America’s Fickle Electorate

 

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Not greatly concerned with the reliability of information provided by the government in the aftermath of 9/11, 70 percent of the American people supported President George W. Bush’s decision to attack Iraq. This was one month prior to the invasion. Four months later, a Gallup poll indicated that this support had increased as 79 percent of Americans justified the military conflict. Nonetheless, by early Fall, another poll indicated that 67 percent had begun to show doubts. By June 2005, twenty-seven months into the war, a Washington Post/ABC poll indicated that 60 percent of the electorate believed the war had been a mistake.

Regardless whether the invasion was ethically justified or politically prudent as means to enhance the security of the American people, as popular support for the war continued to erode President Bush had no alternative but to rethink America’s military involvement in Iraq. As America changed its mind, the president had to opt for an early withdrawal of American troops without a definitive military or political outcome in sight, following a temporary surge.

The American electorate had become the political version of the Runaway Bride having abandoned President Bush at the altar of politics. Its change of heart took its toll at home, as military disengagement in Iraq became one of two highly significant issues that carried the Democratic Party to victory in 2008; the other one was health care.

Psychologists might characterize the electorate’s support for the war and its abrupt reversal months later as the equivalent of a child’s temper tantrum. Far from meeting condemnation, such immature behavior has become acceptable in American politics. Historians even point out that the Founding Fathers, somewhat distrustful of governmental power, purposefully arranged for the electorate to keep government on a short leash by holding midterm elections every two years. Nowadays, the leash has been considerably shortened  through public opinion polls, which have become virtual political contests capable of influencing policy prior and after the real elections.

In the November 2010 midterm elections, the electorate threw another fit, this time leading the Republican Party to gain control of the House of Representatives while narrowing the gap in the Senate and winning a handful of state governorships. Two issues are said largely to have decided the outcome: opposition to President Obama’s health care legislation, and holding the president responsible (after less than two years in office), for the sluggish manner in which the nation was trying to recover from the Great Economic Recession, which had been well underway during the last year of President George W. Bush’s presidency.

It is doubtful that the Founding Fathers favored the idea of a hysterical electorate to rational and insightful voters. A sound democracy is not based simply on the electorate’s exercise of their right to vote but on having a commonsensical appreciation of the issues as well as an understanding of how their political and economic system operates. Unfortunately, this is not often the case.

The faithful at the base of each party tend to be highly zealous, seldom questioning their respective party ideologies, except when their leaders deviate considerably from its major tenets. Independent Voters, meanwhile, a politically significant bloc constituting anywhere between 25 and 35 percent of the electorate (even higher in some states), is believed to be more judicious with their votes. Ideally, the Founding Fathers may well have expected Independent Voters to become the mature navigator that would provide a modicum of stability to the course of government. Nonetheless, Independent Voters played a crucial role during the 2010 mid-term elections having succumbed to irrational fear and misinformation.

In 2008, candidate Obama had openly promised to deliver a national health care plan. Some within his camp even favored a government-run health care plan similar to the Medicare and Medicaid models or an even more radicalized version such as the Veterans health care plan. Instead, Democrats and the President opted to implement the law through the private sector. In general terms, the electorate knew prior to the 2008 presidential election what candidate Obama stood for in terms of health care.

At election time, candidate Obama received almost 10 million more votes than candidate McCain obtained and won the electoral vote by a walloping margin, 375 to 173. As significant as Obama’s victory, Democrats retained control of both the House and the Senate. Further, approval for the president was high at the end of the first three months of his presidency, enjoying a 63% approval rating. Read politically, this meant that the majority of the American people’s support for President Obama included his health care legislation. In March 2010, the president delivered on his promise and signed into law a national health care plan supported almost entirely by Democrats in both houses.

In 2010, however, voters reacted angrily against the president. This anger was fueled by charges that Obama was leading the country into socialism and into an oppressive form of government that would restrain individual freedoms. In addition to the national health care law, two other policies related to these charges: the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), a joint Republican/Democrat effort initiated by President George W. Bush to stave off the crisis in financial institutions and later extended by President Obama to prevent the imminent collapse of the auto industry from worsening the recession; and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus Package), formulated to invigorate a sluggish economy by pumping over $700 billion into creating jobs and increasing overall aggregate demand.

