<i> Nina J. Easton is this magazine's staff writer. Her last article was "Rev. Murray's Gospel of Action," a profile of First AME Church's chief minister. </i>

Never have so many citizens held their government in such low regard. Saints go into the ministry, geniuses make fortunes in business. No one expects the nation’s great and noble minds to pursue politics anymore. The private lives and public behavior of political leaders are relentlessly dissected, while serious issues are treated with mass indifference. A cynical public believes its elected representatives have transformed America’s legislatures into self-serve buffets for corporate and special interests.

Americans no longer know who or where they are. And the nation’s leaders seem as much adrift as their followers.

IT IS THE VANITY OF EVERY GENERAtion to believe that its problems are unique. But those words, which so precisely limn our own times, paraphrase Robert H. Wiebe’s verdict on the dawn of the Progressive Era in his landmark history “The Search for Order.” Although the differences between the two periods are undeniable--in the late 1800s, for example, the nation’s political parties were stronger--the parallels are haunting: economic hard times brought on partly by overbuilding (the railroads were the culprits in the 1870s); an influx of immigrants that threatens a middle-class status quo; the rise of a third-party movement (the Populists in the Progressive Era) that is galvanizing voters who feel alienated.


With Election Day just 48 hours away, Americans are feeling at least as miserable about their political institutions as their Progressive Era counterparts did. In focus groups, we tell researchers that we care about politics, but we feel shut out, impotent, outmaneuvered by lobbyists and special interests, and overlooked by media that are more interested in sound-bites and sex than useful information. When voters take time out from mashing the potatoes to answer those dinner-time pollster calls, we complain that our faith in American political institutions has sunk to an all-time low. The people who study this sentiment in order to better manipulate it like to use the phrase political malaise and note that it started setting in a good 20 years ago, with Watergate and the Vietnam War.

But today’s alienated voters won’t find much sympathy for their complaints in the halls of academe, where political scientists describe the grumblings as naive whining and historians drag out parallels from the past. “Americans have been bellyaching about their political institutions since the Articles of Confederation,” says Walt W. Rostow, economist and historian at the University of Texas, Austin.

Worried about the influence of special-interest groups? Historians will refer you to “The Federalist” papers for a lesson in the role of competing self-interests in a democracy. “American democracy is more like itself than ever,” argues Byron E. Shafer, a political professor at Oxford University and editor of the book “Is America Different?” “It’s more full of individuals and groups raising issues, more full of public conflict and contention.”

Depressed over government gridlock? That’s par for the course in America’s constitutional system of checks and balances, insists Bruce Cain, political science professor and associate director of UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies. The Founding Fathers, he contends, purposely designed a conservative system that would not lurch forward until its leaders could command a consensus on questions of policy. Cain doesn’t want the system to work any more efficiently. In his mind, California Gov. Pete Wilson is cutting corners with his ballot initiative to give the governor “emergency” powers to unilaterally cut the budget. Wilson contends the proposal would reduce gridlock. But, Cain asks, with all that power, what’s the incentive to bargain with the Legislature?

Concerned about low voter turnout? Edmund S. Morgan, prominent for his chronicles of American colonial history, reminds us that voter turnout was distressingly low during the first 40 years of the republic. (So much for all the grumbling that only new democracies--such as those in Eastern Europe--appreciate what they have.) “I feel as frustrated as anyone,” says the 76-year-old scholar, now professor emeritus at Yale University. But, he adds, “while the system doesn’t work very well, it works better than most. It’s the oldest working system of major power in existence.”

That’s scant comfort. Americans take to heart the adage about the dangers of watching sausage and laws made. We are uneasy seeing this messy business of legislating, with its contentious wheeling and dealing. One lawmaker’s pragmatic compromise between legitimate interests, after all, is another’s gutless sellout of the average citizen. And when we’re exposed to the inner workings of a legislature, we rarely like what we see. It’s not surprising that a national Gallup poll last year found that confidence in the U.S. Congress plunged to new lows after the televised Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings.


Cain traces the current disgust with government to this one simple fact: As much as we profess to embrace the structured chaos of democracy, we really don’t like politics. “A lot of political scientists,” he says, “are frustrated at the attitude of the public toward politics. Somehow we have to revive the notion that politics is a good thing.”

And paradoxically, that might involve lowering our expectations of our political system. Probably more than any other country, America throws its entire being into the political pot--its gender wars and values debates and creeds of patriotism, its failed hopes and hopeful dreams. Americans expect the political system to solve problems that Europeans believe are better left at the dinner table. “In the European view,” Shafer says, “politics is about the distribution of economic rewards. Most Americans wouldn’t buy that. To them, politics is about the character of life.”

