Frank Bruni (this and everything below from “Lost in America,” The New York Times, August 25, 2014): More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless.
James B. Huntington: Yes, the country is in a new era. It is called Work’s New Age, in which the number of jobs will never again match the number of people who want them. Actually it’s been going on for a long time, but it’s become obvious only since the Great Recession. Being unsure you, your loved ones, your friends, and even your countrymen can’t always support themselves, something which Americans knew and counted on since before George Washington was born, makes for persistent pessimism.
FB: There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon, including the coming midterm elections, especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.
JH: Helpless is the word, especially when there isn’t a presidential candidate, or even a House or Senate one I am aware of, who is clearly and forthrightly addressing the jobs crisis. A few passable employment reports are all it takes, it seems, to put any hints of this great transition on the major media’s back burner.
FB: Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.
JH: We have a president who sometimes seems to be spread too thin, with too many top priorities, and sometimes seems to be disengaging from everything. The Democrats have been going for the wrong issues: gun control, climate change, massive and broad-brush immigration reform, and insinuations that a suburban cop who shot someone he claims was threatening his life embodies the collective thoughts of America’s 280 million non-blacks. Republicans are continuing to act like the child on the toilet who refuses to do anything, and are deluding themselves that they are getting more and more mass appeal, when Sportsbook.com, which puts their money where their pixels are, says their chances of winning the presidency in 2016 are 17 to 10 against. Congress’s approval rating might be lower than Hitler’s. What on earth is to like?
FB: Much of this was chillingly captured by a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from early August that got lost somewhat amid the recent deluge of awful news but deserved closer attention. It included the jolting finding that 76 percent of Americans ages 18 and older weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than their own. That’s a blunt repudiation of the very idea of America, of what the “land of opportunity” is supposed to be about. For most voters, the national narrative is no longer plausible.
JH: That’s exactly what we’re going through now. Billy Joel wrote in 1981 that people expected to do as well as their fathers, when before it had always been “better.” Since then that has got worse, backed up by most people’s lives. When I get a Milwaukee airport porter telling me in the 2000s, before the recession, that the 1970s were “the good times,” that means we aren’t moving forward, even if our phones are slicker and our computers faster. I wasn’t kidding when I put in large letters on the back of Work’s New Age, three years ago, that “the core American idea has been destroyed.”
FB: The poll also showed that 71 percent thought that the country was on the wrong track. While that represents a spike, it also affirms a negative mind-set that’s been fixed for a scarily long time. As the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik has repeatedly noted, more Americans have been saying “wrong track” than “right track” for at least a decade now, and something’s got to give.
JH: Nobody can get to 71% without large numbers of both conservatives and liberals, so it’s safe to say that neither side is happy. But what has to “give,” and when, and why? The problem we have is that the status quo always seems to roll on.
FB: But to what or whom can Americans turn? In the most recent of Sosnik’s periodic assessments of the electorate, published in Politico last month, he wrote: “It is difficult to overstate the depth of the anger and alienation that a majority of all Americans feel toward the federal government.” He cited a Gallup poll in late June that showed that Americans’ faith in each of the three branches had dropped to what he called “near record lows,” with only 30 percent expressing confidence in the Supreme Court, 29 percent in the presidency and 7 percent in Congress.
JH: Again, these are bipartisan numbers. The government is managing to be both too intrusive and too inactive. If those 70%, 71%, and 93% (!) could agree on anything else, there’d be a revolution, but they don’t, so there won’t be.
FB: The intensity of Americans’ disgust with Congress came through in another recent poll, by ABC News and The Washington Post. Typically, Americans lambaste the institution as a whole but make an exception for the politician representing their district. But in this poll, for the first time in the 25 years that ABC and The Post had been asking the question, a majority of respondents — 51 percent — said that they disapproved even of the job that their own House member was doing.
