All Commentary
Sunday, January 1, 1995

A Matter of Principle: The Second American Revolution?

Voters Have Handed Liberalism a Stunning Repudiation at the Polls

Mr. Bidinotto, a Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest, is a long-time contributor to The Freeman and lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available at $29.95 in cloth and $19.95 in paperback. Please see page 64 for details.

In the November 1994 Notes From FEE, Dr. Hans Sennholz predicted a coming “turning point:” “Liberalism is intellectually bankrupt and has nothing going for it but its willingness to apply brute force and crude deception. . . . The forces of freedom will have another opportunity to turn the ship around.”

I doubt that he, or any of us, knew just how soon that opportunity would present itself. That same month, voters across the land handed liberalism a stunning repudiation at the polls. Everywhere, aging champions of the welfare state were sent packing by young insurgents who campaigned explicitly on platforms of cutting taxes, slashing spending, reducing the size of government, repealing regulations, and unleashing free market forces. (The few exceptions were in states where challengers ran as vacuous moderates, or where questions of personal character clouded the choices.)

The 1994 mid-term elections were a watershed ideological referendum on the size and scope of government. Veteran liberal icons in Congress, holding the highest positions of power, campaigned openly on their commitment to redistributionist programs, their political clout, and their ability to deliver pork to their constituents. They also used tried-and-true fear tactics, declaring their opponents would cut Social Security and Medicare.

By contrast, their challengers campaigned openly on a sweeping anti-statist agenda—a signed pledge to cut taxes, regulations, social welfare programs, foreign aid, and government employees, while enacting constitutional amendments to balance the budget, limit taxes, and terms of office.

The results? Asked to choose between more government or more liberty, voters repeatedly chose liberty. The purveyors of pork were routed; the most senior liberal leadership in Congress, decapitated.

Ballot initiatives confirmed the message. Term limits and tougher anti-crime measures were enacted in state after state. In California, a measure to cut off government assistance to illegal immigrants won handily, while the same voters repudiated an initiative to impose Canadian-style socialized medicine, by a 3-1 margin. Even in leftist bastions such as San Francisco and Berkeley, voters enacted tough new measures to control homeless vagrants; and in liberal Massachusetts, the electorate abolished rent controls, rejected a graduated income tax, and imposed term limits.

Exit polling data made the voter mandate clear. Asked in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, “Who do you want to take the lead role in setting policy for the country—President Clinton or the [new] Congress?”, voters answered “Congress” by a 55-30 margin. Two-thirds of them said President Clinton should abandon his own agenda, and instead compromise with Congressional Republicans. Voters preferred the policies of Congressional Republicans on crime, taxes, Social Security, and Medicare—even health care, the President’s pet issue.

Years of patient educational efforts by free-market intellectuals are finally paying off, resulting in a sea change in public attitudes about the relation of the individual to the state. The leading insurgents now taking office are not old-school politicians. Some are even former teachers of history and free-market economics, who bring a principled underpinning to their policy prescriptions. They understand their philosophy and their mandate, propose a radical agenda to downsize government, and assert a feisty unwillingness to compromise.

On their agenda: adding property rights protections to all environmental laws; liberalizing foreign trade; even replacing the federal income tax. Off the table: socialized medicine; new tax and spending initiatives; and the dispatching of American Marines to every nation whose name ends in a vowel.

What’s left of the Left is quaking. A Newsweek headline: “Goodbye Welfare State.”

But that (unfortunately) is an overstatement. Though in disarray, the forces of the Statist Quo won’t surrender their power and perks easily. Rome wasn’t built in a day—and won’t be dismantled in a day. In fact, the biggest barriers to reform are likely to arise from within the Republican Party itself.

The GOP stands precariously on deep philosophical fault lines, and already we’re hearing rumblings of coming tremors that could shatter the revolutionary coalition. Arrayed against the free-market forces within the party are at least three pro-interventionist factions, determined to take the tastiest items off the anti-statist reform menu.

The value liberals in the GOP endorse liberty on social issues, but want more government intervention in our economy. The value conservatives endorse economic liberty, but think government should police our personal and social values. (Nationalist and populist sub-factions also would curtail free trade and immigration.) In the muddle-of-the-road are business pragmatists, the “mainstream” ballast of the Republican Party. These corporatists, country-clubbers, and supply-siders reject laissez-faire, and would instead wield state power on behalf of business and special interests.

Sadly, no prominent Republicans consistently oppose state encroachments on liberty. Even the best of them, the free-market conservatives, who are quite principled on economic and property matters, still pay lip service to the need for some moral interventions into the private lives of individuals.

These free-market insurgents are concentrated largely in the House of Representatives. But the fate of the election—and the resurgent Republican Party—will be sealed when their reform wish list passes that body, and goes to the Senate. What will the more pragmatic Senate leaders then do? Will they get in line behind it—or compromise it all away, proclaiming “bipartisanship,” egged on by special interest constituencies?

We truly may be on the threshold of a Second American Revolution. But if the reforms fizzle, as they did under Reagan, voter rage will boil over. Then both major parties will find themselves justly discredited and hounded from office.

Yes, this is an unrepeatable opportunity. But what the new Republican Congress does about its own favorite pork programs (such as farm subsidies) will become a litmus test of its real commitment to principled reform.

In the meantime, we must continue our job of education. The voters’ preference for liberty and limited government is still more implicit than explicit. They need intellectual ammunition to fight off future counterattacks from collectivists, who are sure to regroup. Our job is to arm them.

How? By continuing to stand firm on principle. We must buoy those who might waver in the coming battles, and—in George Washington’s immortal words—raise a standard to which the wise and honest may repair.