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Politicus Irrelevanticus: What to Do When the Stock Market Supplants the Marketplace of Ideas

Anders Hove

Is politics still relevant? This is a question that has been posed with ever-increasing frequency over the past five years. By posing it, pundits and commentators have attempted to identify what some might call the latest cultural trend in our society. After all, identifying cultural trends is considered the highest object of punditry.

Next to the question of whether politics is relevant comes the attendant queries: Is the presidency relevant? Is Washington relevant? Is Congress? And so on. These are questions that have been asked in previous generations. Princeton Professor Woodrow Wilson openly questioned the relevance of the presidents of the 1880s, and even of Congress itself, writing that the real power lay in congressional committees. William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt changed all that. By the end of TR's second term in 1909, the presidency had taken command of the economy, environmental protection, and an aggressive foreign policy. And what presidency of the 1880s would have used the "bully pulpit" to strike fear in the hearts of the White House's enemies?

Yet few would blame Wilson for his lack of foresight: Nobody watching the dust-encrusted Congress of the 1880s or the lackadaisical presidencies of Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland could conclude that they were the center of the nation's attention. The national political debate was nearly non-existent; the political parties were too close together.

Yet with all the boredom of the 1880s, nobody called politics itself irrelevant. Political participation was still high. People kept up with the latest Washington gossip, traded "presidential possibilities" cards, and backed their local senators as "favorite sons." Boring or not, politics was alive and well.

Not so today: People can call politics dead because, exciting or not, far fewer people seem to care. Fewer people vote, participate in political campaigns, or listen to political speeches. And, in lean months, even news junkies and the pack journalists that cater to their needs seem interested in everything but Washington.

The end of politics was the theme of the January 25 issue of The New York Times Magazine: Gary Wills, the first author at bat, tells us that politics has declined because parties have declined, and parties have declined because the elites that backed them and recruited their leaders have disappeared. This story may explain some of the weird tactics engaged in by contemporary parties, but it tells us little about why the people haven't rescued their politics. After all, the parties and their elites were in the can in the 1880s too, but politics was kicking away.

Jacob Weisberg, second at bat for the Times, theorizes instead that personal finance, especially in the stock market, has taken up where politics left off. With the economy and deficit apparently stabilized, Wall Street has more bearing on folks' pocketbooks than Pennsylvania Avenue. And the market plays right into Americans' infamous infatuation with individualism.

Last week, Weisberg's notion of a nation obsessed with the market received was seconded by a source with top-notch cultural credentials: Rolling Stone. The magazine's P. J. O'Rourke and William Greider team up to give the low-down on the doings on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. "Behold the hero of the '90s," extols O'Rourke. "We thrill with its victories, shudder at its defeats, admire its resilience, sympathize with its shortcomings."

If this obsession with the market is as big a deal as many think it is, then the '90s citizen looks a lot different from the citizen of yesteryear. Compare market news to political news: In the market, falling unemployment is probably bad - it could herald value-killing inflation. If a company fires a couple hundred workers, as America Online did just a few weeks ago, its stock shoots up. Firings apparently represent good management and an eye toward profits. And need I mention that presidential sex scandals only jitter traders until they figure out that even impeachment won't kill the bull market.

Weisberg contrasts stockholder democracy with the democratic ideal: The individualist yeoman farmer engaged in politics in his own self-interest. Jeffersonian democracy was a participatory democracy; it brought people together to solve problems as a community. In a stockholder democracy, however, people interact at arm's length; the stockholder citizen is out to secede from her community by achieving financial independence from it. And after 50 years of television and increasing mobility, community is already in danger.

The contrast between markets and politics is made more stark when one considers the values at stake. In the market, the only value that matters is the price. In the political arena, or at least the arena of the past, money was just one value among many. Rights, morality, obligation, and authority were once central to our political debate. Now these debates have been removed to the sphere of litigation. Budget politics and mantras like, "It's the economy, stupid," rule the land.

Yet even these stale mantras fall on deaf ears today. Economists panned Clinton's economic stimulus package in 1993, pointing out that it would be a drop in the bucket, along with any other fiscal experimentation that could be attempted. All that mattered was to keep the deficit down, and hence interest rates. With this revelation, Alan Greenspan suddenly became the most important person in the political sphere. It should come as no surprise that the first columns pronouncing the irrelevance of Washington appeared shortly thereafter.

Combined with the story of the market ascendant is the Wired story of an electorate plugged in. As the formerly dominant news media decline and the Internet rises, citizens have more information on more subjects at their disposal. Instead of extrapolating from media designed only for the masses, wired citizens can focus in on the micro-subject of their choosing, ignoring the larger picture if it is irrelevant to their interests.

Whither politics? Perhaps we should expect the Internet to reconstruct some of the communities that have been shattered by television and 401(k) plans. But will virtual communities concern themselves with values, as did politics of the past, or just money? Nobody has the answer yet. But I for one will not call politics irrelevant just yet.