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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Andrei Cherny, The Next Deal

Andrei Cherny, The Next Deal

(click here for the Romanian version)

The Unites States history entered its third century of existence. Each new century challenged America with a new paradigm – and America responded each time by reinventing itself – reinventing its economy, reinventing its society in structure and spirit, and finally reinventing its government. The book of Andrei Cherny, The Next Deal, is about this periodic reinvention of America. Actually the book speaks about history to clarify the present. And it speaks about changes in the structure of economy and in the spirit of society to stress out the necessary mission of government. The subtitle of the book is The Future of Public Life in the Information Age.

Andrei Cherny was just a bit over twenty years old when he authored the 2000 Democratic Platform. He was then a Senior Speechwriter to Vice-President Al Gore, the youngest Speechwriter ever at the White House. Now he is the co-editor, along with Kenneth S. Baer, of Democracy – A Journal of Ideas. Both Cherny and Baer belong to the New Democrats, the Centrist orientation within the Democratic Party, being adepts of the so-called Third Way. And by reading this book, The Next Deal, one understands very well what the adepts of the Third Way stand for.

The book speaks a lot about US history, though Cherny is far from being the prisoner of any lesson of the past. Says he, the philosopher George Santayana famously wrote hat those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But the opposite holds true as well. Those who cannot remember the past might not be able to repeat it.

Okay, then why is it so much room for history in this book? Because, says Andrei Cherny, the task for today’s young people – the Choice Generation – is to replicate the accomplishment of the Progressive Generation of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. They rethought the rules of public life to fit the contours of a new America. Our job is to do the same.

And Cherny concludes, this is a book about America’s future, not a work of history.

And we should also notice what this book is not about. It’s neither about American foreign policy, nor about all minorities’ issues faced by the American society since the beginnings.

Let’s follow the outline of the book and explain some history stuff, but keeping in mind that history serves here only as a preliminary to set the present landscape.

The nineteenth century viewed the America of the New Frontier. The economy was based on agriculture. Land was for everyone – you needed only the determination to push towards West, to settle somewhere and start working hard. The society was based on two contradictory aspects: individualism and spirit of community. Individualism, because one relied firstly on oneself to survive. Spirit of community, because one couldn’t survive relying only on oneself. And American society was a very loose network of strongly autonomous communities, each one composed by strongly autonomous individuals. The mission of the government was the protection of the independence of communities and individuals. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was the one who understood clearly all these things and became the great political architect of nineteenth century America. The sheep are happier of themselves than under the care of the wolves, said he once. In his vision, the government had to provide for the encouragement of agriculture. Jefferson was the champion of a nation of cultivators of earth; actually a nation of pioneers who were pushing West and expanding America.

After hundred years the landscape was totally different. The Industrial Age had its own logic about how the world and the workplace should be organized. The epoch of pioneers, of strong individuals cooperating within strong communities, was over. The vision of Jefferson was no more accurate. The economy was now based on centralized industry, pushing the whole society towards centralization. Pioneers were now replaced by anonymous people living in big cities and working in huge factories.

The mission of government had to change accordingly. It was not easy. Need was for a new vision – and President Theodore Roosevelt was the political architect of twentieth century America. He realized the necessity of a strong government, supported by a big bureaucracy, providing all kind of standards and regulations, to keep the system under control. If Theodore Roosevelt was the architect, the constructor would be another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, the creator of the New Deal. The individual under the New Deal had no more decision power – the government had the authority to decide what’s better for each one. Especially regarding public education, public healthcare, and public retirement pensions – in other words regarding Social Security.

The dawn of the twenty-first century brought a new paradigm – the Information Age changed the structure of economy, the society changed and the role of government should change accordingly.

In each epoch there is a generation that better understands the realities and pushes toward the future. For the New Frontier it was the generation of Pioneers. The Progressive Generation understood the role of government in the Industrial Age. Though the adepts of the Third Way realize that the vision of the Progressive Generation is no more accurate, they call themselves Progressives, as they want to be the engine for today’s transformations. The new economy, based on the Internet, spreading everywhere the personal and mobile computing, created the Choice Generation, the individuals who can again decide for themselves. Therefore the paternalist government of the New Deal is no more accurate. The individual can now make better decisions regarding education, health care, retirement – they should be no more regulated by the state. Along with the reemergence of the individual, the Information Age brought into scene the virtual communities, made them strong and recreated the relationship between individual and community – Andrei Cherny defines this relationship as the New Responsibility – it means the responsibility assumed by the individual of the Choice Generation within the community.

So, along with the new economy, the Information Age reinvented the structure and the spirit of society. Finally the government has to change its mission – to offer citizens individual choice and personal decision-making power. Perhaps Robert Kennedy would have been a forerunner – had he been elected as President in 1968. Anyway, it was too early. President Clinton had the vision of this new role for the government and he opened the way for the Next Deal. And as President Wilson, though a strong opponent of Theodore Roosevelt, was forced by the realities to follow some of the ideas of the Progressive generation, now President Bush is forced by today's realities to think sometimes in terms of Next Deal. Does it sound strange? Let’s take only his views on the Social Security. These views were highly unpopular, but this is not the point. New realities are always harsh. It is the French Socialist leader Ségolène Royal who attacked the holy cow of the week of 35 hours. (Andrei Cherny does not mention the similar preoccupation for the new realities within the opposite political camp – only it is worth to make a parallel between the folks of the Third Way and those from the Cato Institute).

There has been always a dilemma in the American society about the necessary size and power of government. Big government or small government? Strong government or weak government? For Andrei Cherny the dilemma should be not about government’s size, rather about its mission.


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