Foreign Affairs

The Roots of American Despair

A couple of years ago, the conventional wisdom held that Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama had transformed the political landscape in Australia and the United States. Not only did both leaders end long reigns of right-of-centre governance, they won big elections that supposedly signalled the nadir of conservatism and the dawn of a new era of progressivism on both sides of the Pacific. 

That exactly is how matters seemed to go, at least for a while. Rudd and Obama were on the highest mountain while their opponents were in the deepest valley. Their overwhelming popularity—and, in the President’s case, coupled with his Democratic Party’s super majorities in both houses of Congress—translated into significant political influence. 

For Labor, Rudd apologised to Aboriginal Australians, rolled back free-market labour reforms, spent the big budget surplus bequeathed by the previous Coalition government to insulate Australia from the financial tsunami. For Democrats, Obama implemented a policy trifecta of an $800 billion stimulus package, government bailouts in the corporate and automobile sectors, and overhaul of the US health-care sector. 

Both pledged to take decisive action on slashing carbon emissions. We all know about Rudd’s warning that man-made global warming is “the great moral challenge of our time”. But Obama also indulged in this climate change hysteria. When he won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, for example, he said: “We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” 

That was then. Rudd’s fate is well known: bungled home-insulation schemes, wasted schools-funding projects, unpopular mining tax proposals, his fake sincerity and opportunistic policy-turns, epitomised most obviously in his dramatic shelving of the emissions trading scheme last April—all of this aggravated Middle Australia. He sank in the polls. And his internal enemies did something that Labor had never done: knife a prime minister during his first three-year term. 

But what’s happened to Obama? After all, his historic presidential victory two years ago, we were told, had heralded a political realignment in the USA. Democratic strategist James Carville wrote a book entitled 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation. Left-liberal journalists—Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times, George Packer of the New Yorker, among others—predicted “the death of conservatism”. New York Senator Chuck Schumer visited the Wall Street Journal offices and told the conservative editorial page editors: co-operate with the new agenda or be irrelevant. Time magazine’s cover put the Republican elephant under the headline “Endangered species” with the subheading “How Republicans lost their way”. 

And yet after November’s mid-term election results, it is Obama and the Democrats who have lost their way. Republicans picked up sixty-one-plus seats, more than enough seats to win control of the House of Representatives. (By comparison, the historical average swing against a president’s party in mid-term elections is twenty-five seats.) And although Democrats will hold the Senate, Republicans may have the functional majority courtesy of several conservative Democrats who are due for re-election in two years time. Meanwhile, Republicans won more than ten races for state governor and have taken control of even more state legislatures. No amount of sugar coating can change this mid-term election result: it was a forceful repudiation of the legislative agenda of both President Barack Obama and the Democrats on Capitol Hill. 

So, what happened? Why the rapid electoral mood swing? How do we account for Obama’s fall, from adulation two years ago to outright anger today? Well, liberals and conservatives not surprisingly put forward different interpretations. 

The Left-liberal explanation is reflected in the writings of the Huffington Post, the Nation and New York Times columnists Bob Herbert and Frank Rich, and the finger of blame points in all sorts of directions. Some attribute the backlash against Obama and congressional Democrats to the bad state of the economy. Others blame the “timid” White House for failing to embrace the truly progressive agenda that the electorate is really panting for. Meanwhile, some left-wing satirists attribute the Democratic loss to stupid voters who have been duped by the Republican spin machine, most notably the blonds of the Fox News Channel and right-wing shock jocks such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. 

What are we to make of these explanations? Start with the economy. It is certainly true that Americans are feeling the pinch of a steep recession. Since Obama became President in early 2009, unemployment has increased 2 per cent to near-double-digit levels, debt and deficits are escalating and home closures are swelling. When times are tough, the argument goes, the President’s party cops a big backlash. 

But if a recession automatically leads to a poor electoral outcome for a president’s party, why did Republicans escape the same type of electoral rebuke during Ronald Reagan’s first mid-term election? In 1982, despite a deep recession and double-digit unemployment, Republicans lost only twenty-six House seats and none in the Senate. Besides, if a prosperous economy guarantees mid-term success for a president’s party, why did Bill Clinton’s Democrats do so poorly in 1994? Despite a bullish economy, the opposition Republicans picked up huge swings to win the House and Senate. Clearly the weak US economy fails to explain fully the Democrats’ predicament. 

What about another Left-liberal excuse: blame Barack Obama and the Democrats on Capitol Hill for either compromising too much with Republicans or failing to prosecute a truly progressive agenda. The litany of left-wing complaints goes as follows. The Obama administration did not spend enough tax dollars on the stimulus spending package. It has more than doubled troops to an unwinnable and deeply unpopular war in Afghanistan. It has failed to close down the Guantanamo detention centre or release those torture memos. It has gone cold in the fight against man-made global warming: the Senate, with a big Democratic majority, could not even debate, much less pass, a weak bill that consisted of little but loopholes to so-called big polluters. The health care bill failed to provide fully universal coverage. Americans, in short, are panting for progressive legislation, but their Democratic spokespeople lack the guts to stand up to out-of-touch Republicans. 

