Stupefied Democracy

Stupefied Democracy

This election may jolt Americans out of a passive acceptance of civil mythologies.


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.

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.

The marketing culture has swallowed not just parties, politicians and voters but also a vast array of mediating institutions, from TV and newspapers to most organizations that ostensibly speak to and for their members. Every major outfit does focus groups and polling now–it’s less time-consuming than talking with their members. In most places, the political parties no longer exist as authentic connecting strands with ordinary people on the governing issues or anything else. They are letterheads and mail drops for the political money. The consolidated big media, more homogenized and distant from their audiences, have a stake in making politics seem lifelike, but savvy political reporters essentially cover politics as a story of marketing competition. They report endlessly on how subgroups of voters have been sliced and diced, which words and images induce which voters to embrace which “messages.” This kind of politics is very expensive (and boring), so the press also keeps tabs on fundraising as an indicator of who’s ahead. Because the human-scale fun has gone out of politics, the media compete by being first–that is, reporting the story before it happens, as they did more than once on election night.

Given the atrophied condition of democratic relationships and institutions, it shouldn’t surprise us that the voting electorate has been slowly, steadily shrinking over the past three decades. Some of the explanations did not originate in politics. We no longer join bowling teams, as Harvard professor Robert Putnam claimed, and retreat from joining anything. TV rotted the brains of our young or wiped out the old ward heelers who knocked on doors and talked with real people. The white working class moved to the suburbs, and Democrats lost their addresses. These weakening forces and others did contribute to the decay, but academic explanations tend to leave out the core cause: the politicians and how they handle the governing issues that matter to people the most. As voter turnout has declined, the ranks of active voters became more skewed away from the people of lower incomes and less influence, more top-heavy with the affluent and well-educated class of citizens. As David Broder reported postelection in the Washington Post, families below $50,000 in income fell from 63 percent of the electorate in 1994 to 47 percent this year, though they are by far the majority of families, since the median household income is around $40,000.

Government has reliably responded to this shift in voting power over the years in many injurious ways. Taxation, for instance, was reduced on capital and increased on labor. Public spending on the government services and institutions most needed by nonaffluent families has been shrunk. These and other pivotal matters usually go unmentioned in presidential campaigns, since both major parties have participated in the decisions.

Yet stupefied democracy works–or did until this year. It works, at least, for those who finance our two major parties, their candidates and campaigns. Low-turnout elections actually make life safer for incumbents. In 2000, after a supposedly intense fight for the House, no more than eight incumbents lost seats. Three-fourths of the 435 representatives won in a walk, with margins of 20 percent or more, and another fifty-six members won by more than 10 percent, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy. Thus, only about 10 percent of the House members faced a serious contest. Gore and Bush, meanwhile, each won support from only 24 percent of voting-age adults, with a whisker more for Gore. This they describe as “legitimacy.”

People do rebel. Having lost their voice in representative democracy, citizens are not totally inert, though they often charge off in opposite directions. The intensity of single-issue causes, from guns to school prayer, is heightened, I suspect, by the impotence people feel on the larger matters. Certainly, the hostility toward government, especially in Washington, is stimulated by the accurate perception of who gets heard and who doesn’t. The more threatening rebellions take the form of eccentric new political parties, challenging establishment power from left and right. Most of them remain hopelessly marginal, but the fact that so many people keep trying is an authentic measure of idealistic discontent.

In 1992 Ross Perot got 19 percent of the vote, enough to deprive the GOP of several states but not decisive in electing Clinton. This year Ralph Nader got far fewer votes, around 3 percent, but there’s a much stronger case that he did deprive Gore of a victory (Greens may yet be blamed for defeating one or two Democrats in close House races; Libertarians are accused of threatening Washington’s GOP Senator Slade Gorton). Most notably, former wrestler Jesse Ventura became Minnesota governor by beating both parties. The crucial point is that Perot had money and media access and Nader didn’t. Big-media producers and editors probably felt a little guilty about falling in love with the goofy Perot and giving him so much airtime and ink–did they create this monster?–so they were determined not to make the same mistake with Nader. Ventura had both celebrity and the public financing to buy TV visibility, but was also included in the debates and demonstrated he was not a nut case. Those conditions describe the present fragility of the two-party system: Any plausible outsider who acquires money, media access or debate presence can conceivably upend the status quo.

