Where are those angry voters? Political parties have numbled the feeling, not removed the cause

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the weeks before the 1994 election, the House Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided not to show committee members videotapes of focus groups of angry voters in key districts from Idaho to Maine.

"Why didn't you share them with us?" asked Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who survived the Republican roust.

"Because we didn't want more members to lose," answered the leaders.

The same instinct to deny anger prevails in this election season. The Republicans, responding to their acrid convention of 1992, kept firebrands Patrick J. Buchanan and House Speaker Newt Gingrich off prime time and talked instead about big tents roomy enough for moderates. The "Contract with America" was long forgotten, and when reminded of it, freshman Republicans denied parentage. In Chicago, loyal Democratic Party activists hardly mentioned the word "Democrat," demonstrators were kept at bay, and in the news vacuum, reporters interviewed one another about life at past conventions.

Has it worked? Were the consultants successful in dissipating the surge of anger so pronounced in the past decade? Sure they were, at least temporarily. What's not to like? Inflation, unemployment and the deficit are down, and President Clinton has surged way ahead of Bob Dole in the polls.

The new politics of joy might work to get Clinton re-elected, but in ignoring the issues that produced the anger of the '90s, both parties are sowing the seeds for future anger.

Take the economic disconnect. Those healthy macroeconomic figures mean little to the millions of Americans affected by all the other indicators: the rise in bankruptcies, the growing wage gap between rich and poor, a sharp drop in earning power, massive corporate downsizings followed by stock-swelling applause from Wall Street, and reduced medical and pension benefits in many of those vaunted new jobs. This is the first generation in the nation's history to believe that its children will not do as well, and also the first time that a majority of young Americans do not expect Social Security and Medicare to be around when they reach 65.

An apocryphal political cartoon shows a politician boasting that the economy has created 7.8 million jobs, while the waiter behind him is thinking: "Yeah, and I have three of them."

This is the most insecure generation since the Depression, with confusion over the economy bearing a greater relationship to political anger than any other factor. People still can't quite figure out their role in the post-industrial age, their place on the factory floor or executive suite of the virtual corporation. And try to explain the benefits of GATT, NAFTA and free trade to the Boeing worker whose job was "off-loaded" to China.

Moderates are fleeing Congress, fed up with the "gotcha"

mentality, the tendency toward the extremes on issues, and the anti-government hatred fueled by both parties and talk radio hosts.

Even former Gen. Colin L. Powell succumbed to the rhetoric, promising conventioneers in San Diego to work against the "entitlement state" as well as the welfare state. Whose entitlements was he referring to? His military pension or his health benefits? He didn't say.

Hate speech has escalated across the nation, encouraged by homophobic, racist and sexist remarks on and off the floor of Congress. The Republican National Committee circulated a "Liberal Democrat Wanted" poster designed to resemble the FBI posters of hunted criminals, and featuring a disproportionate number of women, blacks and Jews.

Don't forget apathy and the declining confidence in government. Apathy is a form of political anger, which politicians ignore at their own peril. In the Kennedy-Nixon contest in 1960, 65 percent of the electorate voted. Today, presidential elections are lucky to attract 50 percent, a high water mark compared with congressional elections. Only 38 percent of the electorate cast votes for the 104th Congress. Presidential primaries, which make or break the candidates who will lead the world's only superpower, attract the lowest numbers of all, some primaries hovering at the 5 percent mark.

Polls measuring "confidence in government" should worry leaders most of all. Three out of four Americans trusted the government in 1964, while today we are lucky to see 12 percent answering that question affirmatively.

In other words, denial is a risky strategy for both political parties, particularly if it means telling voters it is their own fault if they are not doing well. How can Americans truly continue to support public education if their children must pass through metal detectors -- as they do in many places -- just to enter the school building?

People have resisted taxes as far back as the Whiskey Rebellion, especially when they see little relationship between taxes and their daily lives. And no wonder their confidence in government wanes when scandal after scandal fails to result in genuine reform.

Political leaders who validate legitimate voter anger and channel it in constructive directions will own the next era.

Susan J. Tolchin is a professor of public administration at George Washington University and author of "The Angry American." This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 10/20/96

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