THE ISOLATED AMERICA

The news for America may be considerably worse than what you've heard.

Although Monday morning political quarterbacks properly have lamented the record-low turnout in last week's presidential election, their message has an implied happy ending. The causes on which they pin the blame all are potentially fixable.If the problem is that neither President Clinton nor Bob Dole inspired prospective voters to postpone bathing the dog or balancing the checkbook to visit the polls, the parties should put up better candidates. If voters were turned off by obscene amounts of money spent on TV attack ads, Congress ought to enact meaningful campaign spending limits.

But voter apathy may have simply become part of the way we live.

For decades, we Americans have isolated ourselves in cars, our subdivisions and now our media rooms. In effect, we have reduced our political concern to that small slice of the world that lies between our property lines, letting slip the neighborliness and communal involvement underpinning our democracy.

Any of the relatively quick fixes discussed on TV political talk shows might improve turnout to a degree. But to have a truly engaged electorate could well mean the improbable trip ''back to the future,'' a journey to an America as it was when the GIs returned from World War II.

The landscape of the late 1940s might well be disorienting to today's younger people. When Harry Truman was president, there was just one McDonald's in the entire nation. The idea of the subdivision was just being hammered together in Levittown, N.Y., and Park Forest, Ill. The first shopping malls were drawing as many ''ooos and ahhhs'' as any newborn.

These innovations were remarkable, standing out against a physical and sociological backdrop that hadn't changed so markedly for generations. Our nation long had been a patchwork of small towns and big cities separated by vast stretches of farmland and wilderness. Before the domination of the automobile and the suburbanizing and franchising of America, every place had its own distinct character.

Each town had its Main Street cafe, every big city its neighborhood taverns serving much more than food and drink that didn't taste exactly like everyone else's. These places also played host to the gossip and free-wheeling debate of local issues, thereby stitching the community together, and, long before Election Day, pointing voters toward the ballot box.

Although no one saw it, America was at a fork in the road in Truman's time. To one side was a continuation of the path already taken - one that traced back to the self-governing democracies of pioneer and Pilgrim ancestors. The other - the one taken - was soon to become walled by a numbing sameness: fast-food franchises, tract housing and cookie-cutter shopping malls.

The cul-de-sac lifestyle that now dominates American society makes every place into anyplace and, therefore, no place. Not surprisingly, no place doesn't engender community involvement and the sort of grounding in democracy that's needed to connect the individual to the government.

Not only has voter turnout suffered, so too have community-based groups, such as the PTA, veterans' groups, scouts and service organizations, that traditionally have served as practice fields of democracy.

The gap between politics and the populace also can be seen from the politicians' perspective. The American Legion hall and Rotary luncheon once provided candidates with a forum to run for office, being places where large numbers of constituents gathered.

Now, however, America has gone from a land of joiners and doers to one of bystanders. The most effective place for politicians to find voters is at home - not, as in the past, by pushing doorbells, but by entering via television.

Television has put the political process in an illogical bind. Because Americans have become couch potatoes, politicians have to send them the message to come out and vote through the very medium that is keeping them at home.

This atomized and nonparticipating America would dismay no one more than Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French writer who seemed to have a knack for defining this new nation's character. He said that the success of the experiment in democracy could be explained by the link between the inhabitants' strong sense of place and their civic commitment. Americans, he observed, didn't wait to be asked what they could do for their country; they volunteered.

Traveling across the broad frontier, he saw a vast land with strong regional differences. Yet out of that diversity came unity, a process expressed on America's coinage by the motto: E pluribus unum (one from many).

To de Tocqueville, America thus stood in contrast to Europe, where he saw uniformity sapping the political vitality of nations. The epitaph he pronounced upon the Old World, however, today might sadly apply to the United States as well.

''Variety is disappearing,'' de Tocqueville wrote in 1835. ''The same ways of behaving, thinking and feeling are found in every corner.''

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