I can't claim credit for the term, but it seems to fit. In a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute on the first 100 days of the Bush presidency, David Gergen suggested that what we might have today is a "passionless public."
"The public," he said, "has been extraordinarily disengaged from many of the conversations that have been taking place in Washington, and that follows a pattern we saw in foreign policy when [Bill] Clinton was president."
In coining the term, Gergen recalled James Fallows' 1979 articles on Jimmy Carter as the passionless president. Gergen went on to say that the public seems to be saying, "[D]on't screw things up and don't bother me in my life." There's a lot of poll evidence to support his assessment.
In 1939, Gallup began asking people what they thought was the "most important problem facing the country." The question has been asked scores of times since then, and its results tell us a great deal about how engaged Americans are. In 1981, in the early days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, for example, 75 percent spontaneously mentioned "inflation" as the No. 1 problem. When Clinton took office, around 30 percent mentioned something related to the economy.
When Gallup last posed the question, May 10-14, 12 percent mentioned lack of energy sources, 10 percent cited the economy and another 10 percent came out with fuel/oil prices. No overriding concern was shared by even 20 percent of respondents. In the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press' MIP question from May 15-20, 22 percent, the top response, volunteered "the energy crisis/rising gas prices or heating-oil prices." The next closest priority was education (8 percent). Both Gallup and Pew reported that concern about energy had surged from a low level at the beginning of the year.
In its April poll, Pew found that 64 percent did not know if the Senate had passed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, 63 percent were unaware that President Bush had decided not to place limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and 63 percent were unable to describe his actions on arsenic regulations.
A plurality (46 percent) were aware that the Senate had voted for a smaller tax cut than Bush had proposed, and a majority (69 percent) knew that the families of the Oklahoma bombing victims would be allowed to watch Timothy McVeigh's execution.
Pew's latest poll found that 61 percent were following news stories about "the high price of gasoline" very closely, but only 22 percent were paying that kind of attention to "George Bush's new energy policy."
There are several possible explanations for the disengagement from Washington. Although perceptions of the national economy have headed south recently, people are still pretty optimistic about their own situations. It took Americans a long time to appreciate the depth and breadth of this expansion, and they may still be savoring the good times.
It's my impression from looking at polls over the years that Americans pay a lot more attention to Washington when things aren't going well than they do when things are going smoothly. In this month's Pew survey, just a third of those polled said they were paying close attention to reports about the condition of the U.S. economy.
However, the alienation may be deeper. For many Americans the Clinton scandals and the 2000 election reinforced impressions of things they don't like about Washington (corruption, dishonesty, partisan sniping). Still another reason is that confidence in Washington's ability to solve problems is low.
To take one of many indicators, 83 percent told CBS News pollsters last May that government could have a positive effect on their lives, but in response to another question, only 37 percent said it was having that effect today. From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, as the late political scientist Everett Ladd argued, Americans equated more government with progress. That is no longer the case. Americans still want a lot from Washington, but as the federal government has grown, they have found a lot more to criticize.
Finally, most Americans don't follow the ins and outs of complex debates on tax policy, education reform and missile defense. Many people in Washington seem to think that Americans spend their evenings talking to their families and neighbors about these things. They don't. Americans are deeply concerned about the fate of the country, but they are less likely than in the past to believe that answers are going to come from Washington.
Karlyn H. Bowman is a resident fellow at AEI.