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.
Such moments illustrated a feature of the relationship between the participating political class and the passive voting class: the severance of direct human contact, once thought to be the very glue of politics, between the two worlds into which the political United States has now been sundered.
Few of the voters I spoke to had any interest in the poll results and political strategies that so absorbed the professional political class; on the other hand, certain words and phrases, and what the political consultants call "themes," were often on the voters' lips. When they said that Clinton lacked character, or that Dole was too old, or even that there were too many negative ads, they were repeating ideas that had been tirelessly reiterated on television, both in interviews with voters and by analysts. Comments to the effect that the candidates were tearing each other down too much and not "discussing the issues" enough were almost a litany among voters. Just as each candidate had a speech, complete with laugh lines, that he gave many times every day, the voters seemed to have developed a kind of very short campaign speech of their own.
Sometimes in my talks with voters the reflection of the television messages was uncannily exact. Evidently, the voters' reported disgust with the campaigns didn't prevent the campaign messages from getting through. (This fact is, of course, the reason for negative advertising.) How else were the voters to form their opinions? They had no private channels of information. Were they being brainwashed by the very techniques they despised? Had the new Leviathan attained by propaganda the control that older, cruder Leviathans achieved by force?
Such a conclusion overlooks at least one cardinal fact that stands at the very center of the political process today. Neither the campaigns nor the news media are free to spin their messages out of thin air. Quite the opposite. The entire apparatus is doggedly devoted to ascertaining and satisfying the desires of the voters. The candidates have long since learned that the path to power is far smoother if one gives the people what they already believe they want than if one undertakes the arduous business of persuading them to want something else. Instruments of the utmost refinement have been designed to detect the faintest ripple in the public mood. No news in a campaign season is more significant than the polls on candidates' standing with the voters. These numbers, indeed, have been the axis on which both the campaigns and coverage of them--and even, to an extent, the intentions of the voters themselves--have turned. First came opinion polls. Then focus groups. Now there is "deliberative polling" (polling done after the respondent has been given a chance to discuss an issue) and "push polling" (a deceptive campaign technique by which a caller pretends to be seeking opinions but is in fact covertly delivering negative information, real or factitious, about an opposition candidate). The analysis of exit polls has become an obsession among the professional political class. Like a team of interns examining a patient strapped to a hospital table, the political professionals have wired the electorate to examine every flutter and twitch of public opinion. Examination of the public mind has become so intrusive that in the early primaries, in which backlash against negative ads became a potent political force, the patient was crying out for relief--to have the cardiograph sensors removed, the intravenous tubes withdrawn. Sometimes it is said that "the politicians" are "out of touch" with the people. If that's so, it is in spite of relentless, assiduous, hugely expensive state-of-the-art efforts to be in touch. In that sense the new Leviathan is a very accommodating Leviathan, a very meek Leviathan, a very nice Leviathan.
people, mostly in rural areas, against the rising power of big business and big finance, was such a movement. Today, however, the first flicker of change in the popular mood shows up instantly on the pollsters' charts, and becomes the subject of immediate nonstop discussion on ABC's Nightline, CNN's Inside Politics, PBS's Washington Week in Review, and so forth. Neither the news analysts nor the campaign strategists have the will or the capacity to do anything as ambitious as engineer public opinion, and certainly the last thing they'd want to do is to defy it. But they can and do detect changes that are under way, and they rapidly and gigantically inflate them, usually without meaning to. Almost any tendency that sprouts in this political incubator is subjected, like a bacterium in a petri dish, to a forced acceleration in growth. The day-to-day results of this process are the instant orthodoxies, highly perishable but ubiquitous, that spring up each week and become for their brief life the stock phrases of political discussion. Passed swiftly from commentator to commentator, and from the commentators to the public, they are more than mere phrases yet not quite ideas. All discourse needs a vocabulary. The ever-changing vocabulary of American politics is born in the loop that links voters to pollsters, poll results to television ads and commentary, and television ads and commentary back to voters.
