Is the Past Prologue?

This year's election could have the same profound impact on American politics as the 1896 presidential contest.
December 2000
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance and the Brookings Institution

A campaign largely focused on the issues of "big government," corporate power and who best represents the average American. An election that hinged on one candidate's victories in California, the upper Midwest, and New York and the Northeast--and the other candidate's wins in the mountain West and the South.

That's not only the story of the 2000 presidential election. It's the tale of the '96 election as well--1896, that is. And when the considerable dust kicked up by the Bush-Gore battle settles, the 2000 contest could well have the same profound impact on American politics as did the showdown between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan.

The 1896 election framed the transition to the 20th century. The election of 2000 is likely to do the same for the generation to come. Both elections provided a path for each party to escape its traditional constituencies and to define new roles for government and federalism.

In 1896, the Republicans won the Northeast, upper Midwest, and the Pacific Coast, just the reverse of 2000. Republican McKinley's victory ended Democrat Bryan's campaign against the gold standard. In the next 25 years, however, the Republicans incorporated many of the Progressives' key themes and won election after election. They created the modern budgetary and regulatory systems. They put a progressive tax system into place. They used public authority to restrain private power. Especially in the states, they changed both the voting process and the structure of government to emphasize citizens' role.

What are the odds that the 2000 presidential election marks a similar transition to a new approach to governance? Bill Clinton has been our transitional president from the old days of the Cold War, when we knew who the good guys and the bad guys were, and from the Great Society, when the government took responsibility for solving broad social problems. But even if we might know what we've moving from, do we know what we're moving to?

The 2000 presidential election didn't provide a clear direction. There was no central issue and no defining moment. There surely was no mandate or call to action. Can we look through the haze of electoral warfare to imagine the transformed future?

In the aftermath of the 1896 election, it would have been impossible to predict either a generation of Republican electoral success or the ultimate triumph of the Democrats' Progressive agenda in the Republicans' hands. In the aftermath of the 2000 election, therefore, it's all the more fun to speculate on a future characterized by four themes:

  • More government programs without a larger government. Both Bush and Gore pledged a stronger federal role in local schools and in prescription-drug programs for the elderly. And for the first time since its creation, a serious debate about Social Security took place. The candidates differed on just how they would expand these programs, but they seemed to agree on two things: Although both would expand government's role, they also denied they wanted to make the federal government--at least the number of agencies and employees--bigger.
  • A continued federal role in state and local affairs without federal control. This paradox leaves a gap between promises and results. Both candidates signaled an eagerness to increase the federal government's reach by leveraging state and local governments. Instead of mandates, they would rely more on irresistible incentives in federal grant programs. They agreed on the need to build a better carrot and to hide the stick behind the door.
  • Increased governmental ties with the private and nonprofit sectors. Closely related is more reliance on nongovernmental partners to do government's work. At all levels, government is strengthening its ties with--and reliance on--private and nonprofit partners in service delivery. That's the hidden strategy of welfare reform, environmental policy and social services programs, for instance. The real story is fuzzy boundaries--not fuzzy math.
  • A new dilemma of making service delivery more seamless without muddying accountability. There's more to this than simple "don't grow the government" logic. Citizens are demanding government services that are more seamless--that push aside boundaries between agencies and levels of government to improve coordination. This is an historic 21st century transformation that could well prove as enduring as the Progressives' mark on the 20th century. However, it also raises a tough new challenge: If responsibility for results becomes more broadly shared, who is accountable for how public programs work and how the public's money is spent? If everyone shares the job, is anyone in charge?

In the early 20th century, the major transformation was strengthening government to balance private power. In the early 21st century, the historic change could well prove to be the melting of policy boundaries--among federal, state and local governments; and between government and its private and nonprofit partners. As in the election of 1896, the political future could well lie with the party that figures out, first and best, how to make the switch.