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The Angry Majority : The Public is Fed Up With Washington. But Will Their Discontent Push Them to destroy the Establishment?

October 16, 1994|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the editor and publisher of American Political Report. His newest book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics" (Little Brown)

WASHINGTON — Forget gridlock. The United States may be facing the greatest crisis of public confidence in its political parties and government since the 1890s--or even the Civil War.

And, ironically, radicalism may be more powerful in the suburbs than in the slums.

The issue is not whether Americans are angry with the federal government and Washington. Every survey says they are. The critical question is whether citizens are sullen in the sense of being disenchanted and giving up, or angry and almost pre-revolutionary, like the Massachusetts farmers, blacksmiths and tavern keepers who gathered at Lexington and Concord 219 years ago.

Some leaders in both parties hope voters will turn their attention overseas--toward the troops in Haiti and the missiles targeted on Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But that's implausible, because foreign diversions--with fiercely gesturing Presidents and aircraft carriers on the evening news--are growing too familiar. It is far more likely that the two years leading up to the 1996 presidential election could be remembered as the time when the public's dissatisfaction with Washington reached critical mass.

Or maybe it should be "radical" mass. In one recent survey, 61% of Americans said it's not enough to change the faces in Washington; we have to change the system. A majority now wants a third political party, and more than half say it might be better to have an independent as President rather than a Democrat or Republican. Four-to-one national majorities even want voters to make laws themselves--through national referendums--rather than leave matters to Congress and the President.

Recent emphasis on the same party controlling Congress and the presidency--the capital Establishment's now-faltering thesis of gridlock--is, at best, a half-truth from the same politicians and interest groups who are now, finally and belatedly, beginning to understand that the problem runs far deeper. What we are looking at is a three-pronged, three-decade failure of government, politics and leadership coming to a boil.

The failed or fumbled presidencies since the 1960s are the first part of the equation--a depressing roster of assassinations, riots, soaring deficits, rising crime, failed wars, indicted and impeached officeholders, collapsing national trust in major institutions and scandals from Watergate and Iran-Contra to Whitewater. Rightly or wrongly, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were the last Presidents to maintain real national esteem.

Those two served at the high-water mark of postwar U.S. power--when the dollar was king of the global currency markets, not their periodic target, and when pipe-fitters in Parma, Ohio, made more than bank and factory managers in London and Frankfurt. This points to the second component of the threefold failure: Americans no longer believe in their leadership or in its bipartisan insistence on achieving an important recovery of the U.S. economy.

Voters have become convinced in the last four to six years that the American dream is fading: blue-coller sons will no longer follow their fathers to well-paid factory jobs; giant corporations are sending jobs to Mexico and Thailand and pink slips and apologies to 55-year-old suburbanite managers who will never hold another job with a middle-class paycheck. Six or seven Presidents and a dozen Congresses in a row have offered hollow explanations and hollower economic promises. None have reversed the fear of the future that gnaws at American households.

And third, why should citizens trust Washington, from which three decades of lies and self-interested deceptions on all these issues have poured? This year's Gallup polls reveal only 19% of Americans trust Washington always or most of the time. Another poll reported, two to one, that the public believes Washington is controlled by special interests.

Washington is the principal interest-group bazaar of the Western World. The bigger it gets, the more bogged down it gets. By one count, greater Washington has a staggering 91,000 people engaged in lobbying or associated with lobbying activities. The number of lawyers admitted to the District of Columbia bar has soared from about 1,000 in 1950 to more than 60,000 today. The number of foreign interests represented in Washington has jumped from 400 in the late '70s to about 1,500 today.

Yet private-sector influence peddlers are only part of the capital's do-it-yourself paralysis kit. At least as much of the government's constipation comes from the city's massively inflated political and policy-making payrolls--the 20,000 people on staff in Congress (up from 1,500 in the 1930s, and six times the size of the staff of any other legislative body in the world); the employees of a thousand think tanks, foundations, coalitions and centers, and about 15,000 journalists.

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