The Sixties, the Eighties, and the Irrelevance of Clinton

September 15, 1998 • Commentary

The chattering classes have made up their collective mind: President Clinton has lost their confidence and it’s time for him to go. That conclusion comes not just from Rush Limbaugh and the Weekly Standard but from David Broder, Garry Wills, and the Economist.

But the public is recalcitrant. A strong majority of the voters do not think the president should resign, even though a Washington Post/​ABC News poll indicates that only 19 percent believe he has high moral and ethical standards and only 28 percent believe he is honest and trustworthy.

The chattering classes are beside themselves with frustration — and I sheepishly include myself in that camp. How can people acknowledge that the president has lied under oath, lied on television, encouraged others to lie; how can they overwhelmingly declare him unethical and not to be trusted, and still endorse his continuation in office?

Maybe the answer is one that comes hard to us professional analyzers and commentators: people just don’t think it matters very much who the president is. We wouldn’t let our daughters date Bill Clinton, we wouldn’t lend him money, but president? So what? Maybe the voters have grasped what the opinion establishment just can’t accept: the president doesn’t run the country, the country runs itself.

The Cold War is over, so the president is less central to national and world politics, and the services government provides — from Social Security to schools — seem to run on autopilot, little affected by particular politicians or elections.

Perhaps the message of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties — “do your own thing” — has left people largely indifferent to centralized government.

Moreover, a spirit that is at once libertarian and simply indifferent to government has been growing in America for the past 30 years. As Mark Lilla wrote recently in The New York Review of Books, few political analysts have come to terms with the fact that the Sixties and the Eighties happened in the same generation. Many of the same people were involved in the antiwar movement or the counterculture in the 1960s, the personal liberation and self‐​help movements of the 1970s and the entrepreneurial upsurge of the 1980s. All those phenomena pointed toward the weakening of traditional authority structures and an increase in individualism and self‐​reliance.

Today the global economy and the information revolution are undermining government control and diffusing knowledge and power. Capital can flow literally at the speed of light to industries and countries where it will bring the highest return, limiting any national government’s ability to tax or confiscate it. Labor can’t move as easily as capital, but the same trends are at work. Highly skilled workers can increasingly work wherever the living is best — which might mean where the taxes are lowest — and companies can produce goods in the most efficient places.

Television, satellites and the Internet are bringing all the world’s knowledge within the grasp of every American, undermining respect for the government’s wisdom and authority.

President Clinton took office as globalization and the Internet were exploding, at a time when public confidence in government was at an all‐​time low: lower than in Nixon’s final year, lower than in Carter’s final year. Ignoring this inauspicious environment, Clinton promised a revival of government activism, including an old‐​fashioned economic stimulus package and the effective nationalization of one‐​seventh of the American economy. The resulting backlash left adviser James Carville sputtering, “I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody,” and produced the first Republican Congress in 40 years.

Clinton gave up, declared that “the era of big government is over,” and stopped offering up grandiose plans. That was good enough for the voters, who figured they’d rather spend four years with Clinton as celebrity‐​in‐​chief than with Bob Dole. To be sure, the Clinton administration’s real goals can still be seen in a thousand different attempts to expand the size and scope of government — the demand for a key to every computer in America, the antitrust assault on our most dynamic companies, new subsidies and regulations for health care, attempts to regulate tobacco and political speech by agency actions — but those have largely flown under the radar in an economy that’s booming thanks to free trade and relative fiscal restraint.

Three‐​fourths of Americans — the most in polling history — say they rarely or never trust “government to do what is right.” Only 63 percent responded to the initial mailing for the 1990 Census, and fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters even bothered to vote for president in 1996. Perhaps the message of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties — “do your own thing” — has left people largely indifferent to centralized government.

Now some of my libertarian colleagues offer a darker interpretation of the president’s continued popularity: the public has been corrupted. Whether from increasing dependence on government, the declining quality of education, the low ethical standards of our leaders at least since Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, or the rise of the victim mentality, people have simply become less concerned with integrity and ethics. As long as the economy is good, they will tolerate misbehavior in high places that even a decade or two ago would have caused outrage.

But I’m sticking with long‐​term optimism: if it mattered who was president, Clinton’s lack of integrity would be a serious problem. But in a world where the worst excesses of government have been constrained, people are content to regard the chattering classes as mere background noise to the busy hum of commerce, family and entertainment.

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