WASHINGTON — It's time for Americans who have been monitoring Britain, Japan and West Germany in the financial pages to start watching these countries' elections and opinion polls. Modern Western politics is arguably in its first megacycle; trends in London, Toronto and Tokyo--places increasingly disenchanted with conservatism--may also signal the political future of the United States.
Surprising parallels have developed in recent years in the politics of the Group of Seven industrial nations--the United States, Britain, Japan, West Germany, France, Canada and Italy. The result so far has been the West's first international political cycle: an unprecedented conservative coloration on the last 10 years of politics and policy-making in the world's principal economies. But the next cycle--possibly already visible in 1989 elections and surveys--could easily move more to the center-left as a reaction to the conservative excesses of the '80s.
The evidence is intriguing. The fashion of the late 1980s has been to emphasize the growing international sway of market economics. Yet at the grass roots of G-7 nations a different politics is catching hold. From Canada to Japan, from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Edinburg, Texas, emerging economic and environmental issues tilt mildly left instead of right.
The logic of yet another new political tide in the 1990s depends on what's still too little understood about the 1980s--its unique success as the great conservative governmental and philosophic heyday of the late 20th Century. Other conservative periods of the postwar era were brief. The late-1950s convergence of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle in France, Konrad Adenauer in West Germany and Harold MacMillan in Britain--a World War II memory lane--was quickly overwhelmed by the youthful liberal thrust of the early '60s.
The 1980s, by contrast, were an ideological cavalry charge. Conservative governments held power in most G-7 countries. In contrast to the placid Eisenhower era, conservatism has been aggressive enough to exert ideological gravity even on nominally leftist regimes such as the French presidency of Francois Mitterand and the current Labor Party governments of Australia and New Zealand.
Cooperation between the conservative political parties and governments dominating the G-7 has been unprecedented. In some cases, cross-fertilization of strategies and policies extended to assistance at election time. President George Bush's May visit to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was the most recent example, but Ronald Reagan helped British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1982 Falklands crisis and did everything but campaign for the Canadian conservatives just before the 1988 election. The Japanese government provided important 1988 election-year help to the Bush campaign by supporting the dollar. Chicago economist David Hale even suggested, tongue in cheek, that the Bank of Japan should have had to register as a GOP political-action committee. Indeed, between 1985 and 1989, cooperative management of the world economy was what the G-7 became known for.
Without the participants' common conservative politics, it probably wouldn't have worked. But leaders of G-7 countries shared similar national constituencies in business and finance, as well as commitments to tax reduction and deregulation. The wide success of this agenda, coupled with the longevity and sweep of conservative political control in most of the G-7, supports the thesis of the modern West's first political megacycle.
But the fuller test of developing transnational political patterns may be whether the G-7 can dance a two-step--first one way, then another. For the moment, at least, the evidence drifting in from 1989 elections and opinion surveys does suggest a countertrend: G-7 countries, having moved to the right together during the 1980s, are now moving together back to the center--and possibly beyond.
This reaction is most vivid in the nations with the world's leading stock markets--the United States, Canada, Britain and Japan--where rousing economic successes of the 1980s have concentrated benefits among a fifth or a tenth of the population and left others grumbling about declining "quality of life" measurements and rising tax burdens. While top income tax brackets have been reduced, regressive taxes have been imposed on the general public--new national consumer taxes in Japan and Canada, Britain's resented "poll tax" (a new head tax to replace local property taxes) and rising U.S. Social Security taxes.