Monday, August 15, 2011

The Politics of Powerlessness

The Iowa straw vote and Tim Pawlenty's sudden withdrawal from the race for the Republican presidential nomination starkly highlights the pervasive feeling of powerlessness that drives politics today. Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul finished a close first and second, with Pawlenty a distant third. Bachmann and Paul appeal to the far right, tapping into the anger of those that feel unconnected to the mainstream of American society. Pawlenty was very much the traditional conservative that the power brokers of the Republican Party would like as their candidate. He got clobbered.

Others who fit the profile preferred by the Republican power structure--Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry--either stayed out or did poorly. Romney's campaign dropped hints to the press that his absence from the straw vote was strategic. But in politics, avoiding losses isn't the way to get elected. Romney may have deftly ducked a left jab from the far right. But his deliberate decision to stay out of the straw vote seems to quietly acknowledge his lack of appeal to the most powerful force in politics today: those that feel dispossessed.

A similar dynamic operates on the left. Union busting tactics in Wisconsin by recently elected Republican governor Scott Walker sparked an outpouring of liberal anger, weeks of demonstrations in Madison, and recall elections that weakened the Republican hold on the Wisconsin Senate. The demonstrators weren't powerful Democratic leeches sucking taxpayers dry. They were just moderate and middle income people trying desperately to hold onto their small portions of the national economic pie.

Middle class Americans are buffeted by enormous forces beyond their control. Wall Street created a financial crisis that threw the nation into a great recession. Workers are laid off through no fault of their own. They then lose their homes to foreclosure by human auto-pens. They see vast amounts of deficit spending by the federal government that doesn't seem to benefit them. Their children, raised to believe they could accomplish anything if they tried, now have little faith in the future. Both parents and children feel betrayed. A sovereign debt crisis in Europe that could wreck the international financial system, coinciding with an astonishingly inept process in Washington for raising the debt ceiling, knocks stocks down 15% in a few weeks. Daily volatility sweeps the financial markets, enriching firms whose computers trade in millionths of a second while trampling over Ma and Pa trying to patch up the holes in their 401(k) and IRA accounts. The homes they worked so hard to buy sink in value, but they still have to pay their debts in full with stagnating incomes.

The human survival instinct, normally well-concealed by the congeniality that prosperity allows, is the most powerful organic force on Earth. Humans have grown from a small number of short-lived hunter gatherers in Africa to a population of billions who control virtually every square mile of planet. When prosperity flags, and questions of survival begin to surface, adrenalin flows and emotions erupt. Many, many millions feel powerless against these gigantic forces beyond their control and see politics as the only outlet for their surging survival instincts. That is the force harnessed by Bachmann, Paul and the unions in Wisconsin. That is the force that will play a key role in the 2012 elections.

Paul won't win primaries; he has a track record in that respect. The mandarins of the Republican Party will quietly do everything they can to undermine Bachmann, in the belief that she might primaries, but can't win the general election. That belief is probably correct. The ghost of Barry Goldwater haunts the Republicans. A far right candidate is easy to demonize, and Democratic operatives are surely hoping that Bachmann will continue to fore check mainstream Republican candidates.

On the left, dissatisfaction with Barack Obama, now seen as too expedient a compromiser, has led to mutterings about a primary challenge. It's hard to see who would be a viable challenger. But in August 2007, few people considered Barack Obama a viable challenger to the presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. So you never know. The ultimate in cool projected by Obama isn't the right teleprompter feed for this election cycle, and a more impassioned candidate may win over the Democratic left.

With the economy slowing and the chances of renewed recession rising, feelings of powerlessness will play an ever greater role in politics. Political doings in Washington could become even more unpredictable than they have been. And the stability of the financial markets, now determined by governmental action as much as the direction of the economy, is likely to suffer correspondingly.

Of course, voters' desperation and its political consequences would evaporate if the economy began to grow briskly. But what are the chances of that?

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