View this article at Policy Review, December 2000/January 2001

The American political system has thrown off some truly anomalous results in the past decade. We have gone from the historic 1994 election (a 50-seat swing in the House of Representatives bringing to power a Republican leadership promising “Revolution”), to an historic presidential impeachment and acquittal, to an historic 2000 election in which voters divided as evenly as imaginable in their preference for Democrats or Republicans. We are practically awash in the historic these days.

Commentary in the weeks after the 2000 presidential election told us to watch events closely, since we would never see their like again in our lifetime. This may be true, but it may also miss the larger point. For those who found themselves disturbed one way or another by the outcome and aftermath of the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore — or as the Clinton impeachment drama unfolded, or as the Republican Congress tried to enact its Revolution — the uniqueness of each event and the unlikelihood of a recurrence may be a false consolation. We may not run into these particular oddities again, but it may be that we are in the midst of something bigger — a pattern of oddity.

One can certainly try to explain away these and lesser instances of strange politics. For example: The fact that a former professional wrestler was elected governor of Minnesota — and that one Sunday in 1999, the governor decided to make a triumphant return to the ring as referee in the World Wrestling Federation Summerslam — well, it is certainly strange. But it is also perhaps colorful, in the great American tradition of eccentricity, and not especially noteworthy except in the context of that tradition. Anyway, Jesse Ventura won office with a narrow plurality in a three-way election. How significant is this?

Or, for another example, the fact that voters in Missouri cast their ballots in the state’s 2000 Senate race for a man who died three weeks earlier — because the governor promised to appoint the man’s widow to the seat — is macabre, and perhaps uniquely so. But the “widow’s pension” has a long pedigree in American politics, even if it is not exactly a noble one, and it hardly seems fair to single out this instance as especially noteworthy. Americans are sympathetic to the bereaved, after all. The late Mel Carnahan’s election may have been no more than a particularly florid expression of that.

And if it’s a bit odd that the son of the forty-first president sought to become the forty-third in a race that ultimately hinged on the vote count in the state in which the candidate’s brother served as governor — even as the wife of the president of the United States was unprecedentedly winning election as a United States senator — well, family has always been important in politics, no?

But if instead of trying to explain away these possibly isolated instances of oddity, we take the sum of them — then add to the mix a failed revolution, an impeachment and acquittal, and the closest and most litigated presidential election ever — we could probably be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that this has been a distinctly volatile period in American politics. And we might want to ask if the country has run into anything like this before, and if so, whether any such previous periods have enough in common with our own to point to something that might help account for these strange days.

 One needn’t scratch at this volatility too deeply before some of its paradoxical qualities become apparent. For example, the American electorate split evenly in the 2000 election — not only in the presidential vote, but also in that voters elected a House and Senate nearly equally split between the parties. But are voters themselves really so bitterly divided?

Certainly, elite partisan and ideological opinion is. Those who associate the advance of their ideological interests with the progress of the Republican Party are at loggerheads with those who associate the advance of their ideological interests with the progress of the Democratic Party. This may not be the most acrimonious period in the history of partisan politics, but it is hardly one of comity. There is unmistakable continuity between the bitterness of the fight over the “Contract with America,” the bitterness of the argument over impeachment, and the bitterness of the argument over vote-counting in Florida.

But this is elite opinion, not mass opinion. There is no reason whatsoever to think that anything like a majority of the 103 million people who voted in 2000 see politics and elections in such Manichean terms. On the contrary, by any number of measures of public opinion, the electorate these days seems generally content with conditions nationally, generally contemptuous of and cynical about politics, about which the electorate is not particularly well-informed in any case, and perhaps placid to the point of docility.

Nor have the two parties tried to rile people up — though one makes such an observation in the presence of those who care deeply about politics at one’s peril. What about the name-calling, the attack ads, and the obviously untrue last-minute pleas to core supporters that the end of the world is near unless each and every one turns out on election day to defeat the enemy? Who could deny that such incendiary tactics figure into most campaigns? This is, indeed, undeniable. But it is important to bear in mind how such negative campaigning is designed to operate on its intended audience: It rallies people against supposedly imminent danger. It rarely invites people to gather in support of great controversial causes. And as for what the two parties stood for in the 2000 election, they were both working diligently to position themselves as close to the center of the American political spectrum as possible.

