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Populism Makes a Comeback In the Midst of Disillusion

THE American public is firmly committed to democratic norms. It thinks, though, that the current practice of democracy leaves a good bit to be desired. In fact, the degree of dissatisfaction with ``politics as usual'' that we see today is similar to what the country experienced early in this century - discontent which nurtured the Progressive Movement and its various reforms.

The Progressives believed that the principal institutions of American representative democracy - political parties, legislatures, city councils - had been captured by ``the interests,'' were riddled with corruption, and often had been wrested from popular control. Muckraking journalists, among them Ida M. Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, graphically portrayed the venality and unresponsiveness which they saw as all too common in the nation's political life.

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Finley Peter Dunne, a popular American humorist, was a friend of many of the muckrakers. Mr. Dunne had his famous character, Mr. Dooley, tell his friend Hinnissy that he had once enjoyed reading newspapers and magazines, but no more:

``What do I find? Ivrything has gone wrong.... Is there an honest man among us? If there is, throw him out. He's a spy. Is there an institution that isn't corrupt to its very foundation? Don't ye believe it. It on'y looks that way because our grafty iditor hasn't got there on his rounds yet.''

Many Progressives concluded that the only way to cure these ills was to give individuals new authority to override and control representative institutions. They backed and saw enacted a host of ``direct democracy'' reforms such as the direct primary to take nominations away from party ``bosses''; initiatives and referendums to allow the people to make laws directly; and the recall, to permit voters to ``kick the bums out'' when they were malperforming. The reformers' success makes it clear that they tapped a deep lode of resentment.

Today it's evident that the public is angry about the performance of its political institutions. Current frustrations resemble those of the Progressive era and probably surpass anything between that era and our own.

Consider, for example, judgments about Congress's performance. Surveys from the 1940s through the '60s consistently showed the national legislature getting good marks. When the Gallup Poll asked in 1958 whether Congress was doing a good or poor job, it found only 12 percent saying poor. In a June 1970 survey, Gallup showed its respondents a card on which there were 10 boxes, numbered from +5 (for institutions ``you like very much'') down to -5 (dislike very much). Only 3 percent assigned Congress to the -4 or -5 boxes, and only 10 percent gave it a negative rating of any kind. Thirty-six percent gave it either a +4 or a +5.

Things are different now. A number of survey organizations regularly ask their respondents whether they approve or disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job. The proportions bounce around, depending on the overall national mood and the latest headlines on congressional doings. But with a few brief exceptions, one of which was at the onset of the Gulf war, the proportion saying they approved Congress's performance has remained in the range of one-fourth to one-third of the public.

For the 64 askings of this basic approve/disapprove question that I have been able to locate, only 27 percent of the respondents, on average, have put themselves in the approve column.

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As in the Progressive era, public dissatisfaction with the performance of our political structures gets expressed in increased backing for direct democracy. Our political culture is strongly individualist, and we are always sympathetic to the idea of direct citizenry intervention above and beyond elections. But when things are seen going poorly in terms of the institutions' performance, direct democracy's appeal gets a special boost.

Many of the innovations of the Progressive era, such as referendums and primaries, are in wide use. The public would extend them further now. But today's direct democracy agenda finds other expressions. Backing for term limits is one. If legislators are unresponsive, limit the number of years they can serve. Surveys in various states and those taken nationally show overwhelming backing for this idea. Virtually every time the public has had a chance to vote on them it has favored term limits.

The Perot movement is another expression. It is clearly rooted in dissatisfaction with the current performance of our representative bodies. ``Kick 'em all out and start over'' is the response. My profession of political science has long counseled against enlarging the reach of direct democracy. Political parties need to be strengthened, we have argued, not weakened further. Legislatures similarly need to be buttressed rather than gotten around or curbed by term limits, balanced budget amendments, and the like.

I have been sympathetic to this political science orthodoxy, but now I'm not so sure. We're not beset by the old-fashioned venality and corruption the Progressives faced, but our primary representative institutions are woefully unresponsive. Politics as usual ``inside the (Washington) beltway'' really has become an insiders' game. The interests that dominate it differ from those the Progressives battled, but are no less insensitive to popular calls for change. The old Progressive answer of extending direct authority and intervention to the citizens may be the only answer to present-day shortcomings in representative democracy.