President Clinton called it a funk. Ross Perot thinks he can form a third party with it. Disgust. Contempt. Distrust. Call it what you will, a lot of people in America have had it with their government.
And locking up the Lincoln Memorial for the second time in recent weeks is only making things worse.
On a drizzly Monday, as federal workers went through the now-familiar drill of coming in to work only to be sent home, Ann Williams of Shawnee, Kan., surveyed the padlocked Christmas tree Pageant of Peace near the White House and shook her head. She feels government does not belong to people without money and influence. Like her.
“That feeling’s been there a long time,” she said, standing outside the locked gate of the enormous red-bow bedecked Christmas tree and 57 smaller ones. “This isn’t helping any.”
Williams ran headlong into what she called this silly political show when she came to Washington this weekend to bury her husband, Bruce, a Vietnam veteran, in Arlington Cemetery. “At least they didn’t shut that down today.”
Williams is hardly out on a limb with her resigned views on politics and government. More and more, polls, surveys and reports all note with alarm how the American people feel alienated from their government and the leaders who say in polished speeches that they are acting in their name. Cynicism is at an all-time high, pollsters say.
“In 1992, people were mad. In 1996, they’re exasperated,” said Richard Harwood, president of a public-issues research firm that studies citizen discontent. “They’re frustrated that the country hasn’t made more progress on the real issues that confront people’s lives.
“That deepens the mistrust. They’re saying, ‘Look, we’re worried about economic security, and what we get in return is political debates about flag burning, prayer in school, middle-class tax cuts that don’t amount to much and national drug policy that has little to do with my community,”’ Harwood continued. “With the shutdown, they look at government and see a bunch of people playing games.”
Pollsters Ed Goeas and Celinda Lake, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, said they have never seen disillusionment with government and politicians higher.
“The numbers are so great now, the idea of overcoming cynicism seems impossible,” Lake said recently. In focus groups, Lake asked voters if there ever was a time when they trusted government. “Yeah,” answered one. “When I was young and naive.”
People have long thought Washington is wasteful with their tax dollars. Many believe that about half of every tax dollar is wasted.
What has changed drastically is the feeling, as both political parties have courted their extreme wings, that they have no place in political life. In 1966, a Harris poll found 29 percent of the people felt alienated from government, mostly youths and minorities caught up in anti-war and civil rights battles. Now, two-thirds of the country feels left out.
“It’s no longer blacks, minorities and young; it’s a big chunk of everybody,” said Gordon Black, a political consultant who has done polling for Ross Perot. “That’s a very good mirror about how we feel about our government.”
In fact, Black is one of a number of politicians, pollsters and pundits who are meeting in Minneapolis now to discuss this very feeling of citizen disenfranchisement and explore if it is enough, like it was in 1932, the 1890s and the 1850s, to fuel a major political realignment.
“Both parties fail to give Americans what they really want because they are beholden to the ideologically pure in their ranks: old-time big spenders on the Democratic left and Reaganomic stalwarts on the Republican right,” Paul Tsongas, former U.S. senator and 1992 Democratic presidential candidate, told reporters. “That is why the voters of the ‘passionate center’ feel alienated.”