S & P downgrade: The politics of anxiety

at 10:06 AM ET, 08/06/2011


NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 05: An ABC News ticker reads "Standard & Poor's downgrades US credit rating from AAA to AA+" in Times Square on August 5, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the United States’ credit rating late Friday night heightens the economic anxiety coursing the country, a reality that threatens to have outsized political consequences as we head into the 2012 election.

The credit rating downgrade capped a week of rampant uncertainty about the country’s fiscal foundations.

Days after Congress and the White House waited until the eleventh hour — literally — to cut a deal to raise the debt ceiling, the markets crashed with the Dow dropping more than 500 points in a single day. Then came Friday’s jobs report, which showed decent job growth — 117,000 jobs created — but unemployment remaining stubbornly high at 9.1 percent.

Economic ups and downs are nothing new in the country. But what makes this situation unique is that the public’s economic anxieties about the economy are matched by a growing belief that our politicians — and our politics — have no answers for the problems that face us.

“The down grade is a tangible manifestation of the concern that what has made America ‘special’ is being threatened in a fundamental manner and that, as compared to when we had serious external threats to our way of life in the past, trust in our political leaderships’ and systems’ capacity to handle it is at a low,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane.

A series of national polls released over the past few days — but before the S&P downgrade — tell the story of the anxiety and distrust within the electorate.

A CBS/New York Times poll showed that 86 percent of respondents believe the economy is currently in “bad” shape, the highest that number has been in more than two years.

That same poll showed that two-thirds of people said the negotiations over the debt ceiling had made them “pessimistic” about Congress’ ability to solve future problems while just 12 percent said the debt deal had made them “optimistic” on that score.

In a Washington Post/Pew Poll where people were asked to use one word to describe the debt ceiling debate, they chose “ridiculous”, “disgusting” and “stupid”; a CNN survey showed Congress’ approval at 14 percent, the lowest it had ever dipped in that organization’s polling.

Voters typically carry a feeling that their politicians don’t totally grasp the challenges of the average person but that sense of alienation is heightened exponentially when deep economic anxieties are added to the mix.

While most people almost certainly can’t explain the intricacies of what a downgrade of our credit rating actually means — here’s a good explainer if you need one — the decision by S&P affirms to most people that things in the country are badly off on the wrong track even as politicians seem entirely focused on partisan point scoring.

“It’s a digestible economic statistic that people can understand, and I think it contributes to the perception of decline,” said Republican consultant Matt McDonald of the downgrade. “If the ‘wrong track’ number has a floor, we may be about to find out what it is.”

An anxious and disenfranchised electorate is a recipe for massive political upheaval in which the rules of the game simply may not apply.

Put another way: When people believe — as they seem to now — that the country has veered badly off track and that their elected officials not only don’t know how to fix it but also don’t seem to care all that much, virtually anything is possible in the world of electoral politics.

And that’s where we find ourselves today.

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