Aristocracy of Political DropoutsProduces a ‘Surrealer’ World

When the word “surreal” becomes a commonplace, the world has gone too weird for words. You can choke on the banalities. Democrats deplored the indecency of conducting an impeachment trial while American troops are in harm’s way, and it was left to a Republican during the House debate to note that in June 1972, with more than 60,000 American troops in Vietnam, it was Representative John Conyers who was proposing to impeach then-President Richard Nixon. Now the world gets surrealer and surrealer, as the United States Senate in its majesty prepares to conduct a trial over-what?

Let’s stipulate to our Republican friends that the trial of William Jefferson Clinton is not about blowjobs, it’s about lying-that is, lying about blowjobs-and trying to keep them concealed from a prosecutor who had already, at the time of said blowjobs, spent several years and many millions of dollars trying and failing to sniff out a hypothetical crime having to do with a land deal that no one remembers.

And now our elected representatives take care to instruct generations in moral virtue. On Dec. 24, 1992, in a paroxysm of Christmas spirit unmatched by today’s Republicans, departing President George Bush pardoned former C.I.A. cover ops chief Clair E. George, who had been found guilty on two felony counts of lying to Congress. He pardoned former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who had pleaded guilty of withholding information from Congress. He pardoned Alan G. Fiers Jr., former head of the C.I.A.’s Central American Task Force, who had pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress. He pardoned Caspar Weinberger, the former Secretary of Defense, and Duane Clarridge, a former senior C.I.A. official, both of whom had been charged with perjury and making false statements and were about to stand trial for it.

Did Representative Henry Hyde-“revered,” in the unctuous term preferred by Tom Brokaw-worry aloud about what kind of message this holiday mercy sent to America’s youth? Did Trent Lott pause from his labors depositing checks from tobacco companies to fulminate about the unceasing importance of telling “the whole truth”? If anyone finds any sound bites to that effect, perhaps Larry Flynt will buy you lunch.

But hypocrisy does not explain the national tragicomedy, it only adorns it. Consider the intensity of Republican loathing for the draft-dodging, non-inhaling feminist who had the gall to defeat them twice. Long before the electronic adventures of Linda Tripp, even before Kenneth Starr was elevated to the office of high inquisitor, Republican senators were filibustering even the mildest of Clinton initiatives in his first term, so that nothing could get through the Senate without a supermajority of 60 votes. In the scorched-earth continuation of a generation-long political-cultural “war for the soul of America”-the one that Pat Buchanan had the self-sacrificial bluntness to name in 1992-the Republicans set out to cripple Bill Clinton once he had the audacity to defeat them. Instead of giving them the shaft, Mr. Clinton had the stupidity to give them a sword, to use the phrase Nixon memorably used with respect to his own enemies.

But the sheer perversity of our current situation requires a second layer of explanation: We live in two nations at once. Nation I, sampled again and again in a year’s worth of opinion polls, thinks by margins of 60 to 70 percent that Bill Clinton is a liar who happens to be a good to adequate President, or vice versa, or both. It thinks that Mr. Starr is a hellbent persecutor and that mass media have carried water, and venom, for him. Nation I was, and remains, against impeachment. Meanwhile, Nation II, a richer, whiter, more mobilized fraction of Nation I, elects Congress. Much of Nation I is alienated from politics; Nation II is angry and focused. Nation I whispers its tastes to pollsters, mutters in the streets and hunts for another channel to watch; Nation II donates money, goes to party meetings and turns out on Election Day.

The key to the weirdness of American politics is the electorate that doesn’t turn up. That explains why Nation I is about to witness a deplorable Senate trial conducted by an upper house elected by Nation II at the behest of a lower house also chosen by Nation II. If Nation I doesn’t like it, says Nation II, let them chew their cuds.

If Nation I, even its registered majority, beamed their likes and dislikes directly into a supercomputer, they would elect a Democratic Congress. According to a New York Times poll Oct. 26-28, registered voters preferred Democratic over Republican candidates for the House by a margin of 48 percent to 38 percent. If registered voters could cast their ballots simply by wishing, they would have elected a House consisting of 243 Democrats and 192 Republicans.

As it was, after what even the White House touted as a famous victory, the 106th House of Representatives will number 223 Republicans and 211 Democrats.

For a host of reasons, turnout falls far short of 100 percent of registered voters. Unlike other democracies, we vote on a workday, not a weekend. No one gets time off to vote. But more, most of Nation I considers politics dirty or distracting. So 36 percent of registered voters chose Congress in 1998, and 39 percent in 1994-the Gingrich Congress that, pace premature obituaries, just impeached the President of Nation I. As for the 19 percent of the voting-age population who aren’t registered, they include convicted criminals in many states, and many of the ill and the elderly. Even if you’re registered, getting an absentee ballot in many states is no picnic. (Before the September primary, it took me two phone calls to a distracted, almost unlistenable-to voice-mail lecturer merely to request an application for an absentee ballot. Though I mailed it back immediately, the actual ballot still arrived too late.)

But the unregistered are only a minority of the nonvoters. Most nonvoters have gone to the trouble of registering and don’t want to go to any more trouble. Some are, they say, “not interested.” They’re voting with their feet-voting against politics. For many in Nation I, voting is a righteous act, a sort of civil disobedience. By not voting, this growing majority of Nation I ensures that politics will be dominated by the politicians they despise. A luxurious attitude, befitting a sort of aristocracy of dropouts.

Then there’s the so-called left. Bill Clinton had long estranged the activist networks that call themselves progressive. They were disaffected from him, or preoccupied with their segmented issues-which came to the same thing-and barely, if at all, impressed by him (imagine, a winner!) in the first place. Just as Republicans hated Mr. Clinton for, among other things, pirating part of their program, so did the left hate him for Nafta and for welfare, or for Iraqi sanctions, or the pharmaceutical raid in Khartoum, or all of the above. They can live with the likes of Henry Hyde and Bob Barr, revealing the true (white, male) face of imperialism. Parlor revolutionaries, indifferent to bourgeois questions of constitutional government, chortle at the spectacle of an empire tearing itself apart. After years of fatalism, ideological blur, specialized politicking, group preoccupation and plain disappointment, much of the left has forgotten, if it ever knew, how heavy is the right wing of American politics, how fierce, how organized-and how elected.

In Nation I, the liberal left has squandered its natural advantages on H.M.O.’s, the minimum wage, Social Security, etc. by resorting to a self-immolating identity politics that doesn’t rely on its enemies to divide and conquer; it does the job itself.

Crow if you like, Democrats, about the calamities now deemed likely to befall the Republicans in 2000, but Newt Gingrich’s Revolution won. It just impeached your only re-elected President since Franklin Roosevelt. It still sets the boundaries of the possible for American decisions about wages, equality, health care, child care, labor law, trade and the environment. Come censure or high water, its minions in the Senate will cripple the Democrats for two more years. They came to power because voters rule and nonvoters are ruled. Don’t count them out if you can’t out-organize them.