It will be a frustrated populace, adjusting to a changing world and discovering the opportunities and threats of a technological revolution, that chooses America’s next president this November.
“The broad historic developments of the late 20th century — the end of the Cold War, the telecommunications revolution, the coming of a competitive global economy — are generating wide-ranging alterations in how Americans think about politics and society,” says Lawrence Dodd, UF’s Manning Dauer Eminent Scholar in Political Science.
Throughout history, Dodd says, Americans have clung to a particular notion of society and politics until their views became so outmoded that a “crisis” ensued that caused a re-thinking of how government is supposed to operate.
“Such periods can be quite painful and difficult,” Dodd says. “Perhaps the most instructive examples are the Civil War and Reconstruction period, when we had to reassess our understanding of political equality and states’ rights, and the Depression and World War II, when we had to rethink our laissez-faire economic policies and international isolationism.”
Today the nation is again facing such a “crisis,” Dodd argues, precipitated by some of the very successes we have experienced recently as a nation.
“Throughout most of the 20th century, citizens supported an increasingly strong and bureaucratized national government because we were trying to survive a global depression, provide a safety net to offset the dislocations of advanced industrialization and ensure our national security against the threat of the Axis powers and then the communists,” Dodd says. “But now the international threat to our security seems over, we appear to have mastered the cycles of economic depression associated with industrialization and our citizens are increasingly employed in a high-tech, post-industrial society.”
One might have expected the accomplishments of the past 60 years to produce widespread support of government today, Dodd says, but instead they have left our citizens “confused” about the sort of government and the kinds of policies that can now best serve them.
“Just at the moment when we seem to have ‘won’ the struggles of the past 60 years, the coming of a new and highly competitive global economy poses threats not just to our personal short-term job security, but also to the long-term opportunities of our children,” Dodd says. “There is a general sense that the type of government programs that served us well in the past 60 years created governing strategies that today undermine our ability to respond to global competition.”
The resulting anxiety, Dodd suggests, is producing “a crisis of confidence in government, perhaps even a crisis over the legitimacy of government.”
Dodd points to three major manifestations of this crisis.
“First, the public is deeply frustrated with the huge Cold War budget deficits that now appear to threaten the nation’s economic competitiveness,” he says.
“Second, citizens are increasingly hostile to government bureaucracies which they see as too large, expensive and intrusive and whose programs often seem to undermine the self-reliance individuals need to compete in the new economy,” he adds. “Third, the public questions the integrity and value of careerist politicians who so often appear to use their power to protect government benefits for specialized groups, and thereby gain re-election, while ignoring the threat that uncontrolled spending can pose to our long-term national interests.”
The reaction of the public to these mounting frustrations has been to demand balanced budgets, oppose more government bureaucracy and support term limits on elected officials. Unfortunately, Dodd says, such immediate cure-alls will not necessarily solve the pending crisis.
“While citizens blame bureaucracies and professional politicians, and call for balanced budgets,” Dodd argues, “the same individuals often continue to support the existence and even the expansion of key government services that benefit them and their families. These confused signals produce a gridlocked government unable to establish any kind of clear policy direction.
“Our real dilemma is that either we have to reduce our expectations of government and become more self-reliant,” Dodd continues, “or we have to find some new way, such as managed competition, for government to ensure desired services without relying on deficit financing and expensive bureaucratic programs, or we have to combine both strategies.”
Presidential candidates face an even more daunting task, since the public is also changing the way it evaluates them.
“From the end of World War II onward, a central underlying concern in presidential elections was whether the candidate was tough enough to face down the communists, stable enough to carry the burden of nuclear decisionmaking and experienced enough in national politics to mind the domestic store,” Dodd says. “We then gave to the ‘superpresidents’ who survived this test a great deal of personal power and policy discretion and trusted them to use that power wisely, particularly in foreign affairs.”
With the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the new problems of the global economy, Dodd suggests, the postwar preoccupation with the character of presidents seems to be waning while a concern for their domestic vision is increasing.
“Certainly there is a baseline demonstration of character that any presidential candidate would need to meet in order to compete successfully,” Dodd says. “But in this new era the appearance of solid character and experience is not enough to win a competitive presidential election without some vision of how to respond to our domestic dilemmas. George Bush discovered that lesson in 1992.