But however much liberal activists may wish otherwise, the fact is that America remains a centre-right nation. Two years ago, Gallup showed 40 per cent of Americans identifying themselves as conservatives, with only 20 per cent liberals. Since then, that disparity has widened: 54 per cent are self-described conservatives whereas only 18 per cent wear the liberal label. In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that an activist government agenda will generate resistance and a backlash from Middle America. So much so that even Democrat legislators and candidates tried to save their seats by repudiating the Obama agenda. 

Take Joe Manchin, who won the Senate seat of West Virginia. In one television commercial, he loaded up a hunting rifle and said: 

I’ll take on Washington and this administration, and get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets. I’ll cut federal spending and repeal the bad parts of Obamacare … I’ll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill, because it’s bad for West Virginia.

With that, he fired a round of bullets into a copy of the legislation, which was as good as dead in the Senate anyway. And he is a Democrat! His instincts served him well: if any politician from a coal-mining or oil and manufacturing state promoted an economy-wide emissions trading scheme, he would have been smashed at the ballot box. Imagine his opponent’s scare campaign: hard-working battling locals in the Midwest bellwether seats would lose jobs and pay higher taxes to subsidise corrupt, oppressive regimes such as Zimbabwe or Sudan and help pay China and India to become more energy efficient and thus more economically competitive. No wonder the election results have ended the Obama administration’s attempt to implement an emissions trading scheme and reach a post-Kyoto global treaty. 

Finally, some left-wing activists now conclude, “It’s the voters, stupid” or, to be more precise, “It’s the stupid voters.” How else to account for the insulting and contemptuous attitudes of liberal satirists Stephen Colbert and John Stewart? Pity the poor know-nothing American who’s been conned by right-wing shock jocks and Rupert Murdoch’s twenty-four-hour conservative cable news channel. 

If these liberals are right, then why bother with having elections at all? Why go through the democratic process if the will of the people only counts when it matches the will of liberal elites? In 2008, these same liberals hailed voters as astute judges of performance who wanted “change”. But when the voters in 2010 rejected the change the Democrats offered, the same voters were said to be idiots. In 1953, after communists crushed a worker’s revolt in East Berlin, Bertolt Brecht accused the totalitarian dictatorship of wanting to “dissolve the people and elect another one”. Sadly, that’s the attitude of many American Democrats and Left-liberal backers. Perhaps that sneering alone was a good enough reason for so many voters to kick so many of them out of office and reshape the political environment in Washington.

Clearly, then, Left-liberals put forward an unconvincing interpretation for the avalanche of Democratic losses in November. But what about the conservative explanation? Well, they say the mid-term shellacking of Democrats represents the re-emergence of a conservative Republican majority. The argument—put forward by the likes of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, numerous Fox News pundits, the National Review and the Weekly Standard—goes like this: the Obama administration and Democrats in the House and Senate had badly misread their mandate from 2008. Voters wanted the Democrats to fix the economy and restore confidence. Instead, the Democrats used the opportunity to implement the most interventionist and expensive agenda since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society: $800 billion stimulus, corporate and automobile bailouts, financial regulations, health care overhaul, “cap and tax”, and so on.  

The backlash against Washington has fuelled the rise of the Tea Party. The Tea Party’s success in Republican primaries, the argument goes, is evidence of a rejuvenated Right dedicated to a genuine constitutionalism and commitment to small government. The American people, in short, are panting for small government and offering the Republicans a second chance to show they are capable of governing effectively. 

There is some truth to this argument. Americans are far more conservative than the press and intelligentsia recognise. Still, the mid-term election was not so much a victory for the Republican cause as it was a defeat for the liberal Democratic cause. As polling data indicates, 53 per cent of voters had an unfavourable view of the Republican Party and only 41 per cent were favourable. Pew global research surveys also show that while around 50 per cent of the American people want universal health care repealed, almost as many want Obamacare to expand or stay as it is.

But while Republicans may not have a mandate to repeal Obama’s signature health legislation, they do have one to cut spending. All the available public opinion polling evidence demonstrates this point. It also explains the rise of the Tea Party, which is tapping into the economic anxiety and political estrangement that voters feel across the nation. 

But there are two problems here. For one thing, the Tea Party movement itself has its fair share of problems. It not only sports a few clowns and creeps who make embarrassing pronouncements. We now know that some Tea Partiers scared centrists in Blue States (think of Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, the former anti-masturbation advocate who “dabbled” in witchcraft: she convincingly lost a seat the Republicans would have won had they pre-selected a moderate candidate). But the Tea Party, much like the GOP, is also leaderless and riven by chronic divisions over social, foreign and even trade policy. One recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 61 per cent of Tea Party sympathisers believe trade policy has hurt the USA. As Robert Lighthizer, a deputy trade representative in the Reagan administration, recently argued in the New York Times: “Strangely, for a movement named after an 18th-century protest against import levies, Tea Partiers are largely skeptical about free trade’s benefits.” 

