By McWilliams, Wilson Carey
Commonweal , Vol. 120, No. 8
In last fall's election, most Americans allowed themselves to be drawn by hope, but they went wistfully, driven by worries and without much confidence, convinced that they had more things to fear than fear itself.
Change was in the air: for the first time in more than half a century, a presidential election was not framed by war, present or rumored; voters were restless; new concerns and constituencies made themselves felt and the victorious Democrats proclaimed themselves a "new" party. Yet no election has so often or so pervasively been compared to the American past: Americans wanted assurance of comparability if not continuity, looking for old landmarks and fixed stars in the strange new world they confronted. In 1992, confidence did not point Americans to the future, it drew them to the past, and the election, a vote for change, was also a hope for renewal.
The clearest message of 1992 was the majority's demand for active government, engaged to relieve America's discontents and reclaim the future. Even in 1988, opinion had tended to side with the can&date who, on any given issue, supported the use of public power. This time, the tide was unmistakable: 61 percent voted for the differing, but undeniably activistic persuasions of Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. It was a hard year for laissez-faire. Rhetorically, the high point of the Democratic campaign was Mario Cuomo's attack on Bush for relying on "the invisible hand of some cyclical economic god" to save the ship of state. Even conservatives, of course, now accept a considerable degree of economic intervention: Ronald Reagan promised a "safety net," the Reagan and Bush administrations committed billions to protect depositors in failing banks and savings and loans, and the administration took it for granted that the Federal Reserve should manage interest rates to promote growth.
In 1992, the current of activism ran even stronger. Among economists, there was something of a generational shift, reminiscent of the advent of Keynes. Clinton found no shortage of economists willing to agree, for example, that government is needed to promote saving and investment, especially since Reagan's version of supply-side economics had proved misplaced. By itself, moreover, investment may not be enough: counter to much conventional wisdom, there is good evidence that American productivity is not low; the problem may be that relative efficiency is being purchased at the price of employment, so that government is needed to link investment, productivity, and work.
Although Americans turned to government in 1992, they still distrusted it and were apt to despise politics; a year earlier, Peter Hart and Douglas Bailey found that, although voters "desperately want to believe in government," they were deeply disillusioned, so that there was a "dangerously broad gulf between the governors and the governed." Clinton's great challenge, and the republic's, lies in the need to strengthen the dignity of citizenship and the quality of democratic consent. Knowing this, Clinton seems to be pursuing something approximating a permanent campaign, but the media, a part of his intended solution, may be an even bigger part of the political problem.
In contemporary America the dominant forms of the press are media by which information is communicated to us, but without any serious element of reciprocity or accountability. We depend on the media and recognize their power, but our dependence is a mark of voicelessness and indignity. Today's media reach us in private settings and address largely private concerns and feelings, relying on images more than words. Where radio, as Russell Baker remembers, "intoxicated us with voices," the contemporary media discount speech, continuing the grand modern impulse, initiated by Machiavelli, to exalt the visible and nonverbal, the deed as opposed to the word. To the extent that they are treated by the media at all, political speech and deliberation are presented as a kind of theater of deception, in which content matters only as clue to covert forces and schemes. …