Parties in historic battle to control nation's fate The political party that has figured out how to define the national direction that will emerge as the dominant force of the 21st century.

November 17, 1998|By Franz Schurmann

SAN FRANCISCO -- A winner-take-all war is going on between Republicans and Democrats whose outcome will likely be determined on Election Day 2000. On that day one party will likely win both the White House, Congress and a good number of state and local offices.

I see two historical currents leading to this outcome. The first is that since its founding, America always has had a national direction. The second is that during most of its history, one party dominated for significant stretches of time.

It doesn't take a historian's crystal ball to see that the year 2000 will be one of worldwide challenges. By November of 2000, Americans will have a clearer sense of whether our prosperity is continuing or on the decline.

Finger to the wind

America will need strong leadership to cope with these challenges. But it is the political party that has figured out how to define the national direction that will emerge as the dominant force of the 21st century.

America's enduring sense of national direction came from the American revolution whose participants felt there was some divine purpose in its birth. But the Founding Fathers, far from being fanatics, were shrewd operators willing to bet heavily on long-term futures.

During the 1790s, the ruling Hamiltonian Federalists were determined to weld together the 13 states into a single nation with a clear national direction. They initially succeeded but were shattered in the 1800 elections when the Jeffersonian Democrat-Republicans swept into power with an agenda of states' rights.

But Thomas Jefferson took over the Federalist faith in an American national purpose and tied it onto states' rights democracy. He soon found a way to make the contradictory agenda work rather than explode. With the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, he launched the country on an expansionist direction.

By the 1830s, the contradictions got too strong; states' rights became equated with slavery. Expansionist Northern farmers and businessmen clashed violently with equally expansionist Southern plantation owners. In 1860, the new Lincoln Republicans smashed the Democrats and launched 72 years of Republican rule.

The newly dominant Republicans accepted Jeffersonian expansionism but added a national direction: increase both national and personal wealth through industry, business and agriculture. In the racist spirit of the age, they promised that everyone who was "free, white and 21" could become rich.

However, in the 1930s the Republicans shifted from expansionism to isolationism. And, in 1931, they saw their get-rich national direction undermined by the Great Depression. The Roosevelt Democrats swept into power early in 1933 and kept it till January 1969.

At first, Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted Republican isolationism even as he expanded state power to help the poor and those battered by the Depression. But, in 1940, he took over the old Jeffersonian expansionism.

New Deal and direction

With a smashing victory in World War II, a new national direction was set for the postwar period. The New Deal preached a strong and good government acting as savior at home and leader in the world.

The Vietnam War shattered this national direction. But no new one took its place. The Republican Reaganites thought they had found one by creating huge amounts of wealth through revolutionizing the global economy. But their presidential candidates lost to the Democrats in 1992 and 1996.

Looking at two centuries of American national direction reveals three constants. One is the commitment to interwoven national and personal wealth. A second is that America's destiny is linked to the world beyond its borders. And the third is that a successful national direction requires strong government.

President Clinton is now fashioning a new national direction linking these three constants together. Mr. Clinton has accepted the Reaganite idea that America cannot extricate itself from global leadership and that increasing wealth at home can only be gained globally. But he has added a new non-Reaganite element -- global peace-making. The mantra for the new course could be called: national prosperity through global peace.

There is no way this new national purpose can be achieved through a divided government. It can only be done if one or the other party wins decisively in November 2000. And if both parties fail in this challenge, some new political force will arise to fill the void and lead the country -- and the world -- into the 21st century.

Franz Schurmann, a professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote this for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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