The Change of Politics

O'Neill Professor Melnick says politics changed this century more than most suspect

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

It is a lesson never too late to learn, says O'Neill Professor of American Politics R. Shep Melnick: Never write history too quickly, especially in politics.

Shortly after the 1994 elections, Melnick recalls, he and a group of scholars and experts gathered to contemplate what appeared to be an historic political realignment, marked by the ascendancy of conservative Republicans and anti-government ideology. From all signposts, anything smacking of federalism - welfare, environmental regulation, Medicare, affirmative action and Social Security - appeared ready to enter the dustbin of history.

Four years later, says Melnick, as he and some of those same colleagues completed a book about 20th century American politics, they were working "in a very different landscape." Bill Clinton had been re-elected easily, House Speaker Newt Gingrich - the very symbol of the GOP's '94 uprising - was stumbling to his resignation, and with pollsters detecting public confidence in federal programs, Republicans halted their attack on entitlements and social regulation.

Melnick, however, believes the forthcoming book he and his collaborators produced, Taking Stock: American Politics at the Beginning and End of the 20th Century , may have a somewhat longer shelf-life than the Contract with America.

O'Neill Professor of American Politics R. Shep Melnick-"The best role historians and political scientists can play in this regard is to question the simplistic and misleading perceptions that so often dominate our political discourse." (Photo by Justin Knight)

"You could draw a number of lessons from this experience," said Melnick, who co-edited and contributed to the volume. "The American electorate is fickle, desiring government assistance but railing against taxation and regulation. Or that newly elected presidents and speakers exaggerate their mandate and move too far too quickly. Or that it's useless to write anything meaningful about these political phenomena because they've passed by the time you send it to the printer.

"But the most important lesson is that American politics has changed more profoundly this century than liberals or conservatives admit," he continued. "We have come to accept the presence of 'Big Government' in our political, social and economic lives. This state of affairs has not been foisted upon us by wily politicians or a cultural elite, nor is it being undermined by the likes of religious zealots, corporate PACs or closet racists.

"So the best role historians and political scientists can play in this regard," Melnick said, "is to question the simplistic and misleading perceptions that so often dominate our political discourse."

In their collection of essays, Taking Stock 's authors focus on some selected policy areas, such as environmental regulation, trade and immigration, from a "then and now" perspective, he explains, comparing similarities and differences between the early and later years of the 1900s.

In his examination of environmental policy and regulation, Melnick notes that in the early 1900s the federal government began attempts at conserving natural resources, which were strongly contested by local interests. The conservation programs of the New Deal were more expansive and effective but were tied to job creation, he explains, and those that survived World War II also were highly responsive to local interests.

In the 1970s, however, the pendulum swung to national uniformity and away from local autonomy, says Melnick. The federal government expanded its control over Western lands, and industries found they could exert far less control over policy than in the past. That era also saw the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other regulatory agencies and legislation.

"Ronald Reagan and the GOP's victory in the 1980 elections seemed to hearken some dramatic far-reaching changes in environmental policy," said Melnick. "You might've thought we were ready to revisit the early 1900s. It didn't happen, because the public had come to accept the government's role in conservation. Moreover, business had actually made its peace with environmental regulation.

"Americans by and large concluded that when it comes to environmental policy, no one knows exactly the cost," he said, "but they do know they want more of it, not less."

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