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.
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?