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Alienated Americans

- August 17, 2010

Ron Brownstein has a piece in the National Journal that is worth reading. There is this very straightforward and, I think, correct diagnosis of the Democratic Party’s current travails:

bq. But their greatest problem is that they control all of Washington’s levers at a time when most Americans are deeply unhappy with the country’s direction.

The broader point of the piece is that Americans are alienated from a variety of institutions, both political and nonpolitical. I think the polling data suggest this as well. However, I don’t agree with two conclusions that Brownstein draws from this:

bq. This deep, broad, and visceral discontent is a recipe for social and political volatility. As recently as 2004, GOP strategists such as Karl Rove saw in George W. Bush’s slim re-election evidence that Republicans were building a “narrow but stable” electoral majority. That was immediately followed by Democratic routs in 2006 and 2008 that reduced the GOP to virtually a rump Southern party and inspired Democrats to dream of their own lasting majority. Two years later, Democrats are struggling to hold even one chamber of Congress.

Nothing about recent elections strikes me as “volatile.” (Indeed, there is evidence that elections have become _less_ volatile over time. See this old post.) The United States is more narrowly divided in terms of partisanship than in previous eras. There is also no solid Democratic South to mitigate the inevitable swings that arise from economic growth and recessions. Both things may contribute to more frequent changes in party control of the presidency or Congress, but that has nothing to do with alienation. That’s just what happens when neither party can claim a large majority.

Brownstein also sees this alienation as intractable:

bq. They [recent polls] point toward a widely shared conviction that the country’s public and private leadership is protecting its own interest at the expense of average (and even comfortable) Americans. _The lasting downturn has deepened those sentiments, but it didn’t create them and its end probably won’t dissolve them_. Americans increasingly believe they are paddling alone on a treacherous economic sea — which helps explain why they so enthusiastically submerge those in charge whenever they get the chance.

Italics mine. Everything hinges on what “won’t dissolve them” means. Of course, some minimal level of alienation will always be with us. But what Brownstein appears to suggest is that economic growth won’t lead people to revise their assessments of political leaders and government. This flies in the face of 50 years of public opinion data, which I summarized here and especially here. There is a robust relationship between the state of the economy, approval of incumbents at virtually every level of office, and trust in the government as a whole.

Could this moment be different? I am very leery of assuming it is — if for no other reason than people imagine their historical circumstances are somehow exceptional, when they actually prove to be ordinary, predictable, etc. time and again. Lee had a nice post on this tendency. Obviously, I can’t make a precise prediction about how much alienation or distrust will exist in the American public at some future point in time. But I’m willing to bet that however much there is will be strongly conditioned by the state of the economy. We are not doomed to live forever alienated.

[Hat tip to Gary Andres]