Everything that is wrong with the American political system was on display in East Dallas at the end of September.
President Bush spoke at an apartment building two blocks from where I live; the complex is part of some federal urban rehabilitation project. I did not, however, get a chance to see Bush. I wasn’t invited.
The site was surrounded by truck trailers, which blocked off the building and kept the uninvited away. This cut me to the quick. I may not always agree with George Bush, but he is my president, and I would have liked to have seen my president in person so he could tell me why I should vote for him.
That is, after all, the way the system is supposed to work. It’s the difference between us and all of those other countries that are no longer in existence. It’s the reason they are no longer in existence.
But the system has become so corrupted, and the elite that run it – from both parties – so isolated from those of us they are running it for, that our feelings are rarely taken into consideration. Voters are not individuals, but masses to be moved in specific directions with specific appeals.
This is what is wrong with our political system, and you don’t need to be a $200 an hour consultant or computer tycoon to realize it.
When you go to vote in a couple of days – and anyone who doesn’t vote will have to answer to me – keep this in mind.
During the past month, talking to voters and the people that they elect in Lakewood, Lake Highlands and East Dallas, I discovered that as angry as voters seem to be, they are even more frustrated and afraid.
They are upset that the system isn’t working, and they are even more upset that there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it.
The system seems to have broken down – from City Hall to the White House – and no one is willing to take responsibility to fix it. And that may well be the most terrifying thing of all.
“That’s the thing I’ve noticed the most,” says Judy Summers, director of the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce.
“People are afraid. I think they are more afraid than they are angry. They no longer have a feeling of security about their future.”
That sums up the problem neatly. I have lot more faith in Summers’ conclusion — which seems to be echoed by everyone else I talked to – than I do in the latest ABC/CNN/CBS/New York Times/NBC/Washington Post/Gallup poll, which tracks to the nano-second the latest trend in whichever race the national media have decided is the moment’s most important.
We can see the forest from the trees, even if the people who are supposed to be the experts don’t even know that the trees have leaves.
This is not the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that voters are pretty dumb, and that they can be manipulated in much the same way I type this column – when I hit a key, the proper image comes up on the computer screen.
If this seems unduly cynical – both on my part and the part of the elite that run the system – then consider what happened during the President’s visit.
He came here to use an abandoned apartment building as the backdrop for a speech on crime, the Republican theme of the week. The building and the neighborhood were props in a drama dispensed via television for consumption elsewhere – making an audience of people like me unnecessary.
The people who organized the appearance didn’t care if we came because we weren’t the audience the president was trying to reach. He came to East Dallas to take credit for throwing the crack dealers out of the apartment and to bash Gov. Bill Clinton for being soft on crime for the benefit of people in Ohio and New Jersey and Oregon.
To a TV audience, it doesn’t make any difference that the president spoke in a neighborhood that has seen little governmental aid – federal, state or City – during the past 12 years.
They don’t know that he wouldn’t have been here if it hadn’t been for the election. All they see is that the president has been working diligently to clean up some sleazy urban neighborhood.
This is so slickly cynical that it should be embarrassing. But that wasn’t the case. The elite reveled in it. Mayor Steve Bartlett was there, making what may have been his first visit to East Dallas since he was elected. Even Glenn Box, my favorite City councilman, was there. (Regular readers of this space will know that I rank elected officials by how much grist they make for my mill.)
Given that situations like this are the rule rather than the exception, who can blame voters for refusing to vote? The neighbors had complained for 10 years about the bums and derelicts who hung out at that apartment building. But no one did anything about it until a couple of sharpie real estate developers bought it. Then the cops came and kicked the bums and derelicts out, and the president showed up.
“Voters are confused,” says U.S. Rep. John Bryant, who toured the East Dallas sections of his Fifth District in September for a series of town hall meetings.
“They can’t figure out who deserves the blame for what has gone wrong. Is it the fault of a Republican president or a Democratic congress?”
Bryant, an astute fellow considering he is a congressman, is on the right track. The real villains are not the elite, but those of us who have given the elite the job of running the City and the country and the state and the country – and then abdicated our responsibility for making sure they do the job we elected them to do.
We are so disillusioned that we have refused to do what is necessary to keep them in check – to vote.
This is the only country in the world where almost every governmental official – from judges to policemen to legislators to tax officials – are elected. If we don’t like something, anything, then all we have to do is throw the bums out.
It’s that simple. It’s not the easiest solution, and it’s not the quick fix that the elite and the media continually clamor for.
But it will work. It worked 200 years ago, and it will work today.
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