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Turning to Jefferson as Political Sage for a New American Century

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget abortion, school vouchers, tax relief or even the future of Social Security. The big battle in Washington, the one we’ve been fighting for more than 200 years, is Jefferson versus Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson argued that government should work from the bottom up; Alexander Hamilton, ever the autocrat, thought that it would work better from the top down.

Jefferson won in the short run; 19th century America, with its focus on agrarian ideals and the plight of the working farmer, was Jeffersonian by design. But as the country moved from farm-oriented to factory-centered, the United States reconsidered its social compact. It was at this moment, acknowledges Andrei Cherny in “The Next Deal: The Future of Public Life in the Information Age,” that Americans began to reexamine what government could and should do for its citizens.

The end result, of course, was the New Deal, what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called a “bold, persistent experimentation” that, as Cherny says, fully replaced “Jefferson’s government with one that responded to the circumstances of industrial America” but which was to a certain extent Hamiltonian at its core. For its citizens, the government became a de facto parent whose job it was to “make sure you ate your vegetables and got your dessert, punish you if you were bad, and give you some extra money to help you out if times were tough.” But underneath this New Deal was the understanding that an active government was a bureaucratic one, and thus the era of big government was born.

Yet as industrial America disappeared into the shadow of the 20th century, the centralized government that it had fostered began to lose its meaning. As technology, trade and information intersect, a new age is being born, one that is propelled by content, enabled by speed--in a word, hyperlinked.

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Cherny finds many parallels between the members of his generation--which came of age in the 1980s and 1990s--and those he calls “FDR’s children.” “Tempered by the despondency of the Great Depression, energized by the hope of the New Deal, and finally formed in the crucible of the Second World War, [they] came of age at a moment when the world was consumed by global ideological struggle,” he writes. His own peers, whom he labels the “Choice Generation,” are witnessing equally significant changes. Just as the 19th century was agrarian-based and the 20th industrial-focused, the 21st will be information-driven.

Cherny, who at age 25 is already a veteran White House speech writer and the author of the 2000 Democratic Party Platform, is an astute observer of American political history. If “The Next Deal” were simply his own erudite interpretations of the way our American political life has been shaped, it would be a worthwhile read. But what makes it almost visionary in scope is the blueprint it offers for the next phase of American political life.

For while government set the pace of the middle part of the 20th century, it is already falling far behind its citizens in the 21st. The “top to bottom” approach that characterized government in the late 20th century, Cherny suggests, is destined for replacement, with a grass-roots movement that is Jeffersonian at its core. What he proposes is the remaking of “American government and community life so that they can reflect the values of the new Information Age.”

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"[T]hose who have thought about the impact of the Information Age on government have,” Cherny writes, “sought to use the implements of the Information age [computers and the Internet] but not its impetus [decentralization of power and the desire for personal choices].” For all Americans, this failure to understand and respond to the rapid transformation of our lives means that government will have less and less to do with our day-to-day life. But for the Choice Generation, it has an even more profound impact.

"[T]hey have a previously unimagined amount of power to shape the environment they live in. . . . They know no world other than that created by the lifting of taboos, the legalization of abortion, the growing acceptance of homosexuality, the end of the belief that women belong only in the kitchen, the widespread availability of contraceptives, the death-knell of legally enforced racial discrimination. . . . The culture--both pop and parental--that the Choice Generation grew up with celebrated the ability of individuals to make more free choices about how they will live their lives than ever before.”

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Young people who can get their coffee any way they desire it, who can go online and order up custom-made Levis and who can “Napster” the music of their choice from computers halfway around the world while they are asleep require that government operate with the same sort of efficiency and offer the same sort of options that are available to them in the rest of their lives. And Cherny feels that they should expect nothing less. For these young Americans, who “grew up in a world where government itself has increasingly seemed a Machine Age anachronism--wasteful, corrupt, distant, and laden with bureaucracy,” government has not kept up with the times; instead, it is failing altogether. The Choice Generation is witness to the breakdown of the health care system, the impending failure of Social Security, the corruption of politics by special interests, and all the while thinks--perhaps even knows--that it can do better.

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Cherny believes that the way to escape this morass is for democracy--real democracy, in which the people rule themselves--to be allowed to flourish, for community rather than causes to rule. This means empowering Americans at all levels of our national food chain: In education, job training, health care and saving for retirement, people should have more control and more options in deciding how government funds should be spent. Cherny’s is not the quick-fix, school vouchers solution; it is the establishment of charter schools in all of the nation’s neighborhoods. It is not the mindless expansion of HMOs; it is giving Americans the right to choose from a wide range of health care choices. In essence, it is the return of America to its Jeffersonian roots.

One can make minor quibbles with Cherny’s choices--wishing that “The Next Deal” had been footnoted, hoping that the list of “recommended reading” at the end included at least one woman (Joyce Appleby, Esther Dyson, Juliet Schor and Wendy Kaminer all seem notably excluded)--but still, “The Next Deal” is a remarkable work. As the balance of American power shifts once again, amid a stock market that ebbs and flows and a world hovering on the brink of inconceivable change, Cherny offers a working draft for what President Clinton promised in his second inaugural address but which has yet to emerge: “a new spirit of community for a new century.”


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