This was a campaign in which both candidates campaigned on tax cuts, on paying down the debt, on private accounts as a supplement for Social Security, on more federal involvement in education, on expansion of Medicare to provide a prescription drug benefit, and on continuity in foreign policy. Each said he was committed to smaller government. Both supported the death penalty on the narrow grounds that it deters, but both professed to be troubled by it. The two disagreed not over whether the United States should increase military spending (it should), nor over whether the United States had become and should remain the strongest power in the world (likewise), but over whether the United States was as strong as it should be. Both wished eternal life upon the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. The convergence of the two parties was genuine.

This is not to say that there were no differences. Partisan Democrats saw sharp distinctions between themselves and Republicans, and vice versa. The candidates themselves even said so. Bush accused Gore of favoring big government and centralized decision-making in Washington. Gore accused Bush of favoring the wealthiest 1 percent over helping the middle class and shoring up Social Security. And, of course, partisans on each side were right to see differences. The faithful understood perfectly well that behind each campaign’s reach for the middle lay rather different visions of where the country should go and how it should be governed. But there was no indication in any of the polling data that most voters discerned an esoteric meaning behind the rhetoric of the two campaigns, nor that they really believed Bush or Gore about the existence of a big difference, nor that they thought they faced a choice between starkly different visions for the future. When the American electorate divided evenly in 2000, it was not dividing evenly between support for the fascists and support for the communists.

In fact, the broadest indicators point to a continuing disengagement of voters from politics. Throughout the political season, pollsters found consistent evidence that few people were paying much attention. The level of ignorance about where the candidates stood on the issues was quite high. For example, the “Vanishing Voter” project of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government repeatedly surveyed Americans’ knowledge of the candidates’ positions on a variety of issues. The final survey, released two days before the election, found that of U.S. citizens 18 years of age or older, 37 percent said they did not know if Bush supported a large cut in personal income taxes, and 11 percent erroneously thought he opposed such a tax cut. Fifty-one percent said they didn’t know if he favored a tax credit for low-income people to pay for health insurance, while 22 percent mistakenly thought he opposed it. Thirty-nine percent said they didn’t know if Gore opposed using part of Social Security taxes for private retirement accounts, while 19 percent thought, wrongly, that he favored doing so. On the question of tax dollars for private schools, 41 percent said they didn’t know if Gore was in favor or opposed, and 21 percent erroneously thought he was in favor.

In some cases, the ignorance extended to who the candidates were. MTV, which would have no obvious reason to overstate the ignorance of American youth, reported that a survey it commissioned found that 70 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 could not name both vice presidential candidates. It is striking that bulletins throughout election day reported high voter turnout, when in fact voter turnout was 51 percent, its lowest in a presidential election with no incumbent since 1924, when Calvin Coolidge beat his closest opponent almost 2-1. Perhaps what accounted for the mistaken reports about high turnout in 2000 was the novelty of seeing any kind of line at the polls at all.

There are a number of possible explanations for this disengagement. Some observers take a kind of perverse comfort in it: The United States is a great country precisely because our political system allows people to concern themselves with their daily lives rather than politics. Others have argued that politicians are at fault, because they have failed to offer anything of value to a large swath of Americans, especially the working class. Others say that large numbers of Americans have concluded politics and politicians are corrupt, and that the people can do nothing about it. To risk a generalization that tries to encompass these and other explanations, one might say that large numbers of Americans have concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the problems they face in their lives are matters on which government has nothing to offer them.

It would be a mistake, however, to equate disengagement with discontent. Of the latter, there is little indication. In a time of peace and prosperity, polls show high levels of satisfaction among Americans. Most think they are better off than they were, and most believe things will get better still. Most people think the country is on the “right track.” For most of those who think it is on the “wrong track,” the worry is not policy but a perceived decline in moral values — something that is surely reflected in the world of politics and governance, but not assigned to it in the way that, say, the question of whether and how to reform welfare is.

Meanwhile, political protest is hard to find, and when it has bubbled up, as at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization and the Washington meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it has been characterized mainly by incoherence; there was no obvious answer to the question of what demonstrators wanted. A populist crusade would seem a fool’s errand. In the end, much of Ralph Nader’s early support in the polls returned to its home in the Democratic Party in 2000, and the Reform Party candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan vanished without a trace.

