What We Voted For: Ambivalence, Anxiety & Gridlock

Article excerpt

In 1996, most voters didn't like the Congress or trust the president, but they reelected both. Ambivalence is the name of America's political game: we fear that government has too much power, but we also worry that it isn't strong enough to take on the problems that beset us; at least half-aware of how much we depend on government, we doubt its competence and its moral title to rule.

Mass democratic politics has become more expensive and more contrived, a contest of consultants as much as candidates, an exercise in technique as distant from genuine conviction as it is from everyday life. This year, majority rule was notable by its absence: only 49 percent of eligible Americans voted, the lowest figure since 1924. Here and there, citizens followed their better angels. "B-1 Bob" Dornan apparently lost to Loretta Sanchez in Orange County, California; up the coast, Walter Capps, a distinguished student of religion, turned a Gingrichite out of a seat in Santa Barbara; Carolyn McCarthy's old-Irish tenacity did in the N.R.A.'s empty suit out on Long Island [see page 9]; and as if to remind us that we are not naturally separated into islands of race, culture, and gender, voters in two predominantly white districts sent African-American women to the House, Cynthia McKinney winning reelection in Georgia and Julia Carson capturing the seat in Indianapolis. Still, such points of light only emphasize the general dreariness of the campaign and its result.

The liabilities of the candidates were obvious, and while Bill Clinton had an edge where "vision" was concerned, neither party had a compelling idea of how to address our uneasiness about the future the uncertainty of jobs, what feels like the steady erosion of social and moral resources, and especially our anxiety about increasing inequality. Americans tend to get a lot of their economic facts wrong, overstating unemployment and underrating job creation, but they are dead on in judging that the gap between rich and poor is getting wider and that the middle sectors are being squeezed, so that we are moving toward a two-tier society. And politics, equality's stronghold, has opened the gates to the barbarians.

This year, the impact of money truly troubled voters; the Democratic fund-raising imbroglio hurt Clinton, if only as a last straw. With reason: the presidential campaign alone may have cost $800 million. Organized labor spent a well-publicized $35 million, and was disappointed in its hope of overturning the Republican majority in the House. Still, money from the unions helped set the tone for the campaign: the GOP never recovered from the charge that it proposed to cut Medicare's budget by $270 billion, and the effectiveness of labor's campaign is indicated by the vehemence of Republican attacks on "big labor." In fact, business spent roughly seven times as much as labor, almost a quarter of a billion dollars, with upwards of 60 percent going to Republicans, so that labor's money only let the Democrats compete on something like equal terms. And the weight of money and the constant preoccupation with fundraising is more fundamental than who wins: Democratic in form, American elections are increasingly oligarchic in content.

There's enough discontent that we'll probably get some version of campaign reform over the next couple of years, but little chance that it will change matters much. All current officeholders, after all, have survived if not profited from the present system. More important, serious reform would have to get around the roadblock posed by the Supreme Court's 1976 decision, in Buckley v. Valeo, that contributions of money are speech, entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. It wasn't much of an argument - among other things, money doesn't give reasons - but until that ruling is changed (outgoing Senator Bill Bradley recently suggested amending the Constitution, if necessary), the rights of money will trump the claims of democratic civic life. …