The totalitarian's dream, Orwell's nightmare, has long been that the persuasive apparatus of modern technology would enable governments to keep their grip on power forever. The fall of communism has engendered the confident belief that this is impossible: technique cannot win over the human spirit.
Recent trends in American elections are enough to make one reconsider. The collapse of communism may have less to do with the human spirit than with faulty advertising. The lesson of Tuesday's elections is that for incumbent politicians, remaining in power has indeed become a mere matter of technique, a form of engineering in which success can be achieved with near scientific certainty. Reelection rates for Congress have reached levels found nowadays only in Albania, and Albania is about to have a revolution.
According to the forecasts of a week or so ago, an American revolution -- to throw the rascals out -- was brewing too. Not a chance. In 1990, the reelection rate for the House was 96 percent, for the Senate 97. This in a season in which voters expressed disgust with Congress and apprehension about the country's direction. Why, even S&L poster-boy Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.) was returned.
How did Congress become as immutable as the Supreme Soviet? Two factors. One is a campaign-finance system designed to allow incumbents to spend their opponents into oblivion. This election cycle, House incumbents outspent their hapless opponents 4-1.
The second factor is the perfection of modern advertising techniques that permit the near-automatic translation of money into votes. The most recent advances are not so much in how to persuade (the ad), as in finding out what people want to be persuaded about (polling). The result is a seamless feedback loop. Politicians can track the voter's wants hour-by-hour, and then immediately deliver a feeding (a media buy) to satisfy them.
Accidents can happen, of course. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz lost to an underfunded challenger. But 1990 was a bizarre, scandal-soaked political year for Minnesota Republicans. Moreover, Boschwitz was the sole incumbent senator to lose. And true, Bill Bradley got a scare in New Jersey. His challenger, unknown and outspent 20-1, lost by a mere three points. But Bradley still won.
The extraordinarily high reelection rate makes nonsense of the idea that an angry country was prepared for change. In the abstract, sure. But not in my district. Electoral preferences are subject to the same NIMBY (not in my back yard) hypocrisy as other political preferences. People want toxic waste disposed of, but not in their back yard. They want cheap oil, but no drilling off their shore, please. They give Congress its highest disapproval rate ever recorded, 69 percent, then return their own congressman 29 times out of 30.
In a media age, political wants, like other wants, have acquired a remarkable abstractness. People want clean air and better schools and brand-new political faces. But if the real thing requires any real exertion, they'll be satisfied with just the idea.
Which is why one job for which election is not yet for life is governor. Incumbent governors were defeated in six states, most notably Florida, Michigan and Minnesota. A governor is more tied to the real world. His actions have directly felt consequences. A governor like Michael Dukakis knows that no amount of campaign advertising can alter his real record. So he steps down.
Congressional life is far more abstract. Its actions have a more tenuous relationship to real life. Except for bringing home some pork, congressmen are asked principally to strike poses and adopt attitudes. This later becomes the stuff of campaign rhetoric and advertising, at which time it is tarted up as "values" (family, traditional, human, etc.).
It is an iron law of media politics that the more divorced from the real world the incumbent's actions, the more certain his reelection -- because technique can then intervene between the record and the voter. And technique, as shown by Tuesday's results, has gotten awfully good. That is why congressmen always get reelected and governors only most of the time. And why presidents, who are able to start wars and are thought to bring on recessions, are the easiest to beat. (Two of the last three have lost reelection bids.)
What's wrong with incumbency? Chronic incumbency is a prescription for political sclerosis. This is particularly true for the American political system, which, with its multiple checks and balances, was uniquely designed to be unproductive anyway (under the reasonable apprehension that too much production is a threat to liberty).
Today, this governmental machine, marvelously designed for paralysis, is manned by a permanent cadre of elected-for-life politicians. The result is perpetual motion without output. What output there is consists of imaginary goods: phony deficit-reduction laws, weird flag-protection flaps, irrelevant death-penalty debates, fanciful education goals.
For the country, the system is a disaster. The real issues, like failing schools and exploding deficits, hardly get addressed, much less solved. Yet for congressional incumbents, the system works. The message of the 1990 election is that so long as the voters' imaginary -- pardon me: "symbolic" -- needs are met, they will let the engine grind on and the engineers keep their life tenure.