Chaos in Washington, but the nation rolls on


WASHINGTON -- Contemporary politics has three peculiarities. The strongest passions -- Republican hatred of President Clinton; Democratic loyalty to him -- are incongruous, given the nature of Mr. Clinton. Second, political ferocity increases as the stakes of politics shrink. And as saturation journalism drenches the public with news from Washington, the nation participates less and less in the passions swirling around the national government.

Disgust with Mr. Clinton is by now nearly coextensive with the truly adult population, and is intense in the Democrats' congressional cloakrooms, where members of the world's oldest political party resent the degradation of it, and them. However, hatred of Mr. Clinton is strange. Large passions should be called forth by largeness, and Mr. Clinton is defined by littleness.

He is the least consequential president since Calvin Coolidge, who was of small consequence as a matter of political conviction -- hence he was, in his way, large. Mr. Clinton had one large purpose, health-care reform, but he entrusted it to his wife, who botched it. There have been only two large events involving the national government in the Clinton years: The economy balanced the budget, and Republicans forced welfare reform on a reluctant Mr. Clinton.

Decline in crime

Yet the nation, rather impertinently, thrives. In 1997, violent crime declined 7 percent, to its lowest level in 24 years, partly because the prison population has more than doubled in a decade. In New York, homicides are one-third of the 1990 level, and below the 1964 level.

The American Enterprise magazine reports: The number of welfare recipients is declining, as is illegitimacy, teen-age sexual activity (after two decades of increases); births to teen-agers (down 12 percent since 1991); and abortions. The percentage of Americans saying abortion should be "legal under any circumstances" has fallen from 34 to 22 since 1990. Church attendance is rising (55 percent of teen-agers attend church at least once a week, up from 47 percent in 1975). By 78 percent to 15 percent Americans endorse "encouraging a belief in God" over "encouraging a modern scientific outlook." Since the late 1970s the percentage of Americans saying that religion is "very important" in their lives has increased from 52 to 61.

By 66 percent to 28 percent, more Americans worry about the nation becoming "too tolerant of behaviors that are bad for society" than about it becoming "too intolerant of behaviors that don't do any real harm to society." Beginning in the early 1980s -- during the "decade of greed" -- there has been a sharp increase (adjusted for inflation and population growth) in charitable giving.

Gregg Easterbrook, writing in the New Republic, notes that health is broadly improving. This is largely because individuals are behaving more sensibly (about food, drink, tobacco, exercise, sex). In 1985, 17 percent of high school seniors had tried cocaine; in 1996, 7 percent. A new book by University of Connecticut Professor Everett Carll Ladd reports that far from becoming an atomized nation of broken social bonds, America's social fabric is being rewoven by (for example) the 59 percent of parents of school-age children who participate in their children's classrooms. There has been a doubling, between 1977 and 1995, of the number of people volunteering for charities.

Most people are busy behaving well, are disgusted with people who are not, and are convinced that good behavior locally -- in society's little platoons: families, churches, civic organizations -- matters more than governmental measures. Which helps explain why people are consuming less and less traditional journalism.

The television audience is being fragmented by cable and satellite systems, and by the siphoning off of that audience by on-line information providers. In August, cable viewership exceeded that of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox combined. The volume of Internet traffic is doubling every 100 days as some 7 million households go on line each year. All this is sharply reducing the networks' prime-time audience (down 9 percent this season) that feeds viewers to local news programs.

Losing readers

Total national newspaper circulation fell from 63.1 million in 1984 to 56.7 million in 1997. The Boston Globe recently reported that in November, Boston's top three TV newscasts dropped 50,000 households below their level a year ago. The Globe's and Boston Herald's weekday circulations have declined 10 and 25 percent, respectively, in the 1990s. Boston ranks second among national media markets in regular daily newspaper reading by adults, but readership is down from 75 percent to 69 percent since 1994.

Americans are defining, and finding, news in new ways. Their self-emancipation from traditional sources, and from agendas set far away, reflects the decreasing relevance of the national stage, the performers on which resemble-- and are going the way of -- vaudevillians.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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