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.