The Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press said yesterday a national poll it took last month showed that 21 percent of the people--not 51 percent as reported -- associated Republicans with "rich, powerful moneyed interested." In a previous poll three years ago, 18 percent made such an association. The big jump to 51 percent was cited in several recent reports in The Post. Times Mirror said the incorrect figure was due to a computing error. (Published 10/13/90)
Writers and editors of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, contrary to myth, are engaged in no conspiracies and do not wash their brains in the same ideological tub each day. They tend to be an independent-minded bunch. But we have common interests in the great game of politics and in the intellectual fads it inspires from year to year.
Our newest preoccupation is the sickness of democracy in America. The Post's political coverage this fall is presented in the context of "an age of cynicism" and alienation. The Journal, elaborating on that theme, reports from the West Coast under a "cynicism" headline that, "If California is the harbinger of the political future -- a role it has frequently played for two generations -- we're in for a dreadful decade. The mood is palpably ugly and mean-spirited. ... Most voters are contemptuous of politicians." The Times concludes that government in America "has reached a state of paralysis." Recent studies by the Markle Commission on the Media and the Electorate and by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press elaborate on these analyses. If that is not enough, you are referred to my own apocalyptic ramblings on the subject.
What we are all "discovering" is that the great American public, in the main, is not much interested in politics and government, thinks politicians are "full of baloney," as Republican chairman Lee Atwater has put it, and has grown apathetic toward the responsibilities of citizenship. Politics, in a word, is becoming increasingly irrelevant to their lives.
In the search for answers and scapegoats, we point our fingers at television with its "sound bites" and its corruption of the young who, by the age of 18, often have spent 18,000 hours (more than two years of their lives) with eyeballs glued to the tube; that is almost 50 percent more time than they will have spent in school. We damn political candidates and their handlers for taking a "low road" and alienating The People. We excoriate "special interests" and the corruption of "big money."
Symptoms of our "malaise" come easily to hand and fall glibly from our word processors. People are reading fewer newspapers and watching the evening news in diminishing numbers, thus denying themselves the benefit of our wisdom. Fewer and fewer are voting, fewer and fewer know whether Bob Dole is a U.S. senator or a pineapple packer. Those who prefer a House debate on C-Span to professional wrestling are outnumbered by the I've-seen-Elvis cult.
For a time, just after the 1988 election, we seemed to have found the big worm in the apple: "negative" ads on television, symbolized by the George Bush campaign and its Willie Horton spot. If such junk were driven from the air, we declared, things would be okay. A lot of ink was used up on that theory. But we are coming to realize that the problem is a bit more complicated and that we have not yet asked all the right questions.
One question true democrats dislike to contemplate is this:
If millions of nonvoters are as politically illiterate and indifferent as polls show them to be, why should their failure to mark a ballot be regarded as a "problem" rather than a blessing? Our political system was created -- and the First Amendment adopted -- on the theory that democracy's success depends on an informed citizenry, not on the participation of every inmate in the asylum.
That was the rationale for restricting the franchise through most of our history. The generations now living will not raise the voting age to 21 or disqualify people on grounds of incapacity. But that is no reason to romanticize universal voter participation or to assume it would produce better outcomes than turnouts of 40 percent or 50 percent.
Another subject we have insufficiently explored is our own role in the present "malaise." We find it logical that a Willie Horton ad on television affects votes. But we do not find it logical that our own "negativism" and "cynicism" toward public figures and public affairs rub off on the masses.
We create pictures of the world in which politicians are fools and rogues and in which bureaucracies from the Pentagon to the sanitation department are overrun with corrupt or incompetent parasites. Our credo is that the only way to look at a politician is down. The smirk is a metaphor for our trade. If The People are "alienated" and if the mood is "ugly," should we be surprised?