Posted on April 13, 1992 in Washington Watch
This week’s election story can be written in three words: anger, confusion and alienation. It is interesting to note, however, that it is not only voters expressing these attitudes toward politicians: politicians themselves are now speaking out against the political process.
It has been clear for a number of years that there were dangerous and destabilizing undercurrents in American politics, but the depths and rage with which they run are only now becoming apparent.
Look at these recent indicators:
1) Voter participation continues to drop to new all-time lows. The total vote in this week’s New York and Wisconsin primary elections reflected a decline of 35% from 1988. In New York only 7% of all eligible voters went to the polls.
2) Democrats are extremely uneasy about their apparent nominee, Bill Clinton. Of the Democrats who have voted thus far, 64% are dissatisfied with the current list of candidates and would prefer someone new to enter the race; and a plurality of Democrats, 46%, feel that Clinton is not honest enough to be President!
3) George Bush has not been spared from criticism, even from within his own Republican Party. While the Buchanan protest vote continues to decline, since Buchanan has run out of money and cut back his campaign effort, polls nevertheless show that 20% of Republican voters expect not to vote for Bush in November and that over 45% of those who have voted for Bush are dissatisfied with him.
4) For the first time ever, polls are showing that a majority of Americans believe that their own member of Congress should not be reelected. In the past, while Americans have expressed negative views regarding Congress as a whole, a majority have always supported their own representative. They no longer do.
This strong show of negativity in voters’ attitudes has spawned (and is, in turn, being fed by) the protest candidacies of Democrat Jerry Brown, Republican Pat Buchanan, and now independent candidate H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire.
The feeling that Washington is corrupt and that politicians cannot be trusted has turned most Americans away from voting and simultaneously created a base of support for the various “anti-politics” campaigns among the voters who remain.
A New York Times election day poll showed that a startling 69% of voting Democrats agreed with Jerry Brown’s criticism of politics as a corrupt, big-money game. In Kansas and Wisconsin, 26% of all voting Democrats and 25% of all voting Republicans said they would switch their vote to H. Ross Perot in November, presumably as a protest against their own parties’ nominees.
This voter anger, and the confusion which reigns in government, has begun to take a toll on politicians. In addition to the increasing number of Congressional resignations (now approaching 60!), during the past week Washington and the nation were stunned by the angry resignation of three senators. While differing slightly in tone and style, the resignations of New Hampshire Senator Warren B. Rudman, North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad and Colorado Senator Timothy E. Wirth share some basic themes: – government is out of control—it is increasingly difficult to make policy, shape a consensus or pass meaningful legislation, and the competition between political parties and between the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government, has produced a state of paralysis; – the burden of raising money, hiring consultants and campaigning has become precisely that—a burden and so, as one retiring Senator summarized it, being a senator is no longer “fun” or “ennobling”.
While some media critics and cynics may be pleased that their “throw the rascals out” philosophy is bearing fruit, all of this begs a question. In fact, it begs two questions: – How did we get to this point? – Where will this anger and alienation lead us?
I have long believed that U.S. politics is in need of fundamental reform. Never before, however, has the failure to reform the system threatened its viability to the extent it does today.
At the root of the many problems inherent in our democracy as it has evolved are two interrelated factors: money and the media.
Simply put, politics has become a media-driven game, and in an effort to shape or control media information politicians have been forced to purchase increasingly expensive advertising.
Gone are the days of the citizen legislator. Most politicians do not actually meet voters and argue their case face-to-face with those they seek to represent. Most Americans receive their information through television and radio, and politicians know it is vital to reach voters through these media. Campaigns today are propelled by “twenty second sound bites”—the simple quote that a politician seeks to get on the evening news. An entire speech outlining a major political theme is heard by a few hundred supporters, but millions will hear only the twenty second quote.
Campaigns reacting to this phenomenon have developed strategies to feed into it. A well-led campaign can predict with a high degree of certainty which twenty seconds the media will use, so entire speeches and candidate performances are designed around this particular twenty seconds: a tear or a choke in the voice at the appropriate moment, holding up a prop or a picture, wearing a hat, picking up a baby or hugging a reporter, a sudden shift in emphasis, a dramatic gesture, or repeated use of a pat phrase are usually the keys.
To compliment this effort to control free media, campaigns design fifteen or thirty second television advertisements to define their message in a good light or to define or criticize their opponents. The most important people in today’s political campaign are not the issues or policy staff, but rather the media or image consultants who groom the campaign and the fund raisers who feed it.
It is important to note that this process has evolved over a number of years. While it was evolving, it simultaneously brought on a devaluation of personal contact and personal involvement in politics.
