The big book these days of late spring 1991 is E.J. Dionne's "Why Americans Hate Politics." The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post have reviewed it recently, and Mr. Dionne last week appeared on morning television.
The book is timely. Just last Wednesday, as if to prove it so, Kentucky held its gubernatorial primaries, and citizens of the Blue Grass State showed that, at the very least, they do not much care for public life. Fewer than four of every 10 Democrats showed up at the polls and fewer than three of every 10 Republicans.
The trend toward less participation in American politics is familiar, but it needs to be understood anew in the municipal bond market. While apathetic Kentuckians stayed home last week, Connecticut's budget impasse solidified, Philadelphia's financial mess remained intractable, and Michigan's treasurer conceded that his state's financial condition was in "a terrible fix." New York State's budget remained unfinished, 60 days overdue.
Politics and finance are inseparable, and the rating agencies have been telling us for months that we had better keep a close eye on state and city budget deficits if we want to avoid bonds about to be downgraded. What the municipal bond market needs is a better understanding of the politics of financial deadlock, and Mr. Dionne's book helps.
Mr. Dionne's argument is that both the left and the right have few if any relevant ideas as they continue to fight the ideological battles of the 1960s even after liberalism's failure in the 1970s and conservatism's in the 1980s. Faced with no appropriate current ideas and holding so many distatesful memories (Willie Horton, "Read my lips," House Speaker Jim Wright, the Keating Five), Americans have signed off.
The high dropout rate may explain federal, state, and city financial crises. Politicians will not act unless driven, and they won't be compelled to make hard decisions if the voters don't push them hard.
Somehow, the circle has to be broken. Either the voters have to push the politicians or some courageous politicians must come up with a principled and coherent program to bring the voters back. Mr. Dionne is optimistic enough to think that the latter will happen.
We trust that he is right, but we also think a return to genuine political involvement and progress will be slow and uneven. Mr. Dionne declares that what is needed is "an organizing idea that simultaneously accepts the efficiencies of markets and the importance of a vigorous public life." Much financial floundering lies immediately ahead before America's hatred of politics is ended.