Symbol and substance


THE KETTERING Foundation recently conducted focus groups in Dallas and nine other cities as part of a study of the increasing antipathy felt by many Americans toward politics and its choices. The study concluded that people are not so much apathetic as they are feeling that they are impotent and shut out by the system.

"They do not see their concerns reflected as current issues are discussed, nor do they find issues framed in terms they understand," said the study. It also found "a deep sense of mistrust and neglect" about public officials who are seen as more interested in themselves than in public problems.

The report of the Dayton, Ohio, research foundation was issued several weeks after the publication of "Why Americans Hate Politics," a book by E.J. Dionne, a former political reporter for the New York Times now with the Washington Post. Its conclusions were strikingly similar.

"Since the 1960s, the key to winning elections has been to reopen the same divisive issues over and over again," he wrote. "The issues themselves are not re-argued. No new light is shed. Rather, old resentments and anger are stirred up in an effort to get voters to cast yet one more ballot of angry protest."

But such campaigns do little to help resolve the nation's problems, he adds, resulting instead in "a sharp decline in popular faith in government" and an increase in the alienation of the electorate.

Since a voter "believes politics will do little to improve his life or that of his community, he votes defensively," responding to negative commercials that portray candidates as a threat to his well-being by seeking to raise his taxes, take away his gun or force him to accept neighbors he doesn't want.

The current congressional debate over whether a proposed civil rights bill epitomizes what the Kettering study and Dionne's book are about. The debate is over whether a proposed civil rights bill would require employers to use racial quotas to meet affirmative action requirements. The principal antagonists -- President Bush and congressional Democrats -- appear to be motivated as much by political considerations as by substantive merit, producing a battle of racial stereotypes. The result of all of this may well be no civil rights bill, meaning that the more %J restrictive Supreme Court decisions that both parties want to change will remain in effect.

But lack of substantive action has become the rule in a system that increasingly has rewarded those who make the best political points. The recent classic was the 1988 Bush campaign, which made it seem as if the most important issues facing the country were cleaning up Boston Harbor, denying furloughs to convicted murderers, honoring the American flag and barring tax increases.

Any efforts to suggest there might be some serious domestic issues facing the country, such as the economic squeeze on middle-class Americans, were buried beneath a GOP assault and an inept Democratic response.

Since then, many Democrats have argued that domestic programs proposed by the administration, including a number featured in the president's speech on Wednesday night, often ++ have been crafted more for their political than substantive promise.

For example, school choice is an idea that is appealing to many people. But even many who favor the concept doubt it would really solve the problems of the nation's schools.

And though most people want to build more jails and make it harder for people accused of crimes to get out on bail, the problem of cutting crime goes far beyond those provisions in the measure that Bush again touted Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, the Democrats still haven't figured out how to cope with the GOP's successful use of symbolic and political issues. Having acquiesced in Republican tax cuts that have reduced the availability of money to deal with domestic woes, their leadership has even failed to find a way to provide relief from the current recession.

All of this helps to explain the frustrated attitudes displayed in the Kettering report and Dionne's book. It also explains why 55 percent of those sampled in an Associated Press poll last week )) said it made no difference which party wins the presidency.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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