All of that, however, leaves a large question unanswered. If "Washington"--the class of professional political participants--seeks nothing more assiduously than to please the voters, why do the voters feel so estranged from and dissatisfied with Washington? Why do so many people regard politicians as distant and indifferent autocrats, bent on thwarting or even subverting the will of the people? Why did eyes glow when Steve Forbes spoke of the "corrupt Washington establishment"? Why were Patrick Buchanan's legions hoarse with enthusiasm when he promised to overthrow the "New World Order," and why have so many polls shown that a majority of the voters wish that someone other than the present candidates were running? The establishment (if by this term we mean elected officials) did not descend on Washington from the planet Jupiter. Every single member of it was sent there by the same American people who, according to the polls, now hold most of the establishment in contempt.
The complaint that politicians tailor their views to match poll results was one I heard often, especially regarding Dole and Clinton, each an epitome of the "inside politician" whom voters distrust so much. Yet it might seem strange that the voters would be displeased that a politician goes to extravagant lengths to find out what they want and to give it to them. Don't the voters believe their own words when they say they want politicians to be in touch with the people? One answer, certainly, is that they have learned that politicians do not keep their promises. The unfulfilled promises of candidate George Bush not to raise taxes and of candidate Bill Clinton to cut them are only two notable examples. Another reason is that the voters sense that the systematic pursuit of agreement with public opinion undermines politicians' integrity, which can be defined as acting according to one's own beliefs, not those of others--even if the others are a majority. For example, in 1992, when, in a tour de force of public relations Clinton "repositioned" the Democrats as New Democrats, no one doubted that the prime motive was to bring the Democratic Party back into the "mainstream"--to where the votes are. It was "Slick Willie's" slickest performance by far, and the voters rewarded him for it with the presidency. Likewise, no one can doubt that in the primary season, when Bob Dole had to take into account only Republican voters, he moved sharply to the right, whereas after the primaries, when he faced the electorate at large, he began to move back to the center. Nor can anyone imagine that when Clinton, following the advice of the pollster Dick Morris, who has worked for many Republicans, announced in his State of the Union address that "the era of big government" was over, he was not acting politically. The candidates have discovered that the royal road to high station is self-abasement. The public is left in confusion and ambivalence. On the one hand, it is appreciative that the candidates agree with it. On the other hand, it feels disgusted that these same candidates have tailored their views to serve their ambition. The candidates calculate that the voters will be more pleased with a popular view than disgusted with an unprincipled performance--and so they usually have been. Yet the voters are left longing for a person of integrity--a longing that for many has been satisfied, however temporarily, by a Ross Perot, a Colin Powell, a Steve Forbes, a Patrick Buchanan ("I mean what I say, and I say what I mean"), or some other "outsider" supposedly untainted by the ways of Washington culture. The truth appears to be that the tainted ways are not only Washington's but America's, and they involve the voters as well as the politicians.
A second reason that the voters may come to despise the representatives they have chosen is more complex. When I asked one New Hampshire voter for his opinion of Newt Gingrich and his revolution, he answered, "At first he impressed the hell out of me. He promised to cut waste and balance the budget, and I liked that. But--I don't know--I guess he oversold it. He's just lost all credibility with me. I can't put my thumb on it, but when I look at him now, I see a sick politician. He overshot--went right through the tube and out the other side." In other words, Gingrich had been corrupted by the Washington culture he supposedly sought to reform. However, another interpretation is possible. Gingrich became speaker of the House promising, above all, to balance the budget and to cut taxes--perhaps the two most important promises in his Contract With America. There was nothing in the contract about cutting Medicare and Medicaid. But when it came time to make good on the promises, it turned out that cuts in those two programs would be necessary. Only in the land of promises could the budget be balanced without cutting them.