JH: One reason is that representatives aren’t so bad with local issues, but stink on ice with the national ones. So we get the local parks, land use laws, and balanced county budgets, while we can’t find jobs, are held back by byzantine business regulations, and bumble around in our relations with other countries. Ted Kennedy, whatever you think of his politics, was about the best senator ever for his constituents – if you had a problem with government, on anything from poor trash collection to getting already-paid bills from the IRS, you called his office and they fixed it. If it isn’t quite true that all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill used to say, Americans sure seem to believe it – and vote that way.
FB: So we can expect to see a huge turnover in Congress after the midterms, right? That’s a rhetorical question, and a joke. Congress wasn’t in any great favor in 2012, and 90 percent of the House members and 91 percent of the senators who sought re-election won it. The tyranny of money, patronage, name recognition and gerrymandering in American politics guaranteed as much. Small wonder that 79 percent of Americans indicated dissatisfaction with the system in the Journal/NBC poll.
JH: And those numbers are actually down! Once was 98%, for House incumbents anyway. It’s no surprise, then, that the URL www.throwthebumsout.org is still unassigned.
FB: Conventional wisdom says that President Obama’s anemic approval ratings will haunt Democrats. But it doesn’t take into account how effectively some Republicans continue to sully their party’s image. It doesn’t factor in how broadly Americans’ disapproval spreads out.
JH: We still have the two-party system, where if we don’t like the show on one TV channel we just switch to the other. It’s not enough to say the Democrats will lose since they have done so badly, without considering what’s on the other station.
FB: Conventional wisdom says that better unemployment and job-creation numbers could save Democrats. But many Americans aren’t feeling those improvements. When asked in the Journal/NBC poll if the country was in a recession — which it’s not — 49 percent of respondents said yes, while 46 percent said no.
JH: Absolutely correct. We have not been in a recession since 2009. It feels so much like one because of the permanent jobs crisis, and the 20 million more American jobs which could be quickly absorbed. The worse news is that when we get a real recession, we will look back on 2010 to 2014 as good times – which they, in a relative sense, truly are.
FB: The new jobs don’t feel as sturdy as the old ones. It takes more hours to make the same money or support the same lifestyle. Students amass debt. Upward mobility increasingly seems a mirage, a myth.
JH: We don’t need to “feel” that the positions now are weaker – the data is there. One-third of new jobs since 2009 have been with temporary help agencies. American student debt is now over $1 trillion and blew by total credit card debt last year.
FB: “People are mad at Democrats,” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” That’s coming from the leader of a state whose unemployment rate is down to 5.3 percent.
JH: That’s just the point, and Colorado certainly has both, along with a shortage of about 200,000 jobs, lowish official unemployment or not.
FB: And it suggests that this isn’t just about the economy. It’s about fear. It’s about impotence. We can’t calm the world in the way we’d like to, can’t find common ground and peace at home, can’t pass needed laws, can’t build necessary infrastructure, can’t, can’t, can’t.
JH: Not many public issues can evoke fear and impotence as much as being unsure if you can get another job if you lose your current one. And as long as Democrats continue to pursue their most partisan issues, and Republicans refuse to go along with even inherently conservative Democratic proposals, large numbers of people will maintain those feelings.
FB: In the Journal/NBC poll, 60 percent of Americans said that we were a nation in decline. How sad. Sadder still was this: Nowhere in the survey was there any indication that they saw a method or a messenger poised to arrest it.
JH: That’s what politicians are supposed to do. Authors, bloggers, and columnists can yack forever about what should be done, so there is no shortage of ideas, even neutral or centrist ones, but that is not enough. It’s too optimistic to ask for much along those lines from the fall elections, but it’s not excessive to expect at least one 2016 major-party presidential candidate to advocate some real bipartisan action and changes, by throwing off extreme beholdenness to their political base. In many ways, such as technological progress, life expectancy, and, yes, personal safety, America is not declining at all, just governmentally tied up in knots. In the meantime, the jobs crisis, as long as it is not addressed in ways both parties can live with, will assure plenty of long-lasting malaise.