Tea Party U.S.A.: It's Still the Economy, Stupid!

In the wake of yesterday's fascinating report in the Times about sixty-something Tea Party activists bracing for a violent counter-revolution, several people have asked me why Americans are so angry. I am tempted to say that that is what age and a steady diet of Fox News does to people, but that can't be the full story.

In the wake of yesterday's fascinating report in the Times about sixty-something Tea Party activists bracing for a violent counter-revolution, several people have asked me why Americans are so angry. I am tempted to say that that is what age and a steady diet of Fox News does to people, but that can't be the full story. (Roger Ailes and his gang have been on air since 1996.)

One factor that the Times article tiptoed around, but which undoubtedly plays some role, is racism. For some white Americans of a certain age and background, the sight of a black man in the Oval Office, even one who went to Harvard Law School and conducts himself in the manner of an aloof WASP aristocrat, is an affront. While President Obama's approval rating has fallen in almost all groups, the biggest slippage has taken place among whites, especially middle- and working-class whites. A Gallup poll identified this trend last November, and it surely played a role in Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts.

Another factor, which rarely gets mentioned, but which appears obvious to people who didn't grow up here, such as myself, is that many Americans reach adulthood with a set of values and sense of self-identity that is historically inaccurate and potentially dangerous. If you have it banged into your head from the cradle to adolescence that America is the chosen nation--a country built by a rugged and God-fearing band of Anglo-Saxon individualists armed with pikes and long guns--you are less likely to embrace other essential features of the American heritage, such as the church-state divide, mass immigration, and the essential role of the federal government in the country's economic and political development. When things are going well, and Team USA is squashing its rivals, this cognitive dissonance is kept in check. But when "the Homeland" encounters a rough patch and its manifest destiny is called into question, the underlying tensions and contradictions in the American psyche come to the fore, and people rail against the government.

Not all Americans are subject to this unfortunate mental condition, of course. Many, perhaps most, of our citizens are pragmatic, open-minded, and justifiably proud of the nation's cultural and ethnic diversity. But at any period of time, there is a certain segment of the population--a quarter, perhaps--that provides fertile ground for what Richard Hofstadter, back in 1964, called the "paranoid style" of American politics, which trades in "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy."

All countries have some disaffected folk, of course. But the real danger to any democracy comes when military conflict or economic dislocation swells the ranks of the permanently alienated with legions of people who are temporarily disadvantaged or angry. And that, I think, is what is happening now. My thanks to the indefatigable Brad DeLong and Matt Yglesias--do these guys ever sleep?--for bringing to my attention these two charts that John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, posted on the blog The Monkey Cage:

The first chart confirms that suspicion of the federal government isn't anything new. For decades, pollsters from the American National Election Studies have been asking people this question: "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right, just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?" The chart shows that Americans started to lose faith in Washington during the nineteen-sixties and seventies, with the percentage of the population expressing trust in the government falling from the high seventies to the low thirties. Since then, the figures have moved up and down broadly in line with economic conditions, falling during the recession of the early nineties, rising in the subsequent period of prosperity, and falling sharply in the past few years.

The second chart, which plots the level of trust in government against annual changes in per capita disposable income, provides more evidence to support the idea that economic developments are key. Most of the data points are arrayed in a north-easterly direction. This strongly suggests that when people's incomes are rising they are more likely to have trust in the government; when their incomes are stalled, they lose faith in Washington. And the fact that most of the individual date points are close to the straight line--the regression line--demonstrates that this relationship is statistically robust. (For all you wonks out there, the R-squared is 0.75 and the t-statistic is 5.44.)

Now, this analysis doesn't imply that Americans aren't furious about the political paralysis in Washington--they are--or that Obama doesn't bear some blame for allowing his Administration to be portrayed as a tool of Wall Street and failing to articulate a coherent policy agenda that could overcome the lobbyists and right-wing naysayers. It does mean that, given that he took over during a deep recession, the President was always going to have a tough first couple of years. As a crotchety German pointed out long ago, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."

Looking forward, Sides's statistical evidence strongly supports the view, cogently expressed by my colleague James Surowiecki, that what matters most for Obama's political fortunes, and for the overall political health of the country, is ensuring that the economic recovery continues and broadens. Reassessing their legislative strategy and trying to entrap their Republican foes on Capitol Hill is all very well for the President and his advisers, but they should also be reaching out for advice to James Carville, who, last I heard, had moved to New Orleans. Doubtless, he would tell them that really counts is what happens to employment and income growth in places like Michigan, Louisiana, and Nebraska.

"Of course the economy is not the only important factor," Sides writes. "But it gets far less attention than it deserves when the hand-wringing begins. So, sure, perhaps we can and should tinker with the political process. Clip lobbyists' wings. Get leaders to make nicey-nicey with the opposite party. But the process is less important than outcomes. More people will trust the government again when times are good, even if government ain't."

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