So as more voters turn away from the empty talk, the voting electorate gradually shrinks further (fewer than half of eligible adults voted in 1996). The question of legitimacy is so obvious that major foundations are spending millions on promoting marginal reforms, especially on educating the populace about why politics and elections should matter to them. The real problem, I suspect, is that many citizens already know too much.
Eccentric new figures like Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura do succeed in drawing voters back into the electoral process--including young voters--but their populist message also threatens established power and allied institutions. So both major parties, aided by the big media, do whatever they can to discourage the intruders, either by ignoring their ideas, ridiculing them or making sure outsiders are excluded from prime-time venues where their irregular views might be widely heard. New voices are blocked out, the old ones given preferred status--this describes the closed circle that is slowly devouring electoral democracy.
It works for the major parties, if not for the country. Incumbents have learned how to live comfortably with a shrinking electorate (witness how very few Congressional seats are genuinely contested this year). Most incumbents are sustained not by building authentic relationships with citizens but by maintaining intimacy with the sources of big money. Outsiders with different ideas--whether it's Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump or Ralph Nader--will be present to leaven the public's interest in Election 2000, but conscientious voters will face the same dispiriting choice: Do they vote their anger at the status quo or do they go along with a disappointing major-party nominee to avoid getting something worse? Making people choose between anger and disillusionment probably feeds the downward spiral.
Clinton, one recalls, never achieved a clear majority in his two presidential races. He always governed with the voting support of less than 25 percent of the adult population. Democracy itself is threatened by this decline, but without some sort of earth-shaking calamity, war or economic breakdown that might inspire popular rebellion, it's hard to imagine that established power centers will relax their hold over the political dialogue. In the long run, the party of Jefferson and Jackson seems especially vulnerable in this shrinking democracy, since Republicans are traditionally the party of money and Democrats must keep moving rightward to match the fundraising, farther away from their historic base.
I once believed that if the Democratic Party lost Congress and the White House it might feel compelled to return to its core values, launch a popular mobilization and take on the big-money interests. The party does have an aggressive core of young new members and old liberal stalwarts who would gladly attempt this, but they are a minority within a minority and are confined by the usual problems of raising money and appealing to a mass-market audience that barely pays attention to politics. After watching how Clinton's straddle succeeded, I am no longer so sure what the party would choose to do.
This will sound corny--hopelessly romantic about America--but I am convinced that a general renewal of democracy (and the Democratic Party) will begin with the people, if it begins at all. That is, one political party or the other must decide to devote some portion of its gigantic cash flow to the unglamorous challenge of reconnecting with citizens at large--not through more opinion polls and focus groups but through listening and teaching, by discussing patiently the large and small priorities that matter to people where they live, by organizing forums where people can learn the facts and respectfully argue out the plausible public solutions.
The organizing approach--reviving small-d relationships with ordinary people, patiently, from the grassroots upward--sounds anachronistic in this media age. It's slow and much less certain than designing smart TV commercials, fiendishly more difficult than raising money from a comparatively small number of phone calls to fat cats. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect either major party to risk its entrenched position by actually encouraging popular intrusion into the closed circle that protects incumbents. Possibly only a new third party with strong convictions, whose leaders have nothing to lose, could be bold enough to attempt such an old-fashioned approach--inviting folks back into a politics that is real.
Yet, if you look around the country, you can see this sort of thing happening now among citizens themselves, people of left and right or neither persuasion. They are trying to reknit the torn fabric of their communities, mobilize a genuine consensus for public action or demand a real voice in governing power. This kind of politics goes forward with real successes, largely beneath the radar of the big media and usually without the least bit of help from organized politics. When it accomplishes something tangible, people can see the connections to their own lives, and their organizations grow stronger. This brand of politics, to borrow a popular phrase, is market-tested.
By comparison, Election 2000 already looks like a failed brand of soap, since so many Americans aren't buying any of it. Restoring credible accountability in the representative system, from the ground up, is the long way back to a robust democracy, for sure. But don't dismiss it as impossible. Leaving aside the fools and scoundrels, of whom there are many, the great saving virtue of Americans is that they do not always believe what they are told by the authorities. Sometimes, they still find their way to the truth about things, despite the media's opacity and the blanket of propaganda for the status quo. When they do figure things out for themselves, Americans sometimes still get real ornery about it.