IN THE NORMAL course of American politics, the conventional wisdom is nearly always wrong, but it is profoundly wrong about the politics of 1980. Political commentary is fixated on the notion that America is turning toward the right, a conservative trend that will surely last until the politicians and pundits discover the next conservative trend a few seasons hence.
I will tell you where America is really headed in 1980. Dare I speak the name? Toward socialism. An American version, but still it will be socialism's child. We will get there in a distinctively American way, led by the captains of industry and barons of Wall Street and moguls of big labor.
Of course, one does not hear Business Week or members of the Business Round Table clamoring for socialism. They call it "reindustrialization," a marvelously supple euphemism which conceals a profound ideological shift. "Reindustrialization" means, variously, a mixed economy of public-private collaboration. Or formal national planning of economic futures. Or government subsidy and sponsorship and, perhaps ultimately, partnership in private industrial enterprises. To create jobs, to stimulate exports, to modernize the aging industrial plants, to nurture new ideas which private enterprise is too timid to pursue.
I suggest that Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther must be smiling, somewhere on the left side of heaven, for these are, all of them, old goals of the liberal-labor left. They are, fundamentally, old ideas -- socialist ideas which centrist politics, particularly the business and financial community, successfully resisted for a generation, in the name of free enterprise and The American Way.
Now the centrist opinion leaders have capitulated in one swift season of frights. The American Way is no longer invincible in the world marketplace or in the American marketplace either. The various forms of government intervention and sponsorship which our allies in Western Europe and Japan have employed since World War II no longer seem taboo.
Call it "reindustrialization" and suddenly Wall Street is saluting, the centrist president is tagging along, labor and business leaders and politicians are embracing.
Wondrous are the ways of American democracy, permanently conservative but fundamentally pragmatic. Old ideological barriers give way to the new necessities. Big business jeremiads against Big Government are discarded, replaced by a surprising solution -- bigger government.
That, I believe, is roughly how things change in American politics, at least in the most important realm, the combat of ideas. Elections and election campaigns are only a part of that process, not always the most important part. Reform and reaction, chaos and consolidation and the thirst for consensus among powerful elites -- those continuing dialogues are at least as important as quadrennial campaign speeches which often cloak or evade the true direction of events. There are rare moments in American history -- I think of 1860 and Lincoln -- when presidential elections do decide fateful turns. Most elections are less influential.
Thus, the politics of 1980 reflects this extraordinary contradiction: the short-run obsession of politicians, trying to win their elections, is rhetorical conservatism -- restraint of federal power, even shrinkage. But the political elites -- corporate managers, labor leaders, opinion makers in the media, policy thinkers in academia -- are preparing a different political agenda for the 1980s. They envision an activist federal government, more powerful than ever before, using its centralized powers to restructure the American economy.
Which vision will prevail -- the campaign rhetoric or the "reindustrialization" dialogue? I am not being cynical when I predict that, whether it's the cowboy or the peanut farmer or the preacher with white hair in the White House, the political consensus of the centrist elites will continue on its leftward path and eventually prevail.
If you doubt this, listen to the happy talk coming from Lee Iacocca, chief executive of Chrysler, who spent the last decade railing at Washington interference with business and now glows about the bright future of business-labor-government partnership.
Or consider that Congress, notwithstanding its anti-Washington rhetoric, has already embarked on this future with two major pieces of legislation. The Chrysler bailout effectively put the Treasury Department and the United Auto Workers on the Chrysler management team. The synfuels legislation promises that government will subsidize the development of future energy supplies, create and guarantee the market for them. These are extraordinary interventions, by "free market" standards, but the principled objections of conservatives were brushed aside by centrist politicians looking desperately for solutions.
The next important step in consensus-building was President Carter's belated bow to this hot new idea. It is true that Carter's newly created industrial board, peopled with establishment solemnities like Irving Shapiro of DuPont and Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO, is a rather limp beginning. But I have no doubt that the vision will ripen.
What the center now wants, at the very least, is a mild version of national planning -- a boardroom somewhere in Washington where the heavies sit down and decide where government should put its big bucks, which industries deserve subsidy and nurture, which ones must be allowed to perish.
Some also want government-backed cartels -- mimicking the Japanese -- in which the usual competitive rules are suspended in order to increase trade.
Some advanced thinkers would actually like to recreate World War II -- without all the shooting -- in which the federal government becomes landlord and benefactor for the struggling entrepreneurs who want to become the new barons. They promise to create brand new industries for America, if America will only finance the research, build the factories, pay start-up costs, give them a tax break and suspend the troublesome environmental regulations, etcetera, etcetera.
Does this sound like a good deal, America? Well, hold on to your wallets.
World War II, in economic terms, was one of the most creative experiences in our history; it spawned a host of new American industries, from aerospace to electronics to synthetics, which led the world's postwar prosperity. The "reindustrialization" dreamers would like to recreate that era, with the same government patronage, and let the good times roll.All we need is that magic talisman, "a new social contract," as Business Week put it in its June 30 issue, the most comprehensive discussion of the "reindustrialization" idea.
Memories are selective, however. The dreamers have forgotten that World War II also meant governmental controls, imposed in the interest of equity. Federal ceilings on wages, on prices. And ceilings on corporate profits. World War II meant scandal and fractious controversies over "war profiteers" and rationing and race riots over the changing labor market.
In short, as I am trying to suggest, the "reindustrialization" vision is not yet genuine because it has finessed the hardest questions -- the issues of fairness and democratic participation. Multinational corporations which continue to use the U.S.A. as a tax haven for their global operations cannot expect much generosity -- or sacrifice -- from the rest of us. American business cannot continue its out-front campaign to dissemble organized labor and at the same time expect labor to accept a "social contract" that limits wage increases.
More fundamentally, if there is a public purpose in subsidizing the birth and growth of new industrial capacities, and there surely is, then those newly spawned enterprises must accept "public purposes" as their own reason for being. Public purposes like a clean environment or safe workplaces or full employment. The "reindustrialization" dreamers will discover that a "social contract" of the kind they envision will truly require a new definition of the corporate purpose, a social conception more forward-looking than the next quarter's "bottom line." Is Wall Street ready for this? I doubt that they see it coming.
The left, strangely enough, has been mostly silent on this subject, as though sulking over their stolen property, that long cherished notion of a socialist future. One exception is a provocative new book by Martin Carnoy and Derek Shearer ("Economic Democracy," Sharpe, 1980) which argues through these same issues from a left-liberal perspective and proposes a reformer's version of "reindustrialization." Other voices will be heard, I'm sure, as the idea is taken more seriously.
Meanwhile, these developments are all very consistent with the rhythms of American history. Radicals propose but the center disposes.When the time is right, the center co-opts the old radical program, reworks it to its own purposes and puts it into action, a pale and somewhat deformed version of the original ideas. That, too, is how American politics works, which helps explain why old radicals are so often disappointed by their own legacies.