Despite its strains, the marriage of democracy to capitalism is a durable one. These days, however, we display little trust in either our economic prospect or our system of governance. Yet neither markets nor elections will produce happy results if distrust and self-interest overwhelm common rules and compromise other necessary values. Trust, after all, is not a product of popular elections and booming markets; it is a prerequisite for both.
This nation is constructed on overlapping communities, often ill at ease with each other. Yet somehow in the past, when necessary, we have made common cause for the necessary sacrifices that create an enlarged future. We found consensus with the help of political, business, labor, cultural, religious, and media leaders. But today, is there a national public figure who is widely trusted?
During the past 20 years, Americans, not for the first time, have moved beyond skepticism to disdain of politics and government. One recent survey indicates that 80 percent of Americans believe that government favors the rich and powerful, up from 29 percent in 1964; 65 percent believe that "quite a few" government officials are corrupt, up from 45 percent in the wake of Watergate. Time magazine finds that the percentage of people who believe that the government generally will try to do the right thing has declined from over 60 percent in 1964 to about 10 percent today.
Americans, of course, have not fallen into some collective hysteria. Recent history has provided them with good reasons to doubt government. The Kennedy assassination and its endless conspiratorial aftermath set the stage, followed by Vietnam, then Watergate, Abscam, Iran-contra, the fall of Jim Wright, the "House bank," Nannygate, and Whitewater.
Why should Americans trust leaders enough to believe that it is worth giving up a reward today in order to have more tomorrow? The real answer is: they have no choice. Government is the way we make decisions as a society, as well as the necessary instrument for public investments in our future--physical ones like bridges and airports, as well as research, training, and education.
A revival of confidence in government will take time; the sources of public anger are deeply rooted, and not just in political scandal. They include the ongoing economic crunch facing America's families, the increasing infusion of personal and social issues into political discourse, the negative nature of recent electoral campaigns and the increasingly harsh and self-reinforcing portrayal of politics and politicians in campaigns, in the press, and in the popular culture. Yet these all too real sources of discontent do not necessarily preclude trust. One need only think of Franklin Roosevelt to realize that difficult periods can create immense opportunities to satisfy the public's desire to be led back into the light. (But imagine the portrayal of Eleanor and Franklin in a modern campaign.)
Economic Discontents. If there is a cultural constant for Americans, it is the promise of economic betterment. Especially since FDR, we have expected the national government to take responsibility for improving economic performance. Politicians take the credit for good times--and the blame for the bad ones.
But Americans are schizophrenic about the role of government in the economy. We simultaneously revere free enterprise and hold public institutions and leaders accountable for how the economy is performing. The gods of the market may be uninterested in the fate of individual companies, localities, or people, but we expect those we elect to save us from the market's ruthlessness. The same governments blamed for distorting the purity of market forces are held accountable for failing to revive growth.
Social Discontents. For a generation, social conflict has created backlash against government-as-social-engineer. Culture has also intruded into politics in a second sense, as the personal has become political. At the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan declared that America is in the midst of "a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself." In any political campaign, a candidate's position on abortion, family values, multiculturalism, gay rights, gays in the military, censorship, sex education, free condoms and/or needles, as well as the cluster of racially loaded questions that are both economic and cultural, is likely to generate as much attention as his or her views on national defense, taxes, or foreign policy. Likewise the candidate's own hitherto private life.
Past generations, of course, engaged in bitterly divisive debates over religion, prohibition, and most notably the morality of slavery. What creates a special tension today is the degree to which personal (especially sexual) questions have moved beyond whispered conversations and anonymous rumor to take center stage as a routine part of public discourse. The public is at once made uncomfortable and titillated by this turn of events. As talk-show fare crowds out loftier public discourse, the public pays salacious attention, but becomes cumulatively more cynical about both the politicians whose sex lives are probed and about the media doing the probing.
Media-Mongering. If even mainstream media coverage of politics, increasingly, has degenerated into the gossip, scandal, and trivia of "tabloid TV," one explanation is obvious: this stuff attracts audiences and sponsors. In this sense, the coverage we are getting is what the free market supports, which is not always identical with what supports democracy.
In the past, the major networks, the national news organizations, the big publishers, and the weekly news magazines--the "blue-chip" media--left gossip to the tabloids. In the last decade and a half, the media, like most sectors of American business, have undergone sweeping reorganizations, with takeovers, buy-outs, and sell-offs. Market pressures and technological innovations have driven even mainstream media to softer standards.
In the 1990s, the issues raised by tabloid journalism have muscled their way onto the political agenda with depressing insistence. Our popular culture relentlessly portrays American political life as dominated by corruption, venality, sexual escapades, deals, personal peccadilloes--everything but the substantive work of governing.
This kind of coverage may attract viewers, but it also alienates voters. During the 1992 presidential election, viewers turned in large numbers to television programs in which the candidates spoke directly to them. At some level, the voters perhaps understood that public character is really about leading tough fights on issues, rather than so-called character questions.
