Are 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.