AMERICANS were better ``democrats'' in the 19th century than today. Some 75 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote in the election of 1892. To look at the 20th-century numbers might be to conclude that American citizens do not care about their system of representative government. The percentage of voting-age Americans who voted last year dropped to its lowest level in four decades - 37.3 percent. Some 178 million Americans could have voted. Only 66 million did.
Is this still ``government of the people, by the people, and for the people''? Are ``We the people'' turned off politics?
``The problem I see with government is the lack of participation in our democracy,'' says Pennsylvania congressman William Gray III. ``It allows well-organized small groups to exercise more influence than the numbers warrant. So you let government run by proxy.''
The United States has the lowest voter turnout in the Western world. One reason is that registration laws, adopted with the extension of suffrage, make it more difficult for Americans to vote, even though these laws have been eased in recent years. The United States is the only democracy that requires citizens to register on their own initiative.
Demographic change is another significant factor in voting patterns. ``The electorate is younger now,'' says Austin Ranney, a political scientist at the University of California. ``There is a higher percent of 18- to 21-year-olds now than ever in history - and they are the least likely to vote.''
But as the nation honors 200 years of the Constitution, public attitudes today are traceable above all to the sweeping changes that have taken place in the American political system. These include a decline in the importance of political parties, greater independence of voters and candidates, the emergence of television as the prime forum of politics, the rise of new forms of interest groups, and the commercialization of elections.
Some political observers suggest that it all adds up to too much democracy, too much individualism and fragmentation, and not enough commitment to the civic good. They urge that the party system be strengthened and that more discipline be put back into the way Americans choose their leaders. Otherwise, they say, America risks more deadlock in government and perhaps one day, if a crisis is big enough, loss of a popularly elected government to an authoritarian ``knight on a white horse.''
Interestingly, the Constitution does not mention political parties.
James Madison and other framers talked of the place of ``factions'' and interest groups, but they did not foresee a central role for parties. Thomas Jefferson wrote that if he could not go to heaven but with a party, ``I would not go there at all.'' George Washington warned of the ``baneful effects of the spirit of party.''
Yet it took only a decade for parties to become a fixture of American democracy. Jefferson himself put together an alliance called the Republicans (forerunner of the Democratic Party), and Alexander Hamilton and his friends forged a group known as the Federalists. By 1801 the party system was firmly established. To make the Constitution and the separation-of-powers doctrine work required a mechanism to link the the people with the government, legitimize the idea of political opposition, and coordinate the executive and legislative branches. Decline of political parties
BUT whereas parties once played a key role in controlling interest groups, resolving conflicts, forging consensus on policy, and nominating presidential candidates, they have lost their preeminence, notably at the state and local levels. In the past 25 years the once powerful political machines and boss systems have withered away. The focus has shifted from state and local party units to the national party organizations. Only in Congress do the parties function vigorously.
``We are seeing a long-term decentralization of politics,'' says Democratic analyst Horace Busby. ``Now churches and other institutions are acting like parties.''
One reason for the change is the growth of direct primaries. Television has transformed primaries into a powerful political force affecting the presidential nominating process. Party organizations at all levels have lost much of their power to select national convention delegates and deliver them to a candidate. So candidates develop their own organizations and, when they win, do not feel themselves beholden to the party. Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the classic example of a presidential hopeful making it on his own.
``The primary system gives us a winner even before the party meets,'' says elections expert Richard Scammon. ``So the convention is a coronation, not a point of decision.''
Since the mid-1960s, moreover, party identification has weakened. The number of independent voters who split their tickets has grown markedly.
``We have moved from a politics of militancy, with the parties fighting pitched battles, to a partisanship that is more broad and educational [and] in which both parties stand for the same things,'' comments William Schneider, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
After the Reagan landslide of 1984 the Republicans cheered what they saw as a ``realignment'' of the two parties, with the Democrats at long last losing their dominance and the GOP emerging from minority status, especially in the South. But only two years later, the Democrats recaptured some lost ground. To some, the 1986 results indicated a new equality of the parties and ``dealignment,'' that is, a further erosion of party loyalty.
This ``dealignment'' and growing independence of voters are seen to be rooted in the rising affluence and educational level of American society. As these levels rise, Americans feel less need for parties to mediate on their behalf. Furthermore, the ``welfare state'' has replaced the parties as a source of aid for the poor.
``In general people choose to abstain when politics is of no particular interest to them,'' says Walter Dean Burnham, a scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ``It's not a question of ideology or of the masses wanting to break free, but of the fact that we have a system organized in such a way that it simply has no relevance to everyday life, especially at the bottom of the social scale.''
