The world’s oldest democracy enters this election year in one of the foulest moods on record. Three quarters of Americans tell pollsters the country is going down the tubes. In roughly equal number, they hate the Republicans and the Tea Party, the Democrats and the Occupy [What Have You] movement, Congress, and anyone else in politics. “Get Angry!” the French nonagenarian writer Stephane Hessel urged in his smash-global0hit pamphlet (more than 3 million copies sold). Americans are seemingly as PO’d as any Greek or Spaniard, withouth the proximate cause of epic economic collapse.
America’s menu of politicians adds to dissatisfaction. Republicans came up with the “Oops slate,” to adapt Rick Perry’s one immortal contribution to the campaign, when the Texas governor couldn’t remember the third federal department he proposes to close. The party’s brighter stars such as Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan sat out an arguably winnable election. Iowa pig farms in winter make for grim campaigning, yet the gauntlet looked more unpleasant than usual. If you’re not eager to bash Mexican fruit pickers or shamelessly steal President Obama’s get-out-of-Afghanistan-and-Iraq rhetoric about this being the “time to focus on nation building at home,” then you may not be presidentialable Republican material. On that debate stage, there’s plenty of competition for know-littleism.
The American left ought to feel no moral or intellectual superiority, though it plainly does. Occupy’s tents, Cuban flags, and clashes with subway commuters are no fresher than Woodstock types now starting to collect Social Security checks. One might generously say President Obama is at least back to doing what he’s proven to be good at—campaigning for office. The job itself doesn’t seem to suit. Looking back at 2011, the implosion of this presidency in the second half of the year was stunning to behold. He gave an inspiring speech after the Tucson shooting in January and got Osama bin Laden on May 1. After that it was the great fadeout, interrupted every few weeks by an attack on do-nothing Republicans in Congress. The country stopped listening to him. Someone noted that the same happened to George W. Bush in 2005 after Katrina. By then Americans had given him a second term. This dead-duck president has to face them in November 2012, and in the spirit of these strange times, the incumbent is considered a slight favorite.
We’re left with isolationism, calls for closed borders and national lockdown, populist primal screaming about corporate jets and “millionaires and billionaires.” All of it adds up to what one might call, per the late Allan Bloom, “the Closing of the American Political Mind.” Admittedly not a pretty picture, but then democracy isn’t a beauty pageant.
Now the fashion, of course, is to bemoan the polarization and lobotomization of political discourse. It’s easy to make the case too, with some of the candidates on hand. But it’s not as if past campaigns were models of sobriety and intelligent debate. Politics in this country has been dirty and downmarket from the start, as well as uplifting and enlightened—and the better for it. “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” in 1884 Republicans mocked Grover Cleveland, a bachelor with a mistress and a bastard son. He won anyway.
A corollary of “avert thy eyes!” is the eulogy, as The Economist put on its cover in early November, for “the missing middle” in American politics. By this reasoning, the Tea Party and Occupy are loud fringes who suck reason out of the room. Never mind that the “middle” is rarely relevant until after the parties pick their candidates. Then the swing, independent voters too busy—thankfully—to obsess about politics become kingmakers in the so-called purple states that decide American presidential elections. And never mind that the longstanding complaint was that the two parties and their policies are indistinguishable. Not so long ago, either. Pop quiz: which president—George W. Bush or Barack Obama—pushed through huge bailouts for banks and industry, spent wildly on entitlements and other federal programs, knocked off Al Qaeda terrorists or kept them locked at Guantánamo, and started and fought wars in Muslim lands? Both, of course.
So maybe, for the sake of a healthy break with recent practice, U.S. politics should embrace its spleen and enjoy some ugly division. If not now, when? Americans see their predicament (joblessness hovering around 9 percent; a national debt that for the first time since World War II exceeded GDP; low to nil growth) and the world around them (Europe in bankruptcy proceedings). They should be upset and demand answers. While they’re not too happy with the candidates on offer, they’re engaged enough, even at this early point, to take a serious look at them. They’re willing to embrace strong, sometimes wacky and inane, ideological positions; at least that clarifies the choice. As for that venerated middle, it’s fine and proper when the country is coasting along and needs minor adjustments. In this era, let the new pragmatic be the radical, at the very least the radically inspired.
Maybe U.S. politics should embrace its spleen and enjoy some ugly division. If not now, when?
The Occupy movement may be the great theater of the street, but President Obama doesn’t lack for his own purity of vision. His first two years aimed and achieved high, starting with a health-care reform that rewrote the rules for a sixth of the economy. The hard left considers him a turncoat for not socializing all medicine or closing Gitmo on day two—out of either naive expectation or some cynically brilliant ploy to boost his centrist credentials in time for November by attacking him. Not even after that “shellacking” in the midterms did Obama move to the middle and try out his best imitation of Bill Clinton, who cooked up a signature bipartisan reform with Newt Gingrich on welfare in the wake of his own humbling in 1994.
