The US Voter, More Angry Than Usual

trump fingerAre voters ever happy? Not in the United States. Every four years the American public convulses and contorts and transforms into a nation of 300 million little Oswald Spenglers, warning everyone we’re nearing the end of our civilisation. I’m actually starting to enjoy it. It’s comforting to hear the same thing, even news of the worst omens, over and over. It’s like listening to an old song, the chorus bringing forth the warmest childhood memories.

Belief in the decline of one’s country is about as natural as loving it. It’s easy, then, to dismiss voter anger. Something so routine, the argument goes, cannot be anything of substance. This is mistaken. Crying about imaginary wolves doesn’t mean real ones don’t lurk nearby.

I can’t speak for older readers, but this is the worst voter anger in the United States I’ve seen in my lifetime. (That’s nearly thirty-one years, for the record. Not quite sprouting liver spots, but already sounding a bit too jaded around younger people.) The candidacy of Donald Trump has concentrated this anger into what is surely one of the more bizarre electoral episodes in American history. But Trump is not the cause of the febrility gripping my country; he is more of a symptom. He is America’s cold sweat. The deep cause is the sense, held perhaps since the end of the Cold War, that the U.S. is in the middle of a long twilight marked by cultural decadence and decline.

The American public senses that the country’s political system no longer has any working parts left. I’m sure you could have found citizens during the John Adams administration who thought that Washington, D.C. was ‘broken’. But the U.S. federal government has never been as large and intrusive, and thus as capable of wrecking our lives, as it is now. Consider its priorities. The government regulates our lightbulbs, but allows entire cities to ignore federal immigration law. It can efficiently target partially hydrogenated oils, but not terrorist enclaves. Never before has there been so wide a gap between what families complain about to one another and what the permanent bureaucracy in the capital chooses to exercise its power over. These topsy-turvy conditions, in which the government is ruthlessly effective at all the wrong things and utterly hopeless at all the important ones, mean the citizenry has no healthy political means of discharging its anger.

If you want to understand American presidential politics, think of it as the ongoing search for a national arsonist to burn down Washington and start over again. The trick is to find the most ‘electable’ arsonist. Sometimes fringe candidates, who always seem well suited to the task of destruction, perform impressively in polls and primary elections. The alleged reverend Jesse Jackson did well in the 1984 and 1988 primaries, and at one point he was the Democratic Party’s frontrunner. Pat Buchanan, an insurgent Republican, won the New Hampshire primary in 1996. And of course there was Ross Perot, ‘a ventriloquist’s dummy for voter anger’, according to one of the Clinton family’s dedicated spinmeisters. He won 19% of the vote as an independent candidate in the 1992 general election, with exit polls showing he took votes from both Democrats and Republicans.

At its worst, voter anger can be nothing but spite and short-sighted recklessness; at its best it can act something like a lightning rod, focusing intense energy onto specific targets. It signals to politicians that they’ve breached the contract to give the voters something, anything, in exchange for their money and support. But anger can only be productive when what you’re angry about is salvageable. When the target of the anger (in this case, the political system) is beyond repair, the anger can only build into a reserve of worthless resentment and, ultimately, violence. So far, we’ve been lucky.

There is a difference between the anger that helped someone like Ross Perot and what we see today. Perot talked mostly about deficits and trade deals, which he explained, like the chairman of a corporate board, with charts and graphs. He spoke for the angry, but he himself was not angry. The U.S., despite an economic recession under the elder Bush, was still profiting from Reagan Era prosperity, and the West’s triumph over the Soviet Union had loaned more legitimacy to the traditional American ideal of individual freedom and limited government.

The anger behind the Trump campaign is deeper and more visceral. Sure, there’s a lot of talk these days about debt, unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. But those economic problems are as nothing compared to the profound decay of our unity and liberty. Americans turn on the television and do not like what they see: racial strife, riots, mass shootings, and a strange grievance culture that can mean instant unemployment for those who don’t genuflect before the latest, ever-capricious trends. No politician, and certainly no Republican, has done anything to remedy this.

One of the indelible markers of late 1970s American decline are the photographs of cars locked in long, snaking queues at petrol stations. OPEC had raised prices on oil, and the resulting shortages helped push Carter’s approval rating down to 25% — below that of Richard Nixon’s Watergate nadir. Pat Caddell, one of Carter’s pollsters at the time, has recalled: ‘What was really disturbing to me was for the first time, we actually got numbers where people no longer believed that the future of America was going to be as good as it was now’. This was a revolt against the same Carter who — many forget this, since he is now regarded as a figure of the Establishment — had run as an anti-Washington candidate. Before the 1976 presidential election, he had asked voters, ‘Are you better off today than you were four years ago?’ Ronald Reagan would put the same searing question to the electorate in 1980.

