Democracy in America

Leslie H. Gelb

July 05, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

New York -- He WAS not surprised when I asked him whether he should be thinking about running for president. "I would. It would be fun," Bill Moyers said in his intense, soft-spoken way. But for the next two years, no, he has obligations.

"But why do you think I should be thinking about this?" he continued. Well, I leaped to the bait and offered him three reasons: First, theDemocrats are not swimming in irresistible candidates. Second, the overriding issue for the country is to shift from foreign to domestic priorities, and you make that case knowledgeably and eloquently. Third, because you want to attempt a noble experiment: engaging "the American people in the conversation of democracy."

Permit me to stop at that third point and drop the lure. This former aide to President Johnson is highly unlikely to run for president, at least not in 1992. For now, he and I were more interested in talking about people's disgust with American politics and with his idea of energizing grass-roots democracy to make politicians solve problems.

Moyers thinks Americans can be reinvolved in their democracy, and thinks he can do it. I would like to see him or anyone try and succeed in reaching the general public with solid information and sound arguments rather than the usual nonsense -- but I have my doubts.

To me, an inert and uninformed public is a basic problem of democracy that can't be solved. To me, the fate of our democracy rests ultimately on the will and good sense of the people. But it rests daily and practically on the active and responsible involvement in politics of community leaders, people with the backgrounds and time to hold elected officials accountable. That involvement is what has diminished in American democracy. And it is that problem that can and must be solved if our nation is to forge a more effective democracy.

Moyers and others, I suspect, are looking at the wrong problem and in the wrong places for answers. Like a recent report from the Kettering Foundation, they start from this assumption: The American people to unprecedented degrees now feel angry at politicians, alienated from politics and powerless to alter the situation.

But Moyers, the Kettering Foundation, the respected columnist David Broder, and Washington Post political reporter E.J. Dionne (in his book "Why Americans Hate Politics") do not offer any evidence that these public attitudes are much different from historical norms. To be sure, there have been periods of public buoyancy (briefly with Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, for example). But voter participation has been pretty constant for the last 50 years, and surveys have always shown citizen knowledge of politicians and issues to be dismal.

Thus, it's hard to believe the Kettering Foundation's cure -- that the people want "a media that challenges them to think, that engages them in politics." Thus, it's difficult to buy Broder's answer that the way to reconnect people with politics is by reinvigorating political parties -- since parties were strong years ago without much effect on citizen participation or knowledge. Thus, it's a stretch to see why Dionne thinks the solution lies in cooling extremist ideological rhetoric.

A more powerful diagnosis emerges from Alan Ehrenhalt's book, "The United States of Ambition." This Washington-based analyst argues that what's different about American politics is not so much the voter as the politician. Voters behave basically the same as before. But for the last 20 years or so, politics has been taken over by full-time politicians, people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs whose overriding aim is to get elected and re-elected.

Ehrenhalt rightly rejoices in the women and minorities who came into politics this way. But he also rightly laments the defeat of established community leaders who often ran the show up to that point. There was much bad about the old elite system, but uch good as well -- nonpartisanship, a sense of community responsibility and skills to solve problems.

Far too many of these elites have given up on democracy and public service, and it is they who must be challenged to return to politics. Moyers agreed, but held to his view that the people still had to be brought in to keep the system vibrant. "In two years," he said, he'll try to prove his point.

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