Wayne O’Leary

Bizarro Election

There’s never been an off-year election quite like the one shaping up for November 2010. Voters are not only in a surly mood — everyone you talk to seems angry and resentful — they’re in a state of mind that can only be described as irrational.

On one level, the anger is understandable. Official unemployment remains close to 10% (over 15% in actuality), the home-mortgage crisis has not abated, and what remains of the social safety net appears on the verge of unraveling. It’s painfully obvious that the recessionary rescue programs implemented so far have been lopsided in their application and only partially effective. The big banks were saved, but not their customers. The stimulus worked, but mostly to preserve existing jobs, not to jump-start new ones. The healthcare plan is on the books, but not yet felt by most Americans, and opponents are already picking it apart. The BP oil spill, almost an afterthought, has been contained, but its economic and environmental effects remain problematic, and the slow, uncoordinated federal response to it remains fresh in memory.

Overseas, we’re bogged down yet again in an unwinnable war. Afghanistan drags on with no end in sight. The administration is committed to a final exit beginning in mid-2011, yet the nagging feeling persists that like this year’s incomplete withdrawal from Iraq, when the final deadline looms, excuses will be found to keep a large “non-combat” contingent in country a while longer — maybe for several more years. Gen. Petraeus will make the final call; his word is gospel in Washington on all things military, and his aim is to win in one form or another.

Except for the antiwar left, however, the public’s free-floating dissatisfaction is largely focused on the domestic economy. Much of the anger and exasperation stems from the fact that the Obama program was back-loaded and designed to work in a top-down fashion. In a weird governmental variation of trickle-down, the theory was that if the financial industry (the profit center of the pre-recession economy) and certain key components of the manufacturing sector were bailed out, they would, in turn, generate prosperity farther down the economic food chain. Save Wall Street first, in other words, and Main Street would follow. The stimulus and healthcare reform, meanwhile, were deliberately engineered to kick in gradually over several years’ time.

To date, none of this has had the desired effect on either the economy or the public psyche. Bank lending, the key to business expansion, has not come back despite the extravagance of the TARP and the minimizing of regulatory reforms. Lending by US banks declined by $587 billion in 2009 alone, the largest one-year drop since the 1940s. At the manufacturing end, the auto bailout has yet to boost domestic employment. GM, saved by American taxpayers, has announced that its next round of job creation will be in China; competitor Chrysler intends to open its next manufacturing plant in Mexico. As for the stimulus, its largesse, doled out gradually and grudgingly in the name of avoiding waste, has not been visible to most observers; “shovel-ready” turned out to be a myth. And healthcare reform, in large part an economic program, has likewise been implemented in slow motion. It will be years until it is fully realized, leaving voters in 2010 to feel justifiably let down.

Most of what the Obama administration planned and carried out was premised on the mistaken notion that 21st-century Americans are a patient people. Surely, they would sit tight and wait things out. After all, FDR was given nearly a decade to deal with the Great Depression. But FDR governed in a different world, one without high expectations, the Internet, and a 24-hour news cycle. Moreover, patience is strained when people are out of work for months or years at a time and losing their homes, with nothing in reserve comparable to the public-jobs programs of the 1930s. It’s not that Obama and his people are uncaring or incompetent; it’s just that they underestimated the severity of the crisis and betrayed a certain lack of urgency. An inside-the-Beltway mentality took hold and never let go, leading to conventional responses to an unconventional situation.

So public disenchantment is to be expected as Americans head to the polls this fall, and some chastising of those in power is in order. But what we’re seeing goes far beyond disenchantment. Deep-seated fear has produced a mindless, anarchic state of mind in some quarters. When people feel they have nothing to lose, anything goes, and normal restraints dissolve. Reason and logic seem to have taken a holiday this election year; witness the army of jobless whose unemployment checks have run out and whose intended response is to protest by not voting, a sure-fire way to help candidates, mostly Republican, who oppose jobs programs or extensions of unemployment benefits.

Without question, the angriest people of all are on the far-right side of the ideological divide, where not just rationality but civility has disappeared from the political discourse. It’s one thing for the long-term unemployed whose mortgages are under water to rise up in anger; it’s quite another for comfortable conservatives at the upper stratum of the middle class to be spewing hate, lies, and violent rhetoric. They’re desperate, too, but for entirely different reasons: their universe of memory, where whites ruled exclusively, where taxes never went up, where corporations were benevolent, where America won all its wars, where gays, Hispanics, and other minorities stayed in their places, seems in flux, and they can’t handle it. This is the real reason for the tea-party idiocy that’s captured the GOP and transformed it into something resembling Britain’s Official Monster Raving Loony party, complete with a cast of characters approved by Screaming Lord Sutch.

As this is written, two weeks shy of Election Day, there’s still time for normally rational voters to stop indulging their frustrations and fantasies, focus themselves, and make a commonsense judgment about what an extremist Republican Congress potentially means for average people. Going on a wild political bender might allow Americans to momentarily forget their troubles, but there’s no escaping the morning after and the demons it would bring.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2010


News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2010 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652