The Alienated American Voter: Are the news media to blame?

The attention of the American public is not riveted on government. As we are constantly reminded by polls and academic studies, millions of our people can’t name their city council members, their representatives in state government, or their representatives in Congress. Ten times more people can identify Judge Ito or Judge Wapner of TV’s people’s court than can identify the Chief Justice of the United States. Half our people donþt vote in presidential elections. Some 80-90 percent donþt vote in many local elections. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press never lets us forget that people pay little attention to the latest happenings in Washington or in Bosnia and China. Most of us are pretty much oblivious to something called the “Contract with America” and other hot button issues of the day in Washington. One of the endearing anecdotes from my days as a political reporter in Kentucky involved a congressional candidate who was asked to state his position on the Taft-Hartley Bill. He did not equivocate: “By God, if we owe it we ought to pay it!”

The Man in the Back Row

Seventy years ago, in “The Phantom Public,” Walter Lippmann gave us a sketch of the democratic condition. “The private citizen,” he wrote, “has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row, who ought to keep his mind on the mystery off there, but cannot quite manage to stay awake. He knows he is somehow affected by what is going on. Rules and regulations continually, taxes annually, and wars occasionally remind him that he is being swept along by great drifts of circumstance. Yet these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs. They are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, in distant centers, from behind the scenes by unnamed powers. As a private person he does not know for certain what is going on, or who is doing it, or where he is being carried. No newspaper reports his environment so that he can grasp it; no school has taught him how to imagine it; his ideals, often, do not fit with it; listening to speeches, uttering opinions, and voting do not, he finds, enable him to govern it. He lives in a world in which he cannot see, does not understand, and is unable to direct.

“In the cold light of experience, he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern. Contemplating himself and his actual accomplishments in public affails, contrasting the influence he exerts with the influence he is supposed according to democratic theory to exert, he must say of his sovereignty what Bismarck said of Napoleon II: þAt a distance it is something, but close to, it is nothing at all.”

It is not, I think, entirely cynical, to conclude that these sentiments are as relevant now as then. We may be born equal in the sight of the divinity and we may possess certain inalienable rights. But equal status in the political system and in the economic order is not among them. According to the dictum in Washington, your Rolodex defines who you are. I would add that it is not only the names on your Rolodex that count but the names–especially your own–on the Rolodexes of the people we call. After unanswered phone calls following his retirement, a journalistic colleague said he had made a discovery: “I’m not a has-been. I’m a never-was.”

In terms of political access, that is the normal plight of the average man and woman. They know, like Lippmannþs man in the back row, that real political power is as unequally distributed as wealth and health in our democracy. The Friends of Bill are not on the same row with the Friends of Joe Six-Pack. This gets our attention in the press every few years, but it is unclear if we in the media bear responsibility for this state of affails or, if we do, how we can repair the system.

In any case, the large promises implicit in the idea of “one man, one vote” have never been realized whatever the roles the press has assumed in political affails over the history of our country. In an earlier age when the concepts of self-government and citizen legislators became our foundation stones, it was taken for granted that the tasks of governing should be assigned to a small element of society-men of property and learning. We attached many qualifications for voting and other participation in public affairs–sex, race, literacy, age, residency, and property ownership. It was also taken for granted that newspapers on the whole would be controlled subsidiaries of the political parties.

Once upon a Time, a Passion for Politics.

Many of the requirements for voting andofficee holding eventually were discarded and a commercially successful press emerged, a press no longerfinanciallyy dependent on the parties but still capable of partisan practices that today would shock journalistic critics and practitioners out of their socks. We entered a long era in which great numbers of the unwashed and less privileged not only gained the franchise but gainedofficee. A passion for politics stirred the masses as Tocqueville and other travelers noted. Not everyone was pleased. In Boston, having the Irish in City Hall was comparable to having barbarians in the Temple. Others elsewhere had similar reactions as rewards for political activism became more and more visible and political participation became more common. There was job patronage on a large scale. There were also turkeys, coal, and bail money from the precinct captain; immunity from arrest for barkeeps, gamblers, and prostitutes, as well as flexible judges if you wound up in court; construction contracts and franchises for loyalists and high bidders.