Regulation of the press is abhorrent in a free society. But an unexamined press is scarcely worth having. We have been far too timid in asking journalists to live by the precepts of their own profession. We need their help to reclaim a public culture that makes room, amid all the gossip, for our leaders to articulate a vision of America's possibilities (assuming they have one)--to make it possible for them to lead.
- What can be done to alter a press that, in the nature of the case, should be left largely to its own devices and the discipline of the marketplace? A Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on television coverage of the 1992 election proposed a few modest steps:
- Clearly label electronic news releases throughout their broadcast.
- Institutionalize self-criticism and peer group pressure, through expanded coverage of the media by regular print and on-air reviewers and self-criticism by internal ombudsmen.
- Provide more time for the electronic equivalent of letters to the editor.
- Offer more journalistic awards that, like the new Pulitzer Prize for "explanatory journalism," encourage reporting that goes beyond exposes toward more complex truths about major issues.
A periodic loss of faith in politics is hardly a new phenomenon: a hundred years ago William Jennings Bryan and the Populist movement fed off the discontent caused by immigration, industrialization, and the decline of the family farm. It would be surprising if the current wrenching changes in manufacturing, families, and culture had not spawned a similar reaction, including a revival of scapegoating and populism.
One striking difference between the current version of populism and that of Bryan and his followers is the acceptance of a billionaire, Ross Perot, as its leader. It's hard to imagine the unorganized workers, displaced farmers, and old time religion fundamentalists of a century ago rallying to a "movement" led by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, or John D. Rockefeller. But, of course, none of those worthies had an opportunity to appear on Larry King Live.
Another key difference, as the historian Richard Hofstadter tells us, is that the earlier "agitation of populists . . . brought back to American public life a capacity for effective political indignation." The populism of a century ago provoked a thoughtful bipartisan movement among more affluent and better educated Americans. Like the followers of Bryan, they demanded more, not less, government action, but they also had in mind constructive ideas about how to make government more effective. Their program was a progressive agenda that went well beyond breaking up the trusts and regulating the banking system. It elevated and ultimately trumped populism's arguments by offering reforms built upon analysis and professionalism, including revision of the civil service and promotion of the city manager system. These responses were scarcely "concessions," nor did they involve a tactical slide to the right to blunt anti-government criticism. One wonders how many of today's politicians would simply duck if confronted with a similarly imaginative response to the challenge of Perot and Rush Limbaugh.
The new populism, like the old, involves attempts to limit the power of government and elected officials and to enhance direct democracy at the expense of the legislative process. As before, today's version is more attuned to nostalgia for a half-remembered past contentment than to visions of a utopian future. But rather than enriching democracy, the modern populist agenda oversimplifies and hobbles the ability of leaders to build support for complex and demanding answers to difficult and serious questions. Populism's surge is evident in the number of ballot initiatives and referenda in the 26 states which allow some form of this type of direct democracy. In California, 142 ballot measures were put before the voters in the 1970s and 139 in the 1980s; these were the highest levels since the 1930s. The use of the recall device has grown as well, winning about 70 percent of the vote last fall in New Jersey. Last year, 20 city council members across California were defeated in recall elections. A related phenomenon is the growing support for term limits. In the 1992 elections, voters in 14 states passed measures to limit the terms of their state and federal legislators.
Save Us from Ourselves
The core paradox of modern populism is that its favorite remedies actually limit public choices. A prominent Perot-populist solution to our economic problems, the balanced budget amendment, would leave government unable to respond to economic downturns. At the next business-cycle recession, the citizenry would doubtless blame the government.
Instead of a simple balanced budget amendment, we need a capital budget. Families, companies, and local governments all borrow for the long term. We all understand that paying for capital outlays over time makes sense, for these projects increase economic growth, creating a bigger pie to slice up among all of us. But the U.S. government has no special budgetary category for capital expenditures. If federal budgets were honestly divided into current and capital categories, then much of the currently mismeasured deficit problem would disappear.
The balanced budget amendment is part of a larger illusion that we can achieve good government only by having less government or by putting government on automatic pilot. Or maybe, deep down, it is ourselves we don't trust. The support for term limits, after all, is just another way of saying we don't trust ourselves to vote out officials we don't want. In this sense these amendments seek to protect us from our own unwillingness to make choices--such as electing people with the guts to tell us no when we ask for services without accepting the taxes to pay for them.
Nobody Said It Would Be Easy
The 1993 gubernatorial race in New Jersey may have involved (depending on when you believe Ed Rollins) a particularly cynical political technique that scarcely would help rebuild confidence in the fairness of the electoral process. But, moving beyond the possibility of a tainted campaign, there is a tendency to read the outcome as simply implying that raising taxes to fund urban programs and balance budgets is certain political suicide. Governor Jim Florio's taxes did result in fury among voters--his positive rating dropped to 19 percent--not the least because they did not feel he had leveled with them during his first campaign. It was hard to find an automobile in the state without an anti-Florio sticker. But the hard work of explaining the painful choices almost paid off. Florio came within a hair of pulling off a stunning victory, and his successful recovery started almost from the day he started to explain the truth about the state's circumstances to voters.
