The Alienated American Voter: Are the News Media to Blame?

By Harwood, Richard | Brookings Review, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

The Alienated American Voter: Are the News Media to Blame?


Harwood, Richard, Brookings Review


The attention of the American public is not riveted on government. As we are constantly reminded by polls and academic studies, millions of our people can't name their city council members, their representatives in state government, or their representatives in Congress. Ten times more people can identify Judge Ito or Judge Wapner of TV's people's court than can identify the Chief Justice of the United States. Half our people don't vote in presidential elections. Some 80-90 percent don't vote in many local elections. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press never lets us forget that people pay little attention to the latest happenings in Washington or in Bosnia and China. Most of us are pretty much oblivious to something called the "Contract with America" and other hot button issues of the day in Washington. One of the endearing anecdotes from my days as a political reporter in Kentucky involved a congressional candidate who was asked to state his position on the Taft-Hartley Bill. He did not equivocate: "By God, if we owe it we ought to pay it!"

The Man in the Back Row

Seventy years ago, in "The Phantom Public," Walter Lippmann gave us a sketch of the democratic condition. "The private citizen," he wrote, "has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row, who ought to keep his mind on the mystery off there, but cannot quite manage to stay awake. He knows he is somehow affected by what is going on. Rules and regulations continually, taxes annually, and wars occasionally remind him that he is being swept along by great drifts of circumstance.

"Yet these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs. They are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, in distant centers, from behind the scenes by unnamed powers. As a private person he does not know for certain what is going on, or who is doing it, or where he is being carried. No newspaper reports his environment so that he can grasp it; no school has taught him how to imagine it; his ideals, often, do not fit with it; listening to speeches, uttering opinions, and voting do not, he finds, enable him to govern it. He lives in a world in which he cannot see, does not understand, and is unable to direct.

"In the cold light of experience, he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern. Contemplating himself and his actual accomplishments in public affairs, contrasting the influence he exerts with the influence he is supposed according to democratic theory to exert, he must say of his sovereignty what Bismarck said of Napoleon II: 'At a distance it is something, but close to, it is nothing at all.'"

It is not, I think, entirely cynical, to conclude that these sentiments are as relevant now as then. We may be born equal in the sight of the divinity and we may possess certain inalienable rights. But equal status in the political system and in the economic order is not among them. According to the dictum in Washington, your Rolodex defines who you are. I would add that it is not only the names on your Rolodex that count but the names - especially your own - on the Rolodexes of the people we call. After unanswered phone calls following his retirement, a journalistic colleague said he had made a discovery: "I'm not a has-been. I'm a never-was."

In terms of political access, that is the normal plight of the average man and woman. They know, like Lippmann's man in the back row, that real political power is as unequally distributed as wealth and health in our democracy. The Friends of Bill are not on the same row with the Friends of Joe Six-Pack. This gets our attention in the press every few years, but it is unclear if we in the media bear responsibility for this state of affairs or, if we do, how we can repair the system.

In any case, the large promises implicit in the idea of "one man, one vote" have never been realized whatever the roles the press has assumed in political affairs over the history of our country. …

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