Fewer and fewer Americans expect the Democrats or the
Republicans, either one, to Save the Republic.
A New York Times/CBS Poll released on the Sunday before the
election shows voters divided equally as to the parties' merits or lack of
same. Democrats are seen as likelier to "make the right decisions about
Social Security," the Republicans as likelier to "make sure U.S. military
defenses are strong." Neither agglomeration is seen as hugely compelling
when it comes to vision or presentation.
Forty percent in the poll professed less enthusiasm about voting
than in previous contests.
Any surprise here? These bleak assessments of U.S. politics have
been a feature of the autumn landscape since the Watergate era, more than a
quarter of a century ago. As government grows bigger, expectations
concerning its performance grow smaller. When all is said and done,
politicians of every stripe seemingly reduce to ... politicians.
The Wellstone debacle provides material for 10 Ph.D.
dissertations on the subject and likely a few seminars. The late Democratic
senator from Minnesota was a believer, never mind that his beliefs had about
them the stale odor of tie-dyed jeans, retrieved from the closet for some
"Remember the '60s" bash. Well, then Sen. Wellstone dies, catastrophically,
and many in both parties ache -- such was his nearly unique force as a
"conviction politician" (Margaret Thatcher's self-description) -- to pay him
tribute. The senator's fellow Democrats oblige by turning his memorial
tribute into a full-throated hooray-for-the Democrats,
down-with-the-Republicans rally, prompting the innocent, of whom there may
still be a few among us, to remark: See, it's not about us, it's about them
and their obsession with winning elections and staying on top, whatever it
Another current pastime is deploring "negative advertising." We
all deplore it. But negative advertising has been with us for a long time,
one reason being that it helps by undermining opponents. "Dirt is dirtier
than clean is clean," as one of John O'Hara's characters observes.
What can be done -- anything? Earlier this year, Sen. John
McCain consummated his longtime desire to pass a bill regulating
thitherto-unregulated campaign contributions and thereby (he hoped)
undercutting the power of money in elections. Well, here comes The New York
Times, days before the election, to report that state parties, being
constitutionally outside Congress' regulatory purview, are stepping up to do
what the national parties can't do anymore. Rivers of money will continue to
flow to candidates, just through different channels.
Why? The underlying problem is power -- who has it, who wants
it. Power, in Washington or Hollywood, or on Wall Street, means on-topness:
me over you. That's some temptation. Who realistically can expect the
wielders of that power -- politicians in this case -- to lay it down in a
grand act of renunciation?
Let's be grateful. We still outclass Talibanic Afghanistan,
likewise Iraq and China and Saudi Arabia, whose rulers go out of their way
never to consult popular opinion.
At their worst -- and that worst can be pretty bad -- democratic
politicians assiduously court the voters' favor, a thing unheard of in
Riyadh and Beijing. The imperfection of the process should remind us of the
imperfection of the remedies the process is supposed to supply. "These are
the guys we expect to save our bacon and make the world safe for democracy?"
The Law of Diminishing Expectations may rescue us in the end,
assuming we grasp it securely. I can't be entirely sure, having just thought
up said law. It says, roughly: Don't expect too much of men and women who
make their living by constantly bragging on themselves, running down their
opponents, and working the phones asking for money.
Some of these folk are exemplary citizens; many are windbags and
braggarts. A few are scoundrels. Politics in democratic societies, after
all, is life. It reflects the people. We the people could do worse at
election time than look in the mirror, saying, reflectively, hmmmm ...