WHEN Ross Perot surges in the polls, many of us are both titillated and uneasy. We are titillated because, in an election where talk is of change, the fact of Mr. Perot's election would actually mean change. It is clear that the American political system and the language of politicians is out of touch with many Americans' hopes and fears.
Yet we are uneasy because it is stunningly unclear exactly what sort of change would be involved in a Perot presidency. Even short of being elected, the substantial support the billionaire Texan currently maintains reveals both a widespread and desperate desire for fundamental change and the prevailing doubt that George Bush or Bill Clinton can accomplish it.
Journalists and pundits underestimate and misunderstand Perot's appeal because they fail to see how he employs an ignored political vocabulary with deep resonance in US history. Unless we explicitly identify this language, we cannot understand both the promise and the danger Perot poses.
More than his competitors, Perot articulates voters' yearning for participation. He constantly reminds us that he has been asked to run by a nationwide, grassroots network of volunteers. With his discussions of electronic town halls where we all get together and "look under the hood" and figure out how to fix what is wrong, Perot articulates a politics that will engage citizens. His "infomercials" imply that his election is a prelude to a fully engaged community of citizens working together.
By contrast, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton use a language of representative democracy. It calls upon citizens to think about politics only around elections, cast their vote - and then go away. In this discourse we expect to return to our private lives after elections, leaving it to politicians to enact policies that will solve our problems.
Aside from voting, what citizens think is mainly registered through anonymous polls, not the classic New England town meeting or Perot's electronic town hall. Given the problems faced in the US and the seeming inability of existing institutions to address them, it is unsurprising that many Americans are unconvinced and suspicious of this vision of democracy.
Perot expresses what scholar James Morone calls the "democratic wish." Uniquely American, it is a wish that we can perfect citizenship in America, and citizens can govern themselves. In this view, so well expressed in Perot's folksy aphorisms, government itself is the problem.
The solution is for the people, using their common sense, to roll up their sleeves, figure out what needs to be done, and do it. Indeed, it is the often hidden presence of this language that gives American democracy its unique and revolutionary potential.
Yet this language is also frustratingly vague and ill-defined. How are we to create the educational, social, economic, and political institutions that would allow all Americans to really participate in political decisions? If we could do this, would we find that we indeed constitute a community of citizens? Or would we find that there are profound differences between us that prevent consensus over how problems are even defined, let alone solved?
How would we resolve differences? How can communications technologies be used to further, rather than restrict, the opportunities for citizenship? These are questions that must be addressed if we are to build a participatory democracy. That Perot speaks this language is what makes him so refreshing. That he refuses to engage in the give and take necessary to define how his vision will be implemented is what makes him so dangerous.
What's troubling about Perot is that along with appeals to the democratic wish, he also claims that his experience as a self-made billionaire gives him a unique ability, not shared by others, to solve our problems. It's in this claim that Perot abandons the American democratic wish for an engaged citizenry. Instead, he substitutes the vision of a leader that is in some mysterious (not democratic) way able to express the wishes and desires of his followers.
WE don't spend much time in this country worrying about totalitarianism. Yet when a new political leader comes from nowhere and campaigns outside established democratic institutions, we need to be wary. In a country that has long believed that what was good for General Motors was good for the country, the claims of a successful businessman resonate as powerfully as Europe fascism appealed to romantic visions of lost German greatness.
Indeed, we feel that if fascism were to establish itself in America, this is the form it would try to take. Perot's vagueness is not in his policy positions. Anyone who's watched his commercials knows he has specific policy proposals. But while the fiery Texan is "all ears," it is unclear how his thousands of volunteers, let alone the rest of us, are to speak to those ears. His vagueness is over how exactly our quite pluralistic and even fractious society could be turned into a united community; how we w ould all agree on what needs to be done. But of course, that is precisely the promise of fascism. The individual subordinates him or herself to the needs and preferences of some organic collective, as interpreted by a strong leader.
Perot's appeal shows that the language used by conventional politicians falls short of citizens' wishes for empowerment. It is vitally important that we appreciate the deep historical roots of the wish for this richer vision of democracy. It is also important we keep this wish focused on forging democratic links between citizens and government - not on vague, mysterious appeals by strong leaders who offer simple answers to our problems.