Insiders' Game

This time of the year, there is a seamless flow on television as Sunday morning turns to afternoon, from the political talk shows to the NFL pre-game programs.

Both feature pontificating pundits chosen as much for their personalities as their insight. Style is at least as important as substance.


Most significantly, both are spectator sports. Professional football was designed as that. American politics was not.

Even on the verge of an election that has energized the electorate more than most mid-term votes, it still seems that the citizens are on the sidelines of a game that was once famously said to be "of the people, by the people and for the people."


It may be that, like those NFL contests, the game of governing has been handed to the pros. They make the decisions, we just root for our teams.

"We have been relegated to the role of spectators," says Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "We cheer our teams, but just as cheering only marginally helps the Ravens, it is not decisive on the field, what determines the outcome of this game is a whole set of other factors."

So, at least on the national level, what the outcome of Tuesday's election will mean beyond one team saying it won and that the other lost is not all that clear.

"The whole idea that people could govern themselves has always been problematic," says Ginsberg. "But our country more than any other did at one time rely on the citizen administrator, the citizen soldier, the citizen jurist, the citizen legislator.

"We took the idea of popular government much more seriously than any other place in the world, but that's in the distant past now," he says. "Unfortunately, now we have professional administrators, professional soldiers, and we very nearly have professional legislators. We citizens are generally spectators."

Ginsberg and his fellow Hopkins political scientist Matthew Crenson wrote the 2002 book Downsizing Democracy : How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized its Public, which chronicles the transfer of power from the legislative branch to the executive. The result of that, they document, is decisions that were once debated and voted on by elected officials are now made by regulators hidden in the corridors of the executive branch.

"Most of what we consider federal law is written by administrative agencies through pages and pages of rules and regulations, compared to the rather small number of statutes Congress produces," Ginsberg says.

These professionals don't spend much of their time talking to elected officials, but instead consult another group of professionals: the lobbyists who are paid to pay attention to the arcane details of government.


"This is what they do now," Crenson says of lobbyists. "They don't go to Congress. Most of them are rooting around in the executive branch to try to find an agency to give them the regulation they want, or immunity from regulation."

The result, he says, is that "elections don't determine that much anymore.

"Look at some of the great issues of the past that got people really excited and are now off the agenda," he says. "In 1896, the big issue between the candidates was monetary policy. Who decides that now? The Federal Reserve. It's off the table as far as the electorate is concerned.

"The same is true of tariffs, that were a huge issue in the 19th century," Crenson says. "The passage of reciprocal trade agreements allows the president to decide what kind of tariffs to impose. There is a whole range of issues that used to be at the heart of American politics that are not part of the discussion now."

If any election makes a difference, Ginsberg and Crenson say, it is the one that comes up in two years. Their new book Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced, due out next month, "picks up where the other one left off," Crenson says.

"We know that participation in government is down, so what are the consequences for the way government runs?" he asks. "The main one is that the executive branch is the only one that has the wherewithal to carry out its own will. The other branches just ask the president to carry out their wishes. If he doesn't want to do it, he has shown that he won't."


Certainly there are some presidential decisions - such as going to war - that attract the public's spotlight. But many decisions emerge from deep in the executive branch's bureaucracy, from obscure agencies and boards, from the experts.

"The president has found that he doesn't need Congress very much," Ginsberg says. "He can govern using executive orders and signing statements and regulatory review. With a large number of unilateral instruments, the president is able to ignore Congress to an extent that would surprise most Americans."

And even the decision about going to war is different than it was a generation ago, when the draft ensured broad citizen participation in the consequences of that decision.

"People always talk about the lessons learned from Vietnam," Ginsberg says. "One lesson the government learned was that if you have a citizen army, it limits your ability to fight. Citizens object and protest. So the Nixon administration created the all-volunteer professional army, a force that can be more easily used by the executive branch."

Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that young people want to become involved in the political process, something evident after such traumatic events as Sept. 11 or Hurricane Katrina.

"But a lot of young people, when you survey them, say rather touchingly that they are not going to vote and quite often the reason they give is that they do not personally have enough understanding or knowledge to vote well," he says.


"It's not what some people think, that young people think politics is a joke," Levine says. "They think the vote is important, but they can't cast it because they are not that prepared."