This was more democracy than the country had ever seen, and it was inspired not only by greed or hope of material gain but by the partisan fraternalism and sense of belonging that we now call communitarianism and by lasting emotional intensities arising out of shared experiences, most especially the Civil War. An obvious legacy was the Solid Southþs century-long commitment to the Democratic party and Republican voting patterns that have endured even longer. The poorest county in Appalachia for a long time was the most Republican county in America and still is so far as I know.

When the first popular election for president was held in 1824, the turnout of eligible voters was about 27 percent. By the end of the century turnouts of 70þ80 percent were common. They then fell off precipitously.

Progressive Reform

Speculation about the fall-off in popular political participation in this century abounds. One theory assigns blame to the ever-present reformers who concluded that too much raw democracy was ruining the country. In response there arose among the middle and upper classes a strong Progressive movement designed to destroy the city political machines and the patronage and corrupt practices on which they thrived. The movement involved such radical proposals as a merit system for public employment; the use of trained accountants and auditors to keep the books in order; anti-nepotism laws; universal suffrage coupled with foolproof voter registration systems and various other safeguards against electoral fraud. These proposals coincided with the rise of social science as a legitimate field of scholarly endeavor and the rise of credentialism as a panacea for many ills. Doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers, and engineers, among others, would henceforth be credentialed by colleges and universities and licensed to pursue their professions or vocations. Eventually, licensing boards were set up for hairdressers, barbers, morticians, cabdrivers, the building trades, and so on. So why not credentialed public employees?

The thrust of it all was that the nation should have “clean” government and “clean” elections and should bring to government businesslike management of its financial affails and to government and business alike “professional” management and skills. Even newspapers began talking about the need for an educated newsroom labor force and for journalism schools to provide the training.

A generation of “muckrakers,” led by such figures as Lincoln Stiffens, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker, exposed the inner workings of the corrupt political machines and the corrupt use of economic power by corporations such as Standard Oil and American Sugar. Their work inspired newspaper people all over the country to emulation.

The results of the Progressive movement were mixed. Many reforms were achieved with lasting beneficial effect on societyþchild labor and antitrust laws, for example. But they had some unintended consequences.

Exit the Voters

Cleaning up government and elections greatly diminished the rewards of political activism for those whose credentials were nonexistent. One had now to pass a test or have a diploma to get a job; political loyalty was no longer enough. The Progressives and their muckraking allies had hoped that an “aroused public opinion would fulfill the promises of democracy,” clean up the mess, and move society toward a more utopian state. Instead, what followed was apathy and disillusionment. Voter turnout fell 40 percent from 1896 to 1920. Steffens’s marvelous book on the underside of politics, The Shame of the Cities, sold only 3,000 copies. Peter Finley Dunne’s character, Mr. Dooley, asked a salient question: “Is there an institution that isn’t corrupt to its very foundations? Don’t you believe it.”

The years since the mid-1960s are regarded by many journalists as the Second Muckraking era. All institutions have been fair game for investigative reporting and critical assessment. In part, because of these effects, the political process in one sense has been “purified” as Progressive reforms have been realized. The spoils system is by and large a thing of the past. Barriers to voting have been eliminated. Political party bosses are extinct, the smoke-filled room an archaic memory. The party machines that once provided the foot soldiers of politics have been replaced by a professional class of political consultants who in 1992 were paid $250 million to manage the elections of congressional candidates. That does not include the tens of millions of dollars paid consultants that year for presidential campaign services. They create the propaganda, raise the money, train and market the candidates, define issues and election strategies, organize rallies, get out the vote, and write the script for party conventions. They perform virtually all the functions once performed by ordinary people who now sit on the sidelines viewing elections, as Peter Shapiro has written, either with indifferent detachment or as “shameful exercises in mudslinging, obfuscation and demagoguery.” The primary elections and caucuses that were intended to open up the system have been no cure for political alienation and mistrust. The participation rate in the primaries of 1992 and 1996 was barely 20 percent of the population. The rich vote far more than the poor except in unusual settings such as the District of Columbia, where Mayor Marion Barry’s vision of government–jobs for loyalists and the needy–has drawn enormous support in low-income wards.

