`IF you work hard, you will get ahead.'' Not all Americans believe this work-ethic axiom anymore. Among disbelievers are youths at some of America's finest campuses - who one would think would have every reason for confidence and optimism. One Republican pollster told us of his dismay in interviewing students recently at campuses in the West, Midwest, and East. He found a pervasive cynicism: ``It's who you know, and how you play the system,'' that students think governs success.
Looking ahead to the 1988 elections, both the Democrats and Republicans should face the need to combat this cynicism.
The public sees a two-tier system - one for the privileged, another for the rest of the us. They see a double standard.
They observe a two-tier earnings schedule for college graduates - one tier for high-paid new lawyers, another for graduates who may have a hard time paying back their loans. They see two-tier pay schedules within the same company for airline pilots and other occupations - with new hires paid less. Whole regions show a sharp split between those who are making it and those who are not: One-fifth of Boston's households are reportedly living in poverty, in the midst of the Northeast's economic boom. The public sees young investment bankers make a killing on mergers while mid- and lower-level workers get laid off wholesale. Family farms are being sold on the auction block to investors who live far away.
In sports, the public sees some athletes and coaches seeking a performance edge through steroids and other drugs, which sets them apart from ``natural'' athletes.
Government itself seems to be right in the middle of the double-standard business. The Iran-contra affair showed an administration that seemed to think it was OK to run a double system of rules - one for some in the White House and another for the Congress. Political-action committees, or PACs, appear to provide access for well-heeled interest groups to Washington's inner circles.
In Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, and in both of Ronald Reagan's elections, a widespread populism was already evident. There was a throw-the-bums-out attitude toward Washington. Today Americans find more evidence that their government institutions - lumping together the lobbyists, the administration, the people in Congress - do not bear a direct relation to the mass of the people.
Harry Truman is often brought up by the public today when they try to explain what they're looking for in the way of leadership. They want someone who might take them for a walk around the White House, someone out front with his views, who tells it like it is even if they don't like it. They want someone who believes there's only one rule book.
The 15 or so declared candidates are already out there beating the bushes for presidential nomination votes. It's really very early. Partly it's the need to raise money that has the candidates on the move. Partly it's the void that exists because no incumbent will be running. But the candidates are campaigning before their research, ideas, and policy work have been finished. They can learn from the public, if they will listen.
Americans are not inherently cynical. But many are getting a message that the linkage between effort and reward is slipping. They're looking for leaders to manage the needed repair.