America's Surprises

WILLIAM PFAFF

July 20, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- America's presidential system offers the country a complete new start every time a new President is elected. Nobody else has quite the same thing. In parliamentary systems, it is the party that is elected. Everyone knows the party's commitments, and the new prime minister has to carry his cabinet in what he chooses to do. No surprises are expected.

In other presidential systems, the candidate nearly always is a well-established political figure. There are no men from nowhere. Only the United States surprises itself with candidates who are virtual unknowns: Ross Perot, the Texas tycoon; Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer; Bill Clinton, a man without national standing only a year ago.

But Americans want to be surprised, because the surprise might be a good one, escape from a political reality become onerous, even menacing. With the convention's clash of cymbals and the patriotic marches, the cheers and balloons and funny hats, hope rushes in: This time it can be different.

This election year, the country confronts two fundamental problems underlying the specific social and economic issues named in the party platforms. First is the blocked system. The constitutional separation of powers has produced a stalemate between president and Congress that now has lasted the

greater part of 40 years.

Democrats have dominated the House of Representatives since Dwight Eisenhower's first term of office, in 1952-56. They have controlled the Senate in all but three congresses since then, a period during which there has been a Democratic president for only 12 years -- John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1961-69 and Jimmy Carter for one term in 1977-1981. The result has been government where president and Congress present conflicting programs, meant chiefly to place the other in politically embarrassing situations. The dismaying consequences of this for the nation lie all about us.

The second problem is social disintegration and a loss of a unifying sense of national identity. This disintegration began in the 1960s, with two main causes, the left's emphasis on individual and group rights and entitlements at the expense of collective responsibility -- in turn the product of the Vietnam trauma; but that is another subject -- and the simple demographic transformation of the country.

The latter has given the United States large Hispanic and Asian minorities, many of them still outside the national community of common political assumptions and expectations.

They are naturally separated from an inherited American civilization and religious history predominantly North European and Protestant in origins. The great strength of the United States in the past came from a sense of unity among virtually all the American people, both those descended from the original settlers and those who later chose to come as immigrants.

Racial division -- slavery -- was the primal curse on the country, and related to that was the regional conflict settled by the Civil War. Otherwise, there was little of the class division and hatred that marked Europe, or ideological struggles of the kind that dominated modern history elsewhere.

Now serious and uncompromising ideological conflicts exist. There is a dispossessed American underclass, largely ignored, if not despised, by those who have ruled the country for more than a decade; and there is a sizable part of the new population that not only stands apart but is encouraged to do so by those who reject the policy of cultural assimilation, which integrated previous immigrant generations.

The result is the lowest level of political participation among all of the Western democracies, and rampant political exploitation of the society's inherently irresolvable value conflicts. Issues are not debated, so much as attitudes are.

There has been a rise in demagogy in our political campaigns, evident in how the television campaigns are framed and their exploitation of personal and emotional issues. Enthusiasm for a magical politics -- ''trust in me'' -- contributed to Ronald Reagan's success and provided Ross Perot's principal appeal during his brief but flamboyant appearance on the political scene this year.

The argument often is made that America's situation is the same as exists elsewhere: that we are all implicated in some long-term crisis of the age, the United States simply further along than the others. A general disillusionment with established democratic systems and leaders is said to exist, with universal economic problems of low growth, high unemployment, stagnation.

This argument is another form of escape. America's problems are not those of Western Europe, and certainly not those of Japan. Except in Italy (for idiosyncratic reasons), the institutions of government in Western Europe work effectively. Politicians debate issues directly and at length on television and in the newspapers. There are plenty of conflicts, but they get settled by parliamentary votes or elections.

The American ideological rebellion against taxes has no counterpart abroad. Demagogy is kept to the margins in the other democracies, noteworthy only with respect to immigration, where it perversely reflects the sense of cultural solidarity in these countries. Nowhere else are a nation's great debates conducted by means of paid political advertisements on television and the candidates' appearances on television entertainment shows.

These characteristics limit any president's ability to change the country's course. We all would like to think that a presidential vote will transform how we live. The reality is likely to disappoint us.

The best reason to vote for Bill Clinton is that he would have a congressional majority to back him. The stalemate would be broken. Mr. Clinton then would have an opportunity to change the nation's course denied every Republican president since Eisenhower, and to the Democrats since Lyndon Johnson.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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