“Candidates are not going to be elected based on their character and then ‘trusted’ to solve the nation’s domestic problems,” he continues. “The concerns with jobs, health benefits and our children’s futures are just too close to the daily personal experience of the voters.”
The change in the way the public evaluates presidential candidates would seem to have clear implications for the 1996 election.
“Dole cannot rely on his status as a wounded World War II veteran and example of the virtues of middle America to win a governing mandate,” Dodd says. “He must truly grapple with the issues of this new global economy. And Clinton will not necessarily be undone by his private shortcomings and the Whitewater scandal — unless there is truly a ‘smoking gun’ — if he succeeds in offering a compelling policy vision.”
Dodd thus sees the nation as being “at one of those historic moments of change where the real issue is our ability to re-envision the role and structure of government in ways appropriate to a new historical era.”
“We will be extremely fortunate if the ’96 election truly focuses on this issue, rather than on scandals, negative ads and cute campaign tactics,” Dodd says. “Otherwise, gridlock and national anxiety over the direction of government could deepen into a much more serious and painful crisis of government legitimacy, on par with the disruptiveness of the Civil War or the Great Depression.”
The “big picture” Dodd sees of Americans’ frustrations with government is borne out in the survey analysis and in-depth interviews conducted by his colleague, UF political scientist Stephen Craig.
Craig has been analyzing national surveys and talking with Alachua County, Fla. residents for years about their views of government, and he has concluded that the so-called “confidence gap” is growing ever wider.
Going beyond statistically representative polling like the American National Election Studies conducted by the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan or the Pew Foundation’s Center for the People and the Press, Craig has focused on more qualitative interviews to gauge citizen satisfaction with government.
“A qualitative approach has the advantage of allowing respondents to talk with us in ways that surveys do not, to express beliefs and opinions that are more complex and more subtle than traditional survey questions can ever hope to capture,” Craig says. “Data limitations aside, my hope is that these open-ended conversations with ordinary citizens can help us to understand better what it means to be ‘mistrustful’ of government in the 1990s.”
Citing data from the American National Election Studies, Craig says in his new book Broken Contract that “it is difficult to find any group of Americans whose overall evaluations of government are not predominantly negative.”
Those findings are borne out in Craig’s conversations with residents of the communities around the University of Florida campus.
“Roughly three-quarters of Alachuans explicitly stated that the U.S. government is ‘pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,”’ Craig says. “More than anything else, these Floridians wanted decisionmakers to live up to their fiduciary obligation ‘to place others’ interests before their own’ — something that, by and large, they did not believe they were getting.”
Craig’s latest research suggests Americans, especially baby boomers and members of the so-called Generation X, claim to be philosophically conservative, but simultaneously want government to provide more services.
About 40 percent of respondents in their 20s and more than 30 percent of baby boomers gave seemingly contradictory “yes” answers when asked whether government was getting too powerful and whether there are more things government should be doing. Almost one-fifth of the respondents, and a quarter of Generation X, wanted their taxes to remain the same, but also wanted government to provide more services.
“There are a lot of people out there who will give you a philosophically conservative view of government, but when it gets down to programs and policies, they are not as conservative as they think, especially if it’s a service they need,” Craig says.
Craig is skeptical any procedural remedies — such as term limits, campaign finance reform or special prosecutors — can address dissatisfaction with government as effectively as simple citizenship.
“It is difficult to know exactly what might be done to prevent the confidence gap from becoming a permanent feature of the American political landscape,” Craig says. “None of the reforms either enacted or proposed in recent years are apt to have a huge effect, though some may supply an outlet for the disaffected to vent their anger at politicians who are seen as being remote and inaccessible.”
Ultimately, Craig says, Americans who vote in embarrassingly low numbers must participate more in government if they are to have the kind of government they want.
“Any restoration of trust depends upon the willingness of the politically inert rank and file to take seriously both the rights and the obligations of democratic citizenship,” Craig says.
Craig will be moderating the “Ethics in Government Roundtable and Presidential Debate Symposium,” which is being sponsored by the University of South Florida Ethics Center in conjunction with the presidential debate scheduled for St. Petersburg in early October.
Motor Voter Arrives
One “procedural remedy” that may help get more people to the polls this November is the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993. The act makes it easier than ever for citizens to participate in government by offering more convenient methods of registering to vote.