What politicians should learn from the race in New Jersey is that truth-telling and even taxing to rebuild education and infrastructure can make real sense to people; certainly they are preferable to more fudging of the facts about what is needed to put us back on track.
To take a national example, the president's successful fight for NAFTA represents a clear request for and a modest restoration of trust from the people. Trade policy, after all, is based upon a set of sophisticated notions about comparative advantage and international economic growth, concepts that are difficult to understand. It often brings out the worst in policy debates, because the benefits are abstract and widely scattered, while the costs are keenly apparent to those who face the cutting edge of new competition.
The sort of economic integration one sees in Europe, for example, is made politically possible and personally tolerable by the existence of strong social support and worker training on the one hand, and specific economic development commitments to weaker members of the EC on the other. The lesson of the European experience is that international economic integration is a lot easier if a nation is fully committed to social services, relocation assistance, and worker retraining. Free trade arguments usually wind up as simple choices between free markets and government intervention. But, in fact, wider trade requires a new set of government activities.
The Gore-Perot debate on NAFTA was an exemplary form of public education. As politically risky as this event was, it demonstrated that going directly to the people to make your case remains a key route to restoring trust. Bill Clinton will be trusted even more on trade when he acknowledges and addresses the very real fears people have about its consequences.
To reclaim trust we must overcome the fact that the citizens of this modern secular state concede a very limited status to figures of authority in government and business. It is celebrities who command widespread allegiance and influence. (They can sell sneakers can't they?) But post-World War II America is not a place for durable eminence. You can be famous for 15 minutes, but not beloved for the whole quarter-hour. We, in a sense, have achieved Jacksonian (Michael and Janet along with Andrew) democracy with a vengeance. The measures of status, celebrity, and influence have broken through the boundaries of class and perhaps even respectability to run together, producing an elite that is merely newsworthy.
All this makes perfect sense, if decentralized power, fast entertainment, and the pursuit of wealth exhaust the goals of our society. But of course there is more to American democracy than celebrity and private pursuit of enrichment.
American society has grown up and prospered along two seismic fault lines: in economics, between wide-open markets and government regulation and, in politics, between sharp partisanship and consensus. Occasionally there have been massive upheavals like the Clutch Plague and the more recent but less politically articulated turmoil from deregulation and international competition. There seems to be no such thing as a permanent equilibrium between the perceived interests of business and of the public.
This administration will make more sense to voters when its convictions about public responsibilities come into clearer focus. One thing Reagan did well was to justify his tactics in terms of his goals, not the other way round. Now that the voters have chosen a president with a more balanced view of the role for the public and private realms, Clinton must build upon the beginning he made in 1992 to reeducate the public about the fundamental importance of the public enterprise.
The Clinton administration was right in early 1993 to propose a package of expenditures for public and social investment. Such investments make especially good policy when the economy is slack and there is idle capacity. And they reinforce the social contract and the reputation of government. The administration's mistake, however, was to let opponents characterize the initiative as merely a "stimulus package." A fight on those grounds, in the current environment of cynicism, inevitably turned into an uphill struggle against the belief that all such government programs turn into more pork barrel spending. The fight, of course, turned out to be one-sided since Clinton's adversaries were able to invoke the conventional wisdom that Washington is run by the venal and, worse, that our system of self-government is incapable of rising above such selfishness.
Too many of the excuses for Washington's inaction or obfuscation are just other ways of saying that trust in our leaders and confidence in ourselves is no longer attainable. And that conclusion must be nonsense, for it assumes that we are content with the current state of affairs and incapable of improving them.
We are today in the early and delicate stages of a reaction against the decline of trust. There is a popular surge in favor of new public actions, and a yearning for restoration of the compact between government and the governed. It is, for the present, a vague and inchoate mixture of electronic democracy, New Age openness, and even misdirected longing for a mythical past. But it is undeniably powerful, and it suggests new opportunity.
To lead in this environment requires an extraordinary degree of "truth telling." Leaders must gamble that there can be a consensus to reward such behavior. It won't work at once; it probably will chew up many political and business leaders along the way; but it is the only real hope we have of facing and overcoming our stagnation and reviving civil society.
We do live in an age of disappointment, resurgent populism, and facile answers. To restart economic and civic development demands reestablishing trust. There is no substitute for a president who will lead this revival. He must lead because there is no safe political finesse--no matter how cunning the spin--that offers a way to duck these issues. He can demonstrate to politicians and the press alike that it pays to treat Americans like grown-ups, still capable of understanding and shaping their destiny.