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Stronger parties could heal public disillusionment

Perhaps because he came to office as an unelected president, perhaps because he had been so close for so many years in Congress to his own western Michigan constituents, Gerald Ford worried even more than most politicians about staying in touch with grass-roots America. The secretary of health, education and welfare in his administration, former University of Alabama President David Mathews, shared Ford's understanding of the importance of being connected to Main Street thinking. As president of the Kettering Foundation, he has kept his focus on the damaged links between the governed and those governing in this republic.

The foundation has just published the latest and most important in a series of reports on that topic, called Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America. It is so right on so many fundamental matters that its silence on one vital topic is all the more astounding.

The body of the report is a summary and analysis of 10 focus groups, with cross-sections of people, held in scattered cities across the nation. Six were held in the middle of last year; four others, this spring. But the Harwood Group, which conducted the sessions, found no significant shift from pre-war to post-war attitudes on politics.

In both time periods, and in all 10 sessions, those interviewed expressed a disdain and distrust for politics so deep that Mathews is well-justified in saying that "the legitimacy of our political institutions is more at issue than our leaders imagine."

Two other points are emphasized in this report that contradict some of the conventional wisdom.

First, the problem is not voter apathy _ but frustration. Citizens "argue that politics has been taken away from them _ that they have been pushed out of the political process. They want to participate, but they believe there is no room for them," the report says.

Second, fears that this generation of Americans has become selfish, self-centered and devoid of concern for community and country are unfounded. On the contrary, millions of people are actively involved in neighborhood or community efforts. These require political skills (organizing, agenda-setting, negotiating), but they sharply separate them from the politics they despise. At the level at which they are personally involved, they see a possibility of change and accomplishment. Politics _ which to them means mostly national and state government _ is beyond their influence and, therefore, they believe, beyond redemption.

"Politics," said a Los Angeles woman, "is rules, laws, policies. This has nothing to do with why I am involved in my community."

All that, from my experience, is on target and has important implications. It means, among other things, that good-government reforms like public financing of campaigns or a ban on politicians' honorariums address only symptoms, not causes, of public disillusionment.

The root cause is that people have lost their belief that as individuals, they can influence the distant decision-makers in Washington or the state capital. "They believe they have been squeezed out," the report said, and the system they should control has been usurped by "politicians, powerful lobbyists and the media," who communicate and negotiate with each other but ignore the concerns the citizens want addressed.

The report suggests a variety of ways that the shattered connection between citizens and governments might be rebuilt. But, astonishingly, its analysis does not even mention that in the last 40 years, we have seen the steady decline of the political party organizations that once functioned as the links between local citizens and governments at all levels.

Do elected officials no longer hear or heed what citizens think? It is largely because the political networks, from precinct captains to county and state chairmen, that once carried those messages, no longer exist.

Do interest-groups and political action committees now dominate the governmental process? It is largely because aspiring candidates and elected officials no longer can look to their parties for financial and grass-roots organizational support.

Do the mass media now play an exaggerated role in promoting or crippling political careers and in setting the issues agenda? It is largely because communication moves almost exclusively through the media, not up and down the party networks from precincts to Capitol Hill and the White House.

Disillusioned citizens are right in thinking that individuals are nearly powerless in a mass society's politics. This report tells us, sadly, that they have entirely forgotten that parties existed to inform, to mobilize and to empower them _ the very thing they want but no longer know how to get.

The report correctly emphasizes that American democracy can only be rebuilt from the bottom up. Now someone needs to remind people that we don't need to invent a solution. We need only to remember what it was like when Republican and Democratic precinct captains worked and organized neighborhoods across America.

Washington Post Writers Group