The Illusion Of Politics
The Education of David Stockman and Other Americans By William Greider E.P. Dutton, Inc.; $5.95, 159 pp.
HARVARD FAIRLY TEEMS with student politicos. You know the type--those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kids who seem to have an endless supply of ties, jackets, firm handshakes, and "hihowareyous." They flock to Institute of Politics forums; they scramble to volunteer for election campaigns; they organize letter-writing campaigns to save everything from student loans to the whales. And each summer, dozens of them travel to Washington, D.C., where they work for congressmen or lobbyists, and taste real power.
Perhaps because of the talent for self-assertion that being involved in campus politics requires, the term "politico" has acquired a negative connotation among the non-bushy-tailed on campus, as in: "The Undergraduate Council is just a sandbox on the politicos' playground." But this is unfair. By and large, student politicos are sincere. Most of them have a well-considered vision of how to make this country better, and most of them quite unselfishly want to see their vision become public policy. Of course, the very ambitious among the politicos do want to turn those summer jobs in Washington into something a little more long-term.
But to the extent student politicos think they can really change the world with their programs when they get to Washington, they are laboring under an illusion. That, at least, is one of the messages of William Grieder's thoughtful, trenchant, and lively new book, The Education of David Stockman and Other Americans. Grieder is the former Washington Post editor whose interview in The Atlantic Monthly with Stockman, President Reagan's sharp 35-year-old budget director, blew Reaganomics' ideological cover and made "trickle-down economics" a household expression. Now the national affairs editor at Rolling Stone, Grieder has updated the Stockman interview, in which the budget director admitted that the president's economic program is unworkable and ill-considered, making a book out of it by adding a collection of essays on the Reagan Revolution and the media's response to it.
In Grieder's view, politics' grand illusion is that policy-making in Washington follows some coherent scheme--that politicians are in control, and that presidents in particular are capable of putting their plans and vision into effect. The illusion is that ideas about how the world works (and should work) have any connection at all to the policy that emerges from the legislative process. The media, Grieder argues, play no small part in propagating this myth of feasibility through their habit of "portraying each new wave of policymakers, regardless of party, as bold and tough-minded rationalists."
As the legislative history of the 1981 Reagan tax and budget plan showed, however, reality is a little more complicated. Not only do politicians rarely have a clear notion of the technical features of their own legislation, Grieder claims, but they also are usually powerless against the forces that distort and emasculate even the most comprehensive proposals--inertia, political horse-trading, special interest greed, and just plain human error. In such an "anarchic" milieu, Grieder says, grand conceptions about "the way the world works"--in Stockman's case, supply-side economics--fall by the wayside, and their beliefs lapse into cynical despair.
It was precisely this cynicism that began to grip Stockman who, as a former peace activist at Michigan State and a John Anderson speech writer at Harvard graduate school, had very much taken the campus-politico route--when the bitter truth about Reaganomics became clear. This cynicism, and a powerful sense of betrayal--reflected in the language of treachery ("The Trojan Horse," "opportunism," "Piranhas") with which he described the Reagan initiative to Greider--ultimately made him frustrated enough to spill his guts to Grieder in their Weekly breakfast meetings.
BUT HAVING DEFINED the problem, Grieder sees a hopeful side to the "anarchy" that reigns in Washington. He finds it quite "reassuring" that politicians don't have all the answers, and that they're often impotent in the face of a legislative process they don't really control. For if they don't, really control. For if they don't, he concludes there must be plenty of holes left in the democratic systems--room for activist citizens to move in and play a powerful role in shaping public policy.
In Grieder's vision, the key to mobilizing this new activism lies in revitalizing the media. If competent non-politicians are to move towards involvement, them newspaper reporters must stop selling both their inaccurate version of the political process rationality and their superficial emphasis on the shock value of news. Instead, the media--through a more analytical approach to reporting--should educate the public about the often chaotic workings of the political system. Given a chance to think about political news, rather than just to react to it, people will take advantage of the system's openness to citizen participation.
There are problems with this constructive and upbeat vision, to be sure. It's not clear from Grieder's formulation how a new wave of media-inspired citizen activists will be any different from the old wave (Nader's Raiders, say, or even the Moral Majority) which has ossified into plain old special interest group politics. Grieder also doesn't assess the practical likelihood of the "reinvention" of news reporting, a revolution that seems unlikely given the growing economic constraints on newspapers and the inherent time limitations of network news shows. Still Grieder rightly observes, "American democracy is in trouble" as it stands. By contrast, citizen participation, particularly when it has addressed what he calls "the fundamental issues" of racial and economic inequality has a worthy record of accomplishments.
Student politicos at Harvard--and elsewhere--might keep this hopeful model in mind as they look to their futures in Washington. If young politicians approach their jobs with a sense of the limitations of political compromise, expecting to develop not only ideas for change but also strategic thoughtful ways to make them work, they stand an even chance of avoiding David Stockman's frustrated decline into cynicism. And if they are animated by William Grieder's strong faith in the progressive potential of the democratic process, they may do even better than that.