THE CULTURE WARS : Political Evangelists Callous to Lost Souls

<i> Robert Dallek is a professor of history and policy studies at UCLA. He is the author of several books on recent U.S. history, including "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents," which will be published in 1996 by Hyperion</i>

By any sensible standard, political evangelism should be seen as an oxymoron. How can politics--the art of the possible--be linked to fixed truths like the sanctity of life, a woman’s right to choose and family values? For the pure in heart, compromise is a dirty word, and accommodation an abandonment of principle. As Mr. Dooley, Finley Peter Dunne’s comic character, said, the true believer “does what he thinks th’ Lord wud do if He only knew th’ facts in th’ case.”

Political evangelists have been with us since the start of the republic. The Moral Majority, pro-life and pro-choice advocates, the National Rifle Assn. and Common Cause activists are just the latest in a long line of American moralists. Were the Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Free Silverites, Prohibitionists, Klansmen of the 1920s, One Worlders of the 1940s and segregationists of the 1960s so different from the “single-issue” proponents of our day? The goals may have changed but the intensity of purpose and purity of motive are as familiar as the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. The politically correct and politically incorrect may have a different twist on what will advance and destroy the American way of life, but they share a claim on doing the Lord’s work--or at least what the Lord would back if he knew the truth.

American politics, of course, has not been strictly the stuff of moral crusades. Far from it. Pragmatism, experimentation, opportunism--an affinity for substantial give-and-take--have always, except for the Civil War, been central to the nation’s conduct of public affairs. In 1968, for example, after four years of civic disorders over race and Vietnam, the country faced a choice between Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard M. Nixon, two of the most familiar and conventional politicians on the national scene.

But America’s propensity for practical politics has always gone hand in hand with an attraction to visionaries--the Theodore Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilsons, Franklin D. Roosevelts and Ronald Reagans--who, preaching from the bully pulpit, stirred us to actions that seemed to promise a better future for people everywhere. In and of itself, moralism or idealism is not to be dismissed or despised. It will no more disappear from U.S. political life than the institutional arrangements set in place 208 years ago.


But the principal question for our day, as we watch the congressional Republicans dismantle pieces of the 60-year-old welfare state, is: What kind of idealism, or moralism, best serves the national well-being? There were, after all, huge distinctions in the past between those who single-mindedly fought to preserve segregation and those who worked to end it. The idealists who see social engineering as a nostrum for the economic suffering of the less affluent are worlds apart from the free marketeers who see economic pain as an inescapable part of industrial and post-industrial society.

There is an important difference between idealists who strive to build and those who aim to cut, if not eliminate, many government programs put in place in this century. Lyndon B. Johnson and longtime Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, two of our strongest advocates of government activism, saw a yawning divide between the two philosophies.

In 1965, when Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace defied federal efforts to assure black voting rights, Johnson asked him: “What do you want left after you die? Do you want a great . . . big marble monument that reads, ‘George Wallace--He Built’? . . . Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh, caliche soil, that reads, ‘George Wallace--He Hated’?” Rayburn believed that “any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a skilled carpenter to build one.”

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Tex.), Rep. Ernest Jim Istook (R-Okla.), and other Republicans battling to fulfill the “contract with America” would strongly dispute the allegation that they are intent on dismantling anything. To the contrary, they describe themselves as preserving Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, environmental protection and a host of other government programs from the tax-and-spend Democrats, whose affinity for unbalanced budgets and wasteful bureaucracies will bankrupt their programs and the country.

But the GOP evangelists pressing the case for their agenda are a new breed of conservatives. They speak and act as if they are building a brave new world from the ashes of failed liberal programs, but they are callously dismantling public institutions that have served less affluent Americans for decades. Take the case of a federally financed voucher system giving poor public-school students in Washington $3,000 to enroll in private schools. Instead of trying to improve the Washington schools, which spend $8,000 per student, conservatives hope to save on each student willing to take the $3,000 voucher. But $3,000 is less than one-third of what most private schools in the area charge. The likely outcome would be the creation of many fly-by-night, substandard schools.

Medicare, as well, would take big hits under the GOP plan. True, spending per Medicare recipient would rise from $4,800 to $6,700 during the next seven years, but under the current system of patient services, it would take $8,000 to meet individual needs. The Republicans emphasize they are not cutting anything, only slowing the growth. But in a series of articles, the Washington Post described how the GOP came to this description of their policy after numerous focus groups demonstrated that talk of cutting Medicare would do more to undermine than sell the policy to the public. Never mind the reality of what they are doing, Gingrich and the Republican National Committee ordered their troops to describe the reductions in Medicare funding not with the words “cut, cap and freeze” but as a way to “protect, preserve and strengthen” an essential program.

Gingrich has described Medicare as a program that will “wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it--voluntarily.” Of course, the cutting, capping and freezing behind Gingrich’s Medicare reforms will encourage recipients to leave the program “voluntarily.” Gingrich has denied that his “wither-on-the-vine” remark referred to more than the Health Care Financing Administration part of Medicare. But no one will be volunteering to leave HCFA, only the Medicare program Gingrich has described as an out-of-date government monopoly with a financing administration much like the centralized bureaucracies in the former Soviet Union.

However skillful Gingrich and his evangels of free-market solutions were in selling their plans, they are now beginning to confront a country increasingly skeptical: 51% of Americans think the GOP budget cuts go too far; only 30% say the reductions do not go far enough; 41% of the country now put more trust in President Bill Clinton to make the right decisions in balancing the budget than in the GOP, currently backed by 36%.

As for Gingrich, he is now seen as a clever, smooth-talking but intolerant true believer who prefers the sound of his own voice to that of the not-so-silent majority increasingly troubled by his attacks on traditional programs. Can a fellow who sees “no point” in discussing Medicare reform with the National Council of Senior Citizens because it is “a left-wing front group” be counted as a wise leader?

We do well to take seriously historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s observation “that undertakings . . . which call on people to work together rather than to do the other fellow in, may be somewhat more elevating for the nation than the dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost ethic of self-interest. It would still appear that affirmative government offers the best chance in this horrid world of strengthening our democracy, preserving our institutions and enlarging the liberties of our people.”