Anxious Americans are putting prices over principles

Anxious Americans are putting prices over principles
Image via Gage Skidmore.

Tom Nichols tweeted recently that America “is facing the greatest danger to its constitutional system since at least the 1950s, if not the 1850s, and millions of people are like: Yeah, but gas, man.”

The Atlantic’s senior editor was expressing what many on the left feel. Americans are willing to vote for GOP candidates who may change the country in disastrous ways. The government programs we rely on - Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – are seen as “entitlements” by Republicans and are on their chopping block.

State legislatures have passed laws curtailing abortion rights and preventing teachers from talking about racism and gender fluidity.

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GOP leaders have admitted that they want to make it harder for people to vote, with Mitch McConnell saying that, “If we don't do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country." I could go on, but this is enough.

Oh wait, one more.

Some Republican are tired of this separation of church and state nonsense and say that the church should “direct the government.”

“But gas, man.”

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According to several polls, Americans are most concerned with inflation and are willing to ignore major red flags with GOP candidates, believing they are better at managing the economy.

This is a hierarchy of needs issue, with concrete and immediate concerns outweighing abstract and distal ones. This is not new, and many a politician has been ousted because they happen to be in office during an economic downturn. But something’s different here.

If the midterms go as predicted, it will be understood as a repudiation of the Biden administration and its focus on “woke” politics. This explanation does not fit reality. It would be patently false given the administration’s attempts to pass a robust Build Back Better bill aimed squarely at low-income earners’ pocketbooks.

But I would like to venture another explanation: our nation is wallowing in growing economic inequality, weak social services, rising healthcare costs, unsteady gig jobs and weak labor unions.

We are a working-class country. Our citizens will be increasingly drawn to politicians who present emotional appeals offering to assuage the anxieties associated with economic insecurity.

Globally, America is one of the higher-income nations as measured by median income. Objectively speaking, we seem to be doing well. But this is a matter of perspective – not raw numbers.

When your grandparents and parents moved through a world of economic security and capital accumulation, and here you are struggling to pay rent, burdened with college loan and worried that you are a few unforeseen medical bills away from bankruptcy, that $50,000 per year salary doesn’t seem like a whole lot.

This anxiety can make people receptive to emotional appeals from politicians claiming to identify with them, creating scapegoats to direct their pain toward, and then making empty promises to alleviate that anxiety. Scholars (including me) have been using this to explain the rise of Trump and MAGA populism on the right.

But I am talking about a recharacterization of what the soul of America as a nation is right now. I am talking about extending the MAGA explanation outward to all of us. We are not a nation of middle-class strivers that made us the envy of the world. We are an anxious people now. That means we will put prices over principles.

The Times’ David Brooks, on why Republicans are surging:

GOP candidates are telling a very clear class/culture/status war narrative in which commonsense Americans are being assaulted by elite progressives who let the homeless take over the streets, teach sex ed to 5-year-olds, manufacture fake news, run woke corporations, open the border and refuse to do anything about fentanyl deaths and the sorts of things that affect regular people. In other words, candidates … wrap a dozen different issues into one coherent class war story.

I might quibble with some of the examples Brooks gives. Do Republicans talk that much about fentanyl deaths? Is fake news still a viable topic post-Trump? But I agree with the general point that Republicans are on the ascendant, because of a false narrative that Democrats ignore the concerns of everyday people.

Never mind that the ultimate cause of economic insecurity in the United States can be tied to Republican initiatives. They are antagonistic to unions – the presence of which has historically been associated with higher incomes and job benefits, like healthcare and maternity leave. They resist investment in social services. Programs that fund childcare do not put money directly into the hands of people but decrease family outlays, freeing up money for other purposes. For the past 50 years, they have championed a tax regime that would supposedly lift all boats by cutting taxes on the rich. All it did was sink the middle class and buy the wealthy a few more yachts. Never mind all that.

These explanations are vague and academic and do not resonate with something as clear and immediate as “your gas prices have gone up. Vote in the other guy, and they will go down.” It is the difference, as cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues, between hard-to-talk-about systemic causes and easily grasped direct causes.

So there is work to be done in terms of developing a compelling economic narrative.

But we know the problem – economic insecurity. We know the solution – Democrat policies. We know how to communicate - a narrative that speaks to the anxieties of working-class America.

Yes, the Democrats will likely be licking their wounds after these midterms. But there is hope here. When so many are working class, so many Americans are potential Democrats.

We could be on the precipice of a generational shift, where people – especially younger people who are more likely to feel economic anxiety – are more receptive to old-style “look out for the little man” Democratic politics.

Let’s talk about raising the minimum wage. Let’s talk about supporting unions. Let’s talk about increasing the salaries of civil service workers. Let’s talk about taxing the wealthy and having them pay their fair share.

I have a strong belief that in a working-class America, common Republican scare tactics of labeling any reform as socialism will begin to fall flat.

And who knows?

In the process, we might elect enough politicians to keep our voting rights, abortion rights and Medicare.

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