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Archive for Saturday, November 2, 2002

A disconnect with democracy

November 2, 2002

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Er, how should we put it just days before the midterm elections? Maybe this way: With war on the horizon, the economy sputtering, homeland security in doubt, with scandal tearing at our important institutions, health care slipping out of the reach of millions, the fate of vast swaths of public lands up for grabs, with the middle class besieged and the future of Social Security at stake, with all that, a nation polarized across an important ideological gap prepares for a watershed vote that will determine the course of events for the coming two years and possibly beyond.

Of course, we can also say, yawn. Ho hum.

According to Tuesday's weather and how it plays tricks on turnout here and there across the country, and depending on the last-minute impulses of a handful of flighty swing voters who will pick the lesser of evils as depicted on TV commercials, we'll live with it.

"Disconnect" is one of those dreary words that's come into popular overuse. But what else can you say about the 2002 midterm elections? Stakes are high, interest low; the choices narrow, the outcome potentially ground-moving democracy's disconnect.

Americans get the government they deserve, as the saying goes. "Democracy gives every man the right to be his own oppressor," wrote poet James Russell Lowell.

Seldom, though, do we feel so aimless at it. Another desultory and expensive round of campaigning now sputters to an end on a note of expedient caution. The death of one Democratic senator and the scandal of another has given the nation pause and reason to reflect but not anything fast to grasp on to.

All politics are local? Not in their consequence.

In South Dakota's Senate race, the two candidates eagerly argue about what they agree on: "South Dakota values" and drought relief for local agriculture. The outcome of their neck-and-neck race, though, may determine the question of oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic wilderness.

"We'll come out of the gates next year fast," Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi was recently quoted as saying. He was talking about the possibility of the GOP retaking the U.S. Senate and holding on to the House of Representatives, providing George W. Bush with the muscle, if not yet the mandate, to back up his ambitious conservative agenda.

Of course, that kind of campaign bluster is the exception this year. More typical might be Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, who cautiously leads the Democrats' Senatorial Campaign Committee in defending the politics of stalemate.

"When I travel around the country," she said, "people feel strongly that the Democratic Senate is the only check on the Republican agenda. They are grateful that we stand as a roadblock."

Contrary to predictions, the terrorist attacks of autumn 2001 have not reawakened an appreciation for government, at least not so that you can tell in campaign 2002. Rather, candidates remain chiefly obsessed with winning tiny, or sometimes not so tiny, groups of chronically undecided voters whose brief attention spans and superficial engagement define what passes for the vital center of politics.

A few years back, Bill Clinton demonstrated how this could be turned to advantage by moving the Democratic Party several degrees to the right, co-opting such conservative ideas as welfare reform. Out to do him better, Republicans now shift their campaign themes toward the center without bothering to alter their policy aims correspondingly. For example, GOP candidates have suddenly disavowed the idea of "privatizing" Social Security, while many still support the president's proposal to allow Social Security funds into private investment accounts. The result of these tactical politics is voter cynicism and disconnect. In the last off-year election, 63 percent of citizens chose not to vote.

The good news about Tuesday is that midterm elections are famous for turning conventional wisdom on its ear. At the national level, campaign 2002 is most commonly described by what it's not: It's not a genuine argument over the country's direction, not an inspirational appeal to the citizenship, not a coherent inventory of our best political ideas, not a reach for the future.

That leaves even the most committed and eager voters without much to work with.

Perhaps, though, they will be wiser and more incisive than the campaigns they've had to endure. We can hope. Either that or we can wish for some luck with the weather.

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