- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Two seemingly unrelated events — the California recall and the East Coast blackout — paint a dramatic relief of the contours of politics at the beginning of the 21st century. Reaction to these August news stories — by citizens and voters — provides some unusually clear insights into often-misunderstood and contradictory aspects of today’s political landscape.

Both events demonstrate that the political process is far less efficient than people appreciate. These “crises” highlight the gap between theory and practice in the increasingly fractured American body politic and the increased challenges of finding consensus. Finally, both events underscore the significance of symbols, as opposed to substance, in today’s postmodern political discourse.

The lack of efficiency in our democracy is the first lesson. Despite our fondest hopes and society’s love of planning in this rational, post-scientific age, election recalls and building a reliable power grid are examples of public policy and electoral inefficiencies.

Californians devote a breathtaking amount of time and energy to the recall effort. From the blonde-hairedskim boarder on the beach at Three Arch Bay in South Laguna Beach to the waitress at the Brig Restaurant in Dana Point, the Golden Staters I spoke with while vacationing last week are obsessed with recall hysteria. My informal survey reading the Los Angles Times last week indicates that roughly a third of the pages of the first section were devoted to the recall. Other sections covered the “softer side” of the story like the issue positions of gubernatorial candidate and exotic dancer Mary Carey. One wonders what the paper would write about sans recall. A veteran California political observer told me there was more news coverage of the recall to this point in the process than the entire gubernatorial campaign last year. Like Sisyphus climbing the hill, California voters went through a statewide campaign less than a year ago, are now back down to the bottom and start the journey all over again. Inefficiency: thy name is the California recall.

Similarly, Congress’ tortured deliberation of electricity policy has been going on for over a decade, with halting stops and starts along the way. Lawmakers last passed a major energy bill 11 years ago (the 1992 Energy Policy Act). Despite impressive surges in electrical demand due to the information age, Congress has spent an enormous amount of time and resources on energy legislation over the past ten years without a lot to show for it. The question when lawmakers return next week is whether a regional blackout created enough political voltage to overcome the inherent inefficiencies of the congressional process.

The messy side of recalls and reliable electricity shed light on another political paradox — voters support general political principles and institutions in the abstract, but not in practice. For example, Californians overwhelming support the right to recall. University of California — Riverside political scientist Shaun Bowler’s research shows strong majority support for the general concept. Yet they are also embarrassed by the way their collective sense of buyer’s remorse is playing out — particularly in the media. “We’re the laughing stock of the country,” a woman beginning her senior year in college told me. An August 23, 2003 Los Angeles Times poll found a majority of voters feel the current recount might “turn into a circus.” Just like a majority of Americans love their congressman but hate Congress, Californians support recalls but have trouble with this one.

Similarly, Americans overwhelmingly support the concept of reliable power — but keep the transmission lines out of my backyard, thank you. Voters want abundant electricity, a clean environment and low energy prices — all wonderful objectives, but getting there is the rub. The increasingly fractured nature of American politics makes finding consensus on energy policy, by asking voters to make specific sacrifices more difficult than ever.

If efficiency and consensus are on the wane in today’s postmodern political culture, symbolic politics are not. Again, the blackout and the recall provide clear examples. Democrats were quick to use “President Bush, Tom DeLay and Big Oil” as symbols of blame for the Northeast blackout. Similarly, Gray Davis says Republicans (as they did in the Florida recount) are just trying to overturn the results of the last election. In both cases, language surrounding the crisis becomes a vehicle for symbolic political gain — not fixing the problem.

Sociologist James Davison Hunter has said “the epoch we call modernity is marked by deep contradictions.” Politics is no exception. It is a time when the public desire for rational, calculated and scientific responses to problems collides with a breakdown in societal consensus about the right answers. Meanwhile, symbolism replaces substance, because like so many other aspects of the post-modern world, it’s easier to agree on what’s wrong than what’s right.

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