Are the Media Responsible?

There are two important questions here. The first is whether apathy and lack of participation constitute a “problem” for American democracy. The second is this: if it is a problem, are the media responsible in one degree or another?

On the first point, some would argue with Lippmann and others that nonvoting by uninterested and uninformed people is not a problem at all. It was their view that instead of grading democracy on the basis of popular participation, we should judge the system by the well-being of its citizensþ their health, education, safety, housing, and material standards of living. If those tests are met, this argument goes, the system works regardless of the numbers who participate in elections or otherwise take part in the political life of the nation.

That is not a popular argument. Academicians, politicians, and journalists tend to view the indifference or nonengagement of the electorate as a crisis. They are looking for causes, and one of the suspects is the press.

Professor Thomas Leonard, a student of the mediaþs influence on the Progressive Movement, concluded that the work of the muckrakers was a major factor in the decline of political activism in that era. “It was,” he wrote, “the discrediting of some basic assumptions about how democracy worked that made muckraking both shocking . . . and a message to pull back from political life.” He based this judgment on circumstantial evidence, not academic science or research into the psyches of voters by professional pollsters and psychologists. Those tools weren’t available then. In fact, the scholar Michael Robinson tells us that as late as the 1960s “most political scientists clung to the theory of minimal consequences . . . which relegates television and all mass media to a position of relative impotence in shaping opinion and political behavior.”

That theory is now suspect as evidence accumulates that the media–television in particular–exert political power. In his doctoral dissertation in 1972, Robinson concluded that news and public affails programs of the television networks were, in a broad sense, consistently propagandistic and sometimes malign. They evoked images of American politics “which are inordinately sinister and despairing,” causing the viewer to “turn against the social and political institutions involved, or against himself, [for] feeling unable to deal with a political system like this.”

More recent studies have reached similar conclusions: “negative” news stories and “negative” political ads create cynicism, drive people away from political participation, and often confuse them to such a degree that they refuse to vote or even read about politics and government.

Keeping Politics in Perspective

In pondering the implications of all this it is helpful to maintain a proper perspective. The fact that there are villains in government and politics and that the press is often wayward is not proof that political and governmental institutions are necessarily villainous or that journalists are always bad actors. That the American electorate includes many apathetic and politically ignorant people is not proof that the system is in terminal decline. A hundred million people went to the polls in 1992. The 80þ90 million who didnþt vote might very well have made a rational decision that they had little stake in the outcome.

A big ad in the Wall Street Journal last spring informed readers that “Without legislation correcting the BIF/SAIF premium disparity, SAID’s deposit base will almost certainly decline to the point that SAIF premiums would not cover FICO interest payments, resulting in a FICO default as early as 1997.” What is the guy in the back row to make of that? It is well to remember that while politics is central in the lives of the political class and in the professional lives of journalists, that is not the case with all of us. As Austin Ranney wrote some years ago, “The fact is that for most Americans, politics is still far from being the most interesting and important thing in life. To them, politics is usually boring, repetitious, and above all, largely irrelevant to the things that really matter in their lives, such as making friends, funding spouses, getting jobs, raising children, and having a good time.” So on election days, they may simply prefer to go fishing, secure in the knowledge, as Annie sings in her showstopper, the sun will come up tomorrow.

It is certainly true that many imperfections in our democracy remain despite the best and well-meaning effects of reformers. It is also true that the media have, in a large sense, much to answer for. Their own cynicism about politics and government has been infectious and often destructive. Their failure to put things in perspective is perhaps their greatest sin. But we have and will survive all that. As we deplore the state of democracy it clears the mind to ask: compared with what and with whom? We can profitably remember and apply to the gloomy speculations and fears about the future Winston Churchill’s great message to his country in 1940. “We are waiting for the long-promised invasion. So are the fishes.”