by William Greider
The Nation magazine, December 4, 2000
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
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 mimic 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 post-election 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 non-affluent
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
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
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 n
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-run-off 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
n 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
William Greider is The Nation s national affairs correspondent.