AMERICAN voters in 1992 are like the owners of a company who discover that their generously paid employees are ripping them off.
Furious and frustrated, a growing number of Americans want to fire their representatives, dismiss the president, and get rid of many governors and state legislators. They are saying: It's time to hire someone new.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who will be tapped Wednesday night as the Democratic presidential nominee, hopes he will be that new hire in the White House. But he has a problem: Many people see Governor Clinton, like President Bush, as part of the old, failed system.
Mervin Field, who has polled California voters for the past 50 years, says that it has gradually dawned on the public that politicians "are really not dealing with the problems."
Year after year, Republicans and Democrats alike promise to improve the schools, clean up the environment, stop crime, cut deficit spending, and hold down taxes. Instead, crime gets worse, schools deteriorate, taxes go up, the deficit gets bigger, and the environment grows smoggier.
Meanwhile, new problems are piling up. Costs for health care skyrocket, with 35 million Americans uninsured. Homelessness grows. The AIDS crisis spreads. Factories close. Good jobs vanish to Singapore and Mexico.
And what is Washington's response? More talk. More promises. And midnight pay raises for Congress.
It's enough to make many people vote for ... Ross Perot.
Theodore Lowi, a political scientist at Cornell University, says that in modern times there hasn't been anything like the current uproar against government. Americans feel betrayed, angry, alienated, exploited, and powerless.
Former California Gov. Jerry Brown sensed this and tried to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. Patrick Buchanan did the same on the Republican side. But it was Mr. Perot, the Texas billionaire, who benefited most politically, although the protest is much bigger than his campaign, Dr. Lowi says.
What surprises many pundits is the breadth of this year's political upheaval. In the 1960s and 1970s, George Wallace, who was then the Democratic governor of Alabama, rallied millions of voters against "pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington." But his appeal was primarily right-wing and segregationist.
Today, the upwelling of public anger is a "radicalization of the center," Lowi explains. It comes from America's heartland. It is the moderates, the "massive middle," that is enraged, Lowi says.
Pollster Louis Harris has documented this. Each year since 1966, Mr. Harris has measured the number of Americans who feel alienated from the nation's economic, political, and social institutions. In his most recent survey, taken in late 1991, Harris's index hit an all-time high - 66 percent. It has risen every year of the Bush presidency.
The alienation seems primarily connected to the economy. For example, Humphrey Taylor, president of Louis Harris and Associates, says 83 percent of Americans agree with the statement that "the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer." People are saying, "The economic system is inherently unfair," Mr. Taylor says.
Gordon Black, a pollster, says that discontent is so widespread that the ground is ready for "a new national reform political party."
If someone like Perot could rally most of the angry voters, it would be "the largest political party in the United States," with potentially more than half the nation's voters, Dr. Black says.
Meanwhile, grass-roots movements like THRO Inc. (Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out) are making themselves felt without waiting for change in Washington. Across the nation, people are working to defeat incumbent congressmen, set term limits on all elected officials, and put a cap on federal spending.
The public mood can be summed up like this:
Anything that gives more power to the people is good.
Anything that gives more power to government is bad.
Thus, a recent Gordon Black poll found:
* 72 percent of Americans think the voters should be required to approve or disapprove all federal tax increases.
* 92 percent of Americans want voter-initiative laws in every state.
* 84 percent support a federal constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.
"The story is simple," Black says. "American voters want power back in [their] hands...."
Republican consultant Glen Bolger, a partner in Public Opinion Strategies, blames most of this pent-up anger on the sluggish economy: "If the country weren't economically in trouble, you would not have this same sort of anger. The best way to get the term-limits movement stopped is to get people working again."
He observes that, through the years, there have always been jokes about Congress, about their special perks. But now working-class people are in trouble, and they expect their well-paid politicians to do something. "Instead, what people see are all these politicians running around in limousines," Bolger says.
Bolger says public distrust of politicians makes them elect a Republican president and a Democratic Congress to keep an eye on each other. "The result is gridlock and paralyzed government," he says.