Stupefied Democracy | The Nation


Stupefied Democracy

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Let the wild rumpus continue. Let citizens fill the public square with their dismay and rage. May the angry voters demand deeper explanations for the unrepresentative political system, beyond the obvious questions about trashed ballots or which suit was actually elected. Who knows, if this unruly interregnum continues for a while, it might even light the fuse for a spontaneous "democracy movement," American style. No need to bomb television transmitters or torch the Capitol; this is not Eastern Europe. But it will be very healthy for the country if people are awakened to make loud noises about their decayed democracy. A rare, perhaps brief moment of anarchy--when the authorities seem to have lost control of events--nourishes an insurgent temperament.

About the Author

William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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OK, maybe people will sit at home and watch it on television. Even that's educational and sure to agitate their passive acceptance of civic mythologies. Americans, remember, spent a full year glued to their TV sets for sordid details from the O.J. Simpson murder trial. They learned a lot about the legal system (also race, sex and violence) and were deeply disturbed. Then the impeachment circus taught the Constitution and revealed the sleazy depths of partisanship run amok. This time, the details seem less juicy, but the lessons are about the shriveled meaning of citizenship. As esteemed establishment characters pressure the politicians to put the genie back in the bottle, it reminds one that some of these same folks urged Bill Clinton to resign rather than put the nation through the supposed trauma of impeachment. As the media chorus demands a speedy exit from crisis, the first public-opinion polls indicate that most Americans want fairness before haste. Movers and shakers should all breathe deeply and relax. The Republic has endured much worse than this.

The establishment's laments reveal a cynical disregard for the will of ordinary citizens (also for Americans' essential sense of equity, not to mention maturity). What frightens the big hitters is a recognition that like the O.J. verdict or the impeachment trial, there can be no satisfactory ending for this story. Whoever wins, half the voting electorate is likely to go home feeling cheated. The other half of the nation--all those alienated Americans who decline to vote--may feel their suspicions about politics confirmed.

The high-minded senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, spoke for the established order when he assured the Washington Post: "It doesn't so much matter who wins. The important thing is the legitimacy of the system." If it doesn't matter, why did the two parties and their money patrons spend $3 billion to win their races? Legitimacy is indeed at risk, though perhaps not in the way Moynihan means. For several decades, as some of us have written, the US political system has been sliding toward a loss of legitimacy--the point when most people no longer believe in its writ, never mind the rhetoric that most Americans stopped believing long ago. If an insipid, evasive presidential campaign followed by electoral deadlock is the triggering crisis, that will be perversely fitting. Because this crisis was induced by the entrenched system itself, and it is about power--its power to govern over others. The boiling subtext is the illegitimacy of how some people and interests acquire the governing power and hold on to it, year after year, regardless of the citizenry and its discontents.

In this fractious moment, let us pause to talk also about small-d democracy, what happened to it and how we might revive its original promise. In their perennial search for the holy center, both major parties have re-engineered themselves into empty vessels, as Election 2000 vividly demonstrated. Despite partisan furies, it was not their ideological differences that produced stalemate but their need for overlapping sameness. Contemporary electoral politics essentially apes commercial marketing and advertising (though political ads are generally less entertaining), in which product differentiation depends upon a few selected highlights (character, hot-button issues, patriotic fantasies) that are culled from research into the unexpressed fears and feelings of consumers. Toothpaste and cars, Al Gore and George Bush--the selling process is identical. This year, despite the focus groups and demographic polling, the fantasy images for Gore-Bush were especially weak. Ronald Reagan, remember, was a cowboy riding in from the West to save the Republic and was wildly popular, at least until people figured out his real program.

The other central quality of modern politics is that the actual governing agenda is not much discussed, because it will be greatly different from the campaign sales pitch. Bill Clinton executed a bold reversal, but so did George ("read my lips") Bush Sr. and, in many respects, even the straight-talking cowboy. Many voters, maybe most of them, understand artful deception is under way but accede to it (just as consumers know the toothpaste will not make them movie-star handsome, but it's an appealing notion). For many of the nonvoters, the weak illusions of politics no longer convince or entertain, so they switch channels to baseball or old movies.

Political communication, in short, is no longer about actually communicating--listening, teaching, mobilizing, engaging people in real content and a coherent narrative about the larger social and economic realities. The three presidential debates were so painful to watch because both nominees--poor Bush, poor Gore--labored clumsily to stay "on message" and not mess up with an unscripted burst of human expression (they more or less succeeded). The emptiness was most poignantly revealed in the televised chat sessions afterward with those precious "undecided" voters at the "center." These people didn't have a clue but gamely tried to mimick what they had heard they should think about politics. "I am a mother so I care about guns and education." On the General Electric channel, the addlebrained sessions were conducted by Frank Luntz, the young pollster who made his Washington reputation by poll-testing every word and phrase in Newt Gingrich's famous "Contract With America." The nutty agenda eventually blew up, but hey, it won the '94 landslide for House Republicans. Luntz was on TV again after this election informing us that Americans want quick closure to the crisis, though he offered no scientific data to support his claim.

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