Contentment and disengagement: Is it now the case that Americans think current uniquely benevolent conditions require no exertion on their part to maintain? Are they in for a rude awakening come the next recession or foreign crisis? Surely there is no comfort in the fact that on the eve of the election, 48 percent of American didn’t know George Bush was for an income tax cut (and that the 52 percent who said he was includes those who happened to guess correctly). This cannot be good.

Given low turnout, it is probably fair to conclude that most of the invincibly ignorant stay home, leaving the decisions to those who are paying more attention. The “Vanishing Voter” project found that 43 percent of nonvoters thought Republicans and Democrats were alike, compared to 21 percent of voters. Those who turn out at the polls are clearly applying finer standards of discrimination than those who stay home. But how comforting is this, really? The old joke goes: Q. “Which is worse, ignorance or apathy?” A. “I don’t know and I don’t care.” If ignorance is truly on the rise, it’s hardly cheering to find oneself rooting for an equal increase in apathy, in the hope that the few who do show up to exercise their franchise will have at least some clue as to what they are doing.

What if ignorance wins? What does it mean if Al Gore really did turn his political fortunes around by kissing his wife at the Democratic convention — and that George W. Bush’s comeback began by kissing Oprah Winfrey? If politics is exclusively a matter of symbolism and semiotics, and if the parties turn out to be equally good at them, will we reach the point at which we can say that each party can figure on fooling about half the people all the time?

Such reflections are, to be sure, somewhat perverse at a time when throughout the world, there is no serious competitor to the idea that in order to be just, government should be democratic. At the same time, the age-old problems of democracy remain: What if the people decide they want something they can’t have? What if they democratically vote democracy down? What if they are too ill-informed to understand what goes into preserving the way of life to which they have grown accustomed. 

It is surely overblown to suggest that we have arrived at that point. Yet disengagement and near-even division do have consequences. The American people are simply not providing much in the way of instruction to their elected leaders about what to do — instruction that might take the form, say, of a clear majority in the House and Senate, or even a clear answer to the question of who should be president. But that is not, finally, the end of the matter. It falls to the people’s representatives to try to figure things out.

We have perhaps become a bit casual about the republican character of American government, certainly more so than we are about its democratic character. A substantial part of the drama of the history of the United States turns on the question of political equality, which is obviously intimately related to the question of who gets a say on election day. The democratic character of the country has increased as the franchise has broadened by turns from white, male property owners to all those aged 18 or over. It seems safe to say that Americans are generally pleased with themselves for their increasing democratization, which they regard as an American ideal.

Yet what the Constitution lays out for the central government and guarantees to the citizens of each state is a republican form of government. The people’s say in their laws is not direct, but channeled to the election of those who make law. The Framers clearly feared the tyranny of the majority as much as other forms of tyranny. Hence the careful separation of powers and the system of checks and balances between the branches of government — hence, too, the federalist character of government, with substantial authority left in the hands of the states. And while one can point to numerous ways in which the processes of government have become more democratic over the years, its structure remains republican.

If this structure offers some protection from the tyranny of the majority, it may offer protection also from the indifference, disengagement, and complacency of the majority. Our elected officials and the elites that serve them — Democrat, Republican, or neutral — may from time to time have to rise to an occasion.

There was much well-meaning talk in the aftermath of the 2000 election about the need for Democrats and Republicans to work together, to meet in the middle, etc. One might think that would be easily achievable, given the centrism on display from the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. But the reality is more complicated, and it is hardly just another case of the two political parties’ dispute being so bitter, as Henry Kissinger once famously said of faculty infighting on campus, because the stakes are so small.

The truth about the relatively cheerful and benevolent policy status quo in the United States is that it is a product of long and bitter political struggle that continues to this day. The convergence of the two major political parties is not something each has decided to undertake for the sake of coming together. Rather, it is a product of the fear of losing a grip on the center, of becoming a long-term minority. For the time being, this constitutes a check on the passions that have led significant numbers of partisans in each party to regard the other as dubious at best, even as illegitimate. But what happens if the center of the electorate no longer serves as a lodestone, for the simple reason that politicians conclude they can manipulate it so well they need no longer fear its anger?

