The New York Times recently featured a discussion about the political direction of the nation, and various reactions to it. Having myself answered telephone polls that included the question, “Are you satisfied with the direction in which the nation is moving?”, I am troubled by the failure of polls using this question to address the more fundamental question of who is driving the nation in that direction. The responses posted by the Times, and the reactions they reveal, also show a problem with both the question and with what American voters think about and respond to.
The main problem which President Obama has had to contend with since even before winning the presidency is the economic situation. The Bush Recession and the financial meltdown of 2008 pushed President Bush into a corner, and during the 2008 presidential race, Bush asked the two contenders, Senators Obama and McCain, to the White House to discuss it and advise him how to deal with it. Senator Obama’s plan became the road-map to recovery, used by both Bush and President Obama. While there was a halt to the meltdown, and while job growth has continued almost unabated since 2009, Republicans and their supporters question the president’s performance and claim that Republicans would have done better. They of course ignore the fact that the recession and meltdown both happened on their watch; and they ignore the fact that neither Bush nor McCain had an effective plan to deal with them (which is why Obama’s plan was implemented by Bush). They also ignore the fact that job growth and overall economic performance have generally been better under Democratic presidents than Republicans. So is the problem “direction,” or “velocity”? The Republicans have a legitimate concern that Democratic recovery is too slow; but they had no alternative means of achieving a more rapid recovery, with the modern job market globalizing and market shares of foreign nations edging out American manufacturing and other services. So whom is to blame? The Republicans who had no ideas and allowed the problems to manifest, or the Democrats who have repaired much of the damage but too slowly from the point of view of their critics?
Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, and others on the left have also demonstrated significant problems deriving from the increasing concentration of wealth in the US. Some of the reasons why recovery has been slower than would be liked also derive from this problem. As wealth has been concentrating (lower-end wages remaining the same over time, but wealth expanding at the top), union and middle-class jobs, which provided much of 20th century America’s income and consumption, have been edged out. As income and consumption reduce overall, there is less demand for manufactured goods and for the jobs producing them. There is less money to invest in small businesses (and less consumer support for those businesses). This allows large corporations to push over smaller ones (itself causing further wealth concentration into the large corporations at the expense of “mom and pop” local businesses). Congressional leaders like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have pushed for supports at both consumer levels and business levels to even the playing field; but with foreign competition growing and here to stay, America faces a 21st century economy that will have to be very different from our 20th century hegemony. Both Democrats (like Bill Clinton) and Republicans have helped to loosen the regulatory environment that creates living spaces for smaller companies and protects them from larger corporations. And unions have fought to preserve the incomes of their own workers, inciting resentment from others towards their seemingly “overpaid” members, who have traditionally been the nation’s principal consumers and job creators. So whom is to blame?
A new political environment has evolved with populist movements arising like the petty-fascist reactionaries of Trumpland. The Republicans bloviate with hate-filled language about homosexuals, abortions, and foreigners to incite actions like the multiple county-based oppositions to the SCOTUS same-sex marriage ruling and the Colorado Springs shooting at the Planned Parenthood facility. They ignore the calls by Black Lives Matter and other movements for a dialogue on racial discrimination, and their snide remarks about African Americans struggling for their rights helps fuel incidents like the shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston. They do not even manage to distance themselves from heinous incidents like the Charleston shooting. The racist group inspiring Dylann Roof’s shooting, Council of Conservative Citizens (the ideological descendant of the Citizens Councils of America , or “White Citizens Councils”), is currently campaigning for Trump in Iowa. Extremism is looked upon from the right as normal and acceptable.
Are there growing extremes on both sides? Where is the leftist “extremism” about which the right so often complains? While Sanders suggests that large corporations will not “like him,” he, Warren, and Reich push not for some communist utopia of “people’s republics” dictating production, consumption, and classless society, but instead for a leveling of the field that allows small companies to co-exist with the large. They seek a capitalist environment in which workers can achieve personal security and agency while working for profitable companies. They seek a society in which the police do not target specific groups or races, but instead protect all citizens under their watch. They seek a society that builds the City on a Hill, the vision for America that has always been and remains the nation’s central, and founding, ideal. In what way are these goals “extremist”? So whom is to blame for extremism? Both parties, or just one – the Republicans?
When poll-takers ask their respondents the question, “Are you satisfied with the direction the nation is taking?” they ignore the question about who is doing the driving. Both sides of the spectrum have reasons to be fearful about our “direction,” as well as about our “velocity.” And on the economy at least, both sides are more in agreement about direction, disagreeing more about velocity. The party in the White House created the plan steering the nation back toward job growth (the desired direction for both parties), while the party in Congress has yet to advocate specific means that would change our velocity. So which party is to blame? And where in our course corrections do we find racist and bigoted populist movements of the far-right, like Trump’s movement; or activist movements of the left like Black Lives Matters? To which direction are they trying to steer us, and is our ship turning toward them? Economically, where do we find the rocks of foreign competition and increasing globalization, around which we must steer to get to our port? These questions are far too complex to be enshrined by one simple and myopic question.