America’s emotional-political moment

The result of the mid-term elections in the United States will reflect less the political calculations of many voters than their profound sense of disinheritance, says Godfrey Hodgson.
Godfrey Hodgson
19 August 2010

The next big election-day in the United States, 2 November 2010, is being anticipated as one that may again turn the country’s political world upside down. The current feverish political atmosphere means that many contests - for the House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate and countless governors, state legislators and other holders of state and local office - are already underway, even ahead of the traditional start of electioneering, Labor Day (2 September).

The prospect that Democrats will lose control of Congress, and the effects on the presidency of such an outcome, is the most widely discussed issue. True, the separation of powers between legislature and executive, a cherished principle of American government, in principle means that the presidency is above the fray. But in principle, the condition of this Congress and the prospects of this president are inextricably connected.

For a serious Democrat defeat would mean that Barack Obama’s task will be harder to the point of impossibility, and his prospects of re-election for a second term in 2012 more remote. Even if the Democrats retain control, the reality of today’s Congress threatens the president’s chances of achieving what he wants and has offered. Why is this?

The lost reputation

The current poll-ratings show national approval for the Congress at around 20%, among the lowest on record. That measure reflects a combination of sentiment of Democrats in the country (only 30% of whom approve of the legislature, even though their party controls it) and Republicans (who have about given up any effort to fashion legislation, and whose approval stands at...9%). 

It is not long since the two leading academic experts on Congress - Norman J Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas E Mann of the Brookings Institution - described the legislature as “the broken branch” of government. True, Ornstein has since written that, by the standard of their book’s low expectations, the Democrats’ performance in 2010 is not so bad. But the state of Capitol Hill is nonetheless dire.

David Broder of the Washington Post, the most respected journalistic observer of Congress, has quoted with approval the judgment of another authority, George Packer: “climate change [has] joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans' care, campaign finance, transportation security, labour law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world's greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing."

When large figures such as Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Russell were in their prime, the term “the world’s greatest deliberative body” - though sometimes disputed - could be widely used with a straight face. Today that is impossible. The US Senate, lacking mellifluous orations, tense debates and wise legislative craftsmanship, is no longer a deliberative body at all. Steven Smith, in a study for the Brookings Institution, attributed the widely perceived “dysfunctionality” of the Senate to the increased use of the filibuster under a rule that requires sixty votes out of 100 to break cloture; but he also conceded that many felt the problem was not the rule, but the way in which senators are guided by “selfishness, catering to outside interests and mean-spirited partisanship”.

The reputation of the House, meanwhile, is no better than that of the Senate. There, in particular, unbending partisanship (leaving aside the other two charges) is near-universal.

The fate of a movement

It is useful in these circumstances to recall that the Democratic leaders in Congress have managed three substantial legislative to achievements (even if their overall effects are still provisional). The healthcare-reform act falls short of what President Obama and his supporters wanted, but it does both reduce the number of Americans with zero health-insurance and place some checks on the avarice and arrogance of the industry; the economic stimulus most likely protected the economy from greater disaster; and the financial-regulation measures offer some prospect of restricting the wilder excesses of Wall Street.

Yet these very “successes” have themselves - in a bitter twist - contributed to the president’s unpopularity. Washington and the national media have been absolutely obsessed with the “Tea Party”, a strange non-party movement that is as widely misunderstood as it is ideologically confused.

When the Tea Party first appeared, it was assumed that at heart it was yet another expression of rightwing dissent. Its support-surge was given additional fuel by association with the famous dumping of tons of East India Company tea in Boston harbour in 1773, now revered as a symbol of Americans’ patriotic contempt for government in general and taxes in particular. Yet the the movement’s support-base - beyond the fact that it is overwhelmingly white, hostile to taxes, and at least hinting at racial prejudice - is interestingly different from the rightist zealotry of the past. For Tea Partyers are also older, richer and better educated than the population as a whole; and disproportionately rural rather than suburban. They also display a distinct and bitter personal hostility towards President Obama himself.

The impact of this high-profile movement is uncertain. The United States is in a mood where all manner of ideas, fashions, tastes and cults now - in a potent phrase - go viral. It is possible that the Tea Party may be less influential by election-day than the media suggested in the high heat of summer. In any event, its effect is likely to be felt less by the Republican Party (or rather the “establishment Republicans” as they are now widely described) than by the Democrats. This sounds odd: a political movement of older, richer, conservative and marginally racist people campaigning against the Democrats might be expected more to damage than to help the Republicans. A possible explanation is that many Tea Party supporters are in fact southern Democrats (including those who have transplanted to rapidly growing cities in the west) resentful of an African-American president but reluctant to say so directly.

This only emphasises that Barack Obama’s character, policies and record will be central to the outcome of the mid-term elections. The president is consulting carefully with his staff where to support Democratic candidates with a visit and a speech, and where his presence would be counterproductive.

This in itself illustrates how sharply Obama’s support has fallen since the heady post-inauguration days. His approval-rating fell (according to Gallup) fallen from 63% in February-April 2009 to 47% in May-July 2010. At the same stage, John F Kennedy was on 71%, Jimmy Carter 41%, Ronald Reagan 44%, and Goerge W Bush (albeit inflated by the national response to 9/11) 75%.

The wrong voice

Barack Obama has, from a legislative or technical point of view, produced the goods. There are two reasons why those successes have not translated into higher ratings.

The first is that the country remains deeply polarised. Republican politicians, radio hosts, and (in particular) the influential Fox News television channel routinely deride the president. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity relentlessly scorn Obama, attempt to tie him to the alleged corruption of other Chicago politicians, highlight differences between white and minority attitudes - all in a clever, shameless and cynical style of jeering and smearing. And it works. Fox is now the most popular cable-channel, and its reporters have finally won the right to sit in the front row at the president’s press-conferences.

The second is that Obama’s personal style is not liked by older Americans, many working-class Americans and even faintly critical or non-partisan commentators. The astute Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson (a Republican-era White House speechwriter) has contrasted “Obama’s monotone manner” with the ability of the most successful presidents (he instanced Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan) to strike multiple chords. “They played an orchestra of arguments and emotions - blaring trumpets, soft violins, rude tubas”, he writes. Obama’s cool eloquence comes across to many as indifference; even when he has attempted (as over Afghanistan and the Gulf oil-spill) a more populist and patriotic style, many Americans have not responded. This is damaging when, in the age of Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods, Americans demand more from their leader.

The view from below

But if indeed the mid-term elections do not go well for the president or the Democrats, the explanation will lie more in the confused, nervy national mood rather than the arguments of conventional political analysis.

The further in America you travel from the Washington Beltway, and from the people (fewer than 1%) who read the New York Times - the tougher life has become. Here, Americans who were brought up to believe in the national dream of steadily expanding prosperity for all have been forced to live on incomes that (for all but a tiny elite) have scarcely grown since the 1970s, amid spectacularly growing inequality across the country. Here, Americans who were brought up to believe that their country was invulnerable - and who have paid trillions of dollars to make it so - have (after living through the Vietnam years) seen their young men die to at best uncertain purpose in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Here, Americans who were brought up to believed that their country was the hope and the envy of the world want to believe that again.
Some of them at least wanted to believe that Barack Obama could put things right. Their votes in November will express a range of sentiments - from mere disappointment to incoherent rage, from an embittered sense of disinheritance to a hunger for, yes, change. True, Americans are far from alone in the world in experiencing such emotions. It is just that, for them, the depth of these feelings, in the context of all they have lived through and all they once believed, is new.

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