In one interpretation a politician has gone to Washington promising reform and has been corrupted by the Washington culture, disappointing his supporters. In the other interpretation the candidate has made popular promises of reform that were either self-deluding or deceptive, and has been blocked by obdurate realities. In the first case the fault lies with a rotten, seductive establishment. In the second it is a folie à deux of the candidate and the voters. And nothing, indeed, is so easy as such collusion in a system that eagerly vacuums up the voters' every opinion, whether well or ill founded, and then broadcasts it back to them with music in millions of dollars' worth of thirty-second ads. The problem, then, is not that the politicians have lost touch with voters but that both groups have lost touch with reality.
It's possible, of course, that these people are ravenous for more serious discussion of the issues, as so many of those willing to give a brief interview claim, but it's also possible that for one reason or another they simply have not bothered to inform themselves about the campaign, and that their anger to some extent masks ignorance. The decline of the intermediate institutions--political parties, trade unions, civic associations, and so forth--has dissolved many of the links that once existed between citizens and the electoral process. But hasn't the arrival of the information age more than made good the loss? Don't citizens now get from television or talk radio or the Internet or any of the other proliferating media of our time the information they once got from the precinct captain, union officials, and the like? Surveys suggest not. It's a paradox of our time that the increase in information has been paralleled by an increase in ignorance. We may live in an information age, but that information, it appears, resides elsewhere than in the minds of citizens--as if while computers were being stuffed with information, brains were emptying. One reason, surely, is that even as information is more readily available than ever, it is also more easily avoided. It's easier not to read a newspaper or watch Nightline than it was to avoid a visit by a union organizer or a precinct captain. It's remarkable, in fact, how easy it is in the United States today to lead a life undisturbed by politics. I often asked people if they were given to discussing politics. A common answer was the old saying that they never talked about religion or politics.
In a world in which both daily life and daily conversation are largely devoid of politics, the politics that survives takes the form of a schoolroom, in which the political professionals, in the campaigns and the media, are purveying information that the voters are supposed to absorb. But adults are hardly more fond of school than schoolchildren are, and these classes are noncompulsory. Depoliticization is as simple as changing the channel from C-SPAN to Fox5. In these circumstances, when armies of reporters push microphones in voters' faces, they are likely to be received like teachers asking reluctant students questions about homework they have not done.
Even among those in the spectator class who choose to keep watching, there are many in whom the pulse of interest in politics is weak. Such was the case with a voter in New Hampshire whom I'll call Dave. He described himself as a part-time farmer. I asked him what he thought of the candidates, and he said, "Oh, they all say different things at different times." Then he fell silent. Later he said of Dole, "He does have the experience. But he's too much of a typical Washington politician. There's been some comment on his age." Of Forbes: "He's come up with a different idea. I'll give him that. But I don't necessarily agree with it. By the time Congress got done with it, it wouldn't come out the way he says." Of Lamar Alexander: "He looks like a class act. He says he's different. Whether that's good or not, I'm not so sure. And I'm not sure how different he is."
Listening to Dave, I experienced a moment of irritation. As a journalist, I am conditioned to challenge the statements of politicians. Indeed, a readiness to find the utterances of the powerful absurd or contemptible has become almost a qualification for the job of journalist. The statements of voters, on the other hand, are usually received with near reverence. And yet the fact is that in the American system the voters, too, are powerful--they are the ultimate power in the land, the sovereign. What good is a system in which all the subordinate powers are rigorously held accountable but the sovereign is above criticism? Dave was the King. Perhaps, I thought, I should lean forward aggressively and, Sam Donaldson-like, fire "tough" questions at him. For instance: "Dave, you said, with apparent approval, that Dole has 'experience.' But then you complained that he is a 'Washington politician.' How could he have gotten that experience without being a Washington politician?"
Or: "If you don't agree with Forbes's one idea--and I assume you mean the flat tax--then why should you care that in the event that Forbes becomes President, Congress might gut it? You should be glad."
