What's Wrong with American Political Leadership?

Article excerpt

Visible occasionally among the numbing political advertisements of the 1993 election season was a commercial promoting the New York City ballot initiative proposing term limits for elected officials. The spoken text was reasonably predictable, but the visual image was striking: several enormously fat men sitting together, chomping on large cigars, and chortling - as if expressing their contempt for the law, or the people, or both. Whether the commercial had anything to do with the overwhelming success of the term-limits initiative, it did, it seems dear, convey what has become an increasingly common image of American political leaders: cynical, complacent, corrupt, cut off from any real connection with the people they ostensibly represent.

Something is dearly wrong with a political system in which the men and women charged with governing are held in such contempt by so many of their constituents. It is something more serious than= the normal disorder, intrigue, and depravity that have always characterized democratic politics in the United States and other nations. The bonds that link our leaders and our political system with the larger public - the bonds of at least minimal respect and confidence that are essential to the stability and effectiveness of a democratic state - are badly frayed. There is, perhaps, reason to fear that they may soon snap altogether An almost palpable cynicism has penetrated our public belief, a cynicism that seems to be felt at almost every level of society. There is a widespread popular belief that no one in politics is to be trusted, that nothing government attempts works, even that nothing government attempts can work. We are experiencing a crisis of political leadership and legitimacy.

This is not the first time the United States has faced such a crisis. A century ago, in the face of social and economic problem at least as frightening and bewildering as those of our own time, many Americans developed a similar contempt for and cynicism toward their political leaders. Political cartoonists portrayed public officials with the same gleeful disdain that the advocates of term limits used in 1993. The pages of such magazines as Judge and Punch were filled with derisive images of bloated, complacent politicians and plutocrats, their vests covered with dollar signs and shiny gold watch chains stretched across their enormous midriffs. They too smoked cigars and chortled as they planned new ways to betray the public

In the 1890s, as in the 1990s, there were fevered efforts by people across the ideological spectrum to explain the political crisis - to determine what had gone wrong, to decide who was to blame, to suggest how to fix a system that had somehow come unglued. And in body the 1890s and the 1990s, those explanations tended to cluster into two broad categories. Each of them had then, and has now, valuable things to say about American political leadership. But each of them, then and now, has also obscured some of the more important causes of our discontent.

The first explanation is what might best be called the populist critique of American politics. It is based on the assumption that most of the problems of our public life are a result of the frustration of popular will - by smug elected officials, by corrupt party bosses, by rapacious party organizations, by selfish special interest.

In the 1890s, the populist critique focused on monopolists and robber barons, the men Theodore Roosevelt once called "malefactors of great wealth." Standard Oil, it was said, had done everything to the New Jersey legislature except refine it. The railroads, many midwestern and southern farmers believed, regularly controlled the election of United States senators and dominated the workings of Congress. And, in an age when many Americans believed corrupt party

bosses had almost unlimited power, the criticism focused as well on the paucity of political leadership. …