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Re-Politicizing American Politics

What a "living Constitution" really means.

12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Editor's Note: Harvey Mansfield, one of America's leading political scientists and a widely published author, will deliver the 2007 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 8, 2007. The annual NEH-sponsored Jefferson Lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. We have reposted these Mansfield classics from THE WEEKLY STANDARD archive in honor of that event.

How remarkable it is that Americans feel so dependent on government and at the same time so contemptuous of it! This is a political situation that gives hope to both Democrats and Republicans. The hope is conservative in each case. The Democrats stand for conserving the status quo; the Republicans stand for conservative reform. The debate is taking place within the bounds of conservatism, and so it is not surprising that the party of Big Government can survive, and may even triumph, despite the declaration of the White House's current occupant that "the era of big government is over."

Of course, Bill Clinton's words do not mean what they seem; Clinton has not abandoned the cause of Big Government. Quite the opposite. Every move he makes is in defense of Big Government, and every proposal he offers has a little bit of Big Government attached. But all the same, these were not words he was happy to utter. They were words he had to utter, and they indicate his belief, or his perception of the public's belief, that Big Government cannot continue as it has.

But they also show Clinton's confidence that Big Government itself will continue. All he said was that the "era of big government" is over; he did not say Big Government itself had come to an end. The era of Big Government was its period of expansion, when Democrats could be the party of progress because progress meant legislating government programs to give people security. Since those programs have failed, people no longer believe they constitute progress, and so it has been hard times, recently, for the party of progress -- most spectacularly in the congressional election of 1994.

Since 1995 Clinton has adopted the attitude of goslow conservatism toward Big Government. He has only the attitude because he does not share in the conservative hostility to Big Government. But the attitude is agreeable to him and seems to be succeeding because a certain conservatism is endemic to Big Government. Big Government supplies "entitlements," which are vested interests people will want to defend. Because entitlements belong to every individual citizen and are thought to be deserved but always endangered, people can become very defensive -- and very conservative -- on their behalf. This is no accident. Entitlements were set up by the New Deal and the Great Society, as Democrats always say, "so that no one can take them away from you. " Perhaps there will always be those who want to take them away: Republicans, from whom the American people will have to be defended by the Democratic party.

Even so, the Democrats have little to console themselves with, however well they may appear to be doing at present. They will not see their accomplishments disappear, but they must listen to them being maligned. And if they want to succeed like Bill Clinton, they have to join the chorus of denunciation. The Democratic party, the party of government, has destroyed the reputation of its favorite instrument. The government is now regarded with anger and dislike when it acts and with contempt when it fails to act. Though the public's ill feeling focuses on the evils of bureaucracy, it extends to the elected parts of government, especially Congress. Congress is despised because it fails to correct our situation with new legislation, as if we were lacking in that remedy. The judiciary, too, has provoked justified resentment by deliberately blurring the distinction between judging and legislating.

That Americans should think so ill of their government is a very bad thing. Their resentment is the major count in the indictment of New Deal and Great Society programs, for they have made Americans doubt the worth of their government. The American republic, the oldest and most powerful in the world, was called by Abraham Lincoln at the time of its greatest crisis "the last best hope of earth." Ours is a certain form of government, with a certain constitution, and it is by far our most valuable common possession. Without it, all our private possessions and liberties would become insecure.