Americans: Dissatisfied, Yes; `Alienated,' No

By , Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

COMMENTATORS are aflutter these days about how angry, indeed how alienated from politics Americans are. The airwaves fairly sizzle with worried assessments. Close to home, one of my editors at a distinguished New York publishing house has just written to suggest that in a new edition of one of my books I "consider adding more material ... on the general alienation from the political process felt by Americans." I might, he goes on, "highlight alienation as a more pervasive problem; perhaps develop it as a

theme."

I'm rather impatient with such arguments. The populace I see from my perch in public-opinion research mocks the idea of alienation. Americans are deeply committed to their country, have great confidence in its ideas, constitution, economic system. Calling these people "politically alienated" is like using a sledge hammer to crack a peanut.

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Many of our fellow citizens do believe we confront real problems, and worry that we are not addressing them more effectively. This is encouraging. I would be distraught if most people were satisfied with recent performance. No one can study the American accomplishments of 1775-1792 and be complacent about what we have done in 1975-1992.

But the best available data don't show a "crisis of confidence." They reveal a much more modest and sober recognition that a country with the resources and traditions of the United States should be able to manage the tasks of governance better than it's doing.

What many citizens appear not to see clearly, however, is that they themselves have become part of the country's governance problem. They must change aspects of their own outlook if the country is to move toward solutions.

Consider presidential nominee selection. Almost no one is satisfied with current practice. Distress is especially severe today on the Democratic side. Only 28 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents in a Yankelovich/ Clancy/Shulman survey of April 9 pronounced themselves "satisfied" with their party's field of candidates this year.

Howls of concern are also coming from Democratic officials. Prior to last Tuesday's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, the state's Democratic governor went on national talk shows to disparage his party's nominee-apparent, Bill Clinton, and to call for a "brokered convention."

In case you've forgotten, brokered conventions are what the US had continuously up until the end of the l960s, when they were for all intents and purposes banned in a frenzy of ill-conceived "reform." Today, there are no instrumentalities of party left to step in and provide correctives when the primary-and-press-based selection system lurches in the wrong direction.

But tell the populace there's a place for formal party organization and leadership in the process, and many will reply: "No return to the smoke-filled room!" It's more complicated than that, of course. There's need for a strong public voice in nominee selection - and for the review and scrutiny of party leaders who have observed prospective nominees first-hand over some period of time. Americans need a more nuanced view of the role of political parties as representative institutions.

Then, there's the matter of congressional performance. The public is plainly dissatisfied. A national survey taken by American Viewpoint last month found just 17 percent saying they approved of the way Congress is doing its job; 75 percent disapproved, 51 percent calling their disapproval strong. This judgment cuts across party lines: 79 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of independents, and 72 percent of Democrats came down negative.

But this dissatisfied public has left the same party in charge of the House of Representatives continuously since 1955. There's no parallel for such uninterrupted ascendancy at any earlier point in US history. In the last House elections in 1990, the electorate, though pronouncing itself most unhappy with Congress's performance, returned most incumbents by wide, if slightly reduced, margins.

The reason for this, of course, is that incumbents now enjoy prohibitive advantages over their challengers. They can use their typically huge margins in campaign funding and government-provided staff to achieve rosy personal profiles in constituents' eyes.

Voters respond: "Congress is all messed up, but my representative seems nice enough." The latter is often true - but it misses the point. If you're dissatisfied with the institution's performance, hold those in charge responsible. Change the guard. If you're still dissatisfied, change it again. An electorate stubbornly unwilling to view the "Congress problem" in terms of party control and responsibility only invites the conditions that then leave it frustrated.

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