President Obama spent three days on the West Coast last week, raising money for the Democratic National Committee, among other groups. These sorts of fundraising jaunts are not typically trips during which this president (or any president) says much of anything interesting.
Yet, Obama did just that in a speech in Seattle at a DNC fundraiser. Here’s part of what he said: “Part of people’s concern is just the sense that around the world, the old order isn’t holding, and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles, that’s based on a sense of common humanity, that’s based on economies that work for all people.”
The unease — Obama used the word “anxiety” to describe the feeling earlier in the speech — that the president identifies is, to my mind, one of the most critical elements of understanding the American electorate (and the American people) at this point in our history.
The Cold War is over. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — began a new era in terms of how the United States interacts (and doesn’t) with the world. The economic collapse in the late 2000s — and the subsequent evidence of Wall Street’s blind greed — changed how people view the financial world. The child-abuse scandal that engulfed the Catholic Church in the late 1990s and through much of the early 2000s caused a rethinking of religion and its role in society. Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath forced an examination of what government can and should do.
Revelations about the breadth and depth of the National Security Agency’s spying program have raised doubts about what our government tells us (and doesn’t). And overarching all of it is our increased technological capacity to be constantly in contact with one another — at both superficial and deeply personal levels. (Want to be scared about what this technological boom might mean for us? Read “A Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart.)
All of these new realities have combined to create a deep uncertainty among the public about whom and what they can trust or rely on. And increasingly, the answer is — no one.
A Gallup poll from June makes that point. Of 17 institutions, just three — the military, small business and the police — were trusted either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” by a majority of Americans. Fewer than one in three Americans expressed confidence in the presidency; less than one in 10 (7 percent) felt confident about Congress.
Yes, approval of Congress and the presidency has been in the gutter for quite some time. But confidence in the Supreme Court — that once-beyond-reproach institution — is at or near all-time lows, too. (Just 30 percent of people in the Gallup poll said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the nation’s highest court.)
That almost total lack of trust in the longtime institutional pillars of our society leaves people feeling even more at sea — adrift from the way things used to work but unable to see the distant shore where the future lies.
Politics in the past decade has reflected that uncertainty. The early part of the 2000s was dominated by George W. Bush and his “compassionate conservatism.” After the 2004 election, Republicans openly pondered the idea of an enduring majority in the House and the Senate built around their policy prescriptions. Then came the 2006 “wave” election for Democrats, followed by the election of Barack Obama, a moment heralded by many Democrats — and even some independents and Republicans — as a pivotal point in the country’s history. The 2010 election made those predictions seem misguided, with Republicans picking up 63 seats and control of the House. In 2012, the country reelected Obama convincingly. This November, signs point to Republican gains.
What should we make of all the back and forth? Confusion. The public knows it’s not getting what it wants from its politics and politicians. But it has very little idea of what exactly it does want — which puts politicians in something very close to an impossible position. (It is why, in poll after poll, you see analysts struggling to explain where the public is on a broad swath of issues. It’s hard to explain because, well, people lack a consistent — or, at times, coherent — worldview.)
All of which brings us back to Obama’s point. We are in a transition phase societally. The public is deeply skeptical of long-standing institutions, but that skepticism hasn’t been replaced by any surety in an alternative set of beliefs or institutions. Which makes the dominant feeling one of considerable unrest, unease and anxiety.