Or: "Well, Dave, is Alexander different or not? You're going to be deciding in a few days whether he's the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Don't you think you should know by now? You're the King. Don't you think you should take your responsibilities a little more seriously?"
In fact I engaged in no such ill-mannered inquisition of Dave, who had been kind enough to let me, a stranger, intrude on his breakfast. The mind of Dave was the target of all the high-powered manipulations I had seen in the media and on the campaign trail. The polling and the push polling, the focus groups, the exit polling, the negative ads and the positive ads, the satellite feeds, the discussion programs, the sound bites on the news programs, were all aimed at either fathoming or directing the vague trend of his thoughts, in the hope that some current taking shape there and in the thoughts of others like him would furnish a glide path to power.
"The voters are not fools," the renowned scholar of elections V. O. Key wrote in The Responsible Electorate (1966). But whether stupid or smart, they have become by the mid-1990s more strangers to the political system than participants in it. Isn't there something grotesquely unbalanced, even farcical, about a system in which tens of thousands of highly paid, highly trained, hyperactive, technically overequipped professional courtiers are trying with all the vast means of modern communications to provoke a response from a sovereign who is at best half asleep with boredom and at worst turned wholly away in an angry sulk?
It's perfectly obvious that in recent years the political system has not operated according to this procedure. New problems have arisen, as always, but now the candidates, instead of pondering them and asking what needs to be done to solve them, are likely to read polling data to discover what the people would like to see done. Yet most people probably have not thought deeply about the problems, and their answers are likely to reflect casual wishes instead of serious proposals. When the wishes are granted, they bring unwanted consequences.
The long story of the budget deficit offers the best example. Polls have for many years shown that the public wishes to balance the budget but does not wish to pay more taxes or endure steep cuts in government spending. In the realm of reality it's not possible to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting spending. However, modern campaigns have at their disposal a richly variegated, compelling alternative to reality: the pseudo-reality of television, in which the feat can be accomplished several times a day. Like Reagan in 1980 and 1984, candidates can say that military spending can be raised, taxes cut, and the budget balanced all at the same time. Like Bush in 1988, they can champion a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution but add, "Read my lips: no new taxes." Like Clinton in 1992, they can promise to cut the budget but also promise a tax cut to the "forgotten middle class." Like Gingrich in 1994, they can again promise to balance the budget and cut the capital-gains tax and other taxes but without mentioning any need for deep cuts in popular programs. That these formulas, all promising benefits while concealing inevitable costs, have proved politically popular is hardly surprising. Everyone is content for a moment, yet the stage has been set for fiasco. Reality, though unconsulted, nevertheless imposes its price, and the bill has to be presented. Then a startled public feels either betrayed (as it did when Bush broke his no-taxes pledge and when Clinton failed to deliver the tax cut he had promised) or aggrieved (as it did when Gingrich revealed the spending cuts that would pay for his balanced budget and tax cuts). Either way, faith in the political process is undermined, and paralysis is the result. The public reacts angrily--a fact immediately registered by the polls and the media--and quickly steps in to punish the betrayer, as it did Clinton by turning both houses of Congress over to the Republicans in 1994, and as it did Gingrich when, reacting even more promptly, it stopped the hated legislation from being passed.
Hence, whereas in the civics texts representatives are at least given a chance to carry out what they have promised to do in the election, and then are judged by the results, action today is short-circuited before it can be tried, and the test of reality never comes at all. Technically, the system appears to be in working order. Candidates are running, voters are voting, representatives are being sent to Washington. No one seems to interfere at any point. And yet no mandate is produced, and usually no legislation either. The government--if not actually shut down, as it was this winter--is paralyzed.
Paralysis, of course, breeds disillusionment with "Washington" and "the politicians." The politicians have been sent to Washington to solve problems. Why don't they do so? Why don't they put their heads under the hood of the car, as Ross Perot said he would do, and fix the engine? And why vote if the politicians never do anything? The conclusion the voters draw is that at the center of a sound and healthy country the Washington culture must somehow have grown corrupt, as Steve Forbes said. Or perhaps the government has forgotten its responsibility to the people of the United States, as Buchanan says, and now serves an unaccountable New World Order that he would bring "crashing down" the day he took office. Instead of being the people's instrument for the solution of their problems, the government appears to be the problem.
