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Jobbing Democracy

The American dream of continuing and increasing prosperity has been hijacked by our economic maladies.

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Political pundits were quick to render their assessment of why Scott Brown, the Republican insurgent candidate, upset Martha Coakley, the Democratic standard bearer, in the recent U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts. Practically all of these analysts ascribed Coakley's defeat to President Barack Obama's health-care initiative and several fiscal stimulus packages, the somewhat dire state of the economy bereft of plentiful jobs, Wall Street bailouts and the lackluster campaign waged by Coakley. Although I'd readily agree that each of these factors played a significant role in defeating Coakley, they fail to explain in the aggregate political rage in Massachusetts; nor, in a more general sense, the political rage throughout the country.

A number of fundamental political and economic factors account for the troubling state of American democracy. A basic perquisite of any well-functioning government is that it maintains the trust of the people. A survey published in The Wall Street Journal in December, however, found that only 32 percent of the respondents believe government almost never will do what is right. Almost half — 46 percent — ventured that government will only do what is right some of the time.

Provoking a sense of distrust in our governmental structure is that, although we describe our polity as being a democracy, the vast majority of citizens, because of their lack of financial resources or inability to obtain massive campaign funding, are unable to compete in federal and state elections. We're all aware of the huge sums of money required in order to run a successful presidential campaign or secure a seat in Congress. The same observation is true at the state level. In the November contest for governor, Bob McDonnell, the Republican nominee, spent approximately $24 million to vanquish Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, his Democratic opponent, who spent about $17 million in his losing effort. Total expenditures for candidates competing for a seat in the House of Delegates were about $37 million, an all-time high.

Indeed, in nine of the races more than $1 million was spent. In sum, the quest for federal and state office has become a rich person's electoral quest, with the members of the larger public relegated to the sidelines.

To be sure, the policies being pursued by President Obama and the majority Democratic Congress have provoked a good deal of political rage. Although about 50 percent of Americans still positively view Obama in a personal sense, his policy goals — especially about health care and the economy — have created a perfect political firestorm. The view of the public concerning the job that Congress is doing is markedly negative: According to that Wall Street Journal survey, only a quarter of Americans believe that Congress is doing a good job. The essentially negative view that Americans harbor toward Congress is because of not only the widespread perceived “deadlock” nature of the Congressional process, but also the somewhat frivolous spending by the members of Congress.

For instance, it was reported that lawmakers and their staffs spent $13 million on overseas trips in 2008, a 70 percent increase from 2005, to visit military bases, meet foreign officials and attend conferences. These expenditure figures do not include the thousands of dollars' worth of alcohol, food and other amenities purchased by aides for lawmakers on their ventures abroad. In one study involving 43 trips taken by members of Congress, such expenditures amounted to about $4,300 per trip.

Throughout the country, political rage is also fueled by the perception that the governmental system isn't working well and is moving in the wrong direction. The Wall Street Journal reported in October that less than 40 percent of Americans feel the nation is moving in the right direction and only about 25 percent indicated they were satisfied with the condition of the economy. In the December survey, the Journal noted that only about 20 percent were convinced that life for our children's generation will be better than it's been for us. Obviously, the American dream of continuing and increasing prosperity has been hijacked by our economic maladies.

The large number of Americans who have lost their homes to foreclosures, to be taken advantage of in many instances by investors who are seeking a nice profit, and those who have found themselves unemployed — about 10 percent — have further eroded their sense of self-confidence and their personal belief in the possibility of upward economic and social mobility. The New York Times reported in December that among those who were unemployed, 53 percent had to borrow money from family members or friends, 48 percent experienced anxiety or depression, 55 percent had trouble sleeping, 69 percent felt more stressed; and 48 percent reported that they had more conflicts or arguments than usual with family and friends. Clearly, economic setbacks are taking a significant toll on a measurable portion of the American public. 

Lastly, the most troublesome development accounting for the present political turmoil in the United States is the continuing financial “squeeze” confronting the middle class. Middle-class people, because of the increasing cost of living and the regressive tax policies pursued by the federal government and many of the states, find themselves in many instances pedaling in a financial backwater merely to stay afloat.

The political rage will continue, especially if job creation continues to trail job losses. Democracies fail to remain stable with a vanishing middle class.

Nelson Wikstrom is a professor of political science and public administration at Virginia Commonwealth University, specializing in federalism and intergovernmental relations, local government and politics.

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