Like a frustrated child, electorate throws tantrum ELECTION 1994

November 10, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Put politics aside, and the voters who ripped up the political landscape on Tuesday acted a bit like an anxious kid seeking help with his homework: They didn't necessarily want to be shown how to solve the problems, say those who study the American psyche. They wanted the answers.

The electorate's bold call to action was widely seen as an expression of political anger. But with its conservative, less-is-more tilt -- and with its selection, in many cases, of the untested over the experienced -- it was also a message that resonated with an angst, unhappiness and even selfishness that goes well beyond politics, say historians and observers of human behavior.

"This is something that's been growing for a while with the sense that the world itself is a lot more complicated place," said Steven Worchel, a psychologist at Texas A&M University.

"There is a lack of predictability in people's lives and a lack of order that have led to a general frustration, almost a sense of helplessness. And what people want is the solution.

"The message that came through in this election is we want action -- immediate action. And anyone who promises us that we're going to vote for."

This time, it was the Republicans, specifically conservative Republicans, who seemed to promise action. And such campaign tools as their "Contract With America," listing specific action-oriented goals, had great appeal.

"Democrats had been talking, sometimes in abstract terms, about goals they have, programs that are long-term solutions to problems," Dr. Worchel says. "That didn't fit the mood of what people wanted."

Anti-Democrat

And indeed, the vote turned out to be not so much anti-incumbent as the pundits had predicted, but anti-Democrat.

"Whatever people were angry about -- if it was the standard of living, if it was Clinton, if it was Washington -- they vented that anger on the Democrats," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press.

Social historians say Americans have felt a growing sense of uncertainty about their lives and society over the past several decades.

They are unclear about the role of the United States in the post-Cold War era, when there is no specific enemy.

Closer to home, they see social problems arise as immigrants -- legal and illegal -- come into the country, as the industrial structure of the nation that once offered a surplus of good-paying blue-collar jobs has changed and as the education system seems ill-equipped to deal with our children's increasingly complicated lives.

Elusive definition

The definition of America, and Americans, and families, has become more elusive, says Dr. Worchel.

"When people have very little to hang on to, many times they fall back and become selfish," he says. "If you look at the message of the people who won Tuesday night, their message was: 'I'm going to help you take care of yourself. Don't worry about others.' "

Some have called it "compassion fatigue," and nowhere was the sentiment displayed more clearly than in California's Proposition a measure that denies basic services such as education and emergency health care to illegal immigrants and their children.

The measure was passed by a large margin Tuesday night.

Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights historian, is sympathetic to people who feel overtaxed and put upon, and agrees the government spends too much.

The Baltimore resident also says the anger and lack of confidence displayed by the electorate has a bleaker side. It's a hostile message," Mr. Branch says. "The notion we've overindulged ourselves is a nice way of putting it.

"But there's a darker side to that -- that the richest portion of the richest country in the world should feel put upon rather than counting its blessings. It's odd. Never have people with so much been so angry."

Dangerous frustration

He and other historians and social scientists believe that voters' frustration and distrust of politicians can be dangerous in that it leads them to seek quick, simple and unrealistic fixes.

"Grabbing criminals off the street and putting them in jail is a short-term solution," Dr. Worchel says. "That's what is appealing now."

He says it also explains why voters are so quick to throw the bums -- even the new bums -- out and take a flier on the unknown. "You can't always come up simple answers or meet that appetite."

In fact, William Falk, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Maryland, believes that, in some ways, unhappiness with President Clinton is merely a continuation of the unhappiness the electorate felt with President George Bush.

He notes that, although voters were frustrated enough this year to virtually elect a whole new set of people to run the country, they were in many cases voting against, rather than for, candidates.

"It's hard to put together a government without being for something," he says. "The question remains open: what have we entrusted them to do? I don't see that they have any clear mandate except smaller is better, less is better, in some instances, doing nothing is better."

Dan Clawson, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, sees the message of election 1994 as a simple one.

"Nobody really knows what they want -- but they want a change," he says. "Maybe we've moved into an era of media candidates and weak political parties when every few years, we'll move from one direction to another."

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