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Our Virtual Primaries | The Nation

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Our Virtual Primaries

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As the first voting of the 2000 presidential election approaches, in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, public disinterest is palpable. There is simply no felt need for an election right now. For the most part, people seem indifferent to politics, as they have more or less since the end of the cold war. The fortunes of the Dow Jones average--and, even more these days, of the NASDAQ--absorb them far more than those of Bill Bradley, Al Gore, John McCain and George Bush. If the low turnout in the last Congressional election (36 percent) has not left anyone in doubt about this, two recent polls--one by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, the other by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania--provided some striking particulars, including the findings that 60 percent of the public thinks the campaign is "boring" and that only 12 percent are paying either "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of attention to it. The respondents' level of knowledge about the candidates was on a par with their degree of interest. According to the Shorenstein poll, only 42 percent knew that Bill Bradley was a former basketball star, only 32 percent knew that Al Gore was the son of a senator, only 36 percent knew that John McCain is still a senator and only 12 percent knew that George Bush defines himself as a "compassionate conservative." If the pulse of the body politic's interest in its own activity were to get any weaker, you'd have to ask if the patient was dead.

About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

It is quite different, however, among a more limited group. These are the political professionals, comprising, roughly, the current officeholders, the candidates, the advisers and experts to the candidates, the news media, the lobbyists and fundraisers in Washington and elsewhere, and other assorted petitioners to power. While the public's fascination with politics has been waning, theirs has been increasing. Although these groups quarrel viciously among themselves, they have nevertheless come to constitute a distinct class. In fact, their extreme partisanship, which seemingly divides them, is one of their class characteristics. It is a characteristic remarkably unshared by the public, which is as little divided politically as it has been in the past fifty years. The impeachment battle last winter was a striking case in point. A matter of obsessive interest to the political class (I have to admit that I was a member of this small minority), it was, after a flurry of prurient interest, serenely disdained by most of the public. Like, say, a power struggle at a Methodist convention, impeachment was of absorbing interest to those involved but not much to anyone else. You might, indeed, regard impeachment as having been a sort of out-of-season election, as if the Washington political class, disappointed that the framers of the Constitution had failed to supply them with a struggle for the White House in 1998 or 1999, had cooked one up for themselves.

This year, of course, the struggle for executive power has been duly scheduled by the Constitution. Yet the gap between the professionals' level of interest and the public's remains undiminished. The professionals began to speak and write about the election in earnest fully three years ago. As long ago as November of 1997, for instance, there was a bout of "mentioning"--and so of anointing--likely candidates for the Republican side. Early in the month, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times visited Governor George W. Bush in an early pilgrimage to Texas and remarked in passing that a "former Bush official" (that is, a former official in the administration of Bush père) "thinks George W. will be the next President," and threw in for good measure the flattering view that "George W. is more like Reagan than like Bush." Two weeks later, David Broder of the Washington Post, often called the "dean" of columnists, wrote, in an almost baldfaced "mention," that "three years from now, he may have as good a chance at being elected president as any Republican you can name." (In that column, in which Bush is pictured "just back from a run" and is described by an awestruck Broder as "laid-back but still very much in command," you can almost see the oil of anointment being poured by Dean Broder's hand upon the pretender's head.) It was around this time, too, that polling began in earnest. A September 1997 Gallup poll of Republicans showed him in first place among GOP contenders at 22 percent, and by February 1998 he was leading Gore in a New Hampshire poll. From then on, his positive ratings continued to rise more or less evenly--figures chewed over tirelessly on the growing multitude of political discussion programs, in which such matters as the "negatives" of candidate X, and the need of candidate Y to "secure his base," and the requirement that candidate Z "build a firewall" in some state or other, were all thoroughly examined. How, we may ask, has this state of affairs arisen? How has politics, which is supposed to be the business of the entire society, become the preserve of a professional class?

The beginning of an answer is that over the past several decades such a development has for the first time become technically possible. In earlier times, if the sap of popular interest failed to rise, the political tree simply drooped or temporarily withered. The Constitution, which provided for direct political participation on election days but not otherwise, left any day-to-day politicking up to the volunteer instinct. The result was that for most people politics became a steady preoccupation only in times of exceptional turmoil, such as depression or war. Otherwise, the elected representatives were left, by constitutional design, to go about their business with a certain independence. In recent times, however, what amounts to an entrenched new system has grown up alongside the formal constitutional one. Though its consequences for good or ill, which are bound to be great, are not yet clear, its principal elements can be identified. It rests on three legs: media, money and public-opinion polling.

The media are both of the paid and the unpaid variety. It is the need for paid media--above all, for television advertising, which is the greatest expense in modern campaigns--that has summoned forth the huge sums of money whose corruption of the political process is now a prime campaign issue. The money in turn has monstrously inflated the ranks of the army of lobbyists that has descended upon Washington. If the candidates didn't need the large sums of money required for the paid media, they would not need to alter legislation to satisfy the lobbyists, whose influence would correspondingly shrink. The season of paid advertising, moreover, has been extended ever since, in the last presidential election, it occurred to President Clinton's adviser Dick Morris to go on the air with voluminous ads more than a full year before the election. (Industry, too, has been in the political-ad business on its own behalf ever since the healthcare industry's successful advertising campaign against comprehensive healthcare.) As for the unpaid media, anyone who has failed to notice the dominant influence of the sheer presence of an inflated media establishment on politics has only to attend a political convention. There, alongside the delegates, numbering a few thousand, the observer will behold a fantastic sight. It is the science-fiction-like media city that has sprung up alongside it. Built of a sea of catering tents and other jerry-built contraptions, and all the towers, cables, satellite antennae and trucks of the media age, it supports the journalists and their technical crews, who together outnumber the delegates (who usually have little to decide in any case) by as much as eight or nine to one. Here, the disproportion between what is being "covered" and those "covering" it becomes visible to the naked eye.

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