The Political Paradox


Council Bluffs, Iowa. -- An inarticulate alienation from government is evident in this city, which has as good a claim as any to be the American heartland. Lewis and Clark passed by Council Bluffs; the Mormons paused here on their journey to the Great Salt Lake; Abraham Lincoln made Council Bluffs the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific's strike westward, to bind the eastern states to the Pacific.

This political alienation is different from the old and casual

American assumption -- as millions of American fathers have said to their sons -- that "politics is a dirty business," and politicians crooks.

Crooks are a normal part of society. What people seem to feel today is that government is a vast machination that threatens their fundamental well-being. The Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press last month published a survey that found the electorate "angry, self-absorbed and politically unanchored," frustrated with the present system of government in the United States and responsive "to alternative political solutions and appeals."

My own impressions here, at a family reunion, suggest resentment rather than active anger, with people convinced that the government in Washington is at best disconnected from their lives, and at worst a menace to them.

But why? This is an incoherent alienation. It is hard to find what, specifically, people reject, other than taxes, "bureaucracy" and politicians as a class. As many have pointed out, the same people who object to "big government" depend on it for farm and ranching subsidies, federal aid to local government and enterprise, Social Security entitlements and so on. They also have a very high opinion of the armed forces, which surely are expensive bureaucracies, and notoriously wasteful ones at that. There is very little logic to what people are saying. But this resentment is central to politics in the United States today.

It is responsible for the welcome given even to such weird political candidacies as those of Oliver North and the California millionaire Michael Huffington, whose political ambition -- he says -- is "a government that does nothing."

Retired Lt. Col. North, candidate for the Senate from Virginia, convicted of having obstructed Congress, misusing classified documents and receiving an illegal gratuity, now enjoys the support of former Secretary of State James Baker, Sen. Bob Dole, former Vice President Dan Quayle and other prominent Republicans anxious to be associated with the turbulent ex-Marine's expected victory.

The Times Mirror survey says that nearly 60 percent of Americans would like a third major political party. Seventeen percent voted for Ross Perot (more of them declared Republicans than Democrats). There is widespread support for mandatory term limits, a form of blind retaliation against all politicians.

The country has trapped itself in a political paradox. People say they want less government. Senate candidate Huffington, who has presidential ambitions, wants no government at all (which would seem to make it pointless to become president; but logic does not enter into this). There are many others who would say practically the same thing.

Yet to the extent that the government's role and funding are diminished -- which in practical terms means impoverished public services, crumbling infrastructure, a general deterioration in public performance -- the more people complain.

Candidates say cutting taxes will make government more efficient, which obviously is not true. Efficiency is a matter of management. Reduced funding simply makes government even less able than before to give the public what it complains it does not now receive.

The other advanced industrial countries, which Americans see as welfare states, do not, generally, experience the tax-driven politics that characterize the U.S. Political campaigns in Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan, the Netherlands are not dominated by calls for lower taxes, even though taxes there are much higher than in the U.S. Only Britain resembles the United States. Taxes were cut in the Thatcher years, leading to bitter complaints today that the health service, education, railroads and other public services have worsened -- which they have.

Germans, French, Swiss and others pay up, not because they like to pay taxes, but because they visibly get something for their taxes. The American problem is that people claim that they do not get a return in public service and public amenity, and conclude that they should pay still less, which inexorably means that they will get even less and become even more discontented.

Demagogues, meanwhile, tell them they can have more for less, but demagoguery, too, eventually bumps into reality. The congressional Republicans' "Contract with America," announced last week, promising a series of new tax cuts in the first 100 days of a Republican-controlled Congress -- together with more military spending and a balanced budget: a return to Reaganomics -- has not been a success. In Iowa eyes it is just more politicians' cynicism.

The Clinton presidential campaign succeeded two years ago because it promised active government intervention in such crucial matters as health, without new taxes. Polls at the time said that people actually were willing to pay higher taxes if they could have reform. That moment of realism, and opportunity, now has passed, and a Republican victory in the November congressional elections is generally forecast. This means that voter cynicism has been confirmed, and the American political paradox worsened.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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