America's Image of Politicians: Why Do We Hate Them?

July 10, 1994|By MICHAEL NELSON

Do psychiatrists still use word-association techniques with their patients? You know what I mean: Dr. Jungfreud says "food" and the patient says "mother," the doctor says "girls" and the patient says "mother," the doctor says "father" and the patient says "mother," and they end up realizing that the patient has a hang-up with his mother.

I don't know what psychiatrists do nowadays, but I sometimes do a little word-association on the first day of my introductory American government classes at Rhodes College. The first word I say is "politics" and you should hear what my students come back with. Not "mother."

"Corrupt," they say, "dirty," "games-playing," "ego trip," "a waste." (The nicest thing I heard the last time I did this was "boring"). Here is how they respond to "politician:" selfish, ambitious, mediocre, unprincipled.

The teacher in me wants to despair when students associate words like these with politics.

I know, as did Aristotle, that politics is a vital and potentially noble human activity.

I know that politics was at the heart of our birth as a nation. (The founding fathers can be described in many ways, but no description will be accurate if you leave out the word politician.

I know that politics was the vehicle that integrated generations of our immigrant ancestors into the mainstream of American society. The job on the city road crew that my German grandfather got from the Frank Hague machine in Jersey City is the reason that my father and then I were later able to build careers of our own in the private sector.

And I know that it's politics that secures the basic freedoms that allow my students to say the critical things they say about politics.

The teacher in me also hopes that, as the semester wears on, the more students learn about the American political system -- warts and all -- the less cynical and indifferent they will become. A democracy can accommodate many things in its people -- passion, ambition, selfishness, even corruption -- but it cannot // long endure on a foundation of public cynicism and indifference, especially among the best-educated.

But that's the teacher in me. The political scientist in me is interested in understanding my students' initial attitudes toward politics and politicians. After all, these are the attitudes that they bring in from the world, having breathed them in at home, at their high schools, with their friends, from the Zeitgeist.

Students arrive on my doorstep politically cynical and indifferent because the larger society is cynical and indifferent.

In 1992, for example, when pollsters asked a random sample of Americans questions like "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do the right thing?" and "Would you say the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?," the share of respondents that gave cynical answers was anywhere from 15-59 percentage points greater than the share that gave trusting answers.

Compare these results to those from, say, 1964, when the share of people who gave trusting answers was much larger than the share that gave cynical answers, by a margin of 37-56 percentage points.

The data on voter turnout are equally disturbing. As recently as the early 1960s, the turnout rate in a typical presidential election was roughly two-thirds of the voting age population -- this at a time when millions of African-Americans were still disenfranchised in the South and when registering to vote was inconvenient for everyone.

Now, despite virtually full voting rights and registration procedures as easy as a visit to the mall, voter turnout is around half the voting age population, and we actually get excited when 55 percent vote, as they did in 1992. In midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections, about half the eligible voters used to turn out; now it's more like a third.

Why do Americans hate politics and politicians?

There is no scarcity of answers to this question. Last year being the 30th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination and the 25th anniversary of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and of Martin Luther King Jr., much was made of the despair about politics that spread among our people after those brutal deaths.

Other explanations for our distrust and cynicism are grounded in the lies and half-truths our government told about the Vietnam War and about Watergate and all its many offspring: Koreagate, Irangate, Iraqgate, and, most recently, Whitewatergate, to name but a few.

The news media are another likely suspect -- remodeled network evening news programs that treat politics and government with a sneer, now joined by a new-style trash TV news shows and radio talk shows (Rush Limbaugh, can you hear me?) that are overtly hostile to politics and politicians.

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