For another thing, it is not clear whether the Tea Party resonates with the broader electorate. After the 1994 mid-term election, congressional Republicans also rode an anti-tax, anti-Washington wave to power. Yet their overreach on various issues, culminating in the government shutdown in 1995, led to widespread public angst and Bill Clinton’s remarkable re-election a year later. In any case, doubts dog the ability of the Tea Party and GOP to practise what they preach. It’s one thing to cut taxes; it’s another thing to cut welfare entitlements. After the congressional gains in the Bush years, for example, the party of Calvin Coolidge became the don’t-rock-the-boat party, content to feed different types of pork to different special interests. 

It is thus difficult to accept the argument that the mid-term election was simply an affirmation of the GOP agenda. It is not. Republicans won by default. As even the leading conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer concedes, Republicans received no mandate from the mid-term election result. “They were merely rewarded for acting as the people’s proxy in saying no to Obama’s overreaching liberalism,” he argued in the Washington Post. “As one wag put it, this wasn’t an election so much as a restraining order.”

Clearly, although liberals and Democrats are in the political doldrums, a cold look at the evidence suggests that conservatives and Republicans should take the champagne off the ice. Indeed, the larger cultural picture—in which the November mid-term election is but a minor political datum—remains striking bleak for the USA.  

Which brings us to perhaps the most obvious explanation: the true angst in America goes deeper than one mid-term election. What this election suggests to me is that the USA is in a seriously bad way. Americans of all ideological and political persuasions are in a very foul mood. They suffer from a crisis of confidence. They overwhelmingly believe the nation is heading in the wrong direction. They are bitterly divided and uncertain as to how the nation should proceed, both at home and abroad. Obsessed by immediate problems—skyrocketing national debt, budget deficits, near-double-digit unemployment, swelling home foreclosures, a deeply unpopular war—there is hardly any evidence of that much prized American commodity, vision. 

All of this has given rise to rapid mood swings in the electorate—epitomised in the fall of Obama from adulation to contempt within two years, and in the unprecedented wave elections in 2006, 2008 and 2010. For three consecutive election years, the electorate has voted against the party in power. As pollster Scott Rasmussen points out, this is a continuation of a trend that began nearly twenty years ago. During the past three presidencies, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama won elections before their party lost control of Congress. This had never happened before. 

The roots of US despair go beyond ideology and any political brand. They stem from expectations about America’s right to economic prosperity and global leadership that no administration or Congress may be able to meet—expectations that have deep roots in America’s past. 

Since the first English settlers landed in the seventeenth century, Americans’ understanding of their land had been shaped by their own exceptionalist vision. For generations, Americans saw themselves as a “chosen people” destined to create a “new English Israel” (Cotton Mather) and “a city upon a hill” (John Winthrop), Novus ordo seclorum or “A New Order for the Ages” (the revolutionary founding fathers) and “the last best hope of Earth” (Abraham Lincoln) that would make the world “safe for democracy” (Woodrow Wilson). The same vision was echoed in the idea of the American Century, which shaped the national consciousness after the Second World War when the USA enjoyed strategic and economic pre-eminence. The collapse of Soviet communism reinforced the perception of American exceptionalism.

But many things in recent decades—quagmires in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Watergate and other scandals, mounting trade and budget deficits, Hurricane Katrina and its ugly aftermath, the collapse of the housing bubble, the decline of US unipolarity and the rise of China and India, and what the leading neo-conservative intellectual Irving Kristol warned were “clear signs of rot and decay germinating in American society”—have helped to shatter US confidence. Suddenly, the dominant vision of Pax Americana faded without anything—even the war on terror—emerging to replace it. The void means that Americans have oscillated between periods of clarity and purpose, and periods of intense doubt and uncertainty. 

Can America bounce back? After all, America has suffered many setbacks only to recover with tremendous force: think 1812, the Civil War, the 1890s depression, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and Watergate. But whereas the USA emerged from those earlier crises with a more buoyant economy and greater international standing, it is unlikely to emerge from this crisis on the rebound. It is not just that the US military is stretched to breaking point. Nor is it just that the USA is facing crippling levels of debt and on the cusp of a double-dip recession. It is more to do with whether Americans will gracefully accept a lesser role in an increasingly multi-polar world. Americans are facing the prospect of lowering rather than raising their expectations—not an easy task for a people who have experienced centuries of rapid moral and material progress.

What the mid-term election shows is that the USA is in the spiritual doldrums. How distant, already, the days of unchallengeable global hegemony and confidence of indispensability seem. Yet those claims were confidently asserted by all political sides only a few years ago. Bad as the foreign policy has been, the most serious weaknesses are internal and, in the broader sense, cultural. America’s famous capacity to rebound from adversity is going to be put to a severe test. 

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of the Spectator Australia


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