I shudder when I read a post-election story like David Broder's recent account of the New York convention of the American Political Science Association, the message of which is that nothing of real consequence happened last Nov. 4. That is the reported conclusion of eminent politicial scientists, one of whom called the presidential election a "blip." This would be alarming, if true. Fortunately, it is the sort of thing you have to be a political scientist to believe.
We might note, if only to dismiss, the unworthy suspicion that partisan feeling might figure in the curious conclusion that a ritual costing millions of dollars and months of campaigning yields results too feeble to register.
Probably an overwhelming majority of the nation's physicists are registered Democrats, a fact that is without effect on the behavior of the sub-atomic particles they study. That the same political loyalty is probably even more pervasive among academic political scientists is not, on the other hand, irrelevant when the victor is a conservative Republican who once tangled with the university establishment in California and is now laying rude hands on federal grants beneficial to the educational complex. It may be in their interest, even if the interest isn't conscious, to discover that a sane electorate could have given no such unholy mandate.
But that is incidental. I am more fascinated by the clash in New York between pollsters who work for presidential candidates (and who are said to speak of the election as a "sea-change" and a "Mount St. Helens") and the political scientists who deny that it was any such thing.
For the pollsters, too, a self-protective instinct could be at work. After all, their lucrative business is to discover "malaises" in the voting public so that candidates may play back soothing therapeutic sounds. Campaign oratory certainly has taken on a therapeutic flavor, as if it were the function of political leaders to minister to our anxieties.
It is perhaps a natural war, then, that Broder described. If the political scientists should ever establish that therapeutic oratory produces meaningless elections, then pollsters would soon be selling pencils. If, on the other hand, the pollsters triumph, there will be no politics worth the name in "political science."
The ultimate mischief of all this is that the pollsters (before) and the political scientists (after) conspire to suggest to an already disheartened electorate that presidential elections are wastes of time and money that decide nothing.
Those of us who believe otherwise must learn to ignore these exotic conclusions and recall certain old truths about presidential elections, which, being historical, are of limited interest to pollsters and political scientists alike.
The most basic of these truths is that there is a kind of fortuitousness in the way Americans go about choosing presidents, which defies scientific definition. Since the White House is only to be won by coalitions, it is imprudent for any candidate to define his intentions too explicitly. There is much rowing with muffled oars, and important voting groups are not to be disconcerted by sharp corners or rough edges.
The 1980 election was clearly a referendum on the leadership and direction of Jimmy Carter. Domestically, his direction was toward economic chaos; abroad it was toward the relaxed acceptance of a second-class role for the United States in the world.
You have to be well-steeped in polls and election data to miss, or minimize, this great fact. In 1980, the American voter repudiated Carter and changed directions.
As usual, the specific terms of reversal were ill-defined. Even in 1860 or 1932 (to cite presidential elections whose significance even political scientists would accept), those who voted for Lincoln or Roosevelt could not have predicted, because the candidates themselves did not say, what either would do precisely about a miserable state of affairs. They merely sensed that Lincoln would not be as supine as Buchanan, and that Roosevelt would use the federal machinery more actively than Hoover in battling depression. They were right.
More than a century ago, de Tocqueville noticed a mysterious discrepancy in our presidential elections between the "feverish excitement" of the event and the quiet that followed. "The river, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level; but who can refrain from astonishment that such a storm could have arisen?"
But he would have resisted the ridiculous conclusion that storms and rising rivers leave no fallen limbs behind or cut no new channels. You have to be a political scientist armed with a computer to find so little significance in so much activity.
Learned trivialization is not the least of the threats to democracy. Without a belief in the usefulness of elections they undoubtedly will soon become mere "blips."