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Scholars discuss vote attitudes with rebellious Republicans
STANFORD -- A quarter of the mostly Republican audience in Stauffer Auditorium on April 29 said they would vote for Ross Perot if the presidential election were held on that day. The election watchdogs at the Hoover Institution wanted to know why.
The voters who spoke up - mostly guests invited to hear political science scholars analyze the election campaign - responded with a laundry list of complaints about representative democracy.
One woman who identified herself as the mother of "two physicians and two other professionals" said she was tired of income transfers from middle- and upper-class workers to "wealthy, non-working capitalists."
A man said he was tired of the "business-as-usual attitude in Washington" and was particularly offended by the contribution sizes at the last fund-raising dinner held for President Bush's reelection.
Another man said the country needed something to "get out of congressional gridlock" on health care and myriad other issues; perhaps Perot's idea of an electronic town meeting for the nation would do the trick.
Another woman said she was appalled at the huge expenditures "to help some Arabs kill other Arabs." Perot wasn't as likely to give money away to special interests, she said.
"You all are talking about a little move toward totalitarianism as if you like it and want it, and that's very disturbing," responded Hoover Senior Fellow Martin Anderson, a former political adviser to Ronald Reagan. Anderson urged the 90-member audience to "return to your political parties and straighten them out."
"If Perot's message is that we should no longer be considering a representative process and our elected representatives, I think we ought to take note of that very seriously," said Hoover scholar John Bunzel. Bunzel also noted that Perot in years past has suggested martial law to deal with drugs and other social problems in America.
"There's something that really bothers me" about Perot's electronic town meeting idea, and a perception of him among his supporters as a "magical wizard," Bunzel said.
Perot hasn't said yet how he intends to use the electronic meetings, Bunzel said, but his suggestion implies he might be "making decisions based on an auditorium full of people who push buttons."
A U.S. town meeting is "impossible" because democracy requires building majority support, said David Brady, a Hoover scholar and Stanford professor. "You actually believe if you can just talk to enough people, they'll come around to your viewpoint? It doesn't work that way in the world."
Perot is a businessman who knows how to get things done, someone in the audience said.
People running a business have two advantages over people trying to run a representative government, Brady responded. They can order things done once and expect them to be carried out, he said, whereas someone working in a democracy has to "make a decision 20 times" for it to stick. Second, he said businessmen can hire and fire.
"If you need mechanical engineers, you can hire them. Congress doesn't work like that. You may need more mechanical engineers but they send you lawyers," he said, generating a round of laughter.
Brady agreed with a man who said it was "good politics" for Perot to put pressure on election officials by suggesting plebiscites, but the business school professor suggested that Americans who are dissatisfied with Congress and the president question the reasons they are giving themselves for their dissatisfaction.
The popularity of ruling governments has dropped to 30 percent or less in most of the Western democracies since the collapse of the Cold War, he said. That fact "seems inconsistent" with suggestions that American dissatisfaction is "based on peculiarly American events like our fund-raising practices."
"There is lots of rigorous evidence" from studies of elections to suggest that "incumbents get blamed for the economy," said John Ferejohn, a Hoover scholar and chairman of Stanford's political science department. He attributed anti-incumbent fever to the current "bad shape" of the industrial economies and predicted George Bush will win in the fall if the economy improves enough and if voters don't blame him for not signing the economic package passed by Congress.
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