Do Voters Really Want the Truth?

April 19, 1992|By JONATHAN SCHELL

An election is the means by which a self-governing people is supposed to express its will, but in the presidential election of 1992, this is plainly not happening. The people are obscuring their will. They are hiding.

A few statistics make the point. Forty-seven percent of registered voters in New York State are Democrats. The turnout in the Democratic primary was 27 percent. Of these, 41 percent voted for the winner, Bill Clinton.

However, Voter Research and Surveys has reported that among those voting, only three in 10 actually favored any candidate. The others were choosing the lesser of evils, or trying to stop some other candidate from winning. It emerges that Clinton won the primary -- and, many believe, clinched the Democratic nomination -- by winning the support of about one percent of the voting population. (A similar reductive mathematics can be applied to the Republican results in recent primaries.)

This performance suggests something more then mere boredom apathy; it amounts to an active rejection -- a sort of boycott -- of politics.

As many observers have pointed out, including Mr. Clinton himself, the moment someone emerges as a front-runner, the voters turn against him. They are not trying to put someone in the White House, it seems; they are trying to stop anyone from getting there. This contrary spirit was expressed recently by the surprisingly large vote in New York for Paul Tsongas, who had dropped out of the race. It's hard not to conclude that in the voters' minds this was his main virtue.

The most common explanation for this state of affairs is that the voters are angry. This is said so often that it's hard to say whether the news media are hearing it from the voters or the voters are hearing it from the media. (The person on the street these days shows a disturbing tendency to answer questions about politics in phrases that obviously originate in poll questions -- saying for example that he or she has "doubts about Clinton's character and integrity," or that "the United States is on the wrong track.")

It's another commonplace to say that this year the voters want "the truth," and are angry because they haven't gotten it. However, this is far from clear. If, for example, the voters would like to hear the truth about the federal budget, then it must be that they'd like to hear either that their taxes must be raised or that services must be cut back.

But no such message has been delivered by any of the major candidates, who all evidently calculate that such a message would make voters angrier still.

There is good reason for the candidates' fear. For at least 12 years, the voters have been voting against politicians who preach austerity and for ones who promise to spend more while taxing less.

In the Democratic field this year, the man who came closest to telling the truth about the budget was Paul Tsongas, who, to be sure, did not propose to raise anyone's taxes, but did at least oppose the "middle-class tax cut" offered by Mr. Clinton.

If the results are any indication, the voters are not so much angry at the lies of the politicians as they are angry that those lies, which the voters eagerly swallowed for more than a decade, are not true.

Such anger makes choice in the voting booth difficult. On the one hand, the public senses that the politicians who promise them both tax cuts and improved services are not telling the truth, and it holds them in justified contempt.

On the other hand, the public fears the sacrifices it would have JTC to make if some politician did tell the truth and acted on it. The easiest course is to turn one's back on the dilemma, while blaming it all on "politicians" and "Washington."

The choices for the candidates, meanwhile, are equally difficult. How do you obtain a nomination or office when, after winning one primary, the voters turn against you in the next one? New Yorkers were exposed to one device for dealing with this problem. In a television ad late in the campaign, one of those tough-but-warm male voices intoned, "Looking for a different candidate for president?" This candidate "actually has a serious plan to move this country forward," among other good things.

Who, I asked myself, could this mysterious "different" person be? Was there a new candidate in the race? The answer came. "His name? Bill Clinton, the real Bill Clinton," the voice said.

Different, though, from whom, I wondered? Then I understood: Different, of course, from Bill Clinton, the front-runner and incipient member of the hated tribe of politicians. Talk about slick! At the last minute, Mr. Clinton had decided to run against himself, and he had won.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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