Americans are mad, really mad.
We’re mad at all the powerful institutions in society — government of all levels, business corporations, and BOTH political parties.
But the anger is amorphous, without form, organization, or real direction.
Putting on my political scientist hat for a moment here: That’s not good, because it’s the sort of situation that is ripe for exploitation and manipulation by political opportunists and demagogues.
By Naftali BenDavid – Oct 13, 2009
WASHINGTON — Americans have historically swung between anger at big business and anger at Washington. This year their rage has targeted business and government with equal fury.
Public frustration over Wall Street failures that led to the financial crisis was typified by the uproar over bonus payments to American International Group Inc. executives. Those feelings haven’t dissipated, political strategists say. At the same time, Americans are equally upset at what they call overreaching by Congress and federal bureaucrats, with protesters taking to the streets to decry “socialism” and a “government takeover” of the economy.
Policy makers face a quandary. With voters simultaneously recoiling at laissez-faire policies and a big-government approach neither party in Washington seems capable of corralling an angry public.
“I think this is a very populist moment,” said Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and now a top Republican strategist. “People held onto their distrust of big business and Wall Street, but what has happened is their distrust of big government has come back as well.”
Last year when Barack Obama won the presidency and Democrats swept to big congressional majorities, commentators heralded the dawn of a “new New Deal.” Time magazine put Mr. Obama on its cover sporting a cigarette-holder in a pose reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt. Democrats sought support for an ambitious agenda that included a stimulus package, an overhaul of the health-care system and a bill to address climate change.
Along the way, they have encountered an angry distrust of government, and politicians of all stripes, that is palpable in tea-party groups forming around the country.
“I have had I don’t know how many politicians ask, ‘Can I speak at your tea party?'” said Catherina Wojtowicz, coordinator of the Chicago Tea Party group. Her response: “Honestly, it’s your turn now to shut up, sit down and listen.”
Some don’t see government and business as opposing forces. They see a unified elite pursuing one big swindle, as government takes taxpayers’ money and bails out powerful companies such as banks and auto makers. The $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, has been especially unpopular.
People on both sides of the political divide seem to share a frustration with larger forces.
“They’re mad at institutions — all institutions,” said Karin Johanson, a Democratic strategist. “Nobody can underestimate the angst, or even fear, of the American voter right now…The institutions they were relying on which were assuring them of their security were not there.”
Episodes of populism in U.S. history are marked by “people being fearful of and opposing concentrated power of any kind,” said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian and author of “The Populist Persuasion.” “Big corporations and big government can be seen as parts of the same problem,” Mr. Kazin said.
That was particularly true during the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. Theodore Roosevelt tapped into that resentment by promising to end what he portrayed as a corrupt and cozy system where powerful companies and politicians rewarded each other.
Today, the double-edged anger is creating difficulty for both parties. Voters are demanding solutions to problems in health care, but remain wary of both government agencies and private firms that could play a role in a solution. People are upset about deregulation and furious at re-regulation. They want government action, but not if it swells the deficit.
In a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, a plurality said the stimulus package was helping the economy. In the same poll, a plurality also said it was a bad idea.
This is the needle both parties are trying to thread, even as they run the risk of an anti-incumbent movement that threatens Republicans and Democrats alike.
GOP strategists talk of tackling middle-class anxieties without government spending, for example lowering health costs by cracking down on medical-malpractice suits.
Democrats say that once they enact their agenda, proving they can solve problems, the public’s distrust of government will fade.
For now, neither party’s message is catching on in a big way. In the recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, 41% of respondents viewed the Democratic Party positively and 39% viewed it negatively. That is hardly a vote of confidence, but Republicans fared worse, with 43% viewing them unfavorably and only 28% positively.
“The greatest movement within the tea party is ‘None of the above,'” said Jim Bancroft, a founder of the tea-party group in Hartford, Conn. Officials in both political parties “need to be totally removed — every single one of them,” he said.
Write to Naftali Bendavid at email@example.com
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A5