Florida embraced the spirit of the law wholeheartedly, encouraging voter registration through driver’s license, public assistance and veteran’s affairs offices, public libraries and by mail.
The response has been overwhelming, with more than one million new registrants added in 1995, according to Florida Secretary of State Sandra Mortham.
“Never in the history of our state have so many citizens registered to vote in such a short period of time,” Mortham says. “This is truly a historic achievement.”
The big question now, says UF political scientist Michael Martinez, is “Will they vote, and, if so, for whom?”
Although this is the first national election since the law took effect, researchers already know that more of the new registrants are calling themselves Independents.
While Florida Republicans and Democrats gained 330,342 (12 percent) and 289,165 (9 percent) new registrants, respectively, during the first 10 months after the NVRA took effect on Jan. 1, 1995, nearly 215,000 registrants listed no party affiliation, a 40-percent increase in that group.
“It’s hard to say which party will benefit from the act,” Martinez says. “It’s possible these new registrants will simply mirror, but magnify, local majorities. In Republican states, more will vote Republican. In Democratic states, more will vote Democrat. But in the aggregate, they may cancel each other out.”
Dirty Politics, ’90s Style
In 1800, the president of Yale University proclaimed that if Thomas Jefferson was elected president, “the Bible will be burned and our wives and daughters will be the victims of legal prostitution.”
In 1828, Andrew Jackson’s opponents accused him of adultery, ordering executions, stabbing a man in the back, murdering one of his own soldiers and hanging Indians.
Historical perspective has convinced UF advertising Professor Marilyn Roberts that today’s political ads are no dirtier than they were in the early days of the republic, but thanks to modern technology they are much more pervasive and persuasive.
Television was the first leap forward, Roberts says, citing as an example the fact that most people who heard the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 on the radio thought Nixon won, while those who watched it on television declared Kennedy the winner.
Modern editing capabilities offer the opportunity to juxtapose images and comments, omit details and make illogical leaps for maximum effect, she says.
Shuffling through the dozens of video cassettes lining the shelves in her office, Roberts points out example after example of campaign ads that manipulate words and pictures to paint a negative image of a candidate’s opponents.
In one example, the opponent is superimposed into a beach resort, a Las Vegas casino and other venues to argue that he vacations at public expense.
“It is the manipulation offered by technology that makes negative advertising and our emotional response to negative advertising so unsettling,” says Roberts.
Unfortunately, Roberts says, study after study confirms that negative advertising works, so candidates continue to spend more time attacking their opponent than they do outlining their platforms.
“People remember negative information more,” Roberts says. “I may tell you 20 things that are positive and two that are negative and I bet you’ll remember the two negative things. Political consultants understand this voter behavior.”
Roberts recommends posing the following questions about every political ad: Whom is the ad trying to reach? Do the ad’s claims make logical sense? Does the ad provide the source of its information? How much editing and distortion does the ad contain?
“All of us are vulnerable to being manipulated,” Roberts says. “Whether you are manipulated depends on how carefully you question the political advertising you see.”
And with the explosion in use of the Internet, the potential for abuse is greater than ever, Roberts says. Even television doesn’t offer the unregulated, uncontrollable, immediate elements the World Wide Web and e-mail offer.
“The Internet is the uncontrollable factor,” she says. “It’s immediate, fast, broad, unrestricted territory.”
Roberts asserts that technology has moved faster in the last four years than in the 60 years since Franklin Roosevelt first broadcast his “Fireside Chats” over radio.
“Cyber-campaigning will be the next stealth weapon,” Roberts asserts. “It will be a double-edged sword for candidates because it is an unrestricted technology.”
Ad watches, in which newspapers or television news shows critique ads for accuracy, have emerged in recent years as one response to negative campaign advertising, but a recently completed dissertation by a UF Ph.D. candidate in the College of Journalism and Communications found that ad watches were essentially preaching to the choir.
Jennifer Greer’s research found that ad watches tended to confirm well-informed voters’ opinions about a political advertisement, but they had little effect on less-informed voters’ opinions.
“If these findings are replicated in other settings, journalists might rethink the utility and value of ad watches,” Greer concluded.
In terms of access to information, academics may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the information explosion.
Roberts, for example, intends to use the Internet to almost instantaneously measure public response to presidential debates by analyzing the interplay occurring in computer chat groups.