Americans and 'Politics'

The political events of the past year in the United States have tested the patience of a people who, by and large, don't have a strong liking for politics.

Yes, polls appear every week plumbing how Americans feel about this politician or that crisis. But those responses are fished out by determined pollsters. They don't confirm that President Clinton's problems, or the Republicans' desire to bring him to account, are foremost concerns for average people.

Americans go about their daily lives as Washington weathers political change and deals with the legislative and administrative tasks of governing. The public has great faith in the fundamental institutions of government, even while many tend to turn up their noses at the partisan game of politics.

In the current context, this suggests that most Americans fully expect an institutional solution to the impeachment crisis - through the good sense of the US Senate and the helpful ideas of such senior statesmen as Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. At the same time, many citizens are disgusted by the moral laxity of some politicians and the drawn-out scandal melodrama. They're likely to blame the latter on "politics."

The anti-politics strain in the national character has two sides. On the positive side, it contributes to the stability of the world's most venerable democracy: Americans aren't given to wild swings of political emotion. Negatively, it can sink into apathy, with low voter turnout the worrisome symptom.

But, reassuringly, a tendency to scorn politics does not translate into an avoidance of civic life generally. Some scholars have noted, in fact, strong recent growth in philanthropic giving and in membership in groups with civic purposes - though not always the best-known such groups.

For example, while membership in the long-established National PTA has been declining, the numbers of locally based parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) has been growing. It's probable Americans have rarely been more engaged with their local schools than now, and trends such as greater school choice should sustain that involvement. Attendance at town council meetings, petition drives, letters to representatives - all are vigorous. Countless Americans have a positive, active stake in their society.

So, before holiday cheer is dampened by concern over the political year ahead, remember: The government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" remains in caring hands.

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