As James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 10,

[I]t may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.

The Framers thought that their republican government offered substantial protection from “men of factious tempers.” But they did not promise perfect protection. 

The oddities of the current period in our politics are not, in fact, unprecedented. They are similar in character to the political anomalies in the period from Reconstruction to the end of the nineteenth century. A presidential impeachment and acquittal, a harsh political dispute over the future direction of the country, presidential elections in which the popular vote went to one candidate and the electoral college to another.

Is this more than coincidence? Perhaps not. But the period from Reconstruction to the end of the nineteenth century was a period in which the United States emerged from a life-or-death national struggle, the Civil War, rebuilt itself and its institutions, checked the dominance of the legislative branch over the executive, and harnessed a fast-growing economy to claim, for the first time, a seat at the table of the world’s great powers. Our current period is one in which the United States emerged victorious from the Cold War, unseated from Congress the brand of domestic liberalism that had dominated the body since the New Deal, forged a “New Economy,” and began the process of trying to figure out what it means to be the most important power in the world.

Some of the points of connection across a century or more are obvious. It is difficult to read the statements made by the Radical Republicans in Congress during the debate over the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and fail to find an echo in the statements of Republicans in 1998 during the debate over the impeachment of Bill Clinton. And of course, the economic boom and national sense of optimism of the Gilded Age have parallels with the expectations created by the information economy — and some would say that the nineteenth century robber baron is alive and well and living in Redmond, Wash.

Other situations are merely evocative: the way the struggle for the presidency in 1876 between Democrat Samuel Tilden, the popular vote winner, and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, the eventual winner in the electoral college, relates to the struggle between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. One point of connection is a robust might-have-been scenario in each case: In Southern states in which Reconstruction had come to a halt and the federal army withdrawn, blacks who had voted in large numbers for Republican Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 found themselves struck from voter rolls on a massive scale in 1876. Had they been permitted to vote, they would surely have voted overwhelmingly for Hayes, and he might have won the popular vote as well. Then, too, there is an intriguing moral dimension. A vote for Tilden was a vote to move on — to leave Reconstruction behind, and therefore to abandon sweeping postwar efforts to incorporate blacks into society in the South (in effect, yielding to Jim Crow). Although Reconstruction came to a close under Hayes anyway (in part due to fatigue, in part as a result of the specific terms of the brokered deal that won Hayes the White House), his was the party that had stood for rigorous enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in the South. Likewise, the long shadow of Bill Clinton’s scandals fell on the 2000 election, yielding an equal division between the party of censoriousness and the party of acquiescence.

But the particulars of the parallels are less important than the general observation. Let us say this: It would be more surprising if a country undergoing change on so large a scale — from a condition of civil war to self-confident nationhood and great power status — were able to do so without a number of political anomalies and even constitutional crises along the way. The close of the nineteenth century was a time of practical national self-definition on a scale comparable to the theoretical achievements embodied in the Constitution a century before. 

And what of our time? It is quite possible, indeed it is becoming harder and harder to deny, that we are in a comparable position of practical national self-definition. The implications of the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union are only beginning to be appreciated.

The United States is immensely strong, the leading power of a world organized largely according to the specifications the United States itself set forth in the aftermath of World War II to fight the Cold War. During the period of superpower rivalry, the United States grew accustomed to thinking of itself as a very powerful country in a world in which power was mainly divided between itself and the Soviet Union. But this power is not a sum, in the sense that subtracting the Soviet Union from the equation leaves the United States with the same amount of power and influence as previously, just no rival. Rather, it is closer to a mathematical dividend, one whose divisor is no longer two (the United States and the Soviet Union) but one (the United States alone). No current or imminent power or combination of powers can balance U.S. power.

This, by itself, would be an awesome enough thing to try to comprehend. In fact, writers and scholars have spent a decade wrestling with and until recently mainly resisting the conclusion that the world is unipolar in character now and may well remain so for quite some time. Yet for better or worse, the change in the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union is bigger than that. The contest between the United States and the Soviet Union was not the equivalent of a contest between two rival but essentially indistinguishable duchies — in which the conquest of one of them would do no more than shift power to the other. On the contrary, the collapse of the
Soviet Union also resulted in the demise of the only major competitor to democratic capitalism as an organizing principle of political economy.

