seem, are leading parties whose differences have narrowed, and whose ranges of politically possible policies are narrow.

Liberalism developed when liberty was threatened by the forces of order -- state or church. Today, people feel more threatened by disorder. Modern American liberalism developed to redress a perceived imbalance between anemic government and the surging power of entities and forces in industrial society.

Now that (since last October) government jobs outnumber manufacturing jobs in America, an insufficiency of government is not seen as the problem.

The Democratic Party's change of mind -- its movement toward the center -- reflects recognition that it cannot win the presidency by changing the composition of the electorate. That is, it cannot win by mobilizing non-voters among the poor and minorities.

Over the last 30 years, America's political center has shifted, to the disadvantage of Democrats. Watergate and Vietnam caused erosion of confidence in government.

The internationalization of economic life has weakened the power of governments. The mobility of money and businesses inhibits governments, because wealth can flee currencies threatened by inflation or jurisdictions where growth is slow or government is meddlesome.

So parties whose promises depend on strong government are decreasingly plausible. Furthermore, long recessions and slow growth increase individual anxiety and decrease social solidarity, thereby weakening society's support for collective actions.

On the other hand, aspects of both economic vigor and its absence can help Democrats. The boom of the 1980s was unsettling to many people. While the U.S. economy added 19 million net new jobs, Fortune 500 corporations shrank by 4 million jobs and from 58 percent of industrial output to 42 percent.

Rapid change generates stress, and thus generates supporters

for a liberal party that equates any social distress with ''victimization'' and a failure of government to enforce ''fairness.''

The recession involved much pruning of middle management jobs, so that articulate and assertive components of the electorate (including journalists) were anxious.

The issue of taxation arose among English-speaking (sort-of) people 1,000 years ago under King Ethelred the Unready, in connection with the Danegeld, an annual tax for the defense of the realm, actually to pay tribute to the marauding Danes.

Today, George the Implausible is promising a tax cut that Congress will not deliver, to be balanced by spending cuts his own party will not countenance. Bill Clinton promises to build a New Jerusalem by squeezing millionaires until they squeak.

But considering that a hefty $4 trillion will be spent on private consumption this year, it is odd for conservatives to argue that any tax increase Congress is apt to impose on individuals will radically reshape the economy.

It is equally implausible for liberals to say that Mr. Clinton's policy (management efficiencies, government spending to increase growth and never a discouraging word for the middle class that has most of America's money) will alter the deficit that paralyzes and disgraces government.

So if you nap for now, you will have no trouble picking up the thread of this year's by-now familiar political narrative.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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