The jobs report on Friday was bad, as David Howell analyzed here. This immediately was interpreted across the board as good news for Mitt Romney and his party, bad news for President Obama and his. It’s the economy stupid, and bad news about employment means that Obama’s chance for reelection has declined precipitously. And things are worse then that. It’s now or never. It is in the summer that the public’s perception of the economy is locked in for Election Day. Even if things improve in the fall, there won’t be enough lead-time to change the public’s perception.
I know that this is based on solid evidence. Considerable scholarly research has demonstrated the strong correlation between the state of the economy and election results. But the way this research has been directly applied in daily political commentary is troubling, especially because it can become a political factor itself. As the “Thomas Theorem” posits: If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. I add, especially when they are doing the defining on television.
This concerns me as a scholar and as a partisan. As a scholar, I worry about the philosophic anthropology of this. The voting public is being depicted as simpletons, not capable of critical thought, of the most basic examination of the facts. There is a kind of economic determinism involved and the determinism is quite mechanical. People vote their pocketbooks and they don’t think critically about it. They don’t wonder about the causes of their economic woes and just vote the bums out. It amazes me how in the same broadcasts talking heads suggest both that the job numbers are a result of long-term trends beyond the control of the President and that Obama’s chances of victory have greatly diminished because of the state of the economy as indicated by the latest job report. They propose a simple Pavlovian stimulus and response vision of voters, never inquiring about how they may interpret the news.
Thinking comparatively, in this way, it’s not the austerity policies, along with other non-economic issues, that is leading to a left political shift in Greece, France and Germany, as we have reported in Deliberately Considered. It’s just a turn against incumbents, and the U.S. will make a right turn for the same economic reason. Might it not be a little more complicated that this?
As a partisan, I wonder are Americans capable of noticing that the persistent unemployment is the result of both the rise in employment in the private sector, and radical cuts in the public sector, including masses of teachers? They surely are capable of noticing that the Republican policies in Congress led the U.S. to the brink of default last summer, and that Romney is offering more of the same, with economic proposals that look a lot like those of George W. Bush and have about as much chance of success as those of David Cameron in Great Britain. Americans also are capable of noticing that in fact Congress is a co-equal branch of government and has moved economic decisions in the direction of austerity, and that state and local governments have been cutting jobs very rapidly during the recession. In effect, Obama is continuing to push in the opposite direction, while a national austerity policy is in place because of the Republicans, as Paul Krugman argued in his piece “This Republican Economy” in today’s New York Times. I know not everyone is going to agree with this Keynesian economist’s political assessment, though I do. What disturbs me is that many posit that argument doesn’t matter. Gross economic statistics, they assume, is political destiny. Following this logic, FDR would have been a one-term president.
And while economics are important in deciding Presidential elections, it is not the only thing. The Republicans, especially as they appeared in the primary elections and in Congress, state legislatures and state houses, are fighting a rearguard action against major social trends in America.
They became the reactionary party when it came to the issues of race and racism, when Nixon adopted his infamous southern strategy. This approach was continued by Bush the elder with his Willie Horton ad and his nomination to the Supreme Court of Clarence Thomas as the most qualified jurist in the land (a strained anti-racism). And the reaction is alive and well in the Birther movement of Donald Trump and company, and the crazy wing of the Tea Party, with which the Republican establishment has toyed, and the Islamophobia to which many Republicans are deeply committed, fighting against Islamofascism and Sharia law in Oklahoma and beyond. Yet, America is a much more diverse, much more tolerant society. The American Dream more and more looks like the one depicted and embodied by Barack Obama.
And there is much more, concerning the rights of women to equal pay for equal work, immigrant rights, equal rights for gays to serve in the military and to marriage, full healthcare rights for women, including access to contraception and abortion, and much more. For significant segments of the population these are not just social issues, a euphemism that disguises the degree to which survival and fundamental dignity are at issue.
I know that the studies that predict election results take all this into account. They assume that people do vote on these issues, but that the turn of the election to the Republicans or the Democrats is decided by the state of the economy with a high degree of accuracy. Yet, it will matter who people hold accountable for their economic woes, and it will matter which candidate appears to make sense about the economy, often as this is related to other issues.
Perhaps when the economy went into deep crisis, McCain lost the last presidential election. But certainly when he declared in the face of the crisis that the economy was fundamentally sound, he put the nail in his election coffin. For the young, people of color, women and members of the LGBT community, his cluelessness on issues of their special concern magnified his apparent economic ignorance. Across the board, he didn’t make sense about the pressing issues of the day.
I believe this is the central factor: the struggle to make sense to the public about our problems, economic and non-economic, indeed as they are related. As a partisan, I think and I believe Obama still has an advantage in this regard over Romney and the Republican Party, which over the past year has revealed its radicalism. My next post: more reflections on the issue of making sense and communicating it. How it relates to the question in American identities and the issue of America’s place in the new global order.