Earlier this week, Matt Bai, a political reporter for the New York Times, tackled the issue of voter anger, its causes and consequences. Bai pointed out that should the Democrats lose control of Congress this November, President Obama will be the third consecutive president to have his party tossed out of legislative power in the very next election, something that’s never before happened in our country’s history. The rising number of unenrolled voters are primarily responsible for this turbulence – the 13% lead among independents now held by Republicans in the polls is the very same percentage by which Obama beat McCain among those same independents.
Bai concludes that independent voters “have tended to side with whichever party can legitimately claim not to be in charge at the moment, and ideology doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it.” For evidence of this, he trailed some Madison Avenue researchers, unaffiliated with any campaign or party, to suburban New Jersey to quiz groups of independent voters in the same way they’d quiz people on how they buy groceries. What became apparent from these focus groups was that government spending and unemployment, two of the most talked-about issues in this campaign, meant little to the voters. They were mostly concerned with and frustrated by an apparent breakdown of civil society as a whole – aggressive drivers, unruly kids, an intrusive internet. To these voters, “both parties, along with the news media and big business [are] symptoms of the larger societal ailment.”
People don’t dislike politicians, but once politicians get to Washington they become the adult equivalent of kids in a cafeteria food fight, something that frustrates the voters who take out that frustration by voting against whoever is in power. Bai concludes by saying that Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barrack Obama were all elected by pledging to “return civility to Washington” or to “transcend partisan politics”, but that as soon as each arrived in Washington, he was sucked into the partisan vortex and the voters rebelled.
Bai’s column is well worth reading. In my historical studies, I’ve seen that in the past, widespread anger and frustration are often the reaction to the speed of change in society. I suspect that’s exactly what’s going on now.