Just look at this election year: Alongside the deficit and free trade, we worried about whether working mothers spend enough time with their children and whether single parents were up to the job of raising a family. At the first presidential debate, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton was asked to define family . Voters may think that this year’s furor over family values and the disputed existence of a “cultural elite” represented a nadir in American politics. But, like many other scholars, Shafer says this was far from an unusual season. We may not like the sweeping nature of our political discussions, but it’s an inescapable part of the national character--and intrinsic to our system.

Indeed, say many of Shafer’s colleagues, America’s political machinery works just as it was designed to, even under a heavy load of unrealistic demands. “The central institutions are incredibly durable and incredibly secure,” says Augustus Richard Norton, professor of political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. And Michael Novak, resident scholar at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, contends that “our political institutions work remarkably well. They are designed to clang against each other. The noise is democracy at work.”

They and many of their academic peers suggest that we’re missing the point if we blame our institutions and leaders for our perception of politics run amok--or aground. If we really want to “clean up the political system” and “make government work again,” they advise, we should stop looking for demons in Washington and recall the sage conclusion of the cartoon character Pogo: “We has met the enemy and it is us.”

ON THIS ELECTION EVE, THAT’S NOT likely to be a popular assessment. This was a year in which voters reacted enthusiastically to talk of government reform, especially when it came from the mouths of perceived “outsiders” such as former California governor Jerry Brown and Texas billionaire Ross Perot. Campaign contribution limits. Term limits. Limits on lobbyists. If only we could block the influence of money--and politicians--on the political process, responsible government would be back in business. “We just have a bad system. We’ve got to change the system,” Perot told the nation during the first presidential debate. In focus groups afterward, voters told pollsters they favored Perot’s performance because he didn’t sound like a “politician.”

This was a season in which it was in to be out--out of Washington, out of government, out of power. It was the year of the independent candidate, the year of the woman, even the year of the Democrat. At least one-quarter of the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to turn over on Tuesday; at least two dozen more women could be elected to Congress. Clinton built his early lead in the polls partly on the inescapable fact that his party wasn’t the one in charge the past 12 years.

Like American voters, political journalists, too, tend to say government is broken, its leaders inept. In the best-selling “Who Will Tell the People,” journalist William Greider bluntly argues that American democracy is decaying, its political system enslaved to “narrow webs of institutionalized power”--corporate lobbyists who cynically manipulate public opinion on their own behalf, think-tanks that concoct facts for their sponsors, elitist reporters who are more comfortable playing tennis with White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III than covering Cincinnati’s City Hall. This fall, National Journal writer Jonathan Rauch grabbed Washington’s attention by diagnosing the capital’s inability to address the nation’s problems as “demsclerosis”--an irreversible disease marked by creeping special-interest gridlock.

But maybe proposals to tinker with the political system are deflecting attention from the root problems. That suggestion may touch a raw nerve with Americans, but it’s at the core of an argument posed by a broad swath of the academic community. Many thinkers blame the political system’s foibles on the “troubled sociology” of a fickle public, the “moral restlessness” of a nation.

It’s an analysis that bridges the extremes of the political spectrum. The terrain of dispute between Novak and Norton, for example, is a wide one. Novak is a prolific Catholic intellectual, a democratic socialist-turned-neoconservative who worries that the separation of church and state has gone too far. “The Supreme Court treats religion like a disease,” he complains.

Norton is an expert on the role of religion in developing countries. His studies of religious wars have led the liberal-leaning scholar to the opposite conclusion: “Any time we see church involved with the state, there is trouble, because of the sense of righteousness and piousness that religion brings.”

But set aside these ideological differences, and the pair’s conclusions about America’s supposed “political malaise” sound strikingly similar. Novak talks passionately about the country’s moral restlessness and notes that most of the serious problems--crime, violence, the breakdown of the family--are the results of personal choice and behavior, not the nation’s system of governance. A functioning democracy requires a trained citizenry, he insists. If people can’t govern their lives, their passions, then they can’t govern a nation.

“We’re losing the ability to govern ourselves,” he argues. “A great many people are adept at making government work, but for their own purposes and at cross-purposes with the community. What a free society does is empower people to pursue their own happiness. And for that to happen, there must be national ethos.” Novak maintains that “there was such a national ethos until very recently” with the emergence of sweeping social changes in the 1960s.

Norton has a different name for this national ethos. He calls it the sense of “citizenship” and further argues that it is a central component of any civil society. “We haven’t done a very good job of constructing a model of citizenship,” says Norton, who is heading a New York University-based study of civil society that is funded by the Ford Foundation. “One of the most destructive eras was the 1980s, when there was no concept of national service. It was very egoistic; you grabbed as much as you could for yourself.”

