• U.S.

Voters Are Mad as Hell

13 minute read
Lance Morrow

What would George Bush hear if he took along a spiral notebook and two Secret Service agents and began a series of quiet visits, without the press, to communities like East Lansing, Mich., and Kansas City, Mo., and Geneva, N.Y., and Anaheim, Calif.? He could stay up late drinking coffee with a family or two and listening to their problems, and then go to sleep on the foldout sofa in the living room.

He might go to Cary, N.C., to talk to Michael and Julie Harlow. “We’re taxed to death,” Michael Harlow would tell Bush. Michael, 30, and his wife Julie, together earn $20,000 to $25,000 a year, pay rent on a two-bedroom apartment because they cannot afford to buy a house, and worry what the future holds for their two-month-old daughter Grace.

“I hate to admit it, because I am a Republican,” says Michael Harlow, who served eight years in the Air Force and now works the evening shift at the front desk of a hotel. “But it appears that Bush, like Reagan before him, favors the wealthy, tolerates the poor and has forgotten the largest group in the middle.” Julie Harlow, 33, has a degree in business administration and works part time managing a local gift store. “Sometimes I think the American Dream, at least for the middle class,” she says, “is about dead.”

The Harlows are disgusted with the “childish bickering” of the President and Congress. “All the politicians can agree to is to disagree,” says Michael. “When they do legislate something, it’s about something ridiculous, like flag burning. Come on!” Julie Harlow speaks for millions: “They ((politicians)) are a bunch of bozos.”

House Republican whip Newt Gingrich heard the political noise emanating from New Hampshire and said it sounded like “a primal scream.”

The scream, if primal, was perfectly articulate. The New Hampshire primary amounted to a cry of anger, disgust and pain that was above everything else a warning to George Bush, a kind of political death threat. New Hampshire’s Republicans gave only 53% of their vote to the incumbent President — a stroke of lese majeste that distantly recalled the 50% that New Hampshire Democrats gave Lyndon Johnson in 1968, when Eugene McCarthy took 42% and helped force L.B.J. to withdraw.

Republicans lavished 37% on the upstart Pat Buchanan, an intensely focused right-wing commentator and old Nixon-Reagan speechwriter who uses ideas like ax handles. Those votes were less an expression of faith in Buchanan than an angry gesture directed at Bush, at his broken promises (“Read my lips: no new taxes”) and at what many saw as his almost bizarre disconnection from the realities of American life, especially life in New Hampshire, which has been in an economic slump since 1989. At the end of the primary campaign, Bush showed up at a “town meeting” in Goffstown in the company of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who presumably was brought along to impress the crowds in a way that the President of the U.S. might not. It was not a shrewd piece of media work: Schwarzenegger the Terminator, an action figure out of Hollywood, proclaimed fantasy at a moment when voters had gathered to look for something real — a little something in the way of presidential leadership. The resplendently overmuscled image of Arnold blinded the audience to the image of the Leader of the Free World. In the real world, at a polling station in Manchester, a graphic artist named Doug Rasmun explained his vote for Buchanan: “As a Republican, I think we have to scare some sense into Bush before it’s too late.”

For New Hampshire’s Democrats, the choice was more complicated, and the results in a way more interesting. Former California Governor Jerry Brown, usually enveloped in an aura of indignation, did not profit from the prevailing anger. A different contrarian principle worked in favor of Paul Tsongas. The former Massachusetts Senator, survivor of lymphoma, preacher of no-nonsense, progrowth, probusiness (“You can’t have employment and despise employers — no goose, no golden eggs”), came away with 33% of the vote. His importance was symbolic as well as substantive: Tsongas possesses a power of glamourlessness, a nerdy, basset-hound anti-image that gives hope to some voters who despair of American politics as glib, empty, pointless — all sound bites and video bursts. Tsongas’ astringent message was that Santa Claus in whatever extravagant forms (Ronald Reagan or the Great Society) is not coming back, and the nation can’t afford any more toys. Tsongas succeeded, for the moment, by being virtually everything that Reagan was not.