The period since the end of the Cold War has seen a tremendous amount of economic liberalization. Economies that have long been subject to central planning have been opened up to market reforms. Socialist countries have been privatizing and liberalizing. In the 1970s, the notion of a “third way” in economics referred to a cradle-to-grave welfare state on the model of Sweden — a socialist path between communism and capitalism. Now, most of the left-leaning parties of prosperous Western countries have remade themselves as adherents of a “Third Way” that readily accepts the market and rejects as counterproductive such antique nostrums as the nationalization of industry.

In the United States, the “Third Way” distinguishes itself from old-style, big-government liberalism on one hand and laissez-faire, libertarian capitalism on the other. Since the libertarian impulse died aborning with the Republican “Revolution,” this reflects a high degree of satisfaction with current economic arrangements. The story of the 1990s has been the steady rightward march, under Bill Clinton’s direction, of the left pole of the debate over the economy. By the time of the 2000 election, the candidate of the traditionally more left-wing party was calling for paying off the national debt by 2012 and for more middle-class tax cuts.

Democracy, too, seems to have been taking root. Authoritarianism has been on the defensive, and in a number of cases, democratic government seems to have won out precisely as a result of a failure of nerve on the part of erstwhile rulers, a collapse of their sense of their own legitimacy. This phenomenon is by no means exactly coextensive with the spread of capitalism. It is possible to be capitalist without being democratic, or democratic without being capitalist. But it hardly seems to be a stretch to say that what has triumphed in the realm of ideas has been democratic capitalism — of the kind practiced by the United States.

A victory in the realm of power politics is one thing; the triumph of the system one thinks of as one’s own is something bigger. In neither case was the United States prepared for the result. Nor is there much indication that the American political system nor the American people are especially comfortable with this new role for their country, now that they have come to confront it. Nor is the question of what to do in this role one to which there are any settled answers.

Again, the points of connection between the underlying issues of national self-definition and the specific form political volatility has taken are at times explicit and at times only suggestive. Disputes over the deployment of troops and the use of force clearly go directly to the question of American power — how much we have and how best to use it. Even here, it is difficult to untangle such interwoven strands as partisan conflict, conflict between the executive and legislative branches, jockeying for domestic political or electoral advantage, and principle. But all in all, if one were looking for conditions in which politics might take on a volatile character, one would find them in the dawning realization — and it has come as a surprise — that one’s country is the most powerful on the globe since Rome at its peak and already finds itself with the vast array of responsibilities that are commensurate with that power. 

At the end of the Civil War we knew we were one country; by the end of the nineteenth century, we knew we were one of several great powers; shortly after the end of World War II, we knew we were one of two superpowers; and by the end of the twentieth century, we were trying to come to terms with our unipolar power. In a sense, our dominant global position fell into our lap, a product of wise decisions made 50 years ago about how to fight a Cold War with the Soviet Union. But what happens next is very much an open question. This is a point on which the American people are providing little guidance. If the democratic process will not tell us, then it will be a republican obligation to figure it out.

The obligation is to make the most of the fortunate position in which we find ourselves. Needless to say, this does not mean living it up. It means doing what we can to prolong a period of benevolence as long as we can, for the same reason Americans gathered in Philadelphia to devise a means to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

We could probably do nothing for quite a while without great risk to our position — such is the overwhelming character of American power now. But that is provided we do no harm, something that is by no means certain. Each new political oddity in this period of self-definition is a new opportunity for radical misbehavior in the circles that are charged with representing the people and making decisions for them. Fully indulged, such misbehavior just might paralyze the national government sufficiently to allow for a rapid erosion of our position and the quick emergence of a world not in the least to our liking. And it is not clear that there is currently a popular electoral check on such misbehavior to act as a deterrent.

There may be some justice in blaming the people for disengagement from politics. But in the end, there is little point. We live in our times, and they are hardly bad ones. Yet Ben Franklin’s famous description of the kind of government America would have — “A republic, if you can keep it” — is an admonition not just to the people but to their representatives. And it seems especially relevant when the people have disengaged from their government at exactly the time their country finds itself engaged in the world as never before.