EVEN AS YOU READ THIS, SOMEWHERE IN OUR GREAT land select groups of voters are being scientifically studied with a view to finding out what in the world is going on in political America in the fall of 1996. The preliminary results seem to be a consensus that Americans are not really very interested in the presidential election this year, that they are not paying much attention to it. I think although it may look like that, the truth is different. I think this is not an election that bores people so much as the election that people actively, anxiously and even a little frenetically don't want to think about. It is generating something quite different from boredom: humming to drown out the sound, habitual looking the other way, discomfort, flight.
My own methods of decoding the electorate are personal and anecdotal, based mainly on what I see and hear around me wherever I go and on the tube. But the impression has been bipartisan and constant. The Washington dinner-party story being, in the capital, roughly the equivalent of the cabbie story in New York, you may discount what follows; but it did seem to me relevant for its utter novelty. At a dinner for some out-of-town guests last week, an evening otherwise populated solely by deep-into-it political people from both parties, neither the subject of the presidential debate two nights before nor the election in general came up at all. The talk was entirely of other things, almost as if--I don't want to go too far here--we were actual people. When one of the out-of-towners said, toward the end of the evening, something to the effect that she had thought we would be talking about the debate, there was no answering bird call from any part of the forest, not a single tweet--just more pleasant conversation about everything but current politics.
Now this is unnatural to the point of weird. Usually you have to take steps to get Washington people at social events off the electoral arcana, so we can at least give a brief, if false, impression of normality. But not this year. It is true that in every presidential election you will hear the refrain about how the choice is terrible, where did these candidates come from, etc. And you will also always hear complaints about how the candidates are boring or not dealing with the issues or something of that nature. But usually you hear something. This year the silences are remarkable and the sounds that do occur rare, terse and different. Yes, the actual campaigners for each side are making the same predictable claims and charges, but the next wave out--the usual camp followers and ideological soul mates and party-minded faithful--is different.
Many Democrats simply say, when pressed, that they are voting for Clinton and then go on hastily to something else. Republicans mutter darkly about Clinton, but also about their own ticket. They seem every day to have a new idea about what Bob Dole and Jack Kemp should be saying, an idea different from whatever they were prescribing for them the day before. This has been going on since day one of the campaign. When the postdebate or other analysis comes on TV these days, you can count on hearing the friends of Bob Dole and the pals of Jack Kemp explain at great length exactly what each of them has done wrong and worse since the last time the analyst explained it. The comparably disaffected Democrat will merely say, as if it is one quickly stated, run-together word, something like ""Well, I don't like this and that about Clinton but I can't vote for Dole,'' and then go back at once to some other subject.
Now it is the case that this campaign year is, in psychological time, somewhere between its third and fourth century. Was there ever a time, you find yourself wondering, when the campaign of 1996 was not happening? Didn't there used to be all these people called Phil Gramm and Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan? Wonder what ever happened to them. And speaking of missing persons, what ever became of that whole, huge sector of miserable, left-out Americans who were so angry and of whom all the analysts currently trashing the two candidates wrote so movingly last spring? How come the same people are now writing about the comfortable economy, the good news and the general state of contentment in the land? Did all those justly unhappy Americans move away? Get jobs? Get raises? Or are we just being, especially in journalism and punditry, our usual flittery selves?
I think the answer is that we in the press, however much we have contributed to the unsettled state of political affairs this year, are just as unsatisfied and uncomfortable with this presidential election as large numbers of the electorate seem to be. And I think it is not merely a question of being uninterested or turned off. I think there is, as among the electorate, a more active agent at work there--embarrassment of a kind at the spectacle, a feeling not even so much about the two men who are running for president as about the way they are running and what our politics, a-slosh in money and manipulation and phony positioning, has become. It is almost as if both sides had decided not even to pretend anymore about the panderings and half-truths they were serving up to the public. This is, in that respect, an election without shame, though there is a certain feeling of being ashamed among a lot of the spectators. It is that, in my view, which accounts for so much of the seeming indifference and neglect. We pretend not to see.
Elections have always featured some part of the population said to be angry--angry blacks, angry white ethnics, angry white males, angry middle Americans and the rest. My candidate for the next angry bunch to appear on the national screen is a kind oof across-the-board, large swath of the American population itself, one that is being silent and resigned if somewhat fidgety now. We all think we know how the presidential election is going to come out. But however it comes out, I figure the first phase of the next presidency will be marked by the next emotional phase of those voters who just don't want to think about this election now because they dislike it so much. They are going to be unhappy--sour winners and sore losers. It won't be an exhilarating time.