WASHINGTON — THE American public is walking out on American politics.
People often cannot say exactly what they want, but they know they are not seeing it. Not on the campaign platforms, not on television, not in the newspaper, not in the White House, and most certainly not in Congress.
The estrangement between Americans and their public life, which has grown with ups and downs since the late 1960s, is at least as deep now as during the so-called malaise of the late Carter era.
The recession has intensified it, but it has been building for decades. From polling experts to call-in radio hosts, analysts see and hear it, but stumble for the words to describe it.
Anger, yes, but also apathy, bewilderment, negativism, frustration, searching, and even despair.
The common themes, endorsed by growing majorities:
* Government does not work and is not accomplishing anything relevant to the problems people experience.
* Government serves the interests of an elite few, not the public good or people "like me."
* The country has serious long-term problems that government should address.
* The best way to help the economy is to stop wasteful government spending - a view held by twice those that named any other option in a bipartisan poll in January.
The upshot is that voters want change, and anti-incumbent sentiment is at historic peaks.
Anti-incumbent fervor was high and rising in 1990. On average every incumbent member of Congress dropped 10 percentage points in votes, even though most were reelected.
The normal anti-incumbent vote - voters who want to oust even incumbents they like to spur change - is 22 to 23 percent, according to Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, a Texas-based Republican polling firm.
Last June it moved above 30 percent for the first time ever, he says. Now it is over 40 percent.
"People just don't feel right about government anymore," says Rich Bond, chairman of the Republican Party, whether at the national level or the school-board level, where he remains active in his community in Long Island. "Voters want to reconnect with their government."
Democrats are reacting differently than Republicans.
In the primaries so far, Democratic turnout has fallen 18.4 percent from 1988 levels, according the the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE). In short, Democrats are staying home.
Turnout is near normal among Republicans, but nearly a third of the voters have found some way not to vote for the president that is certain to be their nominee.
So far, neither political party has offered an answer that engages many people.
"The general feeling is, 'a plague on both your houses,' " says Michael Jackson, a talk-radio host on KABC in Los Angeles, who fields call nationally. Pollsters for Democrats and Republicans admit the same thing. Perot lights up phones
If Mr. Jackson mentions the possible candidacy of Texas businessman Ross Perot on the air, immediately calls come in, nine of 10 supporting him. The appeal: In contrast to the mass of politicians serving special interests and themselves, Mr. Perot is a businessman with nothing to gain personally, says Jackson.
"People are not awfully articulate about what they want," says Jim Bohannon, an NBC-Mutual Broadcasting talk-radio host. "They just know they don't like this bunch."
Mr. Bohannon thinks people are spoiled, too used to getting more government services than they are willing to pay for. Other analysts point out that people frustrated over gridlocked government can thank themselves for splitting their ballots between Republican presidents and Democratic members of Congress. All perceptions aside, the Congress of 1990 was the most productive since 1964, producing the Clean Air Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act among many other new laws. Voters seeking answers
But others note that voters base their impressions on personal experience, and their problems are not getting solved.
Curtis Gans, director of CSAE, sums up voter experience and sentiment this way: "I don't know of anybody who was in a 10-minute traffic jam 10 years ago who's not in a 45-minute one now, and it doesn't matter who's elected."
Even the affluent, two-income suburban families are under increasing stress these days, notes Mr. Gans, while they face a presidential election choice between "somebody whose values people don't trust [George Bush] and someone whose personal life people don't trust [Bill Clinton]."
In 1964, less than a third of the public thought that government listened to powerful interests but not to them.
By 1980, three quarters felt that away, according to Brookings Institution demographer Ruy Teixeira.
Such cynicism ebbed by about 10 percentage points in the Reagan years. But by the late 1980s, frustration was rising again. "The public believes someone can do something," says Dr. Teixeira, "but they don't believe that anyone is."