When Everyone Is Unhappy

There is going to be a hangover. The eight years of the Obama administration will be seen as an anomaly, an odd time before we woke up the next morning and found the world is just as awful as it always was. We had our fling with the unthinkable.

What were we thinking? We elected a black president. We elected a man who was thoughtful and careful and polite and smart and well-educated, who tried to be fair about things – not a rah-rah smirking bully who tried to make us feel good, or angry. The left felt betrayed. He tried to compromise with Republicans. The right never trusted him. We’d never done that before and we’ll probably never do that again, but, like it or not, he got things done. We got something like universal healthcare – well, not really, but a complex system that makes it possible for most everyone to buy health insurance from the giant private for-profit insurance companies, and sets a few minimal standards for them, is what could be done. We are not like every other advanced industrialized nation in the world. We take care of corporations, not our citizens. The free market will take care of our citizens. Adam Smith said so, even if he said the exact opposite – Government has the duty of “erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works which may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society,” but which “are of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals.” Adam Smith would have had no problem with a single-payer Medicare-for-all system, but never mind. That’s a moot point now.

What else? The economy – which had collapsed in the last months of the Bush administration – recovered – slowly. The 2009 stimulus was too small to fix it fast, but seven hundred billion dollars was what could get through Congress. Government spending, on roads and bridges and whatever, was cut to the bone. That too would have pulled us out of our troubles quickly, but the Republicans blocked all of that – they said total austerity would lead to prosperity. Obama did what he could. We’ve slowly crawled our way back to minimal prosperity, for some – but at least we’re out of Iraq and trying to ease our way out of Afghanistan, and we’ve not invaded and occupied anywhere else and tried to force the folks there to come up with a government we specify.

That’s odd. Our policy seems to be to keep things as calm as possible on all fronts and not do anything stupid. Obama’s informal mantra in the White House actually has been “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” – and of course those on the right, and Hillary Clinton, think that’s cowardly. But that Osama fellow is actually dead. You do what you can. It’s not very satisfying, but it works. Again, we’d never tried that doctrine before and we’ll probably never try that again – it’s not bold – but we’re not fighting Russia in the Ukraine, are we? Do we really want to occupy Syria for a decade as we try to get them to set up a government we like, or Iran? Iran won’t have nuclear weapons now – or at least for the next ten to fifteen years. You do what you can. The eight years of the Obama administration will be seen as not all that bad, and unusual. We didn’t say that we should rule the world, because we’re the best thing since sliced bread. That never got us anywhere anyway. We will have had eight years of being sensible.

That will come to an end soon. We’ll get back to normal. Hillary Clinton has always believed in a far more “muscular” foreign policy than Obama, and she and her husband were the masters of neoliberalism – the idea that unregulated free-market capitalism can lead to a good life for everyone at all levels, that through deregulation, outsourcing, privatization and free trade one could reach traditional liberal ends through traditionally conservative means. Hey, there’d be money for all the good stuff!

Hillary Clinton has eased off that a bit, for now, but were she elected we’d be back there soon enough, and on the Republican side it’s all Donald Trump, all the time. Obama is thoughtful and careful and polite and smart and well-educated. Donald Trump is rich, and mean. He seems to be saying that that’s precisely why we should elect him president. Things would get back to normal. He’d “Make America Great Again” – whatever that means. It’s easy enough to guess. It would involve a big wall.

The only calm and relatively thoughtful guy on that side seems to be Jeb Bush, who doesn’t shout out insults and challenges, but he’s doing badly. Bush has most of the Republican establishment on his side, with their money, but that’s not doing him any good. In fact, in South Carolina, he’s getting desperate:

With Jeb Bush struggling to connect with some Republican activists, his campaign has begun exploring whether to bring in the person it thinks may be best equipped to give him a boost with skeptical conservatives: his brother George W. Bush. The 43rd president is a very popular figure among Republican voters and could deliver a needed jolt to his brother’s sluggish campaign.

Advisers to Jeb Bush in this crucial early primary state have asked national campaign officials in recent weeks to send in George Bush, 69, who so far has appeared only at private fund-raisers, to vouch for his younger brother on the campaign trail.

The request for reinforcement underlines the growing urgency that backers of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, feel as other candidates vault ahead of him by stirring the passions of the party’s base.

But the question of how to use the candidate’s older brother is an agonizing one for the campaign. While dispatching George Bush to a state like South Carolina could shore up his brother’s standing with conservatives, and remind voters there of a political family they still admire, it could also underscore the impression that Jeb Bush is simply a legacy candidate at a time when voters are itching for change.

Jeb is not stirring the passions of the party’s base, and the Washington Post’s Dan Balz sees the problem here:

Lodged firmly in the establishment wing as the son and brother of former presidents, [Bush] faces resistance on the far right and among those yearning for an outsider. His hope is that he can change perceptions of himself, outlast his rivals with superior resources and persuade Republicans that he’s their best hope to win a general election.

