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Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

The Tyranny of the Undecided Voter

By Alan Wolfe

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — First there were the Reagan Democrats. Then came the soccer moms. This is the year of the independent, undecided voter.

In theory, democracy should be better off with more independent voters. After all, independents, distrustful of ideology and partisan wrangling, listen to the candidates, measure against what they want and choose, if they choose at all, the one whose views sound most credible. In exercising their freedom of choice, unaffiliated voters apply to politics the same kind of consumer sovereignty that guarantees an efficient economy. Yet if the election this year proves anything, it is that appeals to nonpartisans result in boring elections, enhanced cynicism and a surfeit of bad faith.

Al Gore and George Bush have the same challenge: to appeal to a base by presenting sharply contrasting visions of the role of government, while also appealing to independent voters by playing down these differences. In reality, Mr. Bush is a conservative who would cut taxes and limit government and Mr. Gore offers popular entitlements, like prescription drug coverage and tuition tax breaks, in line with his party's traditional liberalism.

Yet many of the independent, undecided voters interviewed after the debates saw little difference between them. Those who did seemed confused, like the woman who favored gun control and abortion, yet still preferred Mr. Bush. Still others talked of how unhappy they were with both men, when what they really seemed to be saying was that they were prepared to hold out, hoping the candidates would tailor positions just for them. The phenomenon of myopic self-interest was captured in the third debate by a woman who asked not about the candidate's foreign policy, Supreme Court justices or the role of government, but about how the candidate's tax plans would help her as a single person with no dependents.

There is something wrong with a system that listens the most to those who care about the nation the least. Better those who identify proudly as Democrats or Republicans, even if their loyalty is a byproduct of place or position, than those whose reluctance to announce where they stand is more narcissistic than noble.

Without partisan identification, politics becomes divorced from history. One would never know from the current campaign that Abe Lincoln was a Republican or that Franklin Roosevelt was a Democrat. Without an anchor in a political tradition, voters are unable to recognize that their views on education might be related to their views on Social Security and that both reflect a distinctive philosophical understanding of human purpose.

Voters with no ideology are not self-reliant, but weightless. Shifting from one candidate to another based on gestures and impressions, they crave leadership but will punish any politician who, in offering it, offends their vanity. It is difficult to recall an election with less eloquence about our nation's calling than this one.

Indeed, both candidates seem to assume that viewers sit in front of their TV screens with "The Almanac of American Politics" on their laps. Mr. Gore demonstrated his command of the Dingell-Norwood bill (in the third debate), while Mr. Bush spoke about how much he spent in Texas on the CHIPs program (in the second). No viewers, no matter how good their math or how keen their interest, could follow each man's defense of his tax program. Partisanship distills information. Independence disperses it.

Overly ideological politics, by fanning the enthusiasm of zealots, can be dangerous. But politics without ideology encourages myopia. James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, wrote of fearing the influence of faction on the nation's politics. Were he alive today, he might well choose partisanship over pathos.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and author of "One Nation, After All."

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