On the right now, the guardian of the temple is the Tea Party. Born in the opposition to the Obama health-care reforms, the movement matured to use the political process to drive an agenda and put its favorites in power. Occupy could try to borrow from this playbook if it seeks to have a lasting impact. The Tea Party’s energy and organization brought the GOP historic gains in the last elections—though its poor judgment and worst instincts led it to nominate several Christine O’Donnells and cost the GOP three Senate seats. The breakout of 2010 is no guarantee of an encore. The flirtations of 2011 saw Michele Bachman, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, and of late Newt Gingrich become “true conservative” favorites. The search for anyone–but–Mitt Romney will continue beyond the first few primaries for the famous base. If their taste in candidates might be suspect, the new GOP revolutionaries have shifted the terms of debate. No serious candidate, of either party, can now run for office without discussing his or her plans for America’s debt and growth problems, though the medicine varies widely.
Unusually, in this election season the search for a solution comes close to matching the ideological fervor. True, the supercommittee in November flopped, when Democrats demanded tax increases and Republicans demanded entitlement cuts. We’ll see who gets the better end of this argument at year’s end, and that’s what elections are for, after all, and what this one will be about.
To the Greeks or the Irish in the midst of painful austerity, proposals to tinker with Medicare benefits hardly sound revolutionary. The U.S. debate is timid as well compared with peers that aren’t in free fall. We’re not doing the hard fixes to make America dynamic again. Germans implemented painful reforms and even privatized the post office—which is a political nonstarter for the U.S. Postal Service, despite losing $5.1 billion in the past year. With the exception of the first year-plus of the Obama presidency, before the Democrats lost a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, no country I know of is lavishly expanding the state. If voters choose to follow the Occupy movement down this path, they’re free to do so. At least, Americans have joined the other rich, aging, struggling countries of the West in a conversation about the need for deep structural change.
Probably the greatest hurdle to moving to act on it may in fact be that hallowed American political creature—the centrist. Prosperous societies go soft in the middle. People get used to getting stuff from the state. Politicians of both camps are accustomed to the fruits of handing stuff out. The late economist Mancur Olson diagnosed the cause of the decline of rich, industrialized countries: entitlements create very powerful, single-issue coalitions (think of the teachers’ unions) to protect them in the absence of a similarly committed counterforce. Once awarded, they become impossible to take away even as they gradually undermine a nation’s competitive and fiscal position, and especially as a growing share of the population gets more money from the state than it puts in. A record high of 49 percent of Americans live in households where someone gets at least one kind of government benefit. Nearly two thirds of all federal spending in 2011 will go to people in the form of a benefit, compared with 46 percent in 1975 and 18 percent in 1940.
A willingness to sacrifice doesn’t logically follow from an acknowledgment of the problem. If 75 percent are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, four fifths in a Bloomberg News–Washington Post poll in November oppose any reduction to Social Security or Medicare benefits. This has been the story of repeated attempts in France to roll back the welfare state, control debt, and stimulate growth. Majorities see the need for it—but not if it requires them personally to give up the 35-hour week, long holiday, or pension benefit. This might be called the welfare-prosperity conundrum. Large parts of the U.S. resemble France. There are worse fates, of course. Yet liberals and Francophiles might wish to note that the French are frustrated by their lack of economic dynamism and the concomitant decline in global status.
The reluctance of American voters to take the full plunge on reform is, euphemistically, called recalibrating toward the middle. This happened in Ohio in November. Having swept Republicans in last time around, Buckeye voters clipped their wings in a referendum, rejecting a plan to take away government workers’ right to collectively bargain. Don’t blame the power of the unions. The GOP failed to explain the economic imperative for the reform, and voters failed to understand the consequences of their choices in 2010. In another swing election state, Florida, 87 percent of Republicans tell pollsters Social Security is or will be important to their retirement; two thirds of all state voters oppose any change to benefits for future retirees.
This is not meant to excuse settling for little. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who spent four decades in California exile, once noted that Americans are unusually willing to listen and change their minds. By temperament and education, this character trait differentiates them from Europeans. Translated to politics, it suggests they’re open to persuasion. Take Florida again. The one strong young communicator in the GOP—40-year-old Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio—won in 2010, by almost 20 percentage points in a three-way race, in spite of calling for an increase in the retirement age. Florida Republicans, a majority of whom are retirees, adore him. He is mentioned most often in vice-presidential-nomination talk.
Too few candidates take voters seriously enough to challenge them. President Obama’s charm of ’08 is gone; what’s left is mostly hectoring. Voters will respond no better to Republicans who continue to sound shrill. If the party wants to revive the economy and preserve U.S. preeminence, calls to release pent-up energy by reducing the regulatory and tax burdens on enterprise aren’t sufficient. It has to move on to opening up avenues to immigration, freer trade, and robust engagement, military or political, with the world. Before his death, Steve Jobs tried to talk Obama into this agenda. The president passed.
A European banker recently mused over America’s inherent advantage over the Old World. “You import a new society every 20 years,” he said, through immigration, innovation, and above all openness, even eagerness, to change. So the U.S. might—who knows—keep pace with the Pacific tigers. This will take leaders ready to make tough choices and voters willing to back them. This campaign, warts and all, will likely determine whether America can reinvent itself yet again.
This essay was published in Newsweek International's Special Edition, 'Issues 2012,' on sale from December 2011-February 2012.