Americans Against Themselves in the New York Review of Books (5 Nov. 2010) by Ronald Dworkin attempts to get at the actual reasons so many people voted against what seem to be their own best interests:
“Why do [so many Americans] shout hatred for a health care plan that gives them better protection against calamity than they have ever had? Or stimulus spending that has prevented a bad economic climate from being much worse for them? Or tax proposals that lower their own taxes by raising taxes on people much richer than they will ever be? Why do they vote in such numbers for the party favored by the bankers and traders who brought on the economic catastrophe?”
Even before the election, there was a lot of analysis of what voters wanted and why they felt they weren’t getting it in Obama or their Democratic representatives in Congress (and at the state-wide level). Most of the analysis didn’t make sense to me for the reasons Dworkin lists above. If the administration and the largely Democratic Congress has passed a stimulus package that increased the number of employed people by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million (per CBO), made proposals for lowering taxes for all but 3% of Americans (those families earning over $250,000 and individuals over $200,000), passed health care laws that offer transparency about costs, created more private sector jobs this year than during both of Bush’s terms, proposed $11.3 billion in discretionary spending cuts (of which Congress passed 60%), and so on, then why would fiscal conservatives feel so outaged and angry?
One reason might be that the pace of recovery is just too slow and we’re impatient. If you don’t have a job, hearing that others are slowly getting jobs doesn’t help and it may actually cause some psychic pain. If your house is being foreclosed and you can’t pay your bills … well, hmmm, you might actually embrace the financial reform law, which requires more oversight of mortgage lending, and the credit card bill of rights, which gives consumers more rights and requires more transparency from lenders. And the proposed continuation of tax cuts for 97% of Americans. Wouldn’t you?
I had the feeling that even if most angry voters were put in a room with a list of the accomplishments and proposals of the administration and Congress, and understood that many of the reforms and laws and tax proposals helped them, they’d still relish the chance to vote the bums out. That reaction speaks of revenge and resentment. I think many Democrats felt and acted this way in 2008.
I wonder if tea party supporters, when they learn that taxes are not nearly as high as they imagine (here, here), change their minds and feel that all is well. I doubt it. Adherents (of all stripes) tend to ignore, deny, tweak, re-frame, and make illogical inferences about information that doesn’t bolster their beliefs; it’s called confirmation bias.
But if what’s been accomplished by the Democratic administration and Congress is pretty much what most people, in poll after poll (see here, here, here, here), say they want, why would voters reject them? As Dworkin says, “Eight out of ten voters told exit pollsters that they are frightened by the economy; four out of ten report that their own families are still worse off than they once were. Columnists say that this explains why they turned on President Obama and deserted the Democrats. But that is not a solution to the puzzle; it is part of it. The economy is improving; private sector jobs are increasing.” So where’ s the disconnect?
One model that makes sense of that for me is a Girardian one, which predicts that when people are hurting and feeling fearful and powerless, they will try to create security and peace by banding together to sacrifice and scapegoat those seen as different or who can be portrayed as outsiders (and of course, Washington insiders are outsiders), those able to be painted as alien, “other,” not “us.” Having enemies and someone to blame creates a temporary unity and feeling of control.
So Dworkin’s explanations as to why people “feel they are losing their country, that they are desperate to take it back” seem very plausible to me, but in reverse order. The second point explains the sense of fear and powerless that prompts the first:
His second point:
Some of us are starting to feel that the U.S. is NOT “the most powerful, most prosperous, most democratic, economically and culturally the most influential—altogether the most envied and wonderful country in the world,” as we once viewed it, and thought everyone else did; and that makes us angry, looking for someone to blame for this turn of events.
As Dworkin notes, there is abundant media evidence of our averageness:
We “read every day of our declining power and influence. Our dollar is weak, our deficit frightening, our trade balance alarming. The Chinese own more and more of our currency and our debt, they, not we, have built the world’s fastest computer, and they show no inclination whatever to heed our demands about revaluing their currency or helping to protect human rights in Africa or prevent nuclear weapons in Iran. Our requests and demands are more and more ignored in foreign capitals: in Jerusalem, for example, and in congresses on climate change. Our vaunted military power suddenly seems inept: we are unable to win any war anywhere. Iraq was a multiple disaster: we could not win peace in spite of a vast expenditure of blood and treasure. Afghanistan seems even worse: we are unable to win and morally unable to quit. The democracies of the world, who once thought us the model of the rule of law, now point to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and call us human rights criminals.
“For many Americans losing America’s preeminence means losing the country they know. They want America to stand alone on top again; they want politicians to tell them that it can, that God has chosen us but false leaders have betrayed us.“
I think that from this sense of disappointment, deep fear, anxiety, and resentment comes Dworkin’s first point:
The government doesn’t reflect them — it is “not remotely of their kind or culture; it is not representative of them.” A., because Obama is black — “a race a great many Americans continue to think alien. They feel, viscerally, that a black man cannot speak for them.” B., because Obama is “uncomfortable with the tastes, rhetoric, and reflexive religiosity” that many “identify as at the heart of American political culture. … [H]is articulate, rational style strikes the wrong note.”
As someone who has been accused of being too intellectual — and assumed therefore to be unsympathetic, cold, unfeeling, and largely alien to ‘average’ people — I have no trouble believing this to be the case for Obama. And it is scary to me, to live in the U.S. but be seen as not authentically American somehow; in effect, not authentically human. It’s troubling.