No surprise, Americans are in a foul temper. In an August NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 71 percent considered the country on the wrong track. Nearly half thought the economy was still in recession. Over three-fourths were not confident their children’s generation will do better than they have. Nearly two-thirds were still dealing with damage done in the Great Recession five years after the official “recovery.” Half think the growing income divide is undermining the American dream.
Americans are looking for change and get gridlock. They are disgusted with Washington. The president’s approval rating hovers around record lows. Republicans in Congress have the highest disapproval rating in polling history. Congress as a whole ranks even lower. And Washington is living up to its reputation with the Congress unable to do even simple things like funding roads or responding to an immigration problem all agree is urgent.
In the upcoming elections, Americans hoping to change things will find it hard to figure out who to vote for. With Democrats controlling the White House and Senate, Republicans inherit the mantle of change, but they have nothing to say. They have obstructed virtually every reform measure in the Congress, while offering neither vision nor compelling agenda of their own. They rail against all things Obama, but can’t agree on any alternatives. Like blind monks, they intone the tired chant that the president is taxing too much, regulating too much and spending too much, but offer no clue of their plan for the way out of where we are.
Democrats have laid out a populist agenda, calling for raising the minimum wage, pay equity, paid family leave, universal pre-school, rebuilding our infrastructure paid for by asking the rich and multinationals to pay a fairer share of taxes. But their message is mixed. Obama, who still has the best pulpit, touts the recovery: 10 million jobs in 52 months, growing energy independence, and millions more with affordable health insurance. He celebrates an America that has “recovered faster and come farther than just about any advanced country on earth,” arguing that the economy has been rebuilt on a “new foundation.”
This patter leaves most Americans cold, suggesting instead that the president is simply out of touch. They struggle with lousy jobs, wages that aren’t keeping up, kids who can’t find decent work. Boomers are facing retirement with inadequate savings. And as the “arc of crisis” disintegrates into violence from Afghanistan to Libya, Americans fear getting mired once more in battles on the other side of the globe.
Given this, the surprise is that only one-third of Americans say the message of their vote this fall will be to oust incumbents of both parties. Despite the distemper, incumbents remain hard to dislodge. Tea Party challengers didn’t fare well in Republican primary battles (although the ousting of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor insures that Republican legislators will continue to cower in terror before their right).
In this situation, the two parties repair more to turnout technique than vision or agenda. Republicans boast of polls showing their voters are more motivated to vote, roused significantly by antipathy for Obama. Democrats take solace in techniques honed by the Obama campaigns to identify, contact and rouse their supporters to vote. And look for the Republican right to help inspire their voters.
Where will the change come from? As always, the change comes from citizen movements that impact the parties and Washington. Tea partiers and libertarians vie to purify the conservative project, but the conservative era has failed most Americans and will be hard to resuscitate under any banner.
More interesting, the populist wakeup posed by Occupy continues to gain traction. In cities across the country, community and labor groups are combining to drive reform – the $15 minimum wage in Seattle, using government procurement to empower workers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, universal pre-K in New York, hiking top tax rates to pay for schools, etc. These stirrings are reinforced by national leaders like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. They find expression in campaigns against Walgreens for planning to abandon the country to avoid paying taxes, in exposure of the Silicon Valley conspiracy against workers, in continued muckraking about the crimes and excesses of Wall Street. The Moral Monday challenge to the right in North Carolina and elsewhere continues to gain momentum.
This renewed populism may save Democrats from significant losses this fall. The Democratic problem is that they are not yet bold or confident enough. And that there isn’t yet sufficient popular movement to give people hope that something might change. The biggest challenge isn’t persuading people that the rules are rigged and that reforms are needed. The biggest obstacle is overcoming the well-grounded cynicism that candidates won’t or can’t deliver on their promises.
What the country needs, in fact, is a new foundation for sustainable growth. That would feature a major project to rebuild America’s decrepit public infrastructure – from leaking water systems to aging schools to inadequate public parks. It would include vital investments in education, particularly in schools for the working poor, from preschool to affordable college. A balanced trade policy would provide companies with incentive to make things in America once more. Current efforts on new energy need to be reinforced with a comprehensive industrial policy to capture the lead in the green industrial revolution. The excesses of the financial casino need to be policed, with banking once again becoming boring. The excesses of the national security state, with its unending global intervention, curbed and bounded by law. Tax reform is vital to insure the corporations and the rich pay their fair share of taxes.
At the same time, the rules have to be fixed to insure Americans can gain a fair share of the rewards of growth: a higher minimum wage, workers empowered to bargain collectively, pay equity for women, a fair start for every child, paid family and sick leave, affordable child care, immigration reform to bring millions out of the shadow economy.
Could Americans believe this is possible? Perhaps, but only if the call were connected to a clear description of the powerful interests and big money standing in the way. Americans know their political system is busted. They are looking for champions who could make it work. Elizabeth Warren rouses people on the campaign trail in part because she makes it clear whose side she is on. But her biggest cheers come when she says she is ready to fight. Americans say that they want both parties to cooperate and get things done. But they are looking for someone who will fight for them.