Sally Bradshaw, Bush’s senior adviser, said the key remains what it has been from the start of the campaign: to portray Bush as a conservative reformer by stressing what he did in Florida. “People don’t know that yet,” she said. “When that message burns in, his numbers are going to change. That’s his path.”

They’ll see him as a sensible conservative, a little boring and a bit centrist at times, but one who gets things done. He’s the Obama of the right. That’s the idea, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice blog isn’t buying it:

Do you see Jeb’s problem? His plan is to say, “Yes, I’m a conservative – look at all the conservative things I did when I was in government a million years ago.” In other words, his plan for winning over voters who want not only a right-wing ideologue but an outsider is to tell people what an ideologue he was years ago, as an insider.

With that strategy, he simply can’t win the nomination.

He’s got it all wrong:

Jeb should pander. Jeb should try to appeal to conservative voters’ baser instincts on hot-button current issues. That’s what they want, and that’s what works. …

This election has been a sort of pander Olympics, with the three outsiders likely to sweep the medals. Trump panders on immigration. Carson panders on the alleged incompatibility of Islam and the Constitution. Carly Fiorina panders on Planned Parenthood. (And “pander” is probably not the word I’m looking for in all cases – Carson really seems to believe everything he says, and I think Trump believes quite a bit of what he’s saying, though I have serious doubts about Fiorina.)

Jeb Bush and his team have no idea how unhappy the party’s base is. His brother is irrelevant now. Obama is irrelevant too. Sensible is irrelevant. The Obama years are ending and everyone’s unhappy, not just Republicans. In fact, John Judis in the National Journal writes about the rise of the Middle American Radical – the Donald Trump voters and formerly the Ross Perot voters. These are those who believe that the middle class is being disadvantaged by a focus on both the rich and the poor. In 1976, Donald Warren, a sociologist from Oakland University in Michigan, identified these folks:

Warren called these voters Middle American Radicals, or MARS. “MARS are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected,” Warren wrote. They saw “government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously.” Like many on the left, MARS were deeply suspicious of big business: Compared with the other groups he surveyed – lower-income whites, middle-income whites who went to college, and what Warren called “affluents” – MARS were the most likely to believe that corporations had “too much power,” “don’t pay attention,” and were “too big.” MARS also backed many liberal programs: By a large percentage, they favored government guaranteeing jobs to everyone; and they supported price controls, Medicare, some kind of national health insurance, federal aid to education, and Social Security.

David Atkins runs with that:

That helps explain why Trump has managed to stay at the top of the GOP field despite significant unorthodoxy on healthcare, taxes and other issues of concern to wealthy Republican donors. But I would argue that this sentiment extends far beyond just the demographic Judis explains. As a focus group moderator myself and a longtime precinct walker and phone-banker, I’ve talked to countless voters who have expressed similar sentiments – and they have ranged across political parties, age, races and genders.

It seems everyone is unhappy:

I particularly remember a series of focus groups I conducted among undecided, infrequent minority voters who were almost universally angry with food stamp and welfare programs because they worked full-time jobs and made just a little too much to qualify for them. They were angry that friends and neighbors of theirs were able to get assistance from the government, and they themselves were being “punished” for working. These were still liberal-leaning voters who were not going to vote for Republicans anytime soon because of their racism and because they wanted those welfare programs to continue to exist in case they themselves lost their job -but it didn’t change their angry perception that American government, in their eyes, seemed to advantage both the rich and the poor at the expense of the middle class.

And, predictably, the effect tends to be even greater among more comfortable white voters, who often have an unrealistically romantic idea of what being unemployed and on welfare is really like.

Our two political parties haven’t figured that out yet:

Republicans exploit this sentiment ruthlessly, but are of course hampered by their relentless determination to give the entire private and public treasury to the very richest. They also underestimate the degree to which, while many Americans do feel this frustration about the perceived lack of assistance to the middle class, they don’t necessarily want help for them to come at the expense of help for the poor – in other words, they don’t want to remove assistance to the poor so much as they want to increase assistance for the middle class.

Democrats hurt themselves in this respect through their rhetoric. Especially for neoliberal politicians, Democrats all too often speak as if the economy and government were working fairly well for everyone, but needed to be adjusted to “take care of those left behind.” Voters who hear that rhetoric assume that Democrats are going to take money out of their pockets to give to the poor. When talking about minimum wage, Democrats don’t spend enough time mentioning the macroeconomic effects, indicating how higher minimum wages aren’t just helpful to the families who directly receive the raise, but for everyone receiving the benefits of increased consumer demand and spending in the economy.