Thus arises the whole pathos of the "outsider." The problem, it now appears, is a group of "insiders," and the solution is one outsider or another. But where is it that the outsiders wish to go if they are chosen? To that same corrupt Washington, where there is every likelihood that they will become insiders, and need replacing in turn. The Populists of the 1890s believed that the representatives in Washington had been taken over by powerful economic interests--the Money Power. They did not imagine that the people's representatives had gratuitously and independently subverted the purposes of democratic government--that the elected representatives all by themselves were the source of corruption. This belief was reserved for our time. It is the premise, for example, of one of the favorite tenets of the outsider faith: term limits. The belief that there is a need for a means other than elections for throwing the scoundrels out contains an implicit denial that it was the country at large that sent the scoundrels to Washington in the first place. The voters who attribute all the country's ills to the government in fact pay that institution an unintended compliment. They attribute to Washington ills that are in fact mostly created by history--by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of the global economy, the arrival of the information age, the fraying of the natural environment.
To the extent that the electorate is in the grip of these ideas, it is not surprising that voters' behavior veers wildly. It is tempting to see the shifts of the nineties as a speeded-up version of a normal seesawing between right and left. A better metaphor, however, would be a pendulum with a wrecking ball at the end. For each time the public tries something out--now swinging right, now left--and is disillusioned, another piece of its confidence in politics as a whole is knocked down. In this atmosphere only negative enthusiasm remains possible. It's small wonder, then, that campaigns should revolve around negative ads, for the public can agree only on what it dislikes, not on what it likes or wants to see done. Nor should the fact that negative ads were so unpopular early in the campaign season be seen as very encouraging. From time to time a candidate will try to fuel his campaign with attacks on negative ads. But in politics, if not in math, the negative of a negative is not a positive--it's another negative. In fact, the unpopularity of negative ads only announces a deeper vacuum.
The public as a whole can be expected to feel the need for profound renewal but not to be the creator of the ideas that will build the new framework. Dave, for one, seems unlikely to come up with the necessary ideas, but democracy depends on the conviction that he is the best judge of ideas that others bring forward. The job of proposing at these times has always been the work of a minority--whether elite, as at the Constitutional Convention or in government councils at the onset of the Cold War, or popular, as in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s--while the job of disposing has been the work of all.
Supply-side economics proposed the idea that the strength of the economy depends as much on the vitality of what is created by business and offered to the consumer as it does on the consumer's demand. Whether or not the theory was sound as economics, it appears that we now need what could be called supply-side politics. Supply-side politics would pay more attention to offering ideas of adequate strength and vitality to the public than to discovering what the public already believes it wants. Now a whole new framework for political life is needed. A framework can be built only by imagination and perseverance. It requires looking less at focus groups and exit polls and more at the nation's and the world's problems. Above all, it requires that individuals, political parties, and public institutions develop the fortitude to hold fast to new convictions, even in the face of initial unpopularity and rejection. If no serious proposals are put forward, the voters' choices lose their meaning, and public opinion turns to mush.
The calm that has descended on 1996 as the election approaches should not be mistaken for the calm of contentment and stability. The public's inchoate but well-justified hunger for a new politics to fit the new age goes unfulfilled. The fact that frustration and anger have found no adequate voice does not mean that they have evaporated. The old parties and their associated ideas are built on a foundation that history has swept away. The voters, disappointed and resigned, have settled for the known faces, the known ideas. It's hard to believe that they will settle for them for long.
Illustrations by J. C. Suarès
The Atlantic Monthly; August, 1996; The Uncertain Leviathan; Volume 278, No. 2; pages 70-78.