Enjoy! -- These Are the Good Old Days

GARRY WILLS

October 13, 1992|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago.--The air is full of groans about the plight of our political system -- how negative it has become, how empty, how bTC lacking in real leadership. Term limits are recommended to help us get rid of incumbents as so many encumbrances on democracy. The journalistic coverage of events is denounced for reducing everything to the ''horse race'' level.

Well, things are pretty bad, which is to be expected from that messy thing, democracy. Plato always warned us that if you let people try to get what they want, many will be disappointed and turn sour, while others will get what they want and be corrupted.

Democracy is not pretty, and never has been. But it is the best form of government we have been able to discover, and it is working now better than it ever did in the past.

Those people who doubt this have little knowledge of our history -- of the corrupt campaigns and candidates and office holders who filled the 19th century. Corruption then was very hard to criticize because it was hidden beyond the efforts of most investigators.

Sober historical reflection leads to three considerations that may come as a surprise to people who like to think there were some ''good old days'' in the past that excelled our present. Here are the three conclusions:

* The American electorate has never been broader based, more educated, more informed, more interested and active than now.

* American journalism has never been so varied, more informed and informative, less venal and deceptive, more corrigible.

* American office holders, from the local to the federal level, have never been more representative, better educated, harder working, less corrupt, more exposed to scrutiny and reproof and reform.

If things are so good, why do people moan so? There are many and complicated reasons for that, but one is the simple lack of historical perspective. For instance, our voter ''apathy'' is contrasted with the high turnouts of the 1880s, when 80 percent to 90 percent of the people voted.

But ''the people'' then was a minority of the adult population. Women were excluded, which sheared away half at one sweep. Most transients and poor and black people could not vote.

No one could vote who did not overcome the obstacles to registration (residence requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests). Much of the turnout was marshaled by city machines with coerced or bought support. It was a large turnout in a small (and a muddy) pond.

Or consider the range of coverage available to people now. Back when newspapers were the only major journalistic source of information, most of the papers were openly and violently partisan, with little chance of objective discussion or debate.

Now newspapers correct the errors in television ads. Ethics panels monitor and correct the campaigns, and their findings are reported. People have more direct access to the candidates' views. Each campaign has put out a book this year that, whatever its special pleading, is more serious, readable and informative than the old unread position papers of the past.

We are not in a perfect world. But there is no period in our history that can boast a more open democratic process. All we have to do is ask, in a less sexist way, the question Henny Youngman has used to counter inquiries about his wife. To ''How's your wife?'' he would answer, ''Compared to what?''

Compared with all other systems in existence, and with our own over the years, our political procedures are working surprisingly well.

The good old days are now.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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