Although some observers have dubbed the 2014 midterms the “Seinfeld Election”—meaning it’s supposed to be a big show about nothing—in fact this vote reflects something important: the electorate’s fear and anxiety. Let’s call it, instead, the Chaos Election, one that is dominated by the vague but pervasive sense that almost nothing in the country is going right or, just as importantly, is likely to any time soon. It is the theme that shows up in almost every race, whether it’s a key Senate contest in Alaska or a meaningless House race in the Deep South. While Republicans are hoping that voters will take their unease out on the Obama White House and the Democrats (especially in the Senate), most Democrats are trying to put a lot of distance between them and the unpopular president—to the point that some candidates won’t even say if they voted for the man.
Democrats could well be the immediate victims on Nov. 4, but this anxiety and fear have been building for a long time—far longer than Barack Obama has been in office. These emotions have been part of the American scene, in fact, since at least Sept. 11, 2001. Today, to a degree that Obama, or indeed any president, would find it hard to control, the United States faces an unrewarding economy at home and abroad, an arc of crisis stretching from Libya to the East China Sea. Little we do seems to work on any of these fronts. When we act decisively overseas, we end up embroiled in conflicts we neither understand nor control. When we step back, our enemies fill the void. The American people swing back and forth, torn between their desire to wash their hands of the entire world and their belief that the advance of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will eventually threaten our own security. When our leaders cannot explain what is happening and settle on a steady course of action, the public’s sense of loss of control only deepens.
Against this backdrop, the events of recent months have fortified the sense of a nation under siege. The unexpected arrival of tens of thousands of Central American children rekindled fears about border security. Ebola seemed to materialize out of nowhere as a terrifying threat.
It is often—and rightly—said that the first duty of government is to provide security. We typically understand security in physical terms: Government must protect citizens from domestic crime and disorder and from foreign attack. But security has a psychological dimension as well—the confidence that government has threats to our safety and wellbeing under control. The American president who declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—and by so doing began the task of rebuilding public confidence—also identified “freedom from fear” as one of the key preconditions for a decent human life.
At its core, fear is a response to a specific threat. But fear has a penumbra of anxiety—a generalized sense of a world filled with dangers that are hard to anticipate and even harder to control.
The midterm election reflects that mood but will not end it. In the recent Politico survey of likely voters in the competitive elections that will determine control of the Senate, only 36 percent of respondents expressed confidence that the United States is well-positioned to meet its economic and national security challenges. Fully 64 percent reported that “things in the United States feel like they are out of control right now.”
Today’s politics of anxiety has replaced the politics of complacency of an earlier era. Recall the pre-9/11 period of the 1990s. We had won the Cold War, the Soviet Union had collapsed and democracy was on the march. American rules and norms, we believed, would be at the heart of a new world order, which we believed we could shape. To be sure, globalization and technological change presented challenges, but we were confident that these tectonic forces could be made to work for American workers. The steady, broad-based increase in wages and incomes reinforced this confidence. Trust in government rose significantly.
Only 15 years separate us from these sentiments, but they seem very distant. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shattered our sense of invulnerability, of course, but many other developments have contributed to today’s pervasive anxiety as well. More than five years after the official end of the Great Recession, Americans do not understand why their wages and incomes continue to stagnate. If globalization and technological change are good for our country, why have so many good jobs disappeared, replaced with worse ones? As I’ve argued, economic stagnation threatens the basic bargain between citizens and leaders that sustains democratic self-government in the United States and throughout the West.
Bill Clinton, in whose administration I served as a domestic policy adviser, spoke often of an economy that rewards Americans “who work hard and play by the rules.” Today, these Americans still work hard, but they no longer know what the rules are, and they are no longer seeing the rewards as readily. They want, but are not getting, a credible success story for the American economy in the 21st century. That is one reason why the sense of loss of control is so pervasive.