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The politics of pessimism

By Elvin Lim


The election of 2012 will turn on the economy and jobs. But jobs or the lack thereof are only a component of a more pervasive sentiment in American politics today. That sentiment is pessimism, because Horatio Alger has become Joe the Plumber.

The pessimism in American politics is concentrated in one part of the electorate — the white working class, also the group which has pulled most sharply from Obama’s support. Understanding the disaffection of the shrinking white working class is key to understanding the politics of our time. Consider that as late as in 1940, 86 percent of adults over the age of 25 who did not have a 4-year college degree were white. In 2007, the demographic had shrunk to 48 percent. It is this group of Americans, who had recently just lost their majority status, who feel taxed and spent from the decades of liberal government in the interim. As the Economic Mobility Project poll found, while only 48% of Caucasians believe their economic circumstances will be better in ten years, substantial majorities of African Americans (68%), Hispanics (66%), and Asian Americans (64%) foresee improved personal finances down the road. Tea Partiers agitating to “take back” America, no less than “Birthers” challenging Obama’s citizenship or Minute Men securing the border in Arizona, are registering a heart-felt disenchantment that they have been left behind in America’s liberal march. This is why those competing for the Republican nomination who are also articulately expressing this declension narrative are resonating with the base. It is also why even though no one thinks that Ron Paul would win the nomination, the Doomsday Prophet has already won two straw polls, most recently at the Republican Leadership Conference this weekend in New Orleans; and why Mitt Romney’s gaffe that he too, is “unemployed” will come back to haunt the front-runner who looks more like the aristocratic poster child of the Republican party of 1920, not 2012.

2012, however, is not 1828; nor is it 1980 because while the white working class votes reliably for the conservative party, it is also not the majority any more – a very recent development which even Ronald Reagan did not have to navigate. Andrew Jackson waxed poetic on the virtue of the plowman as Reagan sounded morning in America. They gave hope to the disillusioned because the disillusioned were many. But every Republican candidate today is highlighting the evening in today’s America because if they can convince enough voters to identify with the disenchanted working class, Obama will lose the battleground states of FL, OH, CO, and NV. The candidates, however, are walking an increasingly fine line of empathizing with the base’s sense of being culturally and economically eclipsed, and the political playbook’s rule that elections are won on hope. Obama’s challenge, on the other hand, is to re-fashion his message of hope — and that is why he is aggressively courting young, college-educated whites — even as wherever we look in the economy, it appears that it is still evening in America. And so it has been for two centuries, race, class, hope, and despair are locked into our quarrels about the future.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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