INCREASINGLY Americans say, ''Just politics,'' which is their way of dismissing a government they consider irrelevant to their lives, or worse. Untutored, they cannot tutor their representatives, whose names and party affiliations they often do not know. Six percent know the name of the chief justice of the United States (William Rehnquist, lest I presume too much). Forty-six percent don't know the name of Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek.
Seldom have I read a survey more depressing than the week-long series in the Washington Post of Americans' attitudes toward the political system. Only 34 percent know the name of the Senate majority leader (you know, the one who is running for president). Eighty-six percent know who was president during Watergate. Perhaps Dole could use the services of Oliver Stone.
But there is nothing in this survey to laugh about. Americans in large numbers appear to have tuned out not only individuals, but the whole government. Seventy-five percent do not know that the House of Representatives passed a balanced-budget plan. And 58 percent think that the US spends more on foreign aid than on Medicare. (Actually foreign aid is less than 2 percent of the budget; Medicare, 13). A third believe health-care reform has been enacted.
The one government program that 80 percent know about is family leave after the birth of a child or during a family emergency. That suggests that Americans respond to what directly affects them, and the big issues like a balanced budget make less impact than politicians think.
Perhaps even more depressing is how people have become alienated from one another. Three decades ago a majority of Americans believed that most people can be trusted. Today, 2 out of 3 believe that most people can't be trusted. And most distrustful of all are young people.
What has happened to this nation of endless optimism, opportunity, and open-heartedness? Insecurity, physical and economic, say many scholars. Mugging and job layoffs, say others. Prof. Robert Blendon of Harvard University, which participated in the survey, says a succession of scandals and policy failures, from Vietnam to Watergate, may have spread distrust. Among those anxious about their economic position, most see government as a major threat.
It appears that every generation since the 1950s has become increasingly mistrustful of one another and of their institutions, starting with the federal government. One of those in the Post's focus groups, 45-year-old businessman Edward Howey of Gordo, Ala., can't name his congressman or the vice president and doesn't know which party controls Congress. He said, ''I don't follow it, don't vote, don't care. Never had time for it. Always had to make a living.''