WHY AMERICANS HATE POLITICS By E. J. Dionne Jr. Simon & Schuster -- 430pp -- $22.95
THE UNITED STATES OF AMBITION: POLITICIANS, POWER, AND THE PURSUIT OF OFFICE By Alan Ehrenhalt Times Books -- 309pp -- $23
I'm a guy who likens most politicians to those bits of lint that collect at the bottom of your pockets: I can fathom neither where they come from nor why they always return. So it was with glee that I opened E. J. Dionne Jr.'s Why Americans Hate Politics. Dionne seemed set to explain the frustration that fueled my transformation from a liberal college student waving the flag of "good government" into a steel-hearted fellow who wonders why a bunch of folks in Washington without real jobs should be trusted with my tax dollars.
Unfortunately, I'm still puzzled about the source of my dissatisfaction. Rather than a play-by-play of how Americans have soured on politicians, much of the book is a survey of the postwar intellectual and ideological shift among political thinkers that has led to what Dionne calls a "politics of false choices." This makes for a sometimes interesting journey, but it never quite reaches the announced destination. Too bad. Dionne's premise--that politics has become a sordid game in which opposing sides manufacture choices so divisive they stifle consensus--seems right on target.
Dionne, a political reporter for The Washington Post, shows how close the interests of supposedly opposing forces often are. He notes, for example, that women who take time off from careers to care for children often have their opportunities for promotion reduced. "Is it 'feminist' or 'pro-family' to contend that this practice shows how little value society really places on the work that parents do?" he asks. "Most Americans wouldn't care . . . . What they do care about is figuring out how to make the new balance of work and family work."
Both liberal and conservative politicians create divisive labels, Dionne notes, framing issues to induce visceral reactions in the voting booth. So the memory of Republican strategist Lee Atwater lives on in shame because of 1988 Presidential campaign ads featuring Willie Horton, a black convict who raped a woman while on prison furlough. Atwater used crime--opposed by voters of all colors--to exploit racial divisions. "The concerns aroused by a Willie Horton," Dionne laments, "should be unifying rather than divisive."
Most of this insightful analysis appears at the beginning and end of Dionne's book. In between is a long account of the death of liberalism and the concurrent growth and recent fracturing of postwar conservatism. Much of it boasts all the zip of a political science text, complete with end-of-chapter summations for those who may have dozed off. Worse, the discussion does little to clarify why voters so often elect politicians who disappoint them.
One reason, outlined in Alan Ehrenhalt's The United States of Ambition, could be that voters don't have that much say about the people who represent them. In analyzing the gulf between politicians and voters, Ehrenhalt, the executive editor of Governing magazine, writes that the opening up of U. S. politics after Vietnam and Watergate has produced a world devoid of strong parties or bosses. Would-be candidates simply assemble enough money and volunteers to nominate themselves. "Who sent us the political leaders we have?" asks Ehrenhalt. "They sent themselves."
Ehrenhalt doesn't fault these strivers for being out of sync with the electorate; indeed, his admiration is almost embarrassing. He does worry, though, that the declining importance of political machines means that such "entrepreneurial candidates" may lack the support to govern once elected. So an outsider such as Jimmy Carter can become President only to find himself unable to command a Congress dominated by his own party.
Ehrenhalt's book is a far easier read than Dionne's, primarily because there are no complex discussions of ideology. But the reason for that is disturbing. In Presidential politics, candidates generate issues, not the other way around, he explains cynically but approvingly. Candidates "talk about defense or trade or civil rights because they have to talk about something." In fact, in detailing the careers of several regional officeholders, Ehrenhalt unintentionally portrays today's politicians as driven more by ego--and the desire to avoid work in the outside world--than by conviction.
Any disaffected working-class voter could have told you that. But voters aren't Ehrenhalt's concern. "We need to find out more about the people for whom politics is a business," he writes. Such an approach might be refreshing were it not for Ehrenhalt's seeming disdain for the electorate, which is made all the more distasteful by his surprising yearning for the days when party bosses could force politicians to make decisions their personal ambitions wouldn't allow.
Ironically, Ehrenhalt's picture of politicians as a professional, nonideological breed removed from the public and consumed by reelection probably conveys the real reason Americans hate politics.