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Triumph of the Political 'P's': Populism, Pragmatism, Personalism : Politics: All around the world, frustrated voters are looking for a change. But they don't want to go back to what they had before.

April 04, 1993|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — This weekend's summit meeting between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin symbolizes the beginning of a new era--not just in world affairs, but also in politics. The era of ideological politics is over. The populist era has begun. Both Clinton and Yeltsin have proved they know how to survive in it.

Clinton and Yeltsin are trying to do the same thing in their respective countries. They want to restructure their economies, albeit in opposite directions: more public investment in the United States, more private investment in Russia. They want to reform their political systems: campaign reform in the United States, a new constitution in Russia. Both leaders are having to fight battles with the entrenched forces that represent "politics-as-usual"--Congress, in both countries.

Clinton and Yeltsin are both self-styled populists. Clinton took his campaign directly to the voters last year when the press threatened to destroy him, and the voters bailed him out. He did it again after his State of the Union address this year. When the Russian Congress took away Yeltsin's power, he insisted on taking his case directly to the voters in a referendum.

The power of the two leaders is essentially personal. The people support them , not their party or their ideology. They don't need a party or an ideology. They have television. Clinton is running a permanent campaign--town halls, speaking tours, call-in shows and meetings with children. All on television. Yeltsin appears on television regularly to take his case to the Russian people. In fact, the Congress of People's Deputies seized control of Russian television as an act of retribution against Yeltsin.

The two men have something else in common. No one knows if their ideas will work. But no one in either country wants to go back to the way things were before. When Americans were asked last month how they would vote if faced with the same choice as last year, support for both Clinton and Ross Perot went up. George Bush's support collapsed. Americans don't want to go back.

In last week's CNN poll of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russians said life was better under a communist government than under a democratic government. By 4 to 1, however, they said they would rather live in a democracy. Russians don't want to go back.

What is happening in the United States and Russia is happening all over the world. Old ideological divisions are disappearing. A new style of politics is emerging. Its features are the same everywhere: pragmatism, populism and personalism.

Pragmatism means opposition to ideology. Whatever works is right. The Cold War is dead and, with it, the justification many conservative parties used to stay in power: anti-communism and a strong national defense.

But socialist economics has also been discredited, and with it the dreams of the left. Economic policy is now the domain of management, not causes. In the new politics, ideology has been replaced by problem-solving: finding the proper mix of government power and private power that will produce economic growth and security.

All over the world, the left triumphed in the 1960s and failed in the worldwide economic decline of the 1970s. Big government came to mean high taxes, rigid bureaucracy and out-of-control inflation. To survive in the 1980s, the left had to move to the center.

After a brief and disastrous flirtation with socialism from 1981 to 1983, the Socialist government of French President Francois Mitterrand became firmly committed to managing a market economy. The Australian Labor government of Bob Hawke slashed government spending, cut taxes and deregulated the financial sector. In the United States and Britain, the Democratic Party and the Labor Party jettisoned their ideological baggage to prove they were problem-solvers, not taxers and spenders.

What happened to the left is now happening to the right. Conservatives triumphed in the 1980s but they are failing in the worldwide economic decline of the 1990s. Now it's the right's turn to move to the center.

Unpopular conservative governments are doing just that in Britain, Canada and Germany. Discredited conservative opposition parties are going to have to do that in the United States, Australia and France. They have to acknowledge that deregulation and unrestrained free-market capitalism don't always work. Conservatives have to prove they, too, can be pragmatic.

Populism, the second feature of the new politics, is anti-elitist. Populists build their support on resentment of the Establishment. Governments are the Establishment everywhere, and so governments are in trouble almost everywhere. Look at the approval ratings: John Major, Great Britain, 28%; Kiichi Miyazawa, Japan, 26%; Mitterrand, France, 26%; Brian Mulroney, Canada, 17%.

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