Come the US revolution

American politicians are foolish to kid the voters, says James Pinkerton
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The Independent Online
As the ability of American politics to deal with problems declines, US politicians respond by upping the ante of their promises. George Bush's pledge, "read my lips - no new taxes", worked to get him elected in 1988. But after Bush broke that oral agreement with the voters, Bill Clinton came forward in 1992 with his "new Covenant", in which he pledged a reformist, non-bureaucratic activism.

Unfortunately, Clinton must have had his fingers crossed. As the oft- burned voters grew more cynical, the politicians waxed more literal. Speaker Newt Gingrich's 10-point "Contract with America", unveiled last autumn, contained more than 1,000 pages of draft legislation and explanatory material. Yet even the omnibus contract evidently contained loopholes; on Monday nearly half the House Republicans declared their intention to scale back one of the contract's pro-family provisos, a $500-per-child tax credit.

British voters are also being papered by their politicians: the Government weighs in with its Citizen's Charter, while Labour rewrites its clauses. Back in the US, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas says that if he is elected president in 1996, he will not seek a second term unless he has balanced the budget - a feat not accomplished in more than a quarter of a century.

When Paddy Ashdown was in the US recently, he made the point that the incompetence of the status quo undercuts all pledges and promises, no matter how sincerely made. As a non-officeholder, I can be even more blunt: so long as politicians rely on incompetent bureaucracies to "get things done", those things will in fact not get done, and the politicians will look like fools - or liars.

So what's next? Will politicians rig themselves up to polygraphs or voice-stress analysers when they campaign? Will they pledge to commit hara-kiri if they dishonour their promises? The electorate is finding new ways of responding. Forty years ago, the political scientist Anthony Downs described the "rational ignorance" of the voters. In the days before radio talk shows and 0800 numbers, the cost of information was high - ordinary folks weren't invited into the smoke-filled rooms of power-brokerage, while the cost of apathy was low - the standard of living rose steadily, whether one voted or not.

Today, politicians are caught in a pincer movement. On the one claw, technology permits everyone to tap in to populist semi-expertise. On the other claw, it's more glaringly obvious that the top-down bureaucratic system, perfected in the era of pneumatic tubes, can no longer keep up with the flat-pyramided, virtualised configurations that people now use to solve problems.

Meanwhile, as the US dollar slides south of the border, Americans are starting to worry that history itself is catching up with them. 1995 is not too soon for fin de sicle ruminations about the fate of nations. A new book entitled Blindside: Why Japan is still on Track to Overtake the US by the Year 2000, by Eamonn Fingleton, is receiving respectful attention in America. The big fear gripping America today is that the fundamental covenant of the culture - the American Dream - is about to be trade-deficited or hedge-funded into the sunset.

Discouragingly, cutting-edge American politicians seem to be responding with ... more slogans and compacts. The right-winger Pat Buchanan - a CNN man - dedicates his presidential campaign to "economic nationalism". On the centre-left, the influential New Republic declares for "New Nationalism." Yet it doesn't take a Foucault to deconstruct all these patriotic platforms, with all their invocations of community and the American way of life, down to their mercantilist essence. So long as politicians use the challenge of new times as a reason to indulge in protectionism, the hoariest of old ideas, the voters will be entitled to their cynicism, and some sort of reformation will come.

The writer's new book, `What Comes Next: The End of Big Government and the New Paradigm Ahead', is published in the autumn.