'Plebiscitary government, and a whiff of mobocracy'


FOR MANY years, whenever I've wanted to know what is really going on in Washington and around the country, the first journalist I read or listen to on TV is Elizabeth Drew.

Charming, urbane and perceptive, Ms. Drew would shoot to the heart of things while everybody else was stumbling about around the peripheries. Now, not surprisingly, she has done it again.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, she takes on the common wisdom, this time centering around the '92 campaign, as she writes: "The cry that the politicians are 'out of touch' is mistaken: If anything, the elected politicians are all too in touch with the moods of their constituents, and extremely loath to get crossways with them. This is what lies behind the inability, or reluctance, to do anything difficult."

Now, this is downright unpleasant to contemplate. It is not at all nice of Elizabeth to put some of the blame for the gridlock in America on poor, innocent little us. It has been so much easier to sit around in Washington at meetings and parties and have serious people wonder how all of the politicians could be so rotten while we American people remained so Edenically pure.

Once in a great while, some fool would hesitantly (very hesitantly) suggest that, after all, it is we Americans who file all the destructive and frivolously wasteful lawsuits; we Americans who don't pay more taxes or give up a cent of our benefits (remember the Medicaid brouhaha?), we Americans who choose have children we can't raise, with or without fathers, and let the food stamps fall where they may!

Well, we would scornfully dismiss that guy -- he really should know better . . .

But, back to Ms. Drew, I should have noted that the splendid article was actually on Ross Perot, most of it quite complimentary, but that she went on from those statements to voice some doubts about his ideas on a national "electronic town hall." She called this "plebiscitary government, and a whiff of mobocracy."

She reluctantly noted that "Perot's concept has the aura of quasi-fascism: Peron-style, or Mussolini-style, fascism, with the hero-leader, backed by 'the people,' breaking down impediments to having his way -- all, of course, in their name."

These words bring me to my next thought about this strange campaign and election year. I continually hear people disparagingly use the word "authoritarian" about Ross Perot. I heard it three times in one day recently, from three very different people, and I think it points to one of the genuine conundrums of this odd year.

Do we, "the people," honestly want to give authority to someone who can lead and get things done -- or do we not?

Our problem is one of authority. After the disillusionment of the '60s and the delegitimizing of traditional American institutions by the Vietnam War and the youth-culture revolution, Americans grew more and more suspicious of just about any authority.

Indeed, barrier after barrier was erected against authority in the late '60s and through the '70s, to protect ourselves from any and all of its abuses. Special interest group after special interest group arose, demanding everything for themselves and further paralyzing the common interest of the nation. In fact, many Americans no longer strove for the common good but for individual selfish goals, where traditionally there had been communal and creative national goals.

And now we see the outcome: a great nation that has tied itself in knots and virtually paralyzed itself out of a fear of authority that is wedded to pure hubristic selfishness. The outcome, unless something is done, will soon be a conglomeration of sparring and warring interest groups where a nation once held sway.

The key is the disparaging of the word "authoritarian." To me, Ross Perot looks about as authoritarian as Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He is simply a man who knows what he believes in and what he wants -- and he surely knows how to get it.

Autocratic, yes. But all efficacious leaders are somewhat autocratic. Stubborn, yes -- and bullheaded, as well! But have you ever tried to get something done by and with a leader who was not stubborn and who was not sometimes bullheaded?

This is no paean to Ross Perot; I just don't know enough about him to say whether he would be a good president or not. Still, this curious man has certainly raised a question that we need to answer: Are we really willing to give genuine authority to any man or woman aspiring to national leadership -- or do we prefer to go on as we are, and blame it all on our leaders?

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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