Enter, too, the electronic age.
Television and other technological advances, especially the computerized public-opinion poll, have had a revolutionary effect on the political system. TV has replaced the party as the best means of reaching the greatest number of voters. Candidates therefore are less dependent on party organizations. The result is that today presidents, governors, lawmakers, and mayors are often selected on the strength of their performance in front of TV cameras.
Television has also supplanted the party as a dispenser of political information. And because network news programs focus almost exclusively on national figures and events, political attention has shifted away from state and local happenings to the federal government. This tends to increase public expectations that Washington will take care of problems and to cause disappointment when it fails to deliver. Proliferation of interest groups
ANOTHER factor transforming the American political system is the rise of thousands of interest groups and voluntary associations. Interest groups have always existed, from the Anti-Saloon League in early times to the Sierra Club and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights today. But they have never been so numerous or so national in scope. With strong agendas and plenty of money, they are politically confrontational, devoting themselves zealously to influencing Washington policymakers.
Nowhere has their influence been felt more than in financing campaigns. The number of political-action committees (PACs) affiliated with interest groups - corporate, labor, trade, professional, health - has grown from 600 in 1974 to more than 4,000 today.
As the percentage of PAC contributions in total campaign funding has doubled, small contributions from individuals have declined. Candidates today have less incentive to solicit money from individuals instead of from interest groups and PACs, with the result that citizen participation is further eroded. The trend has led lawmakers and others to call for further reform of campaign financing.
There are also calls for reform of the primary system by moving to more caucuses or establishing only a few regional primaries. Some reformers point to what they call the absurdity of Michigan's first-stage delegate-selection contest in 1986, in which presidential hopefuls campaigned for votes and name recognition well before 1988.
Other politicians, however, like the diversity and independence that primaries generate; they would just like to shorten the process.
``The more people get involved the better,'' says Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey. ``Michigan was silly, but candidates should scramble. I only worry that the system gets longer with every election.''
Above all, political leaders and academics would like to bolster the parties in order to improve the presidential nominating process and bring to the fore better national leaders. Historian James MacGregor Burns, lamenting the disappearance of zestful party battles, also thinks there should be sharper philosophical distinctions between the parties.
``Millions of Americans just don't think it makes much difference whom they vote for,'' he says. ``They are cynical about the system and feel they are not provided with big contrasts. There's so much emphasis on consensus [that] voters see both sides working together against them. So there's apathy.''
Adjusting to the realities of television and candidate-centered politics, the parties have strengthened their national organizations. The Republican National Committee has focused on expanding its financial and professional resources and using new election technologies.
The Democratic Party, struggling to catch up with the GOP organizationally, has concentrated on democratizing its internal operations. After the convention in Chicago in 1968, when a bitter fight developed over the Vietnam war, new rules were adopted to make the convention more representative of the party's members. The rules led to the burgeoning of primaries, which grew from 17 Democratic primaries in 1968 to 30 in 1976. The Republicans were also affected, as primaries were written into state law.
By 1984, however, the Carter phenomenon and the general weakening of the party led to further Democratic Party reforms, mainly a modest increase in the role at national conventions of party and elected officials - members of Congress, governors, state legislators, and mayors. The purpose was to increase the voice of party professionals in selecting presidential candidates. TV makes its mark
SOME experts in fact see the ``centralization'' of the parties over two decades beginning to give way to a new era of decentralization in which state and local party units play a larger role. ``There are unmistakable indications of impulses within the body politic for attention to revert to state and local governments and elected officials,'' says a report of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
Giving state party leaders and government officials a greater say at national conventions is one factor in the trend. The commission also notes that interest groups are beginning to focus more attention on state and local governments. Cable television and satellite transmission are challenging the major networks; as more programming and news coverage originate outside Washington and New York, television may become more accessible to local party organizations.
Also, despite the drop in voter turnout, the participation of Americans in referendums and ballot initiatives has soared in some states. ``It is unclear whether this merely represents a passion for direct democracy, or a general revitalization of voter awareness,'' the commission says.
Still, some analysts think the trend toward candidate and voter independence will persist because of television. Parties will no longer have a monopoly on the voter's attention or loyalty. Only candidates who have little chance locally cling to the national committees.
``I don't see the parties coming back in voters' minds, because television focuses on individuals and not on parties and groups,'' says the University of California's Dr. Ranney. ``Elections now are almost nonpartisan, with the stress on personality and individuality.''
