Guest Column: Republican Schizophrenia

The Republican victory in 1994 has been appropriately heralded as a political revolution. Speaker Newt Gingrich has been elevated to a household name. The Contract with America has become the performance chart for the Republican Party. Big government has come under an incredible media assault even from those who once praised it. And issues of federalism are now very much in the foreground.

While there is undoubtedly consensus among Republicans on the need for retrenchment in government, for a balanced budget amendment, and for tax reductions, there is also emerging confusion in the ranks. Having imbibed the Tofflerian view of the future (The Third Wave), Gingrich asserts that the New Deal world of government-engineered decisions has been toppled by the rush of events, specifically technological change. Presumably the computer is to the present what the Gutenberg printing press was to the past. Cyberspace is not merely a communication rearrangement, it is the atmosphere for a new age.

This technological wave takes no prisoners. The institutions of the past cannot withstand the pressure. Alvin Toffler, certainly no conservative, contends that the Third Wave changes relationships, affects institutions, and even influences geography. Linear relationships become dynamic; the assumptions of the past rendered irrelevant. The techie sitting in front of his computer screen is not subject to moral constraints. This is a world of isolated man and machine.

For those schooled in Internet jargon the Wave is a cliche. Techies live in Cyberspace. Here are the progeny of the sixties suckled on advanced technology. These techies are distrustful of government like the youthful admirers of “E.T.” and they are distrustful of the traditional. Norms are to be challenged; what is innovative welcomed.

On the other side of the “Newtonian” world are the traditionalists eager to restore an America circa 1955. These people resent the pace of change. For them the Third Wave represents indiscriminate alterations in life. In vitro fertilization, homosexual marriages, genetic manipulation, abortifacients, are all manifestations of a revolution that challenges tradition. They seek an innocent America, a nation enthralled with “Leave It To Beaver” instead of the “alternative family.”

In this portion of the Newtonian world, prayer, the nuclear family, and the sanctity of life are essential ingredients. Traditionalists in the emerging Republican consensus are not necessarily Luddites, but they understand that technology comes with grave risks to the existence they prefer.

The bridge over this great divide between techies and traditionalists is a shared distaste for big government. Techies want Cyberspace unencumbered by government and traditionalists want government to avoid imposing its brand of morality — whether it be Roe v. Wade or tax advantages for unmarried partners. Both groups abhor government-engineered solutions for social problems. In other respects, Gingrich has his work cut out in trying to keep his consensus together.

After all, techies thrive on change; traditionalists are wary. Techies want the blueprint for tomorrow; traditionalists yearn for a simpler, more fulfilling time than the present. At the moment there isn’t an ideological opposition to the Gingrich-led revolution, despite the schism I’ve described. The Democrats’ only answer is Newt-lite — a modest reflection of Republican ideas. For example, the Democrats discuss tax reductions for those earning up to $70,000 instead of the more ambitious Republican proposal to cut taxes on incomes up to $200,000.

The question that remains is whether the consensus inherent in Republican politics can hold. Will techies and traditionalists continue to gloss over their differences in an effort to reduce the size, influence, and intrusiveness of government? Flush with success, the “Newtonians” haven’t yet recognized the potential rift in their ranks. Should most of the Contract be legislated, the rift may not be apparent for years. If, on the other hand, the Contract is defeated or modified or its bill vetoed by the president, the alliance of unlikely political partners will splinter.

This moment in American history is worth examining for it has roots in the deep-seated American fear of government, a Jeffersonian belief that he who rules least, rules best. It is also true that since the New Deal many Americans have been seduced by government, believing that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, mortgage deductions, and college loans are entitlements. Invariably many of those who oppose the size of government will contend that the government program from which they derive benefits should not be axed. Is the antipathy toward government therefore temporary or is it a reassertion of the American temperament? And if it is such a reassertion, can those who comprise the consensus remain united or will a gravitational pull in different directions unravel the Gingrich coalition?


  • Herbert London

    Herbert London is former John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University and was the President of Hudson Institute from 1997 until 2011.

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