Voters Are People (Get It?)

by Jay Rosen, The Nation magazine, (c)1996, The Nation Company, Inc.

It's New Hampshire primary season, and you're having breakfast at your local coffee shop. "Excuse me, I say, I'm a journalist. Mind if I ask you a few questions?" What I ask about depends on the category I put you in. If 'voter' describes the nature of my interest, then the next day you may find yourself saying this: "'I had questions about Dole from the very beginning,' the 84-year-old voter said, explaining her last-minute decision, 'and I thought, maybe Buchanan, but then I heard last night someone, Newt Gingrich, saying Buchanan would mean the Republicans lose Congress. So I guess it'll be good old Dole,' she concluded with considerable resignation" (Francis Clines, The New York Times, February 21).

If, on the other hand, I am interested in you as a citizen -- someone with a life in addition to a vote -- my question would differ. You might emerge saying something like this: "'People work long hours for less pay and are less available to kids,' said Anna Willis, program director of the Upper Room counseling center for teen-agers and families. 'It has truly fallen to the community to raise children'"(Donald MacGillis, The Boston Sunday Globe, December 17).

Who would you rather be? The 84-year-old voter, hopscotching from name to name, or Anna Willis remarking on the connection between family values and an economy forcing people to work longer for less?

MacGillis was doing public journalism, where the purpose of consulting "real people" is to encourage journalists to get real. The results are meant to inform other tasks, like posing questions to the candidates. "Governor Alexander," a public journalist might say on your behalf, "parents feel they're working too hard to make ends meet, and kids are suffering the consequences. Why is this happening and what can be done about it?"

Contrast that with the scene witnessed by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post after an Alexander campaign stop in New Hampshire: "'Are we now at a critical period where it's a question of contrasting yourself to Bob Dole almost exclusively?' asked Carl Cameron of WMUR-TV. 'Governor, you're running way behind in the polls here,' another reporter said. 'Realistically, how do you make a showing?' 'What's been the failure of your campaign so far?' a third inquired."

This is journalism for journalists, where the aim is to puncture the facade of the candidates and induce them to attack one another. Your role in the game isn't "citizen" or "voter" but "spectator." See front-runner stumble. See candidate attack. See challenger surge. See press eviscerate. After a while, you do see: Nothing here for me. Lost in the news of Phil Gramm's withdrawal was a telling fact: His was a journalist's strategy. He was counting on stories about his early fundraising to scare off other challengers. He competed hard in meaningless straw polls so the press would label him the conservative threat to Bob Dole. Down to Louisiana he went in search of "momentum," a fictional construct administered by the press. Out of touch with reality, Gramm was in sync with common assumptions in journalism, which hold that money and mastery of the "process" are enough to make a candidacy real.

The hapless Gramm bought into this way of thinking. Pat Buchanan did not. "There are people out there with anxieties and concerns about their future and their children's future," he told the Times on February 25. "What I'm saying is, 'Don't turn your back on politics. Don't despair.' I'm offering them something besides the back of my hand."

On this score, he's right. Buchanan is listening to pain, not polls. To him politics is really about something. Indeed, the deepest things: us versus them. He has a demagogue's touch, and what he's touching is too important to be left to the Crossfire candidate and the me-too responses of his competitors.

In fact, journalism should have introduced the themes Buchanan is now surging behind, and should have installed them at the center of the news. The Pew Center for Civic Journalism asked Richard Harwood, whose firm specializes in public listening, to convene fifteen conversations among Americans about their deepest concerns. Harwood's report, released in early January and titled America's Struggle Within, was designed to help journalists frame the campaign as a discussion of gut-level issues. It found growing alarm about "an economy that has turned into a kind of quicksand, slowly pulling some Americans under, fast endangering others."

What is more, the economic rules of society seem to be grossly unfair to them -- from how corporations work with their employees, to who shoulders the burden of taxes and budget sacrifices, to growing gaps in Americans' income. Great fear also lingers in America about the disintegration of families and values. People say that as adults confront increasing economic and personal demands, and neighbors and communities turn inward, children are left to raise themselves. A tremendous void occurs -- filled by faceless institutions, television and its messages of violence and hate, and society's infatuation with materialism.

This is what the campaign is supposed to be about: not the state of the art in electioneering but the state of the Union, and what Americans might elect to do about it. Current assumptions in the press are that for ten months, readers and viewers will want to be handicappers of the horse race and "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement," as Todd Gitlin once wrote.

Neither the levers the voters pull nor the buttons the handlers push point to the heart of the campaign story. That lies with us, and the fractured state of our Union, where silence about some facts allows other facts to speak loudly, and isolation from one another breeds a politics of fear.

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