These initiatives fell short of meeting unrealistic expectations to create the necessary number of jobs, increase consumer and small business lending, and forestall private home foreclosures to the extent where the economy might have improved enough to have satisfied the electorate. However, as nonpartisan economists have indicated, living in a highly interdependent world economy, had it not been for these policies both the national and the international economies would have fallen rapidly into an economic crisis much worse than what we had experienced during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Exhibiting traits of political hysteria, voters disregarded basic economic understanding, the most important one being that a free market-oriented national economy the size of the United States cannot reverse itself from heading into a tailspin with nearly 10 percent unemployment to attain a successful upswing while considerably lowering unemployment. Further, voters ignored that, in the short run, the president and congress have very little influence over the private sector, including a recalcitrant and greedy private financial sector that was not willing to do its part in aiding the economic recovery. This, despite being bailed out by the government after following downright irresponsible practices made possible by previous administrations and congresses.

Perhaps the most significant aspect regarding TARP and the Stimulus Package is that they had strong historical validity that voters and pundits also chose to ignore. According to free-market economic doctrine, national economies grow out of their recessions and depressions through increased deregulation and decreased taxation. In other words, a hands-off approach by the government eventually would turn the economy around. The key word here is “eventually,” since it would take a long time before recovery is attained. Meanwhile, and as it is always the case, those who stand to be socially and financially most affected during hard times would be asked to bear the highest cost, despite having little or no responsibility for the crisis.

Voters also ignored that events during the Great Depression had taught us a viable path toward quicker economic recovery that would entail less suffering. We recall that President Roosevelt intervened in the banking and financial sectors to prevent public confidence from further eroding. In addition, highly regulatory economic practices—some of them declared unconstitutional by the courts—and a series of economic stimulus packages were instituted to prevent a complete economic collapse and to create jobs as means to resurrect a languishing private sector.

Nonetheless, historians and economists point out that while these practices were somewhat beneficial they were not the magic wand that triggered economic recovery. Unequivocally, the simplistic explanation is that World War II ‘got us out of the depression,’ as if the war might have been a divine gift to America.

Lost in interpretation is that World War II was only a most horrific event that served to justify the most ambitious domestic version of a Marshall Plan to stimulate and redirect the national economy to confront foreign enemies that potentially threatened the American people and our way of life. The American electorate realized that taxpayer monies needed to be used at home to bring about great destruction overseas and that the possibility of victory would demand a prohibitive cost in terms of human lives. At the time, however, we understood that survival of our way of life was priceless.

Yet, in 2010 the electorate—including those who have been victims of the recession–and politicians lacked the courage and the imagination to devise ways to pump into the economy whatever was necessary to put people back to work. Neither were those in the financial sector who were saved by the government of their own misdeeds willing to do their part.

Instead, fearful Independent Voters, scaremongering by pundits and individuals who themselves had become frightened by the recession, and sheer greed on the part of Wall Street, which placed obstacles to the recovery (likely in an attempt to tip the election to the opposition) proved to be far more successful.

As a result, in the 2010 midterm elections the Democrats were “shellacked” by a wave of discontent in which the same Independent voters that had supported Obama in 2008 voted mostly in favor of candidates of a Republican Party that had enjoyed a much lower overall approval rating.

What led to a reversal of the domestic political course? The news media attributed a modest role to the Tea Party Movement in gains by Republicans. After all, the movement had as many victories as defeats during the primaries and the national elections. Nonetheless, the success of the Tea Party Movement lay not so much in electing Republican candidates as in debasing the political atmosphere with its charges of Marxist and Nazi socialism against Obama thereby unnerving independent voters into believing the movement’s apocalyptic message. Although economic crises bring about  insecurity thereby making people more susceptible to scare tactics and propaganda, it is during these trying times that the electorate needs to become better informed, adopt a more dispassionate (less angry and more rational) demeanor, and become aware of the danger posed by politically and economically illiterate doomsayers.

Interestingly enough, it was the Federal Reserve Bank that eventually may have saved the day. Unbeknownst to the American public, the Fed took the bold action of coming to the aid of domestic and foreign banks and other financially-troubled companies, and later pumping into the economy billions of dollars of non-public funds, in an attempt to revive the economy. The Fed chose this course largely due to the frightful and anxious mood of the electorate prior and after the midterm elections, the Republicans’ insistence in exacerbating this mood, and the Executive’s tepid response to the crisis due to existing adverse political attitude to increased governmental action.

Inadvertently, it is likely that voters have chosen gridlock in the decision-making process. Believing that partisan balance leads to effective negotiations on behalf of the public interest makes an interesting and perhaps workable hypothesis during less ideologically divisive times. However, it is doubtful that Republicans and Democrats will be able to iron ideological differences that have deepened during the last twenty years. Today, both parties hold profound convictions over their policy choices, thus creating conditions more favorable to political gridlock than to compromise. As a result, recovery from the Great Recession and significant legislation on the deficit, immigration, Social Security, and Medicare, among others, might have to be postponed until the American electorate decides to get its act together.

To contact the author copy and paste my e-mail address and send via your e-mail provider. RicardoPlanas@reasonandpolitics.com