If all you do, this election season is watch mainstream or beltway media, you will come away with the same talking points of why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are doing so well. The consensus analysis is that voters are generally angry. What are they angry about you may ask? The responses depend on which outlet you are reading or listening to and they range from, anger at establishment politics and their leaders; the federal government, President Obama, Congress, etc. As far as the media, (both liberal and conservative) is concerned, it is the year of the angry voter. However, that narrative is, as usual, a lazy attempt to provide simplistically and generic response to a complicated albeit, unfamiliar problem. The premise of this article is not to say that people are not angry. But it is my contention that those that are angry, by their electoral decisions, are complicit in decisions that have led to conditions for which they are now angry. As such, they share the blame for whatever they perceived has gone wrong. It is pertinent here to note that this so-called “angry voter syndrome” is particularly pronounced among the Republican Party base though it is somewhat noticeable among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party as well.
I believe this angry disposition of the public is probably due to the fact that, even as we are well into the 21st century, our expectations are still tied to what life use to be in the industrial America of the late 20th century. It was an easier time then and a boom time for the manufacturing sector in particular. Usually, you get hired by a company, join a union, grow with the company and you stay with it through to retirement. Those times are gone and we are now in the Information Age – when access to and control of information is the defining characteristics of the current era in our civilization. Unfortunately, our leaders and the Media did not prepare us for the transition. The Media, in particular, was not only late in realizing this tectonic shift in our economy, they were caught off guard in its fast moving currents and had to resort to cheap “bottom-line” economic model to survive, thereby abandoning their traditional role to inform and educate the public. Going back to the presidency of Bill Clinton, the government did try to adapt to some innovation such as trade deals, the push for green jobs and the beginning of environmental advocacy and stewardship. In retrospect, those efforts, while laudable did not fully prepare us for the fast pace of developments that the information age will bring. But it did well enough to help the country enjoy eight years of uninterrupted economic growth, with more than 23 million jobs created during his presidency.
During the campaign to succeed Bill Clinton, the Republican Party, in their desperate attempt to regain the White House, mounted a campaign of trickle-down economics. George W. Bush claimed that the out-going administration has taxed the people too much and he is going to return the over-taxed money to them. However, as major beneficiaries of the long-running economic boom of the 90’s, the republican base knew better. But instead of continuing with the economic model that has been working and had brought them relative prosperity, they opted to elect George W. Bush, who in retrospect is arguably one of the least qualified person’s to occupy the oval office in a generation. Over the period of his presidency, the Bush administration mismanaged the economy until it nose-dived into depression in the summer of 2008, plunging the nation and indeed the whole world into deep economic crisis since the great depression of the late 1920s. A conservative estimate of manufacturing jobs lost under his administration, according to the Wall Street Journal is approximately 4.5 million. Some estimates say it may have been closer to 6 million. Also, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state of Ohio alone lost more than 315 thousand manufacturing jobs during the same period. In fact, the Bush administration’s job numbers were so dismal that, the Wall Street Journal, a respected conservative business journal called it “the worst track record on record” (January 9, 2009).
But the election of George W. Bush was just the beginning of a series of miscalculations by republican voters who appeared to have prioritized allegiance to their party over their own economic interests. Using the state of Kansas to illustrate this point, Thomas Frank, in a book published in 2004, titled: “What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” perfectly captured how the voting base of the GOP was gradually and systematically disenfranchised to vote against their interests. Here is the books overview from Wikipedia:
- According to the book, the political discourse of recent decades has dramatically shifted from social and economic equality to the use of "explosive" cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, which are used to redirect anger toward "liberal elites."
- Against this backdrop, Frank describes the rise of political conservatism in the social and political landscape of Kansas, which he says espouses economic policies that do not benefit the majority of people in the state.
- Frank also claims a bitter divide between 'moderate' and 'conservative' Kansas Republicans (whom he labels "Mods" and "Cons") as an archetype for the future of politics in America, in which fiscal conservatism becomes the universal norm and political war is waged over a handful of hot-button cultural issues.
- Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers – when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists' furthest imaginings – when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work – you could be damned sure about what would follow.
- Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today's Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they're protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there's a good chance they'll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower. (Frank, T. 2004 "What's the Matter with Kansas?", pp. 67-68)
Even though the book looked at just one state, the pattern was largely the same countrywide. When Barack Obama was elected president, with the abysmal job losses and the economic survival of the world at stake, you would think all hands will be on deck working to get the economy back up and give people a chance at decent living. Well, that would make sense, but not to the highly partisan Republicans and their base. In fact, their reaction to Obama’s election went to hell pretty fast. Their base took to the streets with demonstrations chanting and carrying placards, with a caricature of the president, some of which reads: “we want our country back”. The newly elected president had barely been in the office for a month; unemployment was skyrocketing as the country was losing 700,000 to 800, 000 jobs every month when the conservative elites struck again with their bait-and-switch political strategy. Even before the president’s newly announced stimulus package, aka, American Reinvestment and Recovery Act could reach congress, Republican rank and file stood in opposition to the point that not one republican, either in the house or senate voted for the recovery Act. Although the Act was a solution to a problem that happened under the Party’s leadership and which has created enormous economic hardship for the country, including their constituents, their incendiary rhetoric helps to galvanize their base to form a new wing of the Party called the “Tea Party”.
As the Obama administration worked to stem the tide of unemployment and seek to steady the shattered economy, Republican leadership went back to their playbook of blaming the bad economy on the new administration. They had already formed a pact on inauguration day that, as a party, they will oppose any and everything thing he stood for and they delivered. As they had successfully done in states like Kansas, they explained to their all too compliant followers, that the problem with the country is that the new president is not a real American and does not believe in it. Even though, it is clear to the common man on the streets that the 2008 economic crisis was largely due to the actions and greed of Wall Street – a group the Republicans defend, protect and advocate for – they nonetheless successfully changed the narrative and convinced their base that the problem was the over-regulation of businesses. Meanwhile, the real effects of their obstructionist stance to Obama’s attempts to lift the economy were more severe on their constituents who are predominantly blue collar workers in the south, and in the industrial rust belt of the Midwestern States.
When the president introduced the Affordable Care Act, it became a “Cause Celebre” for the right. It consumed and overshadowed any other action introduced to help people find employment and help the economy. This was yet another issue that helped to galvanize the base against the president, the democrats and against their own interests since the ACA’s main goal was to assist poor and low-income Americans afford medical insurance. But who wants assistance when their political and opinion leaders already told them how bad “Obamacare” is for them. In the meantime, though they are not able to afford medical insurance, but are satisfied with directing their anger at the Democrats and the president. When it was time for the midterm election in 2010, Republican leaders and legislators had a lot of “red meat” to feed to their base. They promised to repeal Obamacare and other legislation they know have no chance of passing. Some of those promises included hot button and explosive issues like abortion and gun control. They were also vehemently opposed to gay marriage at a time it was becoming clear that the country was evolving on this issue. Public polling had consistently shown significant movement even by conservative states such as Iowa, which legalized gay marriage in 2009. Yet, the GOP leaders and legislators continue to make promises and their “angry” base continue to believe that it is possible to realize these goals in the face of our highly divided government. The strategy proved electorally successful for them. They took over the House of Representatives in 2010 and went on to capture the Senate in 2014.
Now that both houses of congress have been firmly under Republican control for two years. Yet, none of the promises they made ever came to fruition. Given the short history outlined above, it is not hard to see that Republican leadership has not served their base well and in that context, their anger is somewhat understandable. However, in line with my working theory, they, the base that’s now acting out of anger, bear part of the blame for continually voting into office, the party that not only lies to them, but joins forces with the business community whose main goal is to reduce their pay, take away their benefits and move their jobs overseas. Since they valued Party loyalty over their citizenship responsibilities to stay informed on the issues and to respect the rights, beliefs and opinions of others, they deserve the disappointment and economic heartache that such partisanship has brought to them in return. Even as we speak, they are about to elect the most polarizing, racist and xenophobic candidate in the person of Donald Trump as president. If that ever happens, they will have no one to blame but themselves.