- This Week
The voters are furious -- but are they madder at government or big business? That question could define the next political era
ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY HELLMAN
Ask any pollster, political consultant, or academic who studies the American electorate about the mood of the voters this year and you'll get the same one-word answer: Angry.
Everyone's pissed — the liberals, the conservatives, the moderates, the people who don't even know where they fit in. It's an unsettled time and, potentially, very bad news for a progressive agenda that seeks to address issues ranging from poverty and war to the long-term health of the public and the planet.
The Democrats, who swept into power with an enormously popular president just 18 months ago, may lose control of Congress. The tea partiers have driven the Republicans so far to the right that some candidates for Senate are openly talking about eliminating Social Security. The unemployment rate — the single most important factor in the politics of the economy — remains high and doesn't show any signs of improving.
And the progressive left seems frustrated and demoralized, particularly in California. The Golden State, which once led the nation in innovation and enlightened social policy, now seems to be leading the politically dysfunctional race to the bottom.
The nation could be headed for a dangerous era, rife with the potential for right-wing demagoguery and other nasty political schisms. The state of the economy could easily fuel a more powerful movement to shrink the scope of government and a continuing backlash against the public sector — and the financial backers of the antitax and antiregulation movement are drooling at the prospect.
But there's also a chance for progressives to seize a populist narrative and shift the discussion away from traditional disagreements and toward those areas, particularly the destructive influence on government by powerful corporations, where the grassroots right and grassroots left might actually agree.
The anger that voters feel toward a government that isn't meeting their needs is starting to find other outlets. People are as mad about the abuses of big business — the Wall Street meltdown, the bailouts, the BP oil spill, the political manipulation — as they are about the failures of Congress and the president. If you ask Americans of every political stripe who they least trust — big government or big business — even conservatives aren't so sure anymore.
For 30 years, the central narrative of American politics has revolved around the size and effectiveness of government. Now there's a chance to shift that entire debate in American politics toward the largely unchecked power of corporations. It is, populist writer Jim Hightower told us, "an enormous opportunity handed to us by the bastards."
But so far, none of the Democratic leaders in California are taking advantage of it to start dispelling damaging myths and crafting political narratives that might begin to create some popular consensus around how to deal with society's most pressing problems.
THE PEOPLE WANT TAXES
There have been many polls gauging voter anger, but one of the most comprehensive and interesting recent ones was "Californians and Their Government," a collaborative study by the Public Policy Institute of California and the James Irvine Foundation that was released in May.
It shows that Californians are mad about the state's fiscal problems, disgusted with their political leaders, divided by ideology, and deeply conflicted over the best way forward. An astounding 77 percent of respondents say California is headed in the wrong direction and 81 percent say the state budget situation is a "a big problem."