Job One Is to Deal with the Nation's Deep Public Cynicism

MADELINE LANDAU

November 11, 1992|By MADELINE LANDAU

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA — Berkeley, California.--Gov. Bill Clinton should not discount the effects that cynicism in the electorate will have on his mandate to govern. For without a change in the prevailing ''anti-government'' climate, electoral victories will be undermined by ever-mounting support for negative measures (such as spending caps and term limits) that further restrict public authority.

An understanding of this seemed to be behind Mr. Clinton's campaign theme of a ''new covenant'' between citizen and government. When that failed to strike a spark, it was quietly withdrawn and nothing surfaced in its place to capsulize the Clinton agenda. Neither the ''invest and grow'' mantra nor some compelling proposals for structural change in health care and foreign trade served to articulate what might be called a ''theory of positive governance.'' Without that, the Democrats once again failed to provide a cogent rebuttal to the largely rhetorical, but persistent, Republican attacks on government.

Under the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council, Mr. Clinton interpreted America's pessimism as a turn against liberal policies. Accordingly, the antidote to cynicism was to reconnect public policy to such mainstream values as family and to repudiate ''big government'' through appeals to entrepreneurship and the reduction of the federal bureaucracy.

This interpretation rested on the acceptance of the neat and tidy categories of the pollsters. But these conceal the real dislocation and confusion in the views of the American electorate. When we probe beyond polling questions that simply reflect yesterday's sound bites, we don't find clear or consistent positions on what is wrong with our government, economy or society.

And herein lies the heart of the matter. The depth of public cynicism today reflects a quite practical bewilderment over the causes of and solutions for increased governmental complexity and ineffectiveness. Ours is an operational, not an ideological, disillusion; it is traceable to the inability of our political discourse to explain the rapid changes in our public and private institutions. We are, in a word, stymied by a nationwide ''civil illiteracy'' -- a terrible gap between the public's understanding and the new realities we must face.

This gap offers Mr. Clinton a precious opportunity to emerge as a public educator, not merely as a policy engineer. Ross Perot accomplishes precisely this when, for example, he instructs that ours is a ''19th-century capitalism'' while Europe and Japan have moved to the cooperative arrangements of the 21st.

To offer this kind of intellectual leadership, Mr. Clinton must upset the conventional wisdom, must explain that our political and administrative gridlock owes to two decades of reforming government, not to the growth of ''big government'' -- reforming Congress, reforming the political parties, and, above all, reforming bureaucracy.

The public needs reminding that criticism of government began in the '60s, not the conservative '80s. Back then, reformers, both right and left, sought to reform liberal programs, not (for the most part) to expand them. In the process, hundreds of anti-authority and de-bureaucratizing reforms were enacted, but they were grafted onto existing systems, complicating our governmental processes beyond recognition.

American politics has been stuck there ever since, recycling the same old set of stale reform choices: centralization versus decentralization; public versus private; local versus national; professional versus community control. Drawn from the social theories of the 19th century, these dichotomies are hopelessly outdated and divert us from grasping the new institutional interdependencies that we must learn to navigate.

Mr. Clinton has a head start in changing this destructive discourse. During the primary debates, he was the only candidate to warn: ''Our categories trap us. In education, for example, we need national standards and grass-roots action.'' In the last debate, he again challenged the ''for or ag'in it'' mentality of our debates, urging us to ''improve instead of polarize.''

But, this insight still needs a frame. Mr. Clinton can unify many of his proposals for improvement by connecting them to the central organizational problem of our time -- increasing institutional fragmentation and complexity at the very time our traditional mechanisms for bridging sectors and forging cooperation have weakened. The ''new covenant,'' thus, should take into account the crisis of fragmentation and suggest some concrete ways to re-link our political, economic and community systems.

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