Wahington -- COVENANT" is a sacred and dangerous word. Connoting an agreement that is solemn and formal and has almost biblical overtones, it not surprisingly is seldom used today in what passes for American politics.
Yet, that is the word being used about the relationship of a disgusted American people to its increasingly irrelevant government. "Americans feel that basically their political covenant has been broken," is the way the Kettering Foundation puts it in a watershed report, "Citizens and Politics, A View From Main Street America."
What did citizens across the country say about their government? Did their responses confirm the conventional wisdom that Americans are apathetic about politics, that they no longer care, that civic duty is dead? To the contrary!
The study revealed that Americans are really angry. Far from being apathetic about politics, they feel they have been dispossessed of their political system. Elections are no longer important because there has been a "hostile takeover of politics by special interests and lobbyists, along with negative campaigns and the media." They say they feel basically unrepresented, and that the only time they might be heard is when they decide to organize into groups, raise large sums of money -- like "special interests" -- and angrily protest policy decisions.
Nor, as is commonly thought, are they lacking in civic virtue or passion. Just as they feel pushed out of virtually every area of the political process, they have in their neighborhoods a "wellspring of civic responsibility that nobody is tapping into."
As David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation repeated to me: "They are saying to politicians: 'You've broken the covenant. If money is more important than my vote, then what kind of country are we?' "
There are beginning to be other glimmers of these new critiques of America today. Another report, this one by Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Barone Center of the Press, Politics and Public Policy, had this to say about directly related concerns:
"Thanks to the weakening of political parties and the rise of television, the news media have unwittingly become our new political bosses." The public is "uncomfortable with the empty and negative propaganda politics that dominate today's political discourse." And, "no wonder voters are tuning out . . ."
In these findings, we see now on one side of the national fence, the old-style American; and on the other, the special-interest groups, the fashionable media and the professional politicians who respond primarily to them.
The old-style American believes still, despite everything, in the social compact in society and in a covenant with his government. He sees life in terms of hope and faith and believes in acting in such a manner as to maximize the good. He also believes that, with the exercise of common sense and proven religious and cultural values, progress can be made.
On the other hand, these new-style political Americans -- the interest groups, the modish media stars, the politicians -- are different. They pretend to concern themselves with "the people," but in truth they are contemptuous of them.
Unleashed personal ambition, almost exclusively to have power and money rather than for the accomplishment of anything, is the order of the day. And essentially they cynically appeal to -- and organize around -- the most negative in mankind, thus offering society the very antithesis of the "covenant." They have a professional stake in problems never being resolved.
Some of the intellectual haze about what is wrong with our politics -- and with "the political" -- in the country is beginning to clear. It cannot clear quickly enough.