Riding a Wave of Discontent

The public is longing for change amid a confusing world and inept politicians

By , Robert Theobald lives in New Orleans. His latest book is "The Rapids of Change." He is now writing "Turning the Century," which provides specific action plans for the '90s.

THE success of David Duke in the Louisiana primary has attracted worldwide attention. But press reports are fixated on his past record (which is certainly unsavory) while ignoring the reasons Mr. Duke is a hero to a large part of the Louisiana population. The media fail to recognize that his approach and style could spread throughout the United States and the world.In preelection coverage, local anchors confirmed a critical fact. They said they had talked to lots of Duke voters, but never discovered any supporters of Edwin Edwards or Buddy Roemer. Their point was that many people were enthusiastic about Duke, while those voting for former Governor Edwards or Governor Roemer saw them as the lesser of two evils. This is truly significant because this lack of enthusiasm is the norm - Duke is therefore a true phenomenon who needs to be understood. Duke's success is a direct result of the failure of the two major parties to address the realities of our time. They are isolated from the people, and their debates are miles away from the concerns of the general public. The Democrats' traditional support for the poor seems like mollycoddling to many in the society. The growth emphasis of the Republicans seems like a bad joke given the actual dynamics of the economy. People and institutions are struggling to keep up in a world they do not understand. Instead of the steady rise in standards of living which they have been encouraged to expect, they find their budgets shrinking. There is a feeling - tapped by Duke - that our problems are caused by welfare parasites. This rhetoric is broadly recognized in Louisiana as anti-black, although the problems of poverty and welfare hit all colors. Duke fits into a pattern which is emerging throughout the world - a resurgence of racism. The German government, for example, has so far given in to the neo-Nazi pressure against nonwhite immigrants, and scenes all too reminiscent of the early '30s are now on television screens. The difference is that the enemy is people of color rather than Jews. It is easy to blame Duke and the people who support him. This permits the rest of us to feel like responsible citizens. In reality it is our failure which enables Duke to gain his voting strength. Mainline politicians and conventional academics continue to promise what they cannot deliver. They proclaim that high rates of economic growth are possible when environmental limits make them undesirable. They refuse to admit that health-care rationing is already taking place. They continue to educate for indus trial-era conditions rather than aiding people in learning how to learn so as to keep up with the pace of change. THE industrial era is over. It is impossible to provide an ever-increasing quantity of goods to people. We need new goals which take advantage of our wealth. We need to work toward a higher quality of life while doing more with less. We need to recognize the diversity of our culture and create a pluralistic style of government which provides people with freedom to pursue their own lifestyles. People are ready for this change. I speak broadly across the US; recently my audience was the Association of Community College Trustees. I asked them, as I ask all my audiences, how serious are the problems in the US? On a scale of one to 10, their responses were almost all in the seven-to-nine range. This is typical: I get the same type of response from all the audiences I speak to wherever they are on the political spectrum. People are fed up with denial of realities. They are looking for courageous realists who will share with them the hard choices which lie ahead of us. There is a disastrous tendency in the US to underestimate the intelligence and the commitment of the electorate. The image-makers and spin-merchants of political campaigns have decided that they can only win by distorting the truth and slandering their opponents. Victory is waiting for those who are willing to face reality and show Americans that there is a way forward which meets their dreams in ways which honor their needs and are still compassionate to those who cannot care for themselves. Failure to explore this route will open the door to people who exploit the frustration of good citizens across the US and the world. Duke's success warns us of a trend which is highly dangerous to all our positive beliefs about the future. We shall only have ourselves to blame if we fail to heed the evidence.

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