Last night was another Republican debate, this time minus “The Donald.” It’s difficult to believe that this assortment of wannabes is the best a once-serious political party can muster.
How have we come to this?
David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, is a thoughtful observer of the American scene, and while (in my opinion) he often misses with his analysis, he also often contributes to our understanding of the America we inhabit.
In a recent column, Brooks honed in on the public’s pervasive feelings of powerlessness:
The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power but the grass roots think the reverse. The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do. The Pew Research Center asked Americans, “Would you say your side has been winning or losing more?” Sixty-four percent of Americans, with majorities of both parties, believe their side has been losing more.
These days people seem to underestimate their own power or suffer from what Giridharadas calls the “anxiety of impotence.”…
There are, as Brooks points out, many reasons for these perceptions of powerlessness, and certainly not all of them are political. That said, however, a case can be made that one of the great frustrations fueling the palpable anger in today’s electorate is the realization by so many citizens that their votes don’t count.
The American message has always been that we have political choice. If we don’t approve of the behavior of our political representatives, we can vote them out. Increasingly, that’s not true; gerrymandering has produced Congressional districts that would re-elect dead people if they ran with the correct political label.
At the federal level, the House of Representatives is unrepresentative of the American public, and likely to remain that way. In the last Congressional cycle, Democrats garnered a million more votes than the Republicans who nevertheless remain firmly in control—and, thanks to checks and balances—able to obstruct and defeat policies favored by a popularly-elected President.
I’ve written previously about the lack of competitiveness that gerrymandering produces, and about other deleterious consequences of the practice. Brooks points to one I omitted: the frustration experienced by citizens who feel—with considerable justification—that they have no voice.
Plagued by the anxiety of impotence many voters are drawn to leaders who pretend that our problems could be solved by defeating some villain. Donald Trump says stupid elites are the problem. Ted Cruz says it’s the Washington cartel. Bernie Sanders says it’s Wall Street.
When voters feel powerless, they are vulnerable to simple messages, identifiable villains, and candidates who channel their anger.
If history is any guide, that has never turned out well.