In Politics by other Means, Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter argue that the plague of accusations, scandals, investigations, and prosecutions which have crippled Washington represents only one side of a new political coin; on the other side are a shrinking electorate, the decline of the parties, and the appearance of elected officials who cannot be unseated. What we are witnessing, in short, is “the emergence of a post-electoral political order,” and what we should ask ourselves is whether America is about to end. its experiment with electoral democracy.
Elections, the authors say, no longer serve the function of settling political disputes because they no longer alter the forces that exercise influence over the national government. The institutions of democracy have instead been effectively seized by opposing parties who have happily settled into a kind of protracted trench warfare. In one camp are Democrats in Congress, federal social-welfare bureaucracies, public-interest groups, and other nonprofit organizations. In the other are Republicans in the White House, the national-security bureaucracies, the defense industry, “and those segments of American society whose income, autonomy, or values are threatened by the welfare and regulatory state built by the Democrats,” a category that can encompass groups as disparate as evangelical Christians and corporate CEO’s.
The traditional methods of gaining and wielding power in a representative government—swaying public opinion, mobilizing voters, and winning elections—matter less than the new weapons and tactics of political warfare. Primary among these are an investigative press, congressional hearings, and special prosecutors. Watergate is the paradigm; Richard Nixon was the first target. Since then the list of casualties has grown exponentially, a whole roster of public officials who have served as cannon fodder for the political wars of the 1980’s: Joseph Biden, Robert Bork, Tony Coelho, Michael Deaver, Barney Frank, Douglas Ginsburg, Anne Burford, Gary Hart, Edwin Meese, Lyn Nofziger, John Tower, Jim Wright, and many others. Yet, for all of the fighting, neither side has been able entirely to dislodge the other from its position of influence.
“This competitive retrenchment,” Ginsberg and Shefter maintain, “helps explain how high levels of partisan conflict can coexist with low rates of voting participation in contemporary American politics.” For when professional political operatives with little or no popular support “can end the careers of politicians such as presidents and big-city mayors, who enjoy a broader popular base,. . . . voters are given little reason to participate.” But the thesis explains more than just declining voter turnout. It also accounts for the increasingly cannibalistic behavior of political figures competing in an arena that apparently measures success less in election returns than in body counts, the greater lengths to which the news media have been willing to go in recent years to produce an exposé, and the increasingly negative tone of political campaigns.
How did it happen? In Watergate, the ability to remove from office a President who only two years earlier had been reelected in a landslide awoke liberals to the remarkable power of extra-electoral methods. But it was no coincidence that liberals began to employ such methods at just that time, for the 1972 campaign also marked the moment when liberals had taken decisive control of the Democratic party, nominated someone from their own ranks—and fallen flat on their faces. The crushing defeat of the Democratic candidate George McGovern in November 1972 led many to turn to the news media, Congress, the courts, public-interest groups, and other organizations which could weather even the most hostile electoral climate and the vagaries of public opinion.
Yet though this made liberals more powerful in Washington, it made them less powerful elsewhere. As Ginsberg and Shefter point out, “the liberal Democrats’ strategies of bureaucratic warfare during this period served as a substitute for party building.” The Democratic coalition became, in addition, entirely dependent on the favor of official Washington—a poor custodian of anyone’s hopes and dreams. In the meantime, the Republicans were building a national grassroots network of support, much of it from disaffected Democrats. When the Reagan administration came to power in 1980 it proceeded to squeeze the spending programs that held the Democratic coalition together by reducing spending, cutting tax rates and indexing them to inflation, and imposing an enormous budget deficit on Congress. With less money to go around, constituent groups were forced to compete against each other for portions of a shrinking federal pie.
The Democrats responded with stepped-up attacks via the press, Congress, and the courts. Hence the Iran-contra affair and a slew of other incidents of alleged executive- branch malfeasance. Eventually, the Republicans began to counterattack, and with the same weapons, using media revelations and a congressional inquiry to bring down House Speaker Jim Wright.
The response of millions of Americans to all this has been to vote with their feet; in increasing numbers they are fleeing the electoral process entirely. The place of elections (as the authors do not mention) has now been largely filled by other means of expressing and measuring public opinion, primarily polls but also direct-mail campaigns aimed at elected representatives and public demonstrations staged for the media. National political figures can receive as many as several million pieces of mail in a single day. As for the number of reporters accredited to cover Congress, this has shot up from about 1,600 in 1964 to more than 3,700 today.
There are many things wrong with these non-electoral modes of expressing public opinion. First, they tend to be issue-specific, and opinions on discrete issues eventually tend to contradict each other, compete with one another, or cancel each other out. Second, public opinion is highly ephemeral. It has always been so, but now that it is divorced from a particular elected official, an administration, or a political party, it has no real value except as a debating tool. Third, and truly fatal, is that unlike elections, opinion settles nothing.
Post-electoral politics is more combative, making bipartisan cooperation less likely. It is less productive, diminishing the effectiveness of government. Most important, however, it is less democratic. It is politics of a type more familiar in a royal court than in an American courthouse, dependent more on political elites than on political parties. It is a system for professionals only, transforming the mass of citizens into mere spectators. This encourages even greater popular disdain for, and withdrawal from, politics.
Is there a solution? Ginsberg and Shefter offer one: “Bring into the electorate the tens of millions of working-class and poor Americans who presently stand entirely outside the political process.” Such a mobilization of new voters, they feel, could tip the current balance of power sufficiently in favor of one party to enable it to gain control of all of the institutions of government. That party, contrary to conventional wisdom, would not necessarily be the Democrats. Some Republicans, most notably Jack Kemp, realize this, and so do the authors of this book. Otto von Bismarck and Benjamin Disraeli, they observe, “brought millions of new working-class voters into the electorate and constructed extensive party organizations to link them securely to the conservative cause.” This is a group among which Republican candidates for national office have fared well. Republicans, moreover, have had more success than Democrats in bringing new voters into their coalition.
Yet Ginsberg and Shefter are not optimistic. A surge of new voters into the electoral arena would disrupt an essentially closed political system that sustains a great many of Washington’s most powerful people and leaves the rest of us on the outside, looking in. And besides, one feels compelled to add, it is unlikely to happen.