Podium: Bill Clinton has taken democracy forward

From a lecture by the Assistant to the President of the United States on progressive politics, given at Princeton University
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The Independent Culture
ONE WAY to think about the complexity of the Clinton presidency is to think about presidents. In our history, there has been little progress without great progressive presidents. Democracy has not advanced in a vacuum, a fable of natural unfolding, blessed by Providence. Nor has democracy grown as a simple response to popular pressure against the interests, the gloss of the progressive-era historians whose interpretation has transmuted into fragmentary identity politics and deconstructive cultural studies.

From the beginning, progressive politicians have struggled to gain the executive, to infuse it not only with energy but with previously untapped strengths, in order to galvanise the federal government to remake the nation and give it a new sense of itself. Only the president represents the whole nation; only the president can claim to speak for it. There would be no nation without the presidency. And this has been accomplished only through enormous struggles assumed by those who became the progressive presidents.

In each case the pattern has been similar. The rise to the office or its tenure provoked clashes raising the spectre of civil war or, at the least, profound constitutional crisis. The progressive presidents all allied themselves with the cultural and economic outsiders, especially immigrants. Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Jackson were slave-holders, divided figures therefore, but they ardently believed that diversity added to the dynamism of the country. For them, this was not merely a moral statement. It was a political one against those who would repress aliens and dissenters. They set themselves against a conservative temper, those fearful of difference and change, uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, defenders of special privilege, construing the nation in their own narrow image. In reaction to those who have sought to reanimate the federal government through capture of the presidency, conservative opposition has frequently crossed beyond conventional partisanship.

The United States did not appear out of thin air. It emerged as a practical alternative to the sovereignty of the states as conceived in the Articles. The "vices" of the country under the Articles were, according to Madison, traceable to the absence of power, an incapacity for action. To him, weak government and tyranny went hand in hand. Conflict was magnified rather than channelled by weak government, leading to demands for repression. Weakness produced anarchy, which in turn produced authoritarian reaction. The failure of power, especially, led to tyrannies of local elites who mustered majorities in small places. Madison's interest in protecting minorities was hardly to protect narrow states' rights. On the contrary, it was to create an expansive republic in which provincial authoritarians would not threaten the diversity of interests and political parties. He believed that justice and liberty could serve each other. If they could not, neither would last. Between consolidation and localism, he found a third way. Every progressive president has succeeded by renewing the Madisonian synthesis. And, today, it is President Clinton who has reformulated the Madisonian position.

William Jefferson Clinton is the first president of the post-industrial and post-Cold War era. Progressive presidents recognise they must not reiterate the past, but meet new challenges, requiring a new invention of government. The President is conscious of his project and its analogy to the presidents who introduced the reforms of the industrial era. Like them, he has used the presidency to forward democracy in response to changed circumstances. Like them, entrenched congressional conservatives have often frustrated him. His task has been to redefine the Madisonian synthesis.

President Clinton has succeeded in framing a new consensus, a new vital centre. Through his public actions, he has begun restoring the good name of positive government after decades of ideological abuse and decay. He has also rescued the reputation of the Democratic Party. Progressive democracy reconceived, overcoming the reaction against it, has been revived.