Los Angeles’ riots last spring, Norton adds, dramatized failure of citizenship in this country. There was a sense of alienation, of no shared norms. Decent income, education and health care would go a long way toward tying lost neighborhoods to the mainstream. But in the absence of that, the nation needs to find vehicles--such as youth corps programs--for people to feel a sense of belonging.

In his USC office in the heart of riot-torn Los Angeles, political science chair Michael B. Preston is as frustrated as any liberal-minded voter about the government’s neglect of the inner-city. Perot’s initial rise, he notes, was a sign of the nation crying out for strong leadership. But Preston, like Novak and Norton, adds this caveat: “People have to change as well. We live in a selfish society. As long as there is a comfort zone (from the problems of the poor), people aren’t willing to help.”

A number of social scientists extend their critique to the public’s political behavior. In contrast to Perot’s complaints that the “experts” treat voters like “unprogrammed robots,” these scholars blame voters’ sometimes contradictory actions, and their unwillingness to make painful choices. UC Riverside political scientist Barbara Sinclair echoes a number of colleagues when she complains that voters give off mixed messages by sending Democrats to Congress and Republicans to the White House. (President Bush has used his veto power to kill more than 30 bills passed by Congress.) That, of course, could change Tuesday. “If people in this election send a clearer signal, there’s a real chance for progress,” she adds.

And, these same scholars ask, what’s a political leader to do when the public wants a problem solved but won’t pay the price? (Most popular answer: Hide.) The deficit is the best example. Everybody knows how to solve the problem--as Shafer notes, we’re not talking about Northern Ireland here--but the public doesn’t appear willing to shoulder the costs. Even tough-talking Perot spent most of his campaign avoiding public discussion of his Draconian deficit-reduction plan, which includes increasing taxes on many Social Security recipients. “The public doesn’t want spending cut or taxes raised,” Shafer says. “They want the circle squared. The problem is not the institutions, it’s that the solutions won’t make people very happy.”

TO SOME CRITICS, ANY ANALYsis that forgives the political system while finding fault with voters smacks of blaming the victim. “The standard-brand political scientists are defenders of the status quo,” says political journalist Greider. “They are not supporters of democracy.” Greider contends that in their zeal to explain the political system’s foibles, these scholars end up explaining them away.

And University of Maryland economics professor Mancur Olson, whose writings form the basis of Rauch’s argument in the National Journal, likens America’s governing machinery to a house being gnawed away by termites. In this case, the termites are entrenched interests competing for scarce resources. “Whether you look at the rise of thousands of special-interest groups, or congressmen catering to 435 different constituencies, there is very little incentive to act in the national welfare,” he says.

Yet other prominent scholars, representing a range of disciplines, urge us to look inward when assessing American politics gone awry. The government, they remind us, has never fully lived up to the idealistic creeds its people impose on it. We weep over the abstract notions of liberty and equality; we perpetuate the folklore and myth of democracy in our schools; we send our men and women to die in the name of these American ideals.

Harvard political science professor Samuel P. Huntington argues that we set ourselves up to be let down. The chaotic business of governing a diverse society can never live up to these naive notions. When, as it always does, government falls short, Americans become cynical about its performance, distrustful of political leaders and institutions.

But until now, Huntington found hope in that cynicism. In four periods of American history--the Revolutionary, Jacksonian and Progressive eras, and the turmoil of the late 1960s and early ‘70s--the American people rose up in moral indignation over government’s failure to live up to their high standards. Discontent was widespread and politics often seemed full of commotion and upheaval, driven by the public’s anger over what it saw as threats to the American ideals of liberty and freedom.

This anger fueled reform movements and, ultimately, reform. In the Progressive Era, new laws busted the trusts and civil-service protections weakened the party machines. In the 1960s, civil-rights laws protected minorities not only from the abuse of their neighbors, but the abuse of the state.

Those sweeping social changes, says Huntington, grew out of great passion, and great passion grew from a public outraged over concentrations of power--not government gridlock and a desultory inability to cope with the complexities of a troubled economy. In the malaise of the 1990s, he doesn’t see much chance for serious change. “Now,” Huntington says, with a trace of sadness, “I don’t sense a great deal of passion. I sense despair.”

But it’s a despair that stems from how we live our lives, as much as how our democracy governs them. It’s not likely that reforming campaigns or streamlining bureaucracy alone will dispel that cloud of desperation. We may have to look to the day when Americans recapture a sense of connection to each other--and to the bulky, boisterous, flawed system of self-governance we hold out to the world. If our political institutions seem to be failing, Shakespeare would remind us, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.