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Optimism Is the Third Rail of American Politics

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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A common diagnosis of Jeb Bush's failed campaign is that the candidate was "out of touch." It's hard to argue otherwise; Bush himself admitted it. "I'm not a grievance candidate," he told NBC's Chuck Todd. Sure enough, Bush soon wasn't a candidate at all.

There are no more happy warriors on the hustings, eager to lead the richest, most powerful nation on earth. Well, there's Ohio Governor John Kasich. “I want you to know I’m going to continue to run a positive campaign and not get down in the gutter and throw mud at anybody,” Kasich said after his defeat -- one of 30 out of 30 Republican contests -- in Michigan. “So I think the people are beginning to reward a positive campaign."

Good luck, Mr. Kasich.

It has been 22 years since "angry white men" powered the Republican takeover of Congress. Over the decades their anger and alienation have only intensified as their dissatisfaction has spread across the land.

More than twice as many Americans believe the country is on the wrong track as on the right track. That's a subjective judgment, but it rests on facts people often get wrong. The 2015 American Values Survey found: "The number of Americans citing crime, racial tensions, and illegal immigration as major problems increased substantially between 2012 and 2015."

Actually, crime, including violent crime, is mostly down in that period, continuing a spectacularly positive trend that is two decades long. Illegal immigration is down substantially from its 2007 peak. Racial "tensions," which are a product of perception, may well be "up" for some Americans. But since 2012, jobs, GDP growth and the number of Americans with health insurance are all up despite many perceptions that they're not.

In a world increasingly driven and navigated by data, American politics appears increasingly immune to its charms. Donald Trump's voluminous lies have been repeatedly documented and refuted, yet he leads the Republican nomination race. Demonology and nonsense reign.

"What most Republicans know about the society and the economy comes from cable news, talk radio, right-wing blogs and the amplification from e-mails and other social media shared by close friends and relatives," said political scientist Norman Ornstein, via e-mail. "What is the most prevalent commercial they see? For gold! Why gold? That is what you buy when the Apocalypse is coming."

On the Democratic side, life ought to be relatively cool and bright. The Democratic Party has its problems, but it's not a steaming existential mess like the GOP. Hillary Clinton is running for Obama's third term, promising both to preserve his accomplishments and, where possible, advance a similar agenda. Like Obama campaigning in 2012, when he had the delicate task of taking credit for an economic rebound while acknowledging that many skiffs had failed to rise with the tide, Clinton is constantly reminding audiences that she knows things should be better.

But to keep pace with Bernie Sanders, her Democratic rival, she's also had to get acquainted with the gloom. The essence of the Sanders campaign is that the economy is "rigged" by those at the very top who are keeping everyone else down. Politics in his view is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate elites. "The real issue is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do," Sanders said.

Sanders doesn't consider Obama's presidency a liberal success under extraordinarily adverse economic and political conditions. He thinks it's a lost opportunity. He and his supporters see a bleak landscape raked over by corporations and their political enablers in pursuit of dominance and profits. They want more jobs and less trade, more health insurance and less Obamacare, more equality and less equivocating.

Sanders's list of bad guys (the rich) is short. Republicans, by contrast, offer a smorgasbord of enemies, including Mexicans and Muslims, Obama and liberals, "political correctness," Sharia law, China, Japan, Europe and, of course, that locus of taxes, regulation and irredeemable evil, the U.S. Government, AKA "Washington."

There are serious problems in the U.S., including a long, painful decline in incomes for high-school graduates and others in jobs that have been squeezed by globalization and automation. Millions of people have been left behind by a fast-moving, unstable economy.

But the general contours of the economy and the nation circa 2016 are insufficient to explain how so many Americans came to have faith in a narrative of doom. The resulting paralysis undermines the capacity of politics and policy to use traditional levers, including the tax code and the social safety net, to address the very problems bringing everyone down.

One of Americans' most telling anxieties is the pervasive fear that they or a loved one will fall victim to a terrorist attack. For the average American, the chances are smaller than minuscule. But we are a nation seemingly hooked on fear itself. Mexican or Muslim, overbearing rich or grasping poor, we'll get a fix wherever we can find it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net