It may be true that young people today enjoy higher standards of living than did their parents at a comparable age. But how much of this is due to the financial generosity of those same parents? In other words, how many so-called Millennials, living comfortably in modish districts with the most advanced electronic accoutrements, owe their lifestyles to regular subsidies from their mothers and fathers? Youth unemployment is staggeringly high — by some estimates, it’s around 13% in the U.S. and significantly higher in Europe — so it’s not unreasonable to think that credit, loans, and other mirages of wealth are factors in this luxury.

Even if we’re living better materially, are we doing better culturally? Spiritually? Much harder to measure, I know, but also much more important for long-term survival. It is possible to be wealthy and terminally ill, after all. Surely there’s more to a nation’s prosperity than buying consumer goods on credit?

We Americans have mobile-phone apps for finding our zippers in public toilets, but we can’t show our flag without offending someone. This is a situation we’ve never seen before; the outcome might be just as unfamiliar.

  • Homer Sapien

    Anyone with at least halve a brain in America would vote for Dr Ben Carson.

    • dsh2@bigpond.com

      If you halve a brain you would get two halves but each one is a half. Presumably, Homer, you mean (one) half a brain?

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com

    The intelligence level of the American voting public is perfectly illustrated by the fact that they elected Obama – TWICE!

    • Jody

      And all those African Americans who marched on Washington in the 60’s looking for the vote; what happened to them? Only 35% of ALL Americans casts a vote. You’re not going to try and tell me a very high proportion of them are African Americans!!!

      Obama has been weak – just a preacher man. The Republicans are in total disarray. I fear for the future of the USA, really I do.

      • Ian Flanagan

        I blame the Swedes for giving Obama the Nobel prize for peace, 5 minutes after he got the top job. I
        don’t know who make up the awards committee but I suspect a strong leftist/green link.

        • Jody

          This was outrageous and only told me the Nobel Peace Prize is a worthless bit of feel-good politics.

          • Lawrie Ayres

            They gave it to Arafat as well. Seems more like an encouragement award than a recognition of achievement.

  • gardner.peter.d

    ‘These topsy-turvy conditions, in which the government is ruthlessly effective at all the wrong things and utterly hopeless at all the important ones, mean the citizenry has no healthy political means of discharging its anger.’

    Exactly the same could be said of the European Union. The EU is a post-democracy supra-national government, which freely admits it has no need to consider approval by the citizenry when making its policies and decisions, because it is not answerable to them.

  • Roy Edmunds

    The Wizard of Oz by L.Frank Baum has been said to be a political allegory for the state of America and its monetary policies and strategies of the late C19th.

    American debt has been steadily growing since the time of Lincoln.

    The final blow for America it has been said was 1913 and the Federal Reserve Act apparently tricked through
    Congress and later regretted by Woodrow Wilson…”…I have unwittingly destroyed my government..”.

    This time round it is curtains for the Republic. Sadly the country which saved Australia from certain takeover
    by Japan is in a sad state of social decline.

    Trump will be lucky to receive the GOP backing. They are scared of him and for good reason. People actually believe Trump could do what he says he wants to do. That aint gonna happen.

    The Republicans would rather put up with Hilary for four years than watch Trump fail to do anything and possibly get shot if he did succeed.

    The last President to take a tilt at the Money Power was J.F.K. He printed the debt free United States Note in opposition to the Federal Reserve Note and within a few months was shot dead and the United States Note was withdrawn immediately from circulation…small denominations that were released were recalled but those larger denomination notes printed ready for release were presumably burned.

    Meanwhile Obama wants to take the guns away while people are growing increasingly alarmed at being unarmed in a country that is breaking down socially. Damned if you carry, could be shot if you don’t.

    Trump is just blurting out what most uninformed Americans have a gut feeling about.

    Bill Clinton once made the remark that the New World Order (championed in America by the Bushes) was in his words, …”…more like disorder”…and was immediately attacked in the British press the next day for such blasphemy.

    America has the same problems Australia has with one advantage. The Federal Reserve prints money and gives it to the Banks. Our banks are technically insolvent and it appears our superannuation will prop them up through junk bonds issued by the banks to be purchased by our super funds whether they like it or not…but I digress.

    America is running on empty.
    Obama apologized to the world for America when he was first elected.
    Many Americans are now apologizing to the world for him.

    But I don’t think their political system can cope now with this mess.

    If America can resolve this NWO mess then Australia will follow. I doubt its gonna happen pilgrim.

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