So the wisdom that was supposed to flow up from the people to the government is now perceived as going in the opposite direction.

Even, Levine says, when Katrina brought out a half-million people to volunteer, their attitude was that they could help with the house in front of them, but could do nothing about the larger issues confronting New Orleans, such as a dysfunctional school system.

Harry C. Boyte, who co-directs the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota, says that politics should not be singled out.

"I think in general, people feel about politics the way they feel about most institutions," he says. "I do a lot of work with young people and they see these big institutions as having a kind of logic and culture of their own that is pretty bizarre.

"I was having a conversation with some college students the other day and one girl said, 'Most of what we do, we don't have any sense of why we do it. It feels kind of weird,'" Boyte says. "The world feels pretty crazy to most people, kind of at a systematic level."


The issues are different now. Politics for the baby boomers was full of big questions that begged to be debated - McCarthyism, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, civil rights, Vietnam.

"All the issues you think about today tend to be complicated and technical," Levine says. "When you had something like the G.I. Bill, that was pretty simple - GIs coming back from service could not afford to go to college, so the government would pay for it.

"Now things like global warming and health care seem incredibly complicated," he says, citing that as a reason more are ready to turn governing over the pros in the regulatory agencies.

Boyte tells the story of meetings he arranged between students and members of the legislature in Minnesota.

"The students were amazed that the legislators cared anything about the community and the legislators were shocked and appalled that the students were amazed," he says. "Most everybody feels that the world is out of control and it's not their fault, it is forces beyond their control. ...

"They feel like they have to jump through hoops they don't understand," Boyte says. "It's why someone like Jon Stewart is so popular with them."


Some blame the media for the disconnect between citizens and their government because the coverage of politics mimics that of a sports event - it's a game that is all about who wins and who loses. Programs like those Sunday morning talk shows are geared to appeal to the fans of the political game, a segment of society as distinct as the fans of any other game. The difference is that they watch C-SPAN, not ESPN.

"It's all about strategy," Levine says of political coverage. "The ultimate purpose never even comes up. It's all about who should be doing negative ads now, or how do you reach the soccer moms."

He notes that this has filtered down to the lowest level as a national publication widely distributed in elementary schools had an issue on the 2004 election that explained red states and blue states and swing states and what the parties do to win.

"There was nothing about why anybody should care about who wins, what that would mean," Levine says.

But Ginsberg says the media get it right.

"People criticize the press because of this horse-race kind of coverage, but that coverage is appropriate," he says. "The issues and policies and proposals people talk about often are just weapons in political warfare. They are not taken at their face value, they are about who wins and loses.


"So when the press focuses on the contest, not on the substance, they are doing the right thing because often the substance is not substantive," he says.

Ginsberg says that as the electorate cheers for the political teams there is an unseen election going on, the one run by lobbyists and contributors.

"I often use this example," he says. "When President Bush first came into office in 2001, the very first piece of legislation he pushed had nothing to do with terrorism or weapons of mass destruction or Social Security, it was a bill that allowed credit-card issuers to raise their interest rates. This reflected the fact that the Republican Party received millions of dollars in contributions from the credit-card industry," he says. "So Bush was paying off his credit-card debt.

"This issue was not mentioned during the campaign, not addressed in the debates, but it turns out that this is what the election was about," Ginsberg says. "I dare say that if Al Gore had been elected, he would have paid off his debts as well."

So what will Tuesday's election mean on the national level?

"It's about one particular question," Ginsberg says. "If the Democrats are able to capture one or both houses of Congress, they will then control the investigative machinery of that house and launch serious investigations into the conduct of the Bush administration on every possible front, including the war, campaign contributions, lobbying, you name it.


"That's what elections are about these days," he says. "Each party uses investigations to smear the other."

The goal is to set yourself up for winning the next game, getting re-elected.

One telling sign of how much politicians are part of the community that elects them is what happens when they don't get re-elected. How many go back "home"? And how many stay in Washington as permanent members of the professional governing class?

"Some people say that it's better that we leave things to the professionals," Ginsberg says. But then he points to the Quixotic candidacy of a musician-turned-mystery-writer for governor of Texas.

"You know the slogan of that fellow in Texas, Kinky Friedman?" he asks. "It's 'I couldn't screw it up any more than they do.'"