A Broken System?

April 12, 1992|By SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG

NEW YORK — New York. -- Is our political system broken? Some candidates say so. Many voters believe it.

But what do people mean when they say the governing machinery is broken (or, as politicians like to say, "dysfunctional")?

When a candidate says it, he wants us to believe that he, and he alone, can repair it. But when average voters say it, they seem less than confident that they've seen anyone yet who can fix things.

What's broken, obviously, is our trust in government. The belief that government for the most part tells us the truth, is fair, does the right thing has been eroding for decades. Indeed, trust in government is a faith that some voters are too young to remember at all, because they came along after Franklin D. Roosevelt and The Good War and the time when, pre-eminent world power though we were, we felt little touched by the world and quite certain that the good life and the impossible dream could be attained only within our borders.

And now -- in this presidential campaign of 1992 -- we find ourselves somewhere near the reckoning moment of that long history of erosion.

The anger level threatens to soar off the chart. Nobody's speaking in human tones; everybody's shouting.

The United States has splintered into warring camps -- 2,879 warring camps at last count. People for larger candy bars. People against candy bars as cholesterol hazards. People for saving animals. People for eating and wearing animals. People for regulating everything. People against regulating anything. People for smut. People against it. People chewing up people everywhere.

You hear a lot of explanations for why America has split into a thousand pieces, all of which appear to be spinning out of control centrifugally.

One is that it's the result of the unfortunate death of the political party system. Perhaps it should be noted that this system whose death is bemoaned as unfortunate is the same system we used to pillory as the corrupt fiefdom of bosses and machine politics.

Anyway, all the explanations for the splintering come to the same conclusion, which is that the America of the old myths finally died on St. Swithin's Day of 1975 and a giant vacuum was created. It was into this vacuum that the warring camps moved and set up their tents.

Some people say the press is one of the most powerful of the camps. These people say the press has the biggest say about who gets to run for president. We journalists investigate and interrogate them. We ask them to undergo tests that we ourselves could not pass. It's an unpleasant task, but we do it as a national duty because the political parties are gone and someone has to step in and save the country.

Turn on your television set at any hour these days and you'll see news persons doing their duty, demanding of one candidate or another why he didn't tell the whole truth about this or that controversy the first time around. Politicians haven't been telling the whole truth about anything from the time of Nineveh, yet until now we hadn't viewed the sin as quite the equivalent of mass murder.

I know you're thinking I'm talking here about Bill Clinton, whom I call Silly Billy. He's silly, frankly, because he doesn't seem to learn from his drubbings. Even an adolescent realizes when he gets caught in a fib and gets punished badly that, even if the punishment was excessive, he should try, if only for purposes of survival, to avoid repeating the performance.

But then he shouldn't feel alone because maybe all the present candidates will be destroyed in the centrifuge. What happens then? The news analysts say the result would be a "brokered convention." But what does this mean? Brokered conventions are things that happened when political parties were still alive and the machine bosses were in charge. Who would "broker" a deadlocked convention now?

Still, with all the hollow analysis and media adolescence and splinterism, something serious is going on. A lot of Americans are truly angry. They're angry not because the people who govern don't tell the whole truth but because they rarely tell any truth at all. They're angry because they have watched this

constant dissembling and have come to the conclusion that the people who govern are looking after only themselves.

The Americans who are angry -- and they are not a small number -- know that there is exaggeration in their primal screams. They know that not everyone in Congress is a rotter and that the White House sometimes doesn't lie. But they don't care anymore about these nuances because they can see that in the large picture they have been forgotten.

Are we having an insurgency, a kind of revolution? Is it mostly because we are in a time of economic pain? No one has the answers yet. All we can know is that something serious is happening.

Sydney Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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