Change and Continuity
As we were finishing work on this issue of CommonWealth, the governor’s race had gone into a post-primary, pre-election lull, national politics remained stuck on the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr sex scandal, and hopes were fading for a Cubs-Red Sox World Series. Autumn began with the stock market bouncing up and down erratically. There were distant financial rumblings that suggested worse times ahead. The coming of fall always makes a person aware of change in the air. It seems that events are hurtling forward and carrying us along. Something big is coming.
Or maybe not. Maybe it will only be another winter–a winter like any other. A governor is elected. A president lies his way through his term. The Yankees… the Braves… some team that is not the Cubs or the Red Sox wins the crown. Consumer confidence tapers off. Employees are trimmed. Very dull but important discussions of budget and policy priorities ensue. Some people make a lot of money. A lot of people overextend on credit card debt. An unfortunate minority becomes broke or, worse, broken.
It seemed so improbable, at least to me, when Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 on the need for “change.” Do people want change? I’ve always thought most people have a deep, ingrown bias for the status quo; at any rate, the political system does. Anyone who has worked in politics knows that even small changes don’t come easily. Enacting major reforms takes herculean effort. In Clinton’s case, much of the change he advocated in his stump speeches–expansion of health coverage, less partisan rancor in Washington, D.C., a new kind of optimistic politics, etc.–has fallen by the wayside. Changes he did not advocate–full-scale investigative attention to Presidential sex crimes–have transformed national politics. The public did not have much to say, either, about the new roles the Independent Prosecutor and the mass media have decided to play, which have given us the most stringent policing of the sexual behavior of public officials ever. But isn’t that how it is with change? Changes that are proposed, discussed, and deliberated on happen slowly, if at all. It’s the ones that are never directly ratified that sweep over us like a force of nature.
In “Neighborhood by Design,” Laura Pappano describes the efforts of planners and developers to promote a “New Urbanism” (See “Neighborhood By Design“, CW, Fall 1998). This is an especially fascinating process to watch in New England, because the New Urbanism comes very close to the older, more traditional ways of building towns and cities. It represents both change and continuity. The connection it seeks is with a time before automobile and strip-mall developments shaped the landscape. But the car-and-mall culture is what most people have become accustomed to. Running through the New Urbanism debate is the question, “Are things just fine the way they are?” Or do we need to change our ideas about how to build towns and cities again? Katharine Whittemore takes up this question in her review (See “Suburban Sprawl“, CW, Fall 1998) of two compelling books that promote an “architecture of community” over the usual suburban sprawl.The politics of the status quo has much to do with our way of thinking about housing questions. Many statistics can be marshaled to suggest that things are going swimmingly when it comes to housing. Associate Editor Carol Gerwin’s work on the high cost of living in this state shows that there are affordability problems here that are more pressing than in most other places. Her feature, “A Home of Their Own,” (See “A Home of Their Own“, CW, Fall 1998) gives us an up-to-date reading on the state of the American Dream in Massachusetts. It’s the kind of reporting that is at the heart of the mission of CommonWealth magazine.
Are things O.K. as they are? There are many people who maintain that our representative democracy functions about as well as we can realistically expect it to. In this view, the public does its job by voting when so moved, and public opinion polls can be counted on to otherwise register the people’s approval and disapproval. Our story on the “Weird Science” of polling (See “Weird Science“, CW, Fall 1998) raises questions about what polls do and do not tell us–and about whether the misuse of polls is part of a general decline in the health of democratic governance. The practice of political polling is also the subject of the first “Commonwealth Forum,” which will be held in November and is announced elsewhere in this issue.