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Signs of life outside Washington

Contemporary politics has three peculiarities. The strongest passions _ Republican hatred of Bill Clinton and Democratic loyalty to him _ are incongruous, given the nature of Clinton. Second, political ferocity increases as the stakes of politics shrink. And as saturation journalism drenches the public with news from Washington, the nation participates less and less in the passions swirling around the national government.

Disgust with Clinton is nearly coextensive with the truly adult population, and is intense in the Democrats' congressional cloakrooms, where members of the world's oldest political party resent the degradation of it. However, hatred of Clinton is strange. Large passions should be called forth by largeness, and Clinton is defined by littleness.

Clinton had one large purpose, health care reform, but he entrusted it to his wife, who botched it. There have been only two large events involving the national government in the Clinton years: The economy balanced the budget, and Republicans forced welfare reform on a reluctant Clinton.

Yet the nation thrives. In 1997 violent crime declined 7 percent, to its lowest level in 24 years, partly because the prison population has more than doubled in a decade. In New York, homicides are one-third of the 1990 level, and below the 1964 level. The American Enterprise magazine reports:

The number of welfare recipients is declining, as is illegitimacy, teenage sexual activity (after two decades of increases); births to teenagers (down 12 percent since 1991); and abortions. The percentage of Americans saying abortion should be "legal under any circumstances" has fallen from 34 to 22 since 1990. Church attendance is rising (55 percent of teenagers attend church at least once a week, up from 47 percent in 1975). By 78 percent to 15 percent Americans endorse "encouraging a belief in God" over "encouraging a modern scientific outlook." Since the late 1970s the percentage of Americans saying that religion is "very important" in their lives has increased from 52 to 61.

Gregg Easterbrook, writing in the New Republic, notes that health is broadly improving. This is largely because individuals are behaving more sensibly (about food, drink, tobacco, exercise, sex). In 1985, 17 percent of high school seniors had tried cocaine; in 1996, 7 percent. A forthcoming book by University of Connecticut professor Everett Carll Ladd reports that far from becoming an atomized nation of broken social bonds, America's social fabric is being rewoven by (for example) the 59 percent of parents of school-age children who participate in their children's classrooms. There has been a doubling, between 1977 and 1995, of the number of people volunteering for charities.

Most people are busy behaving well, are disgusted with people who are not, and are convinced that good behavior locally _ in society's little platoons: families, churches, civic organizations _ matters more than governmental measures. Which helps explain why people are consuming less and less traditional journalism.

The television audience is being fragmented by cable and satellite systems, and by the siphoning off of that audience by online information providers. In August, cable viewership exceeded that of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox combined. The volume of Internet traffic is doubling every 100 days as upward of 7-million households go online each year.

Total national newspaper circulation fell from 63.1-million in 1984 to 56.7 million in 1997. The Boston Globe recently reported that in November, Boston's top three TV newscasts dropped 50,000 households below their level a year ago. (Among the top 10 media markets, Boston has the highest percentage _ 79 _ of cable subscribers.) The Globe's and Boston Herald's weekday circulations have declined 10 and 25 percent respectively in the 1990s. Boston ranks second among national media markets in regular daily newspaper reading by adults, but readership is down from 75 percent to 69 percent since 1994.

Americans are defining, and finding, news in new ways. Their self-emancipation from traditional sources, and from agendas set far away, reflects the decreasing relevance of the national stage, the performers on which resemble _ and are going the way of _ vaudevillians.

George Will is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group