The Uncertain Leviathan

Spectators, pulse-takers, anger, and frustration--a look into the void of American politics

THE presidential election of 1996 places a paradox before us. Polls and other reports show that the public is disillusioned with politics. With one era--the era of the Cold War--having ended, and another, undefined era before us, the voters clearly want to turn a new page in political life. Yet the two major parties have chosen two quintessential Washington politicians, President Bill Clinton and the former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, as their candidates.

Have the voters somehow been disenfranchised? Has a mighty establishment suffocated the popular will, as so many voters now believe? The answers to these questions may lie in deep changes that have occurred in the structure of the electoral system.

Since the New Hampshire primary, in February, I have been following the presidential campaign for Newsday. It has often been said this year that the erosion of the middle class threatens to divide us into two Americas, one rich and one poor. On the campaign trail, however, I noticed a slightly different division--one that runs down the center not of the economic but of the political realm. On one side is the America of those who are political professionals. It comprises politicians, their advisers and employees, and the news media. Politicians waste little love on the newspeople who cover them, and the newspeople display a surly skepticism toward politicians as a badge of honor. Yet if the voters I met on the campaign trail are any indication (and poll data suggest that they are), much of the public has lumped newspeople and politicians together into a single class, which, increasingly, it despises. Respect for the government and respect for the news media have declined in tandem. More and more the two appear to the public to be an undifferentiated establishment--a new Leviathan--composed of rich, famous, powerful people who are divorced from the lives of ordinary people and indifferent to their concerns.

On the other side of the division is the America of political amateurs: ordinary voters. They are above all a class of spectators--except, of course, on Election Day. This division of American politics into two worlds is in one sense as old as the Constitution, which by founding a representative democracy established a class of people who, as elected officials, would participate fully in political life, and a much larger class of people who, whatever else they might do as citizens, would participate in the formal political system only during elections. The search for intermediate institutions to span the yawning gulf between these two classes has always been a central problem of American democracy. Thomas Jefferson worried that "the abstract political system of democracy lacked concrete organs." He tirelessly but unsuccessfully advocated the formation of "ward" councils as local participatory bodies. In the mid nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted the countless civic associations that had grown up to bridge the gap. The political parties, with their vast, often corrupt local machines, have perhaps been the most important and enduring bridge. Today, however, all the traditional intermediate institutions, including the parties, are in sharp decline, and their place is being taken by professional campaigns and the news media.

Thus the activity of politics has increasingly become an interaction, at once antagonistic and incestuous, between the media and the people running the campaigns. Everyone else is an onlooker. The line that separates newspeople from politicians is one that both groups seek to sharpen but that in fact is increasingly blurred, while the line that separates both from the public is one that politicians and press would like to erase but in fact grows steadily sharper. Indeed, rarely has there been a line of separation between classes as sharp and clear as the line that divides the new class of political participants from the larger class of political spectators: it is as sharp as the line that divides a person being photographed from the photographer, or the people in a focus group from the pollster watching them from behind a one-way mirror, or the people who glow on the television screen from the mass of anonymous viewers in the dimness of their living rooms. By comparison, the lord on his estate was as one with the peasants in his fields, to whom he was tied by innumerable social bonds. Even the divide between fame and anonymity has grown sharper. Television, one might say, has given tangible reality to the aura of brightness that has always seemed to surround the famous, while the anonymous--the mere viewers of television--seem to sink into a deeper obscurity.

The Media Beast

IN most primary states the gulf between these two Americas is immutably fixed. Few citizens are likely to have much firsthand experience of either politicians or the news media. However, in the small states with early caucuses or primaries, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, personal contact between the two Americas is possible for a considerable proportion of the voters. The encounters I saw in these states fairly crackled with tension. To begin with, at almost every campaign stop there appeared a beast that rarely failed to astonish the uninitiated citizen. A sort of many-footed, many-eyed, many-tongued land octopus held together by cords and wires and jutting electronic equipment of all descriptions, the beast was the media scrum that instantly clusters around candidates when they move from one place to another. At many events this ungainly clump outnumbered the citizenry, who sometimes had a hard time getting anywhere near the candidate.

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