Weary of Democracy

January 17, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- A couple of months ago, in a speech at Harvard, Vice President Gore quoted the best-known line of William Butler Yeats' poem ''The Second Coming'':

''Things fall apart; the center cannot hold . . . ''

He was speaking, Mr. Gore said, of ''our bleeding world,'' citing tribal slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda, but in adding three of Yeats' next lines, he could have been talking, too, of the state of democratic discourse and of American democracy itself in the city where he lives, Washington:

. . . The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.''

Those verses echoed, for me, last week when I read a brilliant but frightening article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine by a novelist named Steve Erickson, who began with this powerful sentence: ''America wearies of democracy.''

He continues: ''America feels at the end of its power, and the result is a hysteria of which we're barely conscious, a hysteria in which democracy appears as a spectacle of impotence and corruption. . . . We divide between the vast majority of us who -- out of futility, confusion or indifference -- are so disengaged from democracy we never vote at all, and those of us who vote not to thoughtfully resolve complicated issues but to express our rage. . . .

''The truth is that we are the problem with America. The process and politicians, the lobbyists and 'special' interests -- by which we mean any interest that doesn't pertain to us -- have reflected us all too perfectly; and we hate them for it.

''From dismal campaign to dismal campaign, we demand 'change.' . . . From angry election to angry election, we demand that politicians tell us the truth, and then punish those who do. When they speak of unpleasant realities and tell us things must necessarily get harder before they get easier -- Bob Dole on the subject of the deficit and Bruce Babbitt on taxes during the presidential campaign of 1988, Paul Tsongas on the economy in 1992, Warren Rudman and Bob Kerrey on entitlements, William J. Bennett and Jack Kemp on illegal immigrants -- we dismiss them at the polls or denounce then from the streets.

''From political season to political season, we demand our problems be solved and then make ruthlessly clear we expect someone else to pay the price.''

The Americans Mr. Erickson sees are hypocrites. But, worse, they are immature, celebrating a dimwit, Forrest Gump, as the best we can be. Because he is innocent.

But we are not. Says Mr. Erickson: ''We have not grown up enough to accept that America has never been innocent at all; it is not possible to call innocent a country where the original residents were systematically wiped out and the new tenants built a society in large part on the labor of people who were shipped over in chains from another continent. These original sins do not negate America's idealism and romanticism.

''But that such an idealistic and romantic country was created out of such profound transgressions is a more complicated paradox than we can entertain.''

He characterizes Democrats and Republicans this way: ''One representing incompetence and intellectual bankruptcy, the other bad faith and the iron hand.'' But he is harsher on Republicans for good reason. Citing Bill Clinton's 43 percent of the vote, calling him ''your'' president rather than say ''our,'' saying he is not ''my'' commander in chief, Republicans have deliberately questioned President Clinton's legitimacy -- and therefore have added to American weariness by questioning the legitimacy of democracy itself.

It is a dangerous political game we are playing these days. In Mr. Erickson's words: ''We have come to act more oppressed by freedom than invigorated by it, more concerned with freedom from rather than freedom to.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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