The costs of purchasing advertising time and hiring the consultants to run the campaigns to “design the media messages” have reached all-time highs. Congressional campaigns can cost $500,000 to $1,000,000. Senate campaigns can average $5,000,000. As a result, elected officials complain that they cannot govern because from the day they are elected they must begin raising the money for their next campaign.
At his resignation announcement, Senator Wirth called politics a “massive income redistribution program”—raising millions of dollars from people to pay the media by buying campaign commercials. Complicating the problem is the reality that most money in any campaign does not come from the district or state the politician represents. Powerful political action committees, representing special interests groups, contribute almost $200,000,000 to campaigns every cycle. Add to that the hundreds of millions raised in the financial centers of New York and Los Angeles and the result is that many campaigns raise less than 5% of the money inside the district or state and 95% comes from somewhere else. It’s no wonder, then, that politicians confuse their constituencies between those who pay for their campaigns and those who vote for them.
Politicians have become fund raisers and media images and “glad-handers” who greet constituents at fund raising receptions. Politicians have become more distant from “their people”, and in turn “their people” have become more alienated from “their representatives”.
The power of the media is felt in another way. Some, but certainly not all, politicians are media creations. Images, twenty second sound bites, slick ads create paper thin public personalities. These images, created by the media, can in turn be destroyed by the media. Even the most substantive individual can not long remain in high esteem when subjected to constant media attacks and negative exposure.
The same media that for years gave Ronald Reagan a free ride discredited his Vice President, George Bush, as an indecisive wimp with no political philosophy. A carefully crafted media campaign during his presidential bid and his leadership during the Gulf War produced a different media image: George Bush became the ideal president, strong, decisive and visionary.
After the war’s conclusion, the media again reversed its image of George Bush. During the summer of 1991, before the Democrats began their national contest for the presidency, the New York Times ran a series of lead editorials with a telling title: “Pinch-hitting for the Democrats”. They attacked the President’s handling of the economy, and one by one the networks piled on.
The nightly news led with stories of economic decline. A virtual feeding frenzy of negative coverage followed, and brought on a precipitous drop in consumer confidence in the economy. This has reinforced the genuine economic recession.
The fact is that we are in an economic recession. Unlike most recessions, however, the major reason for the decline has been a shift in consumer attitudes and corresponding drop in spending, and not the lack of investment. A recent economic analysis published in the Washington Times argued that a lack of consumer confidence in the economy as a whole had driven spending levels down, and any despite structural signals that the economy is improving, the slowdown will continue until consumer confidence is restored.
Thus, while economic indicators show signs of hope for a recovery, public confidence, fed by the media with negative images, remains low. In other words, a significant factor in the public’s dim view of the economy is not the recession itself but the media-created attitude about the economy in general. This phenomenon has prompted one liberal journalist to write about what he called the media’s “recession obsession.”
All of this is not meant to argue for or against George Bush’s or Congress’ handling of the economy, but to illustrate the power of the media in shaping attitudes that can erode public confidence and increase voter anger and alienation.
The same can be said about the recent revelations regarding the “Congressional check-bouncing scandal”. The fact that the now infamous “House Bank” was not a bank at all, that members were writing checks against their next month’s pay, that members earned no interest on surpluses and therefore paid no fees on overdrafts, and that no taxpayer money was ever involved in the entire affair—all this was overlooked by the media in its dash to expose a “scandal”.
In reality there was no scandal at all. Yet many good members of Congress have already resigned and many more will lose their reelection bids because of a media-created furor which has cost them dearly.
At this point one could almost feel like the carnival barker spinning the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ saying, ”’Round and ‘round and ‘round it goes, and where its stops nobody knows.” The system appears quite clearly to be out of control, and it is in great need of reform.
The role of money in politics must be brought under control. there must also be an examination and criticism of the media’s controlling role in the political process. The arrogance and lack of civility shown by the media toward elected officials and candidates for public office must be challenged by the political leadership.
It is important to note that these very issues are now being raised by several campaigns, and serious proposals for campaign reform are under discussion in congress. Many of these proposals call for spending limits, control of political action committees (PACs), limits on out-of-state or out-of-district fund raising and, most importantly, for free media access for political campaigns.
It will take time to both undo the damage that has been done to our system and to restore voter confidence in the political process, but one of the most important qualities of our American democracy is its capacity for self-correction. In some ways, not voting can be seen as a form of voting, as a vote against the entire political process. As more political leaders rebel, either by basing their campaigns on a call for reform or by resigning in protest, it is clear that the seeds of change are be sown.
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