San Diego. -- There is no public. Either that or the public has moved without leaving a forwarding address.
These are two conclusions that can be drawn from this year's dismal presidential race. Webster's defines the word public as ''of, belonging to, or concerning the people as a whole.'' But finding the public today is as hard as finding a politician who inhaled.
What we used to consider the public meeting places -- village squares, the school auditoriums, town halls -- have all but disappeared.
We've moved into private subdivisions, hired private cops, walled ourselves off. Downtowns and village squares have been replaced by malls, which look public, but eject malcontents and political brochures with cool efficiency. With few exceptions, public parks have been claimed as private territory by gangs, drug dealers and the homeless, many of whom have been turned out of closing public mental hospitals.
We spend less of our lives in our neighborhoods and more at the workplace, careful to remain corporately correct. Our kids are bused to magnet schools miles away. We don't go to the bank; we stop by an ATM. Even violence is mobile and placeless: Drive-by shootings and freeway assassins are the rage.
Newspapers keep trying, kind of, to revive the old public space. But marketing gurus have all but killed the general-interest publication, dissecting it into a thousand zones and market segments, slicing it and dicing it until all that's left are feathers and the echo of a squawk.
Americans do continue to express themselves. In the current political race they do this by voting for the candidates of bile, or by voting for none-of-the-above, but mostly by not voting at all.
Two-thirds of Americans are fed up with mainstream politics, as reflected in the poll showings of Ross Perot. One possibility is that Mr. Perot is simply an expression of spring fever, but another possibility is that Messrs. Clinton and Bush are battling their opponents in the old public space, while Mr. Perot is rising in the new public space.
Where's the new public space?
It can be glimpsed at the malls and, briefly, on ''Entertainment Tonight.''
''To pick up the newspaper and scan the front page is to feel yourself a member of a world in which such things as politics and public affairs matter,'' writes Jay Rosen, an assistant professor of journalism at New York University, in Kettering Review.
''The world of MTV and 'Entertainment Tonight' offers a different kind of membership. It generates its own news, its own politics, its own sense of movement, its own moral sense.''
This alternative universe may be ''creating a different kind of citizen, an alternative way of participating in an alternative public world.''
The new public space is often knit electronically: parents seeking advice from other parents on computer bulletin boards; telephone ministers offering ''telecare''; multimedia personals for lonely-hearts; fax newsletters, and the buzzing, often anonymous computer forums.
Paradoxically, the new public space is everywhere and nowhere. Sweaty, confrontational neighborhoods, parks and political parties have been replaced by communities of interest, but these new galaxies seldom collide.
Clever politicians have figured this out. Jerry Brown circumvented the old political forms and connected directly with the new public space with his 800-toll-free line.
Ross Perot conducts his campaign almost entirely on television and by telephone. As Newsweek reports, he and his small staff are on ''an electronic campaign trail running parallel to the traditional one on the ground.''
Instead of contesting the New York or California primary, Mr. Perot enters the Larry King primary, and sweeps it. He sets up a complex phone bank to handle callers, weaving them into his own political network.
Indeed, a Perot administration might rule by talk show. He says he would conduct what he calls ''Electronic Town Halls,'' gathering experts for discussion, and encouraging voters to interact electronically.
Maybe Mr. Perot, who made his billions as a computer entrepreneur, has simply reached the new public space first. Conceivably, it's a public space with no walls and no limits. That's not exactly a comforting thought.
L Richard Louv is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.