Dark mood in election year as American Dream falters

By Rupert Cornwell

Figures cannot express the pervasive sense of American decline. Photo / AP
Figures cannot express the pervasive sense of American decline. Photo / AP

The United States goes to the presidential polls a year from today, but there is little faith in the political system as recession bites.

"Ten years ago we had Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Steve Jobs," runs a sour joke that has been doing the rounds since Silicon Valley lost its most famous son. "Now there's no cash, no hope and no jobs."

It catches America's dark mood.

Before every presidential election, there is talk that this one will be historic, a "watershed" to match the two that truly qualified for that title during the previous century: 1932, which ushered in Franklin Roosevelt and five decades of Democratic domination, and the Reagan landslide of 1980 that made official a conservative shift in national politics that continues to this day.

The year 2008 was supposed to be another new beginning - but things didn't quite work out that way.

Great hopes can breed great anticlimaxes, and so it has been with Obama. The shining promise has not been fulfilled, at least not yet: in part because of his own inexperience; in part because of the singular bloody-mindedness of his Republican opponents; but above all because of an economic crisis that has proved deeper and more intractable than almost anyone expected.

The numerical truth was laid out last week in the latest forecasts from the Federal Reserve. Growth for the next three years is unlikely to exceed 2.5 per cent - barely enough to keep pace with a growing workforce. Even assuming a double-dip recession is avoided, unemployment will still be close to 9 per cent when the election comes around, and by late 2014 will probably still exceed 7 per cent.

Remember, too, that no president since Roosevelt has been re-elected when the unemployment rate was above 7.2 per cent.

But figures cannot express the pervasive sense of decline, the feeling that this crisis is not just a blip, but a permanent inflection of the graph of national wellbeing.

Worrying signs - increasing budget deficits, growing personal debt and a stagnation in middle-class incomes - have been around for more than a decade. But the Great Recession has brought them into glaring focus, and may inspire America's voters into a revolution of their own. Frustration and anger are today's dominant emotions.

You can measure them in the ascent of the Tea Party movement on the right, and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement on the left. Ideologically, the pair are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But in a way they are two sides of the same coin. Both are exasperated with the status quo. Both loathe a system where money rules, where politicians are in the pockets of their financial contributors, and chief executives pay themselves obscene bonuses even when they have run their companies into the ground.

Even more fundamentally, the Great Recession is giving the lie to bedrock assumptions of the American Dream. The right to make a fortune has always been part of that dream, but within certain parameters of fairness. Those parameters are now stretched to breaking point.

Hardly a week goes by without new statistics showing how national wealth is ever more concentrated in the hands of a very few. Liberals blame the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003; these, however, only reinforced an existing trend, whereby technological advances rewarded the owners of capital and the superskilled, while globalisation of the labour market wiped out millions of traditional middle-class jobs in the US itself.

Another vanishing assumption is that each generation will be better off than its predecessor. Today's young Americans may well live worse than their parents.

The US is still the most inventive place on earth. But the sense is palpable that the 21st century will not belong to America, and that global economic supremacy is shifting across the Pacific. Once, Washington would have been seen as a potential rescuer of the eurozone. These days, in debt to the gills itself, the US is a virtual bystander.

Washington can no longer afford another Iraq or Afghanistan, wars that have cost over US$1 trillion, all of it borrowed money, and with little to show for it.

Nowhere, though, is the disillusion, and the sense that the old ways no longer work, greater than Americans' views of their political system. When times were good, the imperfections did not matter: the federal government was traditionally a remote entity, and the checks and balances contained in the constitution were designed to keep it that way. But when times are bad, people look to Washington for solutions. Today's dysfunction and paralysis raise questions whether the two-party system in its present form is workable at all.

For the majority of incumbent senators and congressmen, the main threat they face is not the opposing party at the election, but a more radical rival in their own party primary, where a minority of committed activists determine the outcome. The result is a Democratic Party dominated by its liberal wing, and a Republican caucus that has grown ever more conservative.

A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed an approval rating for Congress of just 6 per cent - to which the common reaction is, who on earth are the 6 per cent?

The Republicans' theological aversion to higher taxes, even for the superwealthy, last week blocked a bill that would have provided jobs for hundreds of thousands, improving the country's ageing infrastructure.

The rebellious mood also helps to explain the weird contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination: the refusal to embrace the eminently qualified Mitt Romney and the flirtation with a string of alternatives. The election is still a year off, and its outcome utterly unpredictable. In normal times, an approval rating of barely 45 per cent and polls showing 75 per cent of Americans believe the country is "on the wrong track" would spell big trouble for Obama. But, as the old sports adage runs, you can't beat somebody with nobody.

One thing, however, is sure. In this dark American moment, the stage is set for a populist. It could be the incumbent President, lashing heartless Republicans.

It could be a Republican who convinces his countrymen that Obama is leading the country to ruin. Or could a third-party candidate somehow become the outlet for the general exasperation with the status quo?

One way or another, 2012 could yet be the "watershed" election that 2008 was not.

SAD JOKE: 'NO CASH, NO HOPE, NO JOBS'

9% unemployment will still be about 9 per cent when the election is held in November 2012.

7.2% no President since Roosevelt has been re-elected when the unemployment rate was above 7.2 per cent.

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