Yet television has expanded the amount of information flowing to the electorate; that is reckoned a benefit for weakening of the party system, TV helps voters know their leaders and serves to ``demystify'' politicians. It has also upgraded the caliber of debate in Congress.
``In some respects television may well have strengthened the checks and balances in the political order,'' writes Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in ``The Cycles of American History.'' ``Very likely, on balance, television shakes people up more than it settles them down, encourages equality more than it does hierarchy and thereby is generally diversifying and liberating in its social effect.''
But with its appeal to the visual rather than intellectual, television can be shallow, glib, and manipulative, and a purveyor of false values. Personality often becomes more important than issues and policies, a trend that worries political leaders because it opens the door to demagoguery.
``Someday some very dangerous fellow could be enormously appealing on television and we would fear for our country,'' says Clark Clifford, a lawyer and former secretary of defense. ``If we've gotten to the point where the tube is so important, the presentation of the candidate, his charm, his voice - and these are what impress people - then we may have run into trouble.''
``Voters get cynical,'' remarks Treasury Secretary James Baker III. ``Campaigns have degenerated into a series of 30-second [TV] spots. You can't explain the budget deficit, the trade deficit, and arms control in 30 seconds.''
Daniel Yankelovich, a public-opinion analyst, speaks of a ``separation'' of the public from the political process that is disturbing for the future of democracy. Television, he says, has created a gap between the people and the country's intellectual elite, the ``experts'' who provide daily analyses and judgments on national issues.
``The experts tend to talk about issues in technical terms, but their language hides a value judgment,'' Mr. Yankelovich says. ``The `in group' are an invisible university - marvelous at letting each other know what the other thinks but creating a gap between those that are and are not part of it.'' Government by the few
NOT everyone accepts a gloomy assessment of the state of the American electorate. Some analysts suggest that low voter turnout points to a things-may-not-be-too-bad attitude and the absence of crisis.
``It reflects a certain moderation in our politics,'' says House majority leader Thomas S. Foley. ``If you're not interested in changing a political incumbent, you may not drag yourself out, and it's not as consequential here as in Europe.''
``The idea of the lazy American voter is mythology,'' says Mr. Scammon. ``The percentage of those on the [registration] list who vote is around 75 percent. ... The point is that lawmakers are always attentive to the people - because they know where power rests.''
Longtime GOP consultant John Sears III suggests that voter turnout will be higher in 1988, ``because people will be much more interested in where we go with the country.'' Voters may be cynical about the parties or about the choices of candidates, he says, but not about the country.
But to many, the low level of voting is cause for concern, because it leaves influence and governance to the increasingly small segment of people willing to be involved.
``If you have lower and lower voting, the more our politics becomes the province of the intensely interested,'' says Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
``Whether they are anti-abortion or anti-gun control, they exercise a much bigger influence. Also, if we do not participate, we weaken the spirit of voluntarism that is so necessary for society.''
In the end it is not the Constitution, not the branches of government, not separation of powers, not the political parties that count most. The fundamental strength of republican democracy lies in the attitudes and mores of the nation's citizens - in their willingness to understand the issues of the day, to take part in the political process, to insist on good government and intelligent leaders.
America may have the world's largest ``ruling class,'' but it is up to that class to rule. As Dr. Schlesinger says, ``It is on the decision of the voter, not on the desk of the president, that the buck finally stops.'' To obtain free copies of the Constitution write to the Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution, 736 Jackson Place N.W., Washington, D.C. 20503. Tel: (202) 653-9800. Further reading: ``The Power to Lead,'' by James MacGregor Burns: Simon and Schuster (1984). ``Consequences of Party Reform,'' by Nelson W. Polsby: Oxford University Press (1983). ``The Channels of Power,'' by Austin Ranney: Basic Books (1983). ``The Cycles of American History,'' by Authur M. Schlesinger Jr.: Houghton Mifflin Company (1986). Other sources: ``This Constitution: A Bicentennial Chronicle,'' published by Project '87 of the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association, 1527 New Hampshire Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. ``This Constitution: Our Enduring Legacy'' (essays from Project '87 chronicle), Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1414 22nd Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037. ``Reforming American Government: The Bicentennial Papers of the Committee on the Constitutional System,'' edited by Donald L. Robinson: Westview Press (1985).
In last Friday's story on ``The people: turned off politics,'' several words were left out in the transition between Pages 21 and 22. That paragraph should read: ``Yet television has expanded the amount of information flowing to the electorate; that is reckoned a benefit for democracy. Though it has contributed to a weakening of the party system, TV helps voters know their leaders and serves to `demystify' politicians. It has also upgraded the caliber of debate in Congress.''