Theda Skocpol

Skocpol is a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, and the author of <i>Boomerang: Clinton’s Health Security Effort and the Turn Against Government in U.S. Politics</i>.

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Q: What accounts for the GOP’s declining popularity?

A: The anti-government Republicans do a very good job of combining grassroots mobilization of certain constituencies, like the Christian Coalition and the small-business community. They thought that because they could do that, and because some of their themes resonated with people in the last election, that they had carte blanche. So they moved on to attack programs that they hadn’t even mentioned in the election, and they visibly invited all their business friends in to rewrite legislation, particularly in the environmental area.

Q: What about their anti-government mandate?

A: Americans have real resentments about government. Ever since the Reagan era, Democrats and liberals have tried to do things with regulatory mandates rather than by putting federal money or authority directly behind their objectives. And that proved enormously irritating.

But I don’t believe that Americans in general are hostile to getting things from government or even doing things through government. Americans like government programs that embody broadly shared values and deliver resources to people who are perceived as behaving properly and contributing to work and community. I don’t think that’s changed. Programs like Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid remain enormously popular. They’re woven into the structure of family life and into people’s conceptions of what’s a good life in this country.

Q: How could the Republicans have so misjudged what Americans wanted?

A: Think about who they interacted with day after day: small-business people in their districts, and groups like the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition. The very same things that gave those groups so much strength and leverage in the battle against Clinton during his first two years — their ability to echo each other and work together — proved to be a source of weakness when the task was governing the nation and holding onto a majority that included many middle-of-the-road independent voters.

Q: Why is the GOP leadership in Congress so ideological?

A: A number of them are professors. It’s probably the most ideological elite we’ve had in a long time. It’s the kind of thing that leftists have dreamed of. And a lot of these guys live in suburban Southern areas. That milieu has nurtured the sense that the only institutions that really matter are the individual family, the small business, and maybe a church congregation or two. If you visit some of these areas, there are not a lot of big institutions around, such as universities and hospitals. Gingrich targets the professionals and managers who work for those nonprofit institutions as the enemy. And a lot of the freshmen are New South, entrepreneurial types. Many have never been involved in government or in big institutions of any kind. So they’ve lived out a politics that flows from a certain kind of lifestyle.

Q: What do you see taking place in the election?

A: It looks as if Clinton could be re-elected by a substantial margin and the Democrats have a shot at regaining the House. But there has been an enormous change in the sense of what’s possible and desirable to do with government. President Clinton and many of the Democrats have simply joined the anti-government consensus. The public debate has narrowed and moved sharply to the right.

Clinton often deals with anti-government attacks by adopting their premises. He has demonstrated over the last year how brilliantly that may work over the short run. But in the long run, it leaves Democrats and people who believe in social solidarity and in a positive role for government in a vulnerable position.

I would love to think that everything is going to turn around, but I don’t. There are two problems. One is that many of the organizational and ideological resources of the Republican right remain in place, and they will learn from their mistakes.

And second, although the Democrats have made some effort to mobilize, and the labor movement is reviving itself, there’s a long way to go to build any kind of sustained grassroots presence on the Democratic side. Democrats are split between people who would like to sustain the major New Deal and Great Society programs of the past, and a business wing that wants to scrap all that stuff, just like the Republicans. And the racial splits in the Democratic Party remain very strong.

The danger is that the Democrats will sneak back in this year with narrow majorities; that President Clinton will continue his move toward the right — he’s now to the right of Richard Nixon in many ways — and the Democrats will go back to their old ways of collecting contributions from advocacy groups and business, and won’t continue deepening their ability to communicate with and mobilize Democratic majorities. And the next time around, they’ll be thrown out again.


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