So we have a structural problem:

It’s an artifact of America’s peculiar winner-take-all political system that we only have two functional parties. Economically, this means that the conservative party works to align the middle class with the wealthy against the poor, while the liberal party works to align the poor and the middle class against the rich. But the middle class ideally wants to promote its own interests above all, and all too often it seems to them like no one is doing that.

So Atkins has advice for the Democrats:

Fortunately, there is no reason that Democrats need to reduce empathy or benefits to the poor in order to accomplish this. Policies like universal healthcare, student loan reform, housing reform and others serve to benefit everyone in the 99%, and can be accomplishing without making any cuts to the most unfortunate and oppressed in society.

What they don’t like is the comfortable neoliberal “center” in which everyone is supposed to get along with a smiling corporatist agenda, letting the rich use the market to run rampant over the middle class while smoothing out the sharpest edges at the very bottom. That makes almost everyone angry.

That is, in fact, why everyone is angry with Hillary Clinton and the blogger BooMan adds more:

One might object that the liberal party needs to raise money, too, and are increasingly uninterested in alienating the wealthy donors and (suburban) voters they need to be a successful organization. I’m of two minds about this. Yes, there’s more money in politics than ever and it changes how the parties behave. The obviously bad part of this is it that blurs people’s choices. There isn’t a party out there that has the workers’ interests as their primary directive. In a multiparty system, we’d have unapologetic union representation at the table at all times, for example.

On the other hand, a true governing party, particularly in a two-party winner-take-all system, needs to present a balanced platform that at least attempts to get the mix right for everyone. That means that a Democratic Party that wants to have a lock on the White House can’t be reflexively anti-Wall Street or pro-worker all the time across the board. It needs to serve more as broker or arbitrator. And this is more true as the other party becomes less of a good faith partner for negotiations. In the recent past, even Republicans as conservative and corrupted by money as Rick Santorum courted union votes and could be relied upon to consider their interests at least some of the time. Today, however, Republicans aren’t reliable allies to unions and they’re not reliable partners with the Chamber of Commerce, either. They won’t pave our roads or pay our bills, so the other party has to step into the breach and govern.

The positive part of this is that it gives the Democrats broad legitimacy as the only responsible and dependable party, and that’s something a majority-coalition party should have and actually needs to be successful. You could tell that the party had achieved this with Obama by the mix of donations he received and also by the fact that the Eisenhower Republicans basically abandoned their party and signed up with his program back in 2008.

Yes, he was odd. The left felt betrayed, the right never trusted him, and he got things done, at a cost:

This seems to have removed something critical from the Republican Party’s central nervous system, causing them to careen immediately into Know-Nothing Tea Party lunacy. But this only reinforced the cleavage between the two parties: one, a governing party, the other a party of permanent opposition.

What’s screwing up the works is that the opposition party has achieved an electoral lock on the House of Representatives, which means that the governing party isn’t permitted to govern even as it attempts to do so by taking in the interests of the wealthy, the small business community, and Wall Street.

This could explain the current mess:

A party that seeks to run this big country of ours with basically less than no assistance from their political opponents has to be a Big Tent party. If the other side were reliably representing the views of the big brokerage houses and the agricultural and other big businesses and if it were bringing the Chamber of Commerce’s positions to the table, then the Democrats could simply negotiate with the working people’s interests in mind. But, what’s actually happening is that the Republicans aren’t a broker for anyone, so the Democrats have to do all the work themselves. Now we’re the party that passes the budget and appropriates the money in John Boehner’s House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate. We’re the party that paves the roads and pays the bills on time. We’re the party that saves the Export-Import Bank, etc.

Money certainly contributes to this problem and corrupts our system, but the simple insanity of the other side and their refusal and inability to govern makes it necessary for our side to be the grownups.

In other words, for reasons of both money and votes, the Democrats can’t just be the workers’ party. But workers’ interests aren’t the only interests that have legitimacy. The Democrats aren’t being insufficiently populist simply because they’re chasing big money. They’re actually trying to fill a breach created when the Republicans abandoned their posts.

That is an odd situation:

Leftists see the Democrats as neoliberal sell-outs, while they also become responsible for everything the government does, good and bad. And since the government can only limp along in this crippled state, it’s not too popular to be responsible for their work product. This is why the Republicans can run the Congress so badly that people hate the federal government with a seething passion, and then win reelection in a landslide on the momentum of the anti-government feeling that they created through their obstruction and ineptitude. …

Still, where the rubber meets the road is in addressing the economic and cultural anxiety of the white middle class. If the Democrats can’t do a better job of that, and of selling that, they won’t win back the House and our government will remain crippled for the foreseeable future.

Expect that. The eight-year-anomaly that was the Obama presidency, where useful things somehow got done, is coming to an end. It’s the morning after now, and everyone is unhappy. Hangovers are a bitch.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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