Democrats right now are bruised and bitter about the Nader intrusion, and many have convinced themselves that this threat has been permanently disabled by the outrage currently directed at Nader and the Greens. I think they are mistaken about that and fail to appreciate the depths of distrust not just of the political system but of the Democratic Party, especially among motivated young people. This past summer they were ignored or ridiculed by the media and the Gore juggernaut. By October they were scolded and told, condescendingly, to go home. In November, they were accused of deadlocking a presidential election. “Students made an investment with their vote, and it’s empowering for students to see how much their votes matter,” said Alex Zwerdling, 22-year-old national campus coordinator for Nader.

A central question burdens the Democratic Party for the long term, beyond Gore’s fate or the large policy issues. How does the party really feel about reviving small-d democracy? The party and many of its progressive constituencies are now quite adept at doing the money and marketing version of democracy–it works for them. They will endeavor to regain majority control and then–maybe–pursue some reforms like campaign financing. But the unruly young insurgents are unlikely to cooperate with that timetable, since they identify corporate power as the central source of what’s undermining democracy. As the Greens or others keep attacking from the flanks, Democrats may find themselves shoulder to shoulder with loathed Republican colleagues, defending the system’s legitimacy. If a genuine democracy movement does spring to life, would the regulars and institutions of the Democratic Party try to lead it or smash it?

Democracy, I’m suggesting, has deeper maladies than stupid slogans or the corrupting influence of big money. It will not be revived by an act of Congress or a presidential order, even if the power of private money is contained. We are stuck with profound popular disconnections in this mass-media age that can only be healed gradually, patiently, by devoting resources and attention to the atrophied connective tissues of society itself. That requires on-the-ground action–the hard work of talking and listening, re-earning loyalty and trust among ordinary people. It’s natural for the parties and allied constituencies to devote their energies to battles of the moment, but we may be approaching a time when they have no choice but to change–or else face further deterioration in their own power and legitimacy. Labor this year demonstrated the electoral payoff of connecting face to face with confused and alienated voters. Instead of dumping so many millions on campaign ads, labor and other progressive groups should spend more money on face time with real people between elections.

In the meantime, a small-d agenda of reform laws could begin to ventilate our politics:

§ Instant-runoff voting will allow dissidents to participate but also spur the two major parties to campaign for second-choice votes, which are counted if neither major-party candidate wins a majority. That reform sets the stage for enriched representation.

§ Campaign finance reform will not accomplish much unless it includes at least a modified version of public financing for challengers and engenders political dialogue beyond the usual propaganda. Conservatives insist on solving our public problems with more competition–that’s exactly what our democracy needs.

§ Media access and candidate debates open to all contenders ought to be high on the reform list, especially given the imperious disdain and flagrant errors of the big media this year. Why are these clowns allowed to define politics for us? This country now has hundreds of available channels, and, given the huge subsidies media moguls have received in the form of free public property (the airwaves), it is time to pursue Ralph Nader’s proposal for audience channels–the right for political parties, churches, labor unions and civic groups of every stripe to get scheduled chunks of airtime to communicate with whoever wishes to watch and listen. Congress can start by blowing up the corporate-sponsored debates commission and mandating free radio and TV airtime for future candidates and campaigns.

As these ideas suggest, American politics will have to get a lot noisier–with many eccentric new voices chiming in–before it can hope to regain the confidence of the people or become more stable, less fractious. Most leaders in both major parties will no doubt see the risks in these proposals but not the opportunities for themselves or the country. If so, the insurgent temperament will have to bang away at the system until regular politicians grasp that a genuine democracy may actually be in their interest too.

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