Right-wing Upsurge in US: Less than Meets the Eye?

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Is America in the grip of a right-wing backlash that will hit
the November elections like a hurricane? This narrative is
gathering steam. It is fed not only by the minority partisan
right-wing media but also its majority “liberal” counterpart,
which loves a horse race and is fascinated with the
Tea Party, even if it isn’t so eager for the Republicans to
take Congress. Regardless of the outcome, 90-plus percent
of the pundits and press will cheese up the same, tired, old
cliché in their post-election analysis: The Democrats were
punished (they will inevitably lose at least some seats in
Congress) because they tried to go too far, too fast and too
left for the inherently conservative American masses. And
this junk will be consumed for years, adding another layer
of fat to the lazy couch potato that is American journalism’s
“conventional wisdom.”
How about another narrative that makes more sense?
Let’s start with the economic issues, since the economy
was the number one issue for likely voters in the latest
New York Times/CBS poll. Our worst and longest recession
since the Great Depression was caused by a real estate
bubble that accumulated and burst before Obama was
elected. The Democrats passed a stimulus package that
was much too small to compensate for the resulting loss of
private spending. As my colleague Dean Baker has pointed
out, the collapse of this bubble would be expected to
knock about $1.2 trillion annually off of private demand.
This is about eight times the size of government stimulus
spending when we subtract the budget cuts and tax
increases of state and local governments (special thanks to
the Republicans for cutting $100 billion from the stimulus
bill that would have gone straight to municipal governments
to prevent some of this).
Now how does this get presented in the media? First,
we have a debate about whether the stimulus helped or
hurt the economy, or whether it created or saved any jobs
at all. This is somewhat ridiculous, from the standpoint of
national income accounting. It is reminiscent of the
“debates” that carried on in the media for many years (they
continue in some quarters), long after the question was
settled in the scientific community, as to whether global
warming was taking place. The non-partisan Congressional
Budget Office estimates that between 1.4 and 3.3 million
more people were employed by mid-2010, as a result
of the stimulus. There is a wide range of uncertainty about
the size of the effect, but there’s hardly any doubt that the
stimulus helped save jobs and output.
Then the horror movie scenes began about the dreaded
budget deficit, which over the next decade is almost
entirely attributable to two non-stimulus-related items:
Iraq and Afghanistan war spending and the Bush tax cuts.
In spite of this well-financed campaign against the scourge
of red ink, only 3 percent of voters see the deficit as the
most important issue facing the country, as compared with
32 percent who chose the economy and 28 percent for
jobs. But somehow the deficit got to be so alarming to
somebody that it became politically impossible for Congress
to even talk about another stimulus for the economy.
So very predictably, the recovery lost steam and the
Democrats felt just “powerless” to do anything to boost the
economy and employment before the election. This guaranteed
big losses for their party in the election.
It didn’t help that the Obama Administration failed to create
a distinction for voters between the $700 billion bailout
for the banks, which was widely hated for obvious reasons,
and their stimulus package. Most Americans still don’t see a
difference. This was a huge public relations failure.
But all this adds up to something different from a
“right-wing backlash.” Indeed, the New York Times/CBS
poll shows a 20 percent approval rating for Congressional
Republicans (the same as for the Tea Party) as opposed to
30 percent for Democrats.
But 55 percent of voters—record for the past 20 years —
say it is time to give a new person a chance to represent
their district.
The conclusion is obvious: Voters are angry—not the
anger of the rich who believe, as John D. Rockefeller
famously said, that “God gave me my money.” It is a populist
rage that will drive some independent or swing voters
to vote against incumbents and the incumbent party. Even
if it means voting for people who they don’t particularly
like, trust, or agree with on the issues.
Republicans were able to keep this country moving to
the right for nearly four decades—including through the
Clinton years. For much of this time they used a fake populist
appeal based on cultural issues, portraying a “liberal
elite” who was contemptuous of the values of workingclass
white voters—who have generally been the biggest
group of swing voters. The strategy succeeded because
Democrats refused to make the obvious economic populist
appeal to the real interests of these voters—who were getting
hammered by the loss of manufacturing jobs, weakening
of labor and redistribution of income that was engineered
by the leadership of both parties. In 2004, non-college-
educated whites with household income between
$30,000-$50,000 voted for Republicans for Congress by a
60-38 percent margin; in 2006 a switch to a 50-50 split
(22 percentage points) contributed significantly to the
Democrats’ victory in Congress.
The Republicans’ long-term strategy collapsed in 2008.
The Democrats were lucky in that the peak of the financial
crisis hit just before the elections that year. In October
2008 the number of Americans believing that the country
was on the wrong track hit an all-time record of 89 percent.
Most importantly, this situation focused the attention
of swing voters on the economy, something that negates
the potential appeal of “distraction” issues such as abortion,
gay marriage, guns or even the thinly-veiled racism
that had been part of the Republicans’ appeal since President
Nixon’s post-civil-rights-movement “southern strategy.”
Obama himself had eschewed economic populism in
his campaign (making an exception in Midwestern primaries
such as Wisconsin, where he needed more working-
class support in order to win), in keeping with his
carefully cultivated media image of post-partisan conciliator.
But the economy did the job for him, and for the
Democratic Party.
What does this mean for the elections of 2010? I would
predict that Democrats—even in some not-so-Democratic
districts—who appeal to the massive populist discontent
among the voters will do better than those who follow the
conventional wisdom and run to the right of Obama on such
issues as health care reform or taxes. This applies especially
to the swing voters but could also be significant in rallying
the party’s base, which is somewhat disillusioned and needs
to be energized. Since this is a non-presidential-year election,
voter turnout could easily swing the election.
It is not so hard to make this appeal: millions of people
are losing their homes and their jobs, while the Wall Street
gang who sank the economy are once again raking in billions
—and only because they have been rescued and subsidized
with hundred of billions of our taxpayer dollars. If enough
Democrats campaign on these kinds of themes and offer a
populist alternative, they will keep both houses of Congress.

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