Bill Clinton had to contend not only with the claim of his marital faithlessness and questions about the way he handled his draft status in 1969, but also with an impression of being a bit too facile — “Slick Willie,” as some call him in Arkansas. The attention to his personal life and the forbearance with which he bore the rude, intrusive process diminished the Slick Willie problem. Clinton, calling himself “the Comeback Kid,” got a handsome 25% of the vote for second place.

The Atmosphere of Pain

On one level, the message from New Hampshire seemed contradictory. Buchanan mocked Bush for raising taxes, while Tsongas ridiculed his opponents for promising to cut middle-class taxes — an indulgence, Tsongas thought. But both Buchanan and Tsongas attracted voters for similar reasons. Among those deeply troubled over the nation’s condition and desperate for a change, Buchanan and Tsongas represented the most appealing antidotes to the political paralysis in Washington. They had appealing intensity, and they were, in their two strange ways, both fresh characters in a process Americans have come to believe is hopelessly phony. “When you’re bleeding,” says University of New Hampshire political scientist Robert Craig, “of course you are sick of the status quo. There is a broad undercurrent epitomized by two-income families who realize they are not going to make it. People are really afraid. If they miss just one paycheck, they will lose the home and the car. It’s that close.”

The New Hampshire results suggested an emerging seriousness and impatience in American voters, a sense that they are groping into difficult political and moral territory, often well in advance of both the politicians and media. The usual American political apparatus seemed to be malfunctioning, defective — incapable of bringing along plausible leaders, Presidents, as it once did. The party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy was fielding another B-team. So it seemed to many voters, who also thought that the Republicans had a President — and Vice President — of unusual weightlessness.

New Hampshire confirmed that the ’90s are different from the ’80s, very different: in mood and means, in manners and moralities. The ’80s had more money, of course, or at least overleveraged illusions of money.

The 1990s sometimes look like the ’80s turned inside out, as if the nation had been wearing a reversible raincoat. The gaudy, triumphal colors flashed during the Reagan years are suspect now. Or else they are remembered somewhat wistfully. The full national regalia was last worn when the troops came home from Desert Storm, which seems a while ago.

The recession has left the great American middle class feeling frayed and sobered and vulnerable. Fear and anger are eating like acids at the electorate. A shadowed mood has been playing across the country. Stories of foreclosures and lost jobs have woven themselves into a virtual folklore. Many who have been accustomed to the upholstered assumptions of the American Dream have discovered what looks like an abyss, something the middle class has not seen before. Looking down gives them terrible vertigo. It scares them, and makes them want to attack the politicians they think have led them to this place.

Some of the anguish no doubt amounts to self-pity among some of the world’s more spoiled citizens, now forced to clean up their debts, live within their means and build an economy that makes competitive sense in a world that has spectacularly changed. But the pain is real, and so is the fear of pain, even what is becoming a sort of national atmosphere of pain. As the President discovered, all that emotion compresses into an anger that has sharp political consequences.

The voters of New Hampshire play an odd role in the American political drama. Holding the first primary, the tiny state with relatively few minorities exercises a quaint, disproportionate fascination for the media and the rest of the country. The tryout in New Hampshire focuses the process and tests the scripts. New Hampshire voters relish their role as a sort of Council of the Wise. They choose their candidates with the care that others reserve for selecting a heart surgeon.

The rest of the U.S. is not New Hampshire. In Georgia, for example, which holds its primary next week, the unemployment rate (4%) is about half that of New Hampshire. Still, many of the same unhappy themes run deep through states across the country. The American electorate is in a volatile mood, impatient with incumbents, with political emptiness and with a feeling of unfamiliar, inexplicable embarrassment before the world, a discomfort focused lately by Japanese remarks about America’s work habits.

Shrinking Middle

For months, political experts have agreed that the vast and much troubled American middle class will be the battleground of the 1992 election.

What exactly is the middle class? And why is it so angry and confused now?

In political calculus, the middle class works out to be about 63% of the American population, meaning those families of four earning between $18,500 and $74,300.

When Americans are asked to put themselves into class categories, a huge 86% consider themselves either middle class or working class. That range accommodates enormous differences of attitude. The vice president of a small- town bank and a master plumber may have roughly the same income, but they are likely to look at the world differently. Further, middle-class attitudes and circumstances differ considerably between those over, say, 45 years of age, who may own a home, have a pension, health insurance and other stabilizing structures, and those who are younger, who may make the income but have found it impossible to buy a house. Those younger middle-class people may be much more vulnerable and volatile than their middle-class elders.

However, when the top layer of the middle classes — professionals, senior managers, proprietors whose businesses have not been damaged by the current hard times — is skimmed off, a certain unity appears. That top stratum is relatively small. But even some members of that favored group share a strong bond of attitude with those a step or two down: they share a feeling of loss. A recent TIME/CNN survey showed that 88% think it is more difficult, compared with a few years ago, “for the average middle-class American to make ends meet.”

They are right. Median family income in the U.S. has held steady over the past 20 years only because so many spouses have taken jobs and gone to work. Even with those extra incomes, the size of the middle class has been shrinking. Before the onset of the recession in 1990, according to a survey by Timothy Smeeding of Syracuse University and Greg Duncan of the University of Michigan, “the middle class has decreased from about three-quarters of the population to about two-thirds.” Some of the shrinkage resulted from upward mobility — people earned their way into upper brackets. But most of the change has been downward.

Middle-class identity, especially in America, is much deeper and more complex than objective statistics. The American Revolution was a middle-class struggle involving taxes and property rights. The middle class is essentially America itself, its soul, its promise, its culture and myth. It is in the middle class that the nation locates its center of gravity, its values, its work force, its soldiers, its leaders and above all its voters. American democracy means middle-class democracy. The drama of the U.S. in its progress from the stock-market crash of 1929, through the Great Depression, its victory in World War II and its prosperous domination of the postwar years might be seen as a vast morality play culminating in the apotheosis of the American middle class and its values. But no apotheosis can last forever.

America’s powerful engine was the implicit contract that the nation made with its middle classes set loose to work upon a bounteous continent. When the economy doesn’t live up to the contract, when the mobility is downward, when failure, the darkest American sin, sets in, the middle class becomes confused, feels betrayed. It turns upon its leaders and itself.

Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, has wondered aloud why Americans are so deeply gloomy about the current recession, even though the objective statistics (unemployment, inflation) are less horrendous now than in, say, 1982. The answer is that Americans, above all the middle class, have fallen into a sort of double-bottomed gloom.

Americans always feel somewhat betrayed by recession or depression, but they are usually sustained through cyclical ups and downs by an overriding sense of America as an ascendant proposition — the American exceptionalism. That sense of unique American virtue and the American place in the scheme of things has ! grown deeply confused in the rapid evolution of a much changed world. Since the end of World War II, Americans have known themselves as the giant of the Free World, the dominant economic power and the Force of Good in counterweight to the Force of Evil in the Soviet Union. Americans are now trying to assimilate, morally, emotionally, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. If it is such a splendid event in the history of the world, why are Americans obscurely depressed by it? In part because it makes them ask, Who are we now? What is our purpose in the world? Why are we exceptional?

In the new world, America is economically challenged by Japan and Germany, the powers it defeated in war.

At the same time, massive infusions of new immigrant genes confuse and disconcert a people who must think of themselves as a tribe that has been formed by an idea. In an America so bruised in its sense of identity, a politician like Patrick Buchanan can summon up a powerful visceral response with the old nativist phrase “America First.”

Finally, the baby-boom generation always exaggerates the moods of America — skewing a national tendency in the direction of its own concerns, whether sex, drugs, music in the ’60s or the traumas of middle age now. The boomers, who have just arrived in the neighborhood of mid-life crisis, are getting a taste of the disillusion and hopelessness that naturally arrive when people think their best years are behind them. The boomer effect may endow the recession with more undercurrent menace and even apocalypse than are absolutely necessary.

But the conviction runs deep that Americans’ lives are getting worse and worse, and will never get better again — that the American Dream is over. And politics is psychology with access to a microphone. At the end of the ’70s, Americans recoiled from Jimmy Carter’s malaise. That had a passive, flinching, disconsolate quality, and no clear remedy. The obvious victim of that irritating little foreign word malaise was finally Jimmy Carter himself. Today’s disaffection is an active, even aggressive disgust, and while the mood may pass as the economy improves, its